Batul Jamjoom, Member of the Consultative Authority at the Businesswomen”s Club at the Khadijah Bint Khwailid Center, an affiliate of the Jeddah Commercial Chamber, was the first woman in Saudi Arabia to obtain a permit to operate a photography studio, over 20 years ago. Her work continues to expand and prosper.
In her opinion, women in the Kingdom face many difficulties in dealing with bank, especially as they do not offer appropriate service for women investors. Jamjoom called for legal reform and the endorsement of mechanisms to protect the market and control investments from exploitation. Despite Saudi women”s considerable achievements on the social and economic levels, their participation in business and investment is still low.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, Jamjoom appealed for additional departments for women in all parts of government. She also predicted that women will reach higher positions then at present. The following is the transcript from her interview.
Q: How do you see the reality of doing business as a woman in Saudi Arabia, with regard to the financial incentives on offer and the relationship with banks and governmental and private bodies that are involved in investment
A: Transactions with banks are complicated for Saudi women because we can only have current and savings accounts. We are not eligible for business loans. We are inconstant contact with the Chamber of Commerce to obtain licenses and other services. There is, however, the problem of having to rely on foreign workers for some specialized jobs, because the Kingdom”s
education system does not prepare women to enter the workforce. It is, therefore, essential, over the coming years, to train Saudi women to reach the required professional level, by seeking the help of technical experts and specialists. With time, we should be able to replace foreign workers with Saudi citizens.
Q: How can work opportunities be created for Saudi women, especially given that the currently employment rate for women is only 5%?
A: Encouraging women to work from home is, undoubtedly, a good start.
In the industrial sector, however, more needs to be done to break down the barriers still facing women. I am a member of the women”s unit at the Jamjoom factory for medical products where 200 Saudi women work after replacing foreigners.
Some of these women, after undergoing a period of training, are now
administrators and trainers themselves. My family also owns a pharmaceutical factory were 40 women, all doctors and pharmacists, work. It is possible to create employment opportunities for women without antagonizing religion. For example, women can work in clothes factories, clothes shops, children”s wear departments, food-packaging centers, and in administrative posts.
In reality, unfortunately, many complications arise to hinder the progress of women in the workforce. For example, Salwa Rdwan who owns a sweats factory but has been unable to obtain the required materials for production because they have been held by port customs for 10 months! Imagine the loss she is incurring! Another Saudi businesswoman, Reda Ghazawi who runs a center to train chefs in the art of food preparation finds herself needing to invite specialists from abroad to train her staff and is facing many challenges.
Q: What is your opinion of the women”s only markets that have recently sprung up throughout the Kingdom, especially in the Southern and Eastern regions?
A: The first women”s market that I went to in Jeddah, Souk Al Mansur, wasn”t very well organized. At present, in Jeddah, we have another market which is much more successful. The capital Riyadh also has several popular markets. In these women only shopping areas, women can take off their cloaks and walk freely in the stores and cafes whilst enjoying excellent service. They can try out clothes and shop without any embarrassment I think these markets are very successful in creating jobs for Saudi women.
Q: What about the involvement of Saudi women in trading shares over the internet?
A: I am not very familiar with the world of share trading and the stock exchange. I am aware, however, that many women lost money in these transactions. They did not know the safe ways to invest, especially as banks do not contribute to educating women about different investment opportunities.
I also know that a number of older women invest in the stock market. It is too early to judge their contribution even though their supporters argue that these actions do not pose any problems since these women spend their own money. I think it is important to establish a mechanism that will safeguard individual investments and protect the market from misuse.
Q: How can relations between Saudi businesswomen and the country”s Chamber of Commerce be increased and intensified?
A: The Businesswomen”s Club at the Khadijah Bint Khwailid Center is an effective environment where experiences, views and ideas can be exchanged. It also encourages discussions on ways to support Saudi women and create job opportunities and encourage investment during the Club”s monthly meetings where, every month, a different businesswoman speaks. The aim is to give women the chance to hear about the activities of others and to keep informed on the latest economic news. In one of the activities, entitled "Ask your advisor", the Club invites an advisor from the fields of administration, marketing, finance or law to answer the questions of attending businesswomen on various economic concerns.
