Riyadh’s women’s mall lifts the veil on business

By Andrew England in Riyadh

Women as they exit the mall. The only place in “public” they can breathe air without a covering, drink water freely, and see a person laugh with a smile. These are things we tend to forget when we hear why the veil is so wonderful. Simple things, like sipping water, smiling, sneezing freely, the list goes on.

Comments by Allyson Rowen Taylor

Published: June 26 2008 03:00 | Last updated: June 26 2008 03:00

Smoked glass screens hide the entrances to the Bab Rizq Jameel centre in Riyadh as though protecting some precious secret inside. Unlike most of the new shopping malls springing up in the Gulf, it has no windows.

Inside, however, the two-storey mall is all brightness: a hub of chic booths offering perfumes, cosmetics, clothes, handicrafts and – most significantly – a sanctuary where Saudi businesswomen can trade openly with other women.

Upstairs, Amani Hammad has an office where she runs a branch of her brother’s advertising company, while Samira Rasheed has a shop selling clothes, accessories and perfumes.

In total, there are about 60 businesswomen operating in the centre, which opened last month.

Women’s lives in the ultra-conservative kingdom are highly segregated, both socially and in the workplace. They are banned from driving and, apart from a tiny number of exceptions, are prevented from working in the same environment as men. Traditionally, many women have not sought jobs, instead marrying young and devoting their lives to raising families. Female unemployment in the oil-rich kingdom is estimated at more than 20 per cent.

Slowly, however, attitudes are beginning to change. A Saudi family-owned business – Abdul Latif Jameel (ALJ) – set up a non-profit scheme in 2003 under its corporate social responsibility programme that has helped thousands of women find employment and set up their own businesses.

The programme offers business loans to both men and women as well as job training and co-ordinates between job seekers and employers looking to hire, using consultants to research what companies are looking for and where there are opportunities.

Since 2007, it has also opened three female-only shopping malls – the one in Riyadh opened last month joining others in Jeddah and Dammam – under the Bab Rizq Jameel banner.

Women cannot work in normal malls but at Bab Rizq centres they can rent space for their own businesses; they can work; and those searching for jobs can visit to discuss their options with ALJ staff – other women.

“The objective is to empower women,” says Saad al-Ghamdi, senior vice-president at ALJ. “We need to show people there’s nothing wrong in working, that work is something that should be honourable.”

ALJ, whose core business interests include the automotive industry, property and electronics, donates 100m riyals ($26.7m, €17.2m, £13.5m) each year to the community services programme.

The organisation uses the funds to pay consultants and provide interest-free loans ranging from 5,000 riyals to 150,000 riyals to men and women seeking to set up their own businesses, as well as “micro-loans” ranging from 1,000 riyals to 5,000 riyals specifically for women.

Some 50,000 people have benefited from the loans, of which more than 65 per cent have been women.

Mrs Rasheed, a mother of five, says she has benefited both from the ALJ initiative and – just as importantly – from evolving attitudes.

She began her business some 10 years ago, working from home and designing women’s garments and accessories. She dreamed of opening a shop but, like other jobless women, knew she would not be able to get a loan.

Eighteen months ago, after discovering ALJ’s programme, she took a 25,000 riyal loan and moved her business into a female-only shopping centre. When the organisation opened its mall in Riyadh, she moved in.

“Without the loan I would be small and just in the house,” she says. “The first reason is the financial support; the second reason is we have become more developed. Day by day it is changing; you can communicate with people, there’s more newspapers, there’s more information.”

Last year, through loans and its job search programme, the scheme helped 22,000 people find some form of employment, the group says, including 14,000 women.

The group’s development plan is to open 20 new Bab Rizq Jameel centres across the country over the next three years, with the goal of creating 200 jobs a month from each location, says Ibrahim Badawood, director of ALJ’s community services programme.

It would also like to open branches in other countries where ALJ has a presence, including Egypt, Algeria and Turkey.

At present, the programme is only catering for between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the demand in Saudi Arabia, officials say.

“We are just a drop in the ocean,” Mr Ghamdi says.



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