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tech companies have questions about women in Saudi Arabia
Reuters//Faisal Al Nasser
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DESERT BARRIER

Saudi Arabia wants tech investment. It needs to answer some difficult questions first.

Oliver Staley
By Oliver Staley

Culture & lifestyle editor

Saudi Arabia, with a huge population of tech-savvy young people and vast financial resources, is eager to form partnerships with Silicon Valley venture capitalists to invest in its local talent.

But the VCs have some questions.

Specifically they want to know about the role of women in the desert kingdom, says Abdullah Al-Swaha, the Saudi minister of communication and information technology.

“We’ve been receiving a lot of questions about workplace environment and their ability to recruit and sustain talent,” said Al-Swaha, in an interview today (Sept. 20) in New York at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum. Al-Swaha joined other Saudi ministers at the forum in pitching the Kingdom’s business opportunities to an audience that included Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, and real estate developer Steve Ross.

Al-Swaha, who attended the University of Washington and ran Cisco’s operations in Saudi Arabia, said he’s been in talks with Sequoia Capital about a opening an office in Riyadh (Update: A spokesperson from Sequoia Capital later contacted Quartz to deny that the company is in talks with Al-Swaha to open a Riyadh office). Americans have a dated view about how women are treated in his country, he said, noting that the chair of the Saudi stock exchange, Sarah al-Suhaimi, is female.

“Those are a lot of the questions we’ve been receiving and a couple of visits to the kingdom would definitely change that perception,” he said.

Conditions may be improving for some women in Saudