The gap closes ever so slightly?

Jojo Puthuparampil is a business news writer for Inc. Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are forbidden to drive, making it harder for them to get to work. But now, a senior Saudi cleric has come out to say that women should be allowed to work in more professions such as paramedics and opticians.

“It is fine (for a woman) to work as a paramedic, provided she is decent and in the lawful attire,” Sheikh Abdullah al-Manea, a senior member of the state-appointed body of clerics, the Ulama, told Okaz.

The comment is seen as part of a push to relax strict labor codes in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Six months ago, the government unveiled an economic reform plan that aims to increase the number of women as a proportion of the workforce to 28% by 2020 from 23% currently. The plan also envisages to quadruple the number of women in senior civil service roles to 5%.

Current laws restrict them from certain professions. However, women are allowed to work as doctors with similar requirements for modest dressing.

Women could also work in opticians’ shops as long as they do not mix with men, Mohammad Bajbair, a senior health official in the Red Sea commercial hub of Jeddah, told Saudi Gazette.

“If a complaint is received by the health affairs department about the mixed environment then the shop might be closed down,” said Bajbair.

Of 144 nations, only Iran, Yemen and Syria place lower than Saudi Arabia in a gender equality ranking compiled by the World Economic Forum.

Princely effect?

Recently, a prominent Saudi prince and business magnate lent his voice to the debate over women’s rights in his country, urging it to abandon its driving ban for women.

“Stop the debate,” the prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote on Twitter recently. “It’s time for women to drive.”

In a four-page letter posted on his personal website, he argued that “it is high time that Saudi women started driving their cars.”

He also expressed his views in economic terms, noting that foreign drivers are typically paid SAR3,800 or about $1,000, a month to shuttle women around. The cost, he argued, contributes to capital outflows and strains household budgets at a time when Saudi Arabia is trying to shift its economy away from reliance on oil.

Prince Alwaleed’s statement seemed unlikely to affect policy.

In April, Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince, who is seen as a contender for the throne, said he was “not convinced” that women should be allowed to drive, adding that his reservations concerned resistance in society rather than religious doctrine.

The driving ban is enforced by Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry, and it has been the occasional target of protests.

Women were allowed to vote and run in local elections last December for the first time. But they have a low rate of participation in the workforce, a problem for the kingdom as it tries to diversify its economy and rely less on foreign workers.

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