For Saudi women the downturn struck just as efforts to gain greater financial independence were gaining traction
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By Marwa Rashad
Al ULA, Saudi Arabia, June 4 (Reuters) - Abeer al-Howayan despaired of ever working after spending eight years trying to find a job that would put her chemistry degree to use in the Saudi Arabian town of Al Ula.
She eventually abandoned her scientific ambitions and turned to selling homemade cakes, before she was chosen last year for a government training programme to support a $20 billion flagship tourism project in the kingdom's northwestern region.
The 31-year-old learned how to make artisanal soap from French experts flown in by Saudi authorities, and in late December started selling her creations at a booth near the rock-hewn tombs of Madain Saleh, site of an ancient civilisation.
She also started offering her wares online.
Then the coronavirus struck. Even after all her compromises, Howayan's future is uncertain once again.
The pandemic has hammered Saudi Arabia's nascent non-religious tourism industry - among the few new sectors to have emerged under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's drive to diversify the economy from oil and create millions of jobs.
"It is very tough, but I keep telling myself things will get better after corona. One has to remain optimistic," Howayan, whose online business has also slowed, told Reuters.
Women in the United States and Europe have taken an outsized hit from the wave of unemployment caused by the coronavirus, but for women in Saudi Arabia the downturn is particularly damaging because it struck just as their efforts to enter the workforce and gain greater financial independence were gaining traction.
Howayan is among nearly one million unemployed Saudis - 12% of the working-age population - pinning their hopes on the prince's vision to modernise the conservative and patriarchal country with ambitious projects.
Women make up about 83% of the jobless, according to the Saudi statistics office. And it's an educated group; 70% of those women have high school diplomas or university degrees.
And many were counting on the new sectors such as tourism to provide their entry to the workforce.
PRIVATE SECTOR SQUEEZED
Tackling unemployment is a main pillar of Prince Mohammed's plan. He promised in 2017 "better unemployment numbers by 2020" and to cut the jobless rate to 7% over the next decade.
But the rate has fallen by less than 1 percentage point.
A tough task has become even tougher as coronavirus disruptions and austerity measures have squeezed the finances of the private sector.
"To reduce unemployment, the private sector will need to create at least 500,000 to 1 million jobs for Saudis, said John Sfakianakis, a Gulf expert at the University of Cambridge, "But this year alone, the private sector will unavoidably contract by 7% ... and that's just this year."
Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told Reuters that the government remained committed to job creation targets and was still funding training and capacity building.
"Coronavirus is with us this year and possibly for a part of next year, but then it will go away and when it goes away we need to make sure that we have seized this time to build more capacity and train more people to be ready when we start offering services again," said Jadaan. He did not specifically address the issue of women.
According to regional experts, a faltering of the reform drive could lead to the public questioning the social contract between the ruling Al Saud family and the people in a country where 80% of the population is under 30.
Oil wealth is shared across the kingdom in exchange for popular submission to absolute monarchical rule. However there could be some social discontent if jobs do not materialise and Saudis find themselves paying more taxes with less state benefits, according to Yasmine Farouk at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
"It will eventually guide the country into a political discussion that the leadership doesn't want," she said.
ENDING GENDER SEGREGATION
Saudi Arabia has largely struggled to lure foreign capital outside the energy sector as many investors hesitate over Riyadh's human rights record and the commercial viability of some domestic mega projects.
But the entertainment and tourism industries started taking off last year, accompanied by social reforms to open up the kingdom, including ending gender segregation in most public places and introducing public entertainment. Thousands of jobs were created and Saudis flocked to concerts, festivals and sporting events.
Last year, the kingdom attracted international acts from Cirque du Soleil to Mariah Carey, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Greek musician Yanni. Saudis also cheered female WWE wrestlers in Riyadh, and heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr in a custom-built 15,000 person stadium.
However the Saudi tourism minister told Reuters in April that the industry, including Muslim pilgrimages, could decline by 35-45% this year due to coronavirus measures.
Abeer Mohammed Jumuah is another example of a woman who benefited from the prince's reform drive. She spent years looking for a job as a teacher after graduating from university in home economics, and eventually joined a government training programme last year to learn cooking skills in Paris.
The 31-year-old has returned to a catering role in Saudi Arabia helping Michelin-starred chefs, but it is only temporary and she will eventually need to find new work - something that has become a trickier proposition in the wake of the pandemic. "I hope that one day I can open a café where I can offer a breakfast menu with lots of French pastries," she said. "I want to be financially independent and I want my two daughters, aged four and seven, to have a better living standard."
Analysts said they expected a recovery in tourism and entertainment to start in the first half of 2021, with the sectors requiring government support for at least a few years.
The Royal Commission for Al Ula, set up in 2017 to carry out reforms in the crown prince's drive, said it planned to reopen in October this year, and a spokesman said it was committed to job creation.
Some are hopeful for the future.
Madiha al-Anazy, 29, joined a five-month tour guide training programme when she returned from Florida in May 2019 with a masters degree in biotechnology, and now has a permanent job as a tour guide.
Her 33-year-old husband, Mohamad, was temporarily taken on as a part-time "ranger" to protect heritage sites and the couple is betting on a revival in the tourism sector.
"We hope he will find a permanent job one day," Anazy said.
Private-sector job creation is partly intended to wean citizens off reliance on the state as more than two-thirds of the Saudi workforce is employed by the government and their salaries account for roughly half of 2020 budget spending.
Low oil prices would make it difficult for past state largesse to continue. This could lead to many young Saudis taking lower-income jobs typically relegated to foreigners, in a societal shift, according to Karen Young, a Gulf analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"People's expectation for income and lifestyle are going to be different to their parents," she said.
(Additional reporting by Raya Jalabi and Saeed Azhar; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Pravin Char)