I have just returned from an excellent visit to Saudi Arabia, researching the implementation of ‘lean production‘ in a successful multinational company that produces the world’s highest quality of paints and paint systems. Going there, I heard that Saudi Arabia would be totally different than anything I’ve visited before. It was, and it was not. This post is about how foreign companies contribute to Saudi’s wealth and development, and slowly improves women’s rights through cultural exchange and mutual understanding. These companies and their expats colour the ‘country of black and white’.
In 1950, there were about 3 million Saudis. Today, up to 30 million people live and work in this Arabian giant. About 9 million of them are foreign expats, who come to Saudi with the purpose of earning a living in a nation oiled by a prosperous petroleum export. The state-owned Saudi Aramco pumps ‘black gold’ out of the world’s largest oil reserves for a cost of $3 a barrel and sells it on the market for about $100 a barrel. 90 % of Saudi’s export is from its oil industry. Much of the profit is of course pumped back into the country’s infrastructure, population and society. The result is a high demand for all kinds of other products and services—paints being a good example. Huge market potentials, difficult import tariffs and logistical reasons make foreign companies establish presence in Saudi Arabia. They are very welcome, as long as they produce ‘decent’ products and arrange a 60 % Saudi ownership (for example two sleeping domestic partners holding 30 % each, as in the case of the paining company).
But it is not the oil that has earned Saudi Arabia its nickname ‘country of black and white’. The Kingdom is an ultra-conservative nation. The big loosers of the system are the women—that is, half of the population! Women are not allowed to drive nor to walk around freely. Women have few political and reduced legal rights. Girls as young as ten can be married away to much older men. In Jeddah, I can freely enjoy delicious food and a relaxing hookah & tea in restaurants and bars—the women cannot. They are expected to wear black dresses covering the whole body (abaya and often niqāb) in a desert country with an average temperature of 32 degrees Celsius (up to 60 in June). Men, on the other hand, have all rights, including the right to marry up to four women. The Saudi men usually wear light and easy dresses white as chalk. Hence, ‘the country of black and white’.
However, things are slowly changing to the better (‘better’ in my own cultural understanding of it). Not through blood shed and the Arab Spring, which was never an issue in Saudi Arabia. But through exposure to different thinking. The multinational companies, their multicultural expats, social media and a steadily improving education system, all bring dialogue and enlightenment to Saudi Arabia. ‘Slowly, slowly’, as my Pakistani friend often repeated. In the paint company, five Saudi women were already employed. Separate entrances and offices were built for them—but never put in use. Foreign female managers had visited the plants (though getting the visas were not easy) and reportedly enjoyed the same respect as their male counterparts.
Returning to Scandinavia—the world’s most gender equal society according to the World Economic Forum—I spent the weekend at Trondheim’s International Film Festival Kosmorama. The best film I saw is a Saudi Arabian-German movie. In fact, it is the first modern film to be shot in Saudi Arabia (!) and is directed by Haifaa Al Mansou, the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia (!!). It is called Wadja, and gives a wonderful insight into the everyday life of a young Saudi girl dreaming of nothing more than a colorful green bike. It’s a real pity that Wadja will not be shown in Saudi Arabia; cinemas have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the 80s. Still, I hope that this Wadja trailer makes it through the Saudi censorship at YouTube:
Multinationals, expats and Wadja ‘slowly, slowly’ improve an already rich, safe and peaceful country. It is not just the product of the paint company that colours the country of black and white; there are many—and much more powerful—forces acting. Inshallah.