The focus of many diversity efforts in Saudi Arabia, unusually, is including our own nationals in the workplace, not the more usual concerns about the relative lack of opportunities offered to ethnic minorities in the working population. This arises because the private sector in Saudi Arabia has been dominated by foreign expatriate workers despite a high unemployment rate amongst Saudis.
The country has lately undertaken important steps in reforming its education, immigration and labour policies and regulations to tackle this problem, the Nitaqat (“ranges” or “scopes” in Arabic) Programme. The programme operates through a series of incentives and financial penalties and privileges based on the size of the employer and the proportion of its staff who are Saudi nationals. A survey of the results of the Programme in 2012 indicated that only around half the private companies operating in Saudi Arabia employ more than 25-30% Saudi nationals. More still needs to be done, therefore, especially to encourage business owners to hire more Saudi young people and encourage the latter to commit to a corporate culture and discipline and be willing to work initially in relatively low-level jobs.
The other big diversity issue is the inclusion of women at the Saudi workplace and how to square this with the country’s conservative tradition.
The recognition of the importance of diversity was highlighted at the December 11 and 12 2013 inaugural, http://www.talentdiversityforum.com/, a two-day executive conference organized by the business information companies Naseba and Talent Enterprise and endorsed by the Saudi Ministry of Labour. The event brought together 200 senior level executives to review and discuss talent development and diversity strategies in the Kingdom. I was very proud to be invited to be a panelist for the section on the Saudi Kingdom’s women game – changers: Changing how we Think, Learn and Work.
I highlighted the practical challenges of being a female lawyer. Saudi law only now allows women to be formally trained as lawyers and to practice law on a par with men. Nine women have already been licensed as lawyers. However, implementing the regulations is still not easy. First, there are the unwritten rules on the segregation of the two sexes. To accommodate this, Squire Sanders has already established a separate section with its own entrance, meeting room and separate facilities. However, the court building is not ready yet. Although there are no legal restrictions now on women appearing before courts as a litigant or an attorney, practically this has occurred very rarely, the reason being that Saudi society is still very conservative and the regulations simply reflect the moral structure and fabric of current cultural norms. The very fact that the appearance of a female lawyer to defend a case before the Jeddah court recently made news illustrates my point. Another positive initiative taken by the Saudi Ministry of Justice is its recent decision to start to appoint female Clerks at courts – another small but definite step forward in what will certainly be a long journey.
The novelty of female legal practice in Saudi Arabia makes my job more challenging and so also more interesting. The key issue is to ensure that women are integrated into the work of the office functionally even though it is still segregated physically. It is also important that the women are equally trained and have access to mentors who are also trained to mentor females and ensure that they meet the highest international standards in line with the men.
I am pleased to say that Squire Sanders’ Riyadh office was recognised at the event as one of the top 10 employers in Saudi Arabia. The Employer Achievement Award for 2013 was given to a select group of companies who had best demonstrated their support of talent and diversity, their innovation in workplace practices and culture, and their promotion of women within their organization. Squire Sanders was recognised for several of its accomplishments during the year including the establishment of a full women’s section and a pioneering co-operation program with the Prince Sultan University College of Law.
Diversity has a long way to go in Saudi Arabia but these are pleasing signs that the topic is now gaining traction in the Kingdom. I hope to be able to report on further developments soon.