Monday, March 15, 2010

Saudi Arabia: Can it be the 13th easiest place to do business when women can't do business there at all?

Saudi Arabia has been named the 13th easiest place to do business by the Doing Business Project and the World Bank.  Sure, they still have some things to work out, reports the Financial Times, like getting visas for foreign workers and enforcing contracts.  And, oh yeah, not allowing women to share workplaces with men or participate in any number of careers deemed "inappropriate."  Says the FT:
The rankings do not take into account issues such as rules on segregation of women in the workforce. Businesses that employ women must either build special sections to accommodate them or risk being closed or fined. 
When I worked as a business consultant, I did a stint living and working in Bahrain, which is right off the coast of Saudi.  We felt the proximity in more ways than one, especially since there was a causeway connecting the two lands, that Saudi men and women would head across on weekends, eager for freedom.  For men, this often meant drinking and women, and for women this meant driving, trying on clothes in a mall, and being without male escorts.  Many of our colleagues who worked in the Mideast office had clients in Saudi Arabia, but of course no female consultants could work there.  I always thought our company should refuse to do business with Saudi under these conditions: like, we're a workplace that values gender equality, and if having you as a client precludes that, we're not interested.  Of course, I was also told not to tell our clients I was Jewish, so I guess we were a long way from perfection on that score.  But how, how can you be considered the 13th easiest place to do business, right between Thailand and Iceland, when 50% of the population can't do business there at all?  Let's say a major bank wanted to set up a division there.  Half of their workforce (ok, who are we kidding, a quarter) would be out of the running.  How can they send their best people?  What if a company that just wants to make a deal with a Saudi company.  What do they do about their female executives at the meeting?  (I'm honestly not sure--can they not come?  Do they have to wait outside?)  I repeat: How can it be easy to do business without half the population?  If Saudi Arabia scores so highly, is the Doing Business Project really measuring the right things?

[Hat tip Institute on Women]


  1. I think the truth of the matter is, no matter how high-performing a particular employee is, they are not irreplaceable. So, a strong international bank should be able to find enough male bankers to seal the deal. Also, executives in banking skew strongly male (at least this is what I've seen in conferences and consulting for the industry.)

    Although on some level I agree that your firm should have refused to do work, that is pretty unrealistic in the professional services model. After all, we are not to impose our firm's values on clients, but rather to serve the clients' best interests. A consultant could always choose not to take these engagements for ethical reasons, and I feel that would be respected. Unfortunately, female consultants don't even have the choice.

  2. A friend pointed out of me that one of the metrics used is "time it takes to open a new business," and putting "infinity if you're a woman" would seriously hurt Saudi's score. Applying this lens to other metrics seems to imply Saudi should be much lower-ranked. Ease of employing foreign workers? Impossible if female. Getting construction permits? Infeasible for women as requires driving to office. Number of procedures required to do X, Y, and Z? Irrelevant if illegal to be seen doing X, Y, and Z.


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