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‘Attitude is last hurdle’ for Saudi women in business

Dina Alnahdy Linkedin
Dina Alnahdy said she would love to shake off the 'unfair stereotype' that it's harder for business women in Saudi than other countries
  • Online registration has helped female entrepreneurs
  • Women made up 33.6% of Saudi workforce last year
  • Almost half of startups in kingdom in H2 2022 owned by females

Digitalisation has removed the last practical barriers to female entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia, according to one of the kingdom’s prominent business leaders, Dina Alnahdy. The only remaining obstacle, she told AGBI, is their own or others’ attitudes. 

“Honestly, there are no real barriers that would prevent someone from starting up a business and flourishing in it,” Alnahdy said. 

“It’s more about someone’s attitude to business – the thing that enables them to take advantage (or not) of the opportunities that exist in the country and region and to seek support from the systems that have been created to grow the entrepreneurial playground for men and women.”

Digitalisation of company registration and other processes has made it easier for women to set up a business, Alnahdy added, as has the removal of laws prohibiting them from travelling around the kingdom and visiting official buildings, such as council chambers, without a male chaperone. 

“Covid catalysed the digitalisation of everything. Before the pandemic, when everything in Saudi was physical, you’d have to go to the authorities to register a company or follow up on things and everything was gender split,” she said.

“They’d have the women’s section and the men’s section. Now it’s business, irrelevant of gender.”

In the past the Saudi government required female business owners to have a male custodian, or guarantor, to handle their business and financial affairs. This has now been degendered. 

“Anyone aged 18 and over who is fully able to make their own decisions and do their own thing, legally, can start a business. And they can do this within half an hour, online.

“There is this unfair stereotype [that it is harder for business women in Saudi than other countries] and I would love to shake this off,” she told AGBI. “The issue of female participation in the workforce, equal pay, and so on – this is a global issue. There is a lot of misleading communication out there.”

Alnahdy, a sustainability consultant who is founding chief executive and board member at Jeddah-based Entec Environmental Technology, has held a string of executive and non-executive roles in Saudi Arabia and abroad in her 30-year career. 

She is currently board member at Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, sitting on various committees representing the industrial, mining, environmental, governance and other sectors. In November she was appointed to the board of US-based mCloud Technologies, which has a partnership with Google and supplies cloud-based solutions to cut carbon emissions from energy-intensive assets.

Alnahdy was also co-chair of the B20 Summit’s Action Council on Sustainability and Global Emergencies, and served on the G20 Saudi Secretariat’s Energy, Sustainability and Climate Task Force in 2020.

Early in her career she founded environmental consultancy Yadanbyad and worked as a sales manager for multinational cosmetics brand Avon for 10 years. 

“I started my first business in 1995, so way before Vision 2030, before any cultural or regulatory change was happening in Saudi. It was not easy, but it was not impossible.” She added: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Saudi women
Saudi Arabia has removed several laws, including one prohibiting women from driving. Picture: Reuters/Fahad Shadeed

As of March 2022, women accounted for 33.6 percent of the Saudi workforce, surpassing the Vision 2030 goal of 30 percent, according to the General Authority for Statistics. The figure is up from 17.4 percent five years ago, though slightly down from 35.6 percent in 2021. 

In addition, women were the registered owners of 45 percent of startups in the kingdom in the first half of 2022, a report last year by the kingdom’s General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises found.

This was double the percentage in 2017, as the country works to empower women and increase opportunities for entrepreneurs through training and incubation programmes.  

The kingdom’s startup ecosystem is “crazy hot” right now, said Alnahdy, with lucrative opportunities abounding in tourism, technology, and renewable energy in particular, as the economy diversifies.

Under Vision 2030, Saudi wants to grow the contribution of small and medium-sized enterprises to gross domestic product from the existing 20 percent to 35 percent. 

Meanwhile, record flows of venture capital are helping to shore up young businesses and grow the financial sector.

“A lot of money is going into investment right now. Different types of funds are being established and the market is flourishing,” Alnahdy said. 

“Before, if you were a startup needing an investment, your only options were bank loans or funding from overseas. Now it feels like every other company is a VC. Family and public funding is also increasing.” 

VC capital to startups in Saudi Arabia soared 72 percent year-on-year to $987 million across 144 deals in 2022, according to startup data platform Magnitt and government agency Saudi Venture Capital. 

The kingdom was the Middle East and North Africa’s second most VC-funded nation last year after the UAE, accounting for 31 percent of total capital invested in the region, the report added.

Fintech startups were the preferred sector, accounting for 24 percent, or $239 million, of the total, followed by food and beverage, and transport. 

Saudi Arabia’s new Companies Law and Investment Funds Regulations have further developed the funding ecosystem for startups.