Saudi Women's Empowerment Can Be Found at the Bank, so Enough with that Oppression Business

08/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saudi businesswomen have found themselves in a position that may make a lot of people uncomfortable.

What's hardly news to Saudi women but may come as a surprise to the West is that Saudi businesswomen carry tremendous influence in the Kingdom despite the disadvantages they face. Equally important is that this influence allows women to work around the obstacles that have become symbols of our so-called oppression.

Indeed, Saudi women must navigate the slippery slope of Saudi society. The obvious issues of driving, male guardianship and the challenges of running our own businesses remain, but it's by no means a cultural prison.

The reason is simple: Money talks.

John Esposito, author of Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, has come up with some useful information that busts the stereotypes that are stated so often that many people now take as the truth.

Esposito, an Islamic affairs professor at Georgetown University and a rare Western scholar who can write about Islam with a clear head, estimates that 70 percent of the savings in Saudi banks are owned by women. Time magazine last year pegged the value to be at about $11 billion. That ought to wake up those who feel Saudi women are under men's thumb. In addition, a great deal of the real estate in Jeddah and Riyadh are owned by women, while 61 percent of Kingdom's private businesses are owned by females.

Give or take the 5 percent or so for margin of error in Esposito's study, his findings nevertheless place women in a position of calling the shots both at home and in the workplace. This doesn't open the floodgates for women to do as they please and reward or punish their husbands by withholding the pocketbook when he wants that new Ferrari.

It's true that many businesswomen have given up operating business because the climate is often unfriendly. Part of the problem is finding a trustful male agent to represent a female-owned business while dealing with various Saudi agencies.

And two years ago more than 200 Saudi businesswomen complained that the Ministry of Labor continued to place obstacles in their path that hinders progress. They urged an overhaul of the system to ease those hurdles.

Many Saudi businesswomen find a way around these obstacles. And one way is to take their business elsewhere, such as another Gulf country that appreciates the impact Saudi-owned businesses can have on their own economy.

It's perhaps that Saudi women have managed to work the system so well that the interest in women's equal rights doesn't rise to the level that activist organizations so desperately hope for. This is not to say that Saudi women do not want equal rights. To the contrary, but when women have worked so long and have become so adept to manipulating the Saudi system, the response often is, "Well, yes, but I have work to do ..."

But consider Esposito's other findings: Sixty-one percent of Saudi women want the same legal rights men. A majority opinion that was unheard of 10 years ago. Not surprisingly, 69 percent of the Saudi women want the right to work outside the home.

Money has empowered the Saudi female to a degree that had not been considered until recently. The difference today is that Saudi businesswomen have the tools necessary to grow their businesses and hire more women to help run them. The fact that nearly three-quarters of the female population want the opportunity to work outside the home is not only indicative of their desire, but also the potential to accomplish their goals in the business community.

If the growing numbers of Saudi women who want to work outside the home join business female owners willing to give them jobs, then there is no limit to the kind of influence Saudi women can wield. But then again maybe that's why the Ministry of Labor can't find its way to easing the regulations regarding male agents. Too much influence makes the establishment nervous. But Saudi businesswomen still have the upper hand. They can take their money out of the bank and invest it elsewhere.