The Art of the Saudi Deal

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Written by Danielle Bella Ellison, Marissa Emory, and Daniella R. Montemarano

Last month, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree significantly relaxing restrictions on women’s access to certain government services. The decree signals potential momentum for further reforms that can increase women’s economic participation—measures that President Donald Trump should support during his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.

As President Trump’s first state visit approaches, Saudi Arabia faces an imminent economic crisis. Due to declining oil prices and increasing global reliance on clean energy technology, Riyadh cannot sustainably rely on oil as its principle source of national income. Over the last 18 months, the Kingdom has used 17% of its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to cover the government’s operating costs. If this trend persists, Riyadh will completely deplete the PIF by 2024.

Diversifying the Saudi economy requires heightened specialization and productivity—both of which would be bolstered by fully utilizing female human capital. The Vision 2030 Plan, Saudi Arabia’s economic sustainability roadmap, commits the Kingdom to modestly increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% over the next 13 years. Such a goal remains unlikely without first reducing the barriers to women’s economic participation.

During his visit, President Trump should encourage King Salman to relax specific components of the Saudi guardianship system that inhibit women’s entrepreneurship and entry into the workforce. While women account for 13% of the Saudi workforce, they constitute 60% of university students and recent graduates. Nevertheless, women cannot obtain business and work permits without the permission of a male relative. Removing this restriction will increase the number of female-led small businesses—already a burgeoning force in the Saudi economy. It will also allow educated, professionally qualified Saudi women greater access to the job market while simultaneously improving national productivity.

Abolishing the constraints against women driving and renting commercial property would further help women from all levels of Saudi society enter the workforce and start small businesses. Current entrepreneurship opportunities only benefit wealthy Saudi women who enjoy access to drivers and male relatives with the necessary capital to buy real estate, leaving those from lower income brackets with even fewer available employment options.

Given President Trump’s prioritization of counter-terrorism initiatives in the Middle East, he should also advocate for increased recruitment of female university graduates from technology programs into the counter-terrorism and internal security industries. This will advance key tenets of Vision 2030, especially the Plan’s drive to rapidly expand the Saudi tech sector. Female recruitment into the security sector will increase human capital resources for the Kingdom’s counter-terrorism initiatives—a win for both Saudis and Americans.

President Trump’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia presents a unique opportunity to promote reforms that will advance the Kingdom toward its Vision 2030 goals and harness the immense economic potential of Saudi women. He has every reason to finesse this deal.

Photo: President Donald Trump walks with Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along the West Colonnade of the White House, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)