Saudi Arabia has assured Apple Inc. that its male and female employees in the ultraconservative kingdom will not be prosecuted for working alongside each other, according to a recent Financial Times report.
While many would regard the announcement as an historic step toward progressive change — which, no doubt, it is — the main reason has more to do with money than social reform.
For years, ultraconservative labor laws in Saudi Arabia prevented men and women from working side-by-side in the workplace. Consequently, gender-segregation became one of the key barriers for many foreign investors hesitant to pursue projects in the Gulf country.
Lately, however, things have started changing under the de-facto leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS.
For nearly three years, the young monarch has been working, rather aggressively, to implement Vision 2030, which is his ambitious blueprint to make the Saudi economy less dependent on oil.
Since one of the main ways to wean off an oil-dependent economy is attracting additional foreign investment, and, since foreign investors usually do not approve of sexist laws that enforce gender segregation and/or bar women from working altogether, Saudi Arabia has started making its workplaces more human rights-friendly. But it's going to be a challenging feat since stringent Islamic laws, called Wahhabism, still greatly influence local laws of the country.
For instance, in 2012, Saudi Arabia announced the construction of women-only industrial city in Hofuf. While the aim of the project was to make women more financially independent, it still came with the condition of gender segregation, guided by Wahhabi laws.
MBS' Vision 2030, despite its historic reforms, suffers from the same problem. For example, Saudi Arabia just held one of its first major concerts in March, however, men and women were seated in separate sections and were told not to "dance" or "sway" during the performances.
Nevertheless, the recent changes in Saudi Arabia have benefitted women, who, up until a few years ago were not even allowed to vote. The crown prince plans to increase female participation in the workforce from 22% now to 30% in all sectors by 2030.
Make no mistake, though. MBS is not a revolutionary. His reforms have more to do with foreign cash than bringing about meaningful social change.
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