Shifting Sands in Saudi Arabia

By: JoDeen Urban
Editor In Chief, The Source

Historic news was made on September 24, 2013 when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it was opening the world’s first business processing outsourcing center staffed entirely by women in Riyadh. The initiative is led by Tata Consulting Services (TCS) in partnership with General Electric (GE) and Saudi Aramco. Both TCS and GE are stakeholders in the new venture holding 76% and 24% equity respectively. Initially services will be provided to GE and Saudi Aramco as anchor clients. Eventually the customer base will be expanded to other companies and institutions across the Kingdom.

The new center is scheduled to open during the second quarter of 2014 with 400 women. The three partners will eventually scale employment up to 3,000 Saudi women with GE being responsible for creating 1,000 of these jobs.

It will serve as an important building block for the Kingdom’s development of local industry and the creation of skilled jobs for female graduates in finance, accounting, HR, IT, and supply chain management services. In due course, it is anticipated that TCS and GE will collaborate with Saudi universities and educational institutions to launch specialized training programs to support further job creation goals.

Let there be no mistaking progress –
The Tata-Saudi Arabia contract is groundbreaking.

Some regional commentators have criticized elements of this initiative, noting that these jobs are largely back-office as plans do not include call center operator functions (where male callers would be speaking with a female operator), in effect aiding the continued practice of shielding women from gender-integrated environments. This perspective should not, however, diminish the importance of this step. It was only in 2012 that female staff were permitted, for the first time, to work as cashiers in grocery stores and women’s clothing stores replacing previously all-male employees despite fierce opposition from some Saudi clerics.

These changes are culturally revolutionary. By contrast, the United States (founded in 1776) is this year marking the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed various forms of employment discrimination – legislation which did not originally include women. Gender bias was only included as a last-ditch effort by opponents of the original bill who had hoped that its inclusion would cause non-passage of the entire bill by Congress. When, against the odds, the bill was passed it took over 20 years for the anti-discrimination provisions to be legally enforced on behalf of women.

Another example: it took 64 years until 1984 for the State of Mississippi to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was passed in 1920. This amendment granted women the right to vote and was first introduced in 1878; it took 42 years to become federal law and 106 years for Mississippi to formally accept at the state level. Let there be no mistaking progress – the Tata-Saudi Arabia contract is groundbreaking.

Change, especially lasting cultural change, requires a series of building-blocks. Creating solid ground and sustainability takes time; as history has demonstrated, lots of time. Press commentators in the Middle East noted that the Tata-Saudi Arabia initiative was announced a week after SAS Holdings (a $2.7Bn U.S. parented IT software and services company) purchased a 51% stakeholding in Glowork for $16 million. Glowork, a Saudi company founded in 2011, is an online platform that connects Saudi women to part-time and full-time jobs, with its primary client being the Saudi Ministry of Labor. Glowork aims to create jobs in rural areas providing work-at-home opportunities for women.

All of these recent developments in Saudi Arabia should be viewed as critical, connective steps on the road to empowerment and equality.

About the Author: JoDeen is an independent management consultant working with established companies as well as start-ups on strategy, organizational capability and business model innovation. During the course of her career she has been actively involved in the Middle East.

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