THE BLOG

Seeing Potential in Saudi Arabia's Women

05/15/2009 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The topic of our speech at the Saudi Arabian conference was bringing society together through volunteerism.

That's why it seemed ironic a screen separated men and women in the audience.

Genders were also divided at dinner. During breakout sessions. Everywhere.

We spoke with some incredible women. Though we could only see their eyes through the black abaya cloak, they were filled with expression as they discussed their ideas and plans for grassroots volunteerism and civic engagement.

Too bad they couldn't share those ideas with their male counterparts.

The men told us, "Things are changing."

True. The country got a taste of equality in February when Nour al-Fayez was appointed the first female member of the Saudi Council of Ministers. But, that taste is bittersweet. Her position as Deputy Minister for Women's Education exists because of gender-segregated education.

That's if the girls even get an education. During our trip, a Saudi judge refused for a second time to annul an 8-year-old girl's marriage to a 47-year-old man.

He said she could petition for divorce after puberty.

Still, those men are right. Things are changing.

Oil prices have fallen and the financial crisis has devastated Western markets. The insecurity of Saudi Arabia vast wealth became clear.

To maintain its global status, Saudi needs to diversify. Not just its economy, but its workforce. It needs to unshackle its female population and embrace its potential.

"Women of Saudi Arabia, in full respect of their societal values, appear ready to embark on a new stage of engagement," said Yakin Ertürk, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Violence Against Women after a 2008 visit. "Supporting them on their endeavour requires vision, courage, leadership and a firm commitment from the highest levels of the state."

It's well-known Saudi Arabia's global status is derived from oil. But last year, we Westerners felt the scourge of our oil addiction when prices broke $145 per barrel. We're down from peak but the U.S. President has vowed to break our habit through alternatives.

A scary thought for Saudi Arabia - but one they are addressing.

As part of the "sun belt," Saudi Arabia has potential in future renewable energy markets. But, it wants to go beyond energy and develop the knowledge sector.

So, it expanded the private sector and invested $7 billion in the Knowledge Economic City, a community near Medina which is poised to create 20,000 jobs in the industrial, academic, cultural and commercial sectors.

It also invested in education. Saudi boasts the highest paid academics in the world with an average monthly salary of $6,611 and opened 12 new universities and colleges in the last four years. The Minister of Higher Education says they need 10 more to absorb the 70,000 students who currently study abroad.

But a knowledge-based economy requires human capital - and Saudi Arabia is only tapping half.

Gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is described as sexual apartheid. About half of university graduates are women but less than a tenth have jobs. They cannot drive and must receive permission from male relatives to work, travel, study and marry.

"According to some professional women and officials, this prevents women from participating in the full range of activities and opportunities of the work environment and results in duplication of tasks as well as human and financial resources," said Ertürk in her report.

What Saudi Arabia isn't seeing is potential. We had that pleasure in our conference. But, we've also seen it on the world stage. Women across Saudi Arabia have shown their capabilities by fighting their own oppressive government for their own human rights.

Imagine what they could do if given the chance to fight for the rights of others.

The potential is there - it's just up to Saudi Arabia to recognize it.