GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Saudi Women Leaders: Challenges and Opportunities
Paper Proposal Text :
King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM)
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia





The January 2013 appointment of 30 Saudi women leaders to the majlis al-shura (Consultative Council) underscored the commitment by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and by extension the government of Saudi Arabia, to greater engagement in the national decision-making process by Saudi women. Indeed, the empowerment of women is seen by many as a priority due to the relative supportive position taken by King Abdullah on fostering the role of women in Saudi society. In addition, institutions such as the Council for Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) and the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue (KACND) have provided platforms for women to enter official deliberations on both national and regional levels.

Since the start of the ‘Arab spring’ citizens across the Arab world have been questioning the narrow degree of participation in the political process as well as the lack of access to state actors and institutions. In addition, many of the societal issues and problems highlighted by the Arab spring, such as women’s rights and empowerment, resonate with Saudi women. Nevertheless, since the establishment of the Saudi National Dialogue in 2003, the internal socio-political debate in the Kingdom has provided Saudi female leaders with an opportunity to make a constructive contribution to both social mobilization and the ongoing socio-political debate. Furthermore, the dramatic increase in social media usage in Saudi Arabia, in particular Twitter and YouTube, has facilitated the creation of new spaces where individuals can interact across traditional constituency lines.

Case Study

Saudi women are often portrayed in a great deal of academic literature as a homogenous group, equally affected, or constrained, by the challenges facing them in contemporary Saudi Arabia. In addition, Saudi culture is also frequently interpreted as monolithic, i.e. ‘one size fits all’. Nonetheless, the reality is far more complex with women representing a diverse range of constituencies each with its own characteristics and interests whether, for example, socio-economic, regional, tribal or sectarian. Therefore, increasing female participation in public life, including the appointment of women to the majlis al-shura and greater employment opportunities, raises questions regarding current state-society relations and the likely impact of the role of women leaders on societal transformation.

Furthermore, the Saudi female leadership role is considered an essential factor due to its impact on socio-political and economic growth. Indeed, there is already a pool of highly-qualified, dynamic Saudi women who are more than ready to become active decision-makers in the socio-economic and political process. Almunajjed (2006) considers that these elite Saudi women have broken the barriers of rigid tradition and constitute a combination of traditional and contemporary socio-economic forces. As such, these elite women should be regarded as one of the Kingdom’s strategic reserves in terms of skills and social development. For this reason, it is important to shed some light on how Saudi women leaders confront and deal with new challenges as well as the available opportunities open to them.

Study Objectives

For Saudi women, leadership and decision-making positions have increased in both public and private sectors. This study focuses on the opportunities available for Saudi women leaders, the challenges they face, the methods utilized in order to deal with such challenges and ways in which Saudi women activate their leadership roles. Referencing the views and experiences of multiple individuals, including female members of the majlis al-shura, by means of interviews, focus groups and workshop participation, this joint paper attempts to advance our understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing women at the forefront of societal reform, that is ‘leaders’ of societal groupings. In addition, it necessarily examines the relationship between the leader and her respective constituency, particularly the burgeoning middle class, and how this relationship fits within the contemporary Saudi social map.
As a starting point the paper considers four primary areas that influence the capacity for individual women to participate within the current socio-political framework, namely:

1. Identifying the extent to which women contribute in decision-making as leaders
2. Identifying the scope of empowerment for women leaders
3. Identifying the most important challenges faced by women leaders
4. Presenting constructive recommendations to activate the role of women leaders

In addition to these points, the study references the state level of analysis, i.e. the leader’s place in, and relationship to, the Saudi system; the individual level of analysis, i.e. the social position and personal characteristics of individual women leaders as well as acknowledging constraints and / or opportunities related to Saudi culture. Other issues this paper attempts to address include:

1. To what extent will the appointment of female members to the majlis al-shura prove significant in both the short and long-term? In addition, will the new female members assist the council in acquiring greater societal legitimacy?
2. To what extent has the turmoil in neighbouring states, in particular the demands of youth and women, coloured the government’s approach to crucial issues such as women’s rights, female employment and Saudization?
3. To what degree is female leadership supported by high profile Saudi men?
4. To what extent does the coexistence of the traditional and the modern in various aspects of social and commercial life present a challenge to Saudi women leaders?
5. To what extent would an increase in the number of recognised female leadership positions prove to be a factor in alleviating the marginalisation of Saudi women in general?

Finally, this joint research project, conducted in Kingdom, aims to illuminate areas and means by which Saudi female leaders could contribute to reforms that would benefit Saudi society at large.