Friday, 31 March, 2023

Women drive fast train to Mecca as Saudi workforce evolves

Women drive fast train to Mecca as Saudi workforce evolves

JEDDAH: Driver Tharaa Ali takes her seat at the helm of a high-speed train ferrying pilgrims to Mecca, a beneficiary of conservative Saudi Arabia's bid to employ its booming female workforce.

Saudi women only gained the right to drive in 2018, and until recently 25-year-old Ali's transportation experience was limited to cruising around her native Jeddah in the family sedan, reports AFP.

But last year she joined some 28,000 applicants vying for just 32 slots for women drivers on the Haramain High Speed Railway, which plies the 450-kilometre (280-mile) route between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina at speeds of up to 300 kilometres (186 miles) per hour.

To her astonishment, the former English teacher was among the lucky few selected, and she completed her first trip last month.

"The first day working here was like a dream for me -- entering the train, entering the cabin," she told AFP.

"When you are in the cabin, you see things heading towards you at a very high speed. A feeling of fear and dread came over me, but thank God, with time and intensive training, I became confident in myself."

The proportion of Saudi women in the workforce has more than doubled since 2016, from 17 percent to 37 percent.

The statistic feeds a narrative of expanding women's rights under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even amid ramped-up repression of activists, making it a reliable applause line at events like the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Yet unemployment among Saudi women is high -- 20.5 percent last year, compared to 4.3 percent for Saudi men.

That figure, much like the flood of applicants for the driver positions, highlights an urgent task facing Saudi policymakers: creating jobs for all the women newly interested in participating in a changing economy.

"The challenge has shifted," said Saudi economist Meshal Alkhowaiter, "from encouraging women to join the workforce, to creating a sufficient number of jobs to employ the thousands of Saudi women entering the workforce every quarter."