Women Seek a Bigger Role in Arab Gulf’s Energy Sector

Women are a rare sight at the headquarters of Saudi Aramco, and they’re almost never seen in the oilfields. Hiba Dialdin wants to change that—even if it means changing the entire corporate culture of the largest petroleum conglomerate on Earth.

Dialdin, a petroleum engineering consultant at Saudi Aramco, was one of five women to speak January 13 in Abu Dhabi at a panel during the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum. The discussion coincided with the release of the Council’s report, “Energy: Driving Force Behind Increasing Female Participation in the Gulf?”

“This report looks at the importance of female participation in the workforce of [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates,” said Bina Hussein, an associate director in the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and the author of the report. “I looked at energy because it’s the backbone of these nations’ economies. And if that’s the most important sector, it should also set an example for the rest of the country.”

According to the report, the UAE ranks as the best-performing Gulf nation on the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index, and the second-best in the Arab world, outranked only by Tunisia. As of 2015, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC)—the UAE’s state-owned energy utility—had more than 65,000 employees, of which 34.1 percent were Emirati and 10.3 percent were female.

By contrast, of Saudi Aramco’s 65,000 employees, about 85 percent are Saudis. But only 8 percent of that 85 percent are women, according to Dialdin.

“This is something the company recognizes needs to change,” she said. “In 2016, we signed up with the World Economic Forum’s call to action on bridging the gender gap, narrowing it down and increasing the number of women in the workforce.”

Saudi Aramco had already established two initiatives—Women in Business and Women in Leadership—resulting in eighty-four female executives by 2015. Yet Aramco has never been led by a woman, nor do women occupy any positions on the Aramco’s board of directors or its corporate management team.

“The company is aware of its track record, and there really is a push to include more women. This is something that’s definitely on the radar,” Dialdin said. To that end, Saudi Aramco has launched a high-school outreach program to lure more girls into STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs, and explain what it means to be an engineer or a scientist.

“We send out about 200 to 300 students every year to colleges, and we mandate that 25 percent of them must be women—mostly in the science fields,” Dialdin said. But the main obstacle to further progress, she said, remains Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative Islamic culture.

“Most of the time, this attitude is out of protection for their daughters. Parents don’t want them to work in a dirty oil field,” she said. “But this outreach program helps. As society becomes more educated and Vision 2030 takes off, you’re going to see a reduction in the number of people who actually think this way.”

A perhaps deeper problem is encouraging women to be confident in their own abilities.

Citing a recent study, Dialdin said that when offered a new job opportunity, a man will grab it even if he has only 60 percent of the training and experience necessary for that job, “whereas a woman feels she has to have 100 percent of that knowledge and experience” before accepting the offer.

“Until now, most [Saudi] men and even some women see women as somehow less than [men],” she said. “They still do not have the idea that women can do whatever job a man can do.”

Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @LLuxner.

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