Q: What do you see in store for the Saudi woman in the rest of 2005?
A: I hope for less bureaucracy. All we women ask for is that the Saudi authorities become aware of the necessity to resolve many outstanding problems that face women participating in the workplace and taking part in business, with a promise to look into women”s legal rights.
If a woman becomes involved in legal matters and is wronged, despite her Saudi citizenship, legal proceedings can be very complicated because of the existing laws and regulations. Saudi businesswomen can also face complications with foreign companies who follow foreign laws that would give women their rights. However, when they file complaints inside the Kingdom, their cases are retarded and they might incur heavy financial losses. I would also like to see the Center assume an executive authority. We must remain optimistic as the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Q: What will the consequences of joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the gradual opening up of the Saudi market to foreign investments be? Do you foresee local investors suffering from increased competition?
A: On the contrary, investment opportunities will increase as integration and exchanges with other countries increase. It is not in Saudi Arabia”s interest to be late in joining the global economy. We should welcome new legislation to accelerate socio-economic growth, which will help create employment opportunities. Of course, there will be positive as well as negative consequences, but with the proper laws and regulations in place, the Kingdom can enjoy the positive aspects of joining the WTO. The entrance of well- established international companies in to the Saudi market is, possibly, a negative aspect. However, the presence of these firms might also drive local businesses to restructure and compete with foreign businesses.
Q: Do you consider foreign travel to be easy for Saudi women?
A: I travel twice a year and visit China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. However, many women have expressed their frustration at the difficulty of leaving the Kingdom.
Q: What are, in your opinion, the requirements for tourism? Can tourism in
Saudi Arabia prosper?
A: Saudi Arabia is blessed with great natural views, beautiful beaches that are rich with marine life and many religious sites. The government is also concerned about protecting the environment and the natural habitats of birds and animals. Yet, the Kingdom still lags behind in the field of tourism. We have the potential to become a destination for nature lovers and cultural-religious tourists. It is important that the authorities increase green spaces, maintain parks, in addition to providing spaces for education and entertainment activities to take place, and attracted young men and women.
Q: Can you see investment opportunities for women in this respect?
A Definitely! I expect Saudi women to play an important role in the tourism sector and participate in activities such as natural remedies, skin
treatments using seawater and seaweed, organizing festivals, and taking part in entertainment and cultural activities. Women could also work in restaurants, fairgrounds, parks, bazaars, and tourist agencies.
Q: Do you support the participation of women in municipal councils across the Saudi Arabia as voters and candidates?
A: Of course, I do. I project an important role for women to play in this realm. Forty years ago, women in the Kingdom were forbidden from receiving an education; nowadays, the doors of our universities and schools are wide open for them. The government even encourages women to take part in foreign educational missions.
Q: Is it correct to assume that the women in the Kingdom have achieved their goals with the consent of their men folk, and, if they had not been by their sides, women couldn”t have reached where they currently are?
A: Absolutely! We can”t deny this support as it is prescribed by our
religion and our country”s traditions. Of course, this requires the man to be understanding and aware of the important position of Saudi women in society. Unfortunately, some men use the Quranic concept of "Quwamah" (The responsibility of the husband on behalf of his wife) to crush the personality of the women and take away their rights and freedom. Some women find themselves in a position where they have to rely on such unjust husbands and give in to their will. This is why we want to establish women”s departments in governments that possess executive powers capable of making real decisions.
Batul Jamjoom has most recently participated in an economic forum for businesswomen held in the United Kingdom. She founded twenty years ago a haute couture fashion house and opened a beauty and fitness center after studying the Saudi market. She has several diplomas in embroidery and knitting and were it not for business, Jamjoom would have most certainly embarked on a career in fashion design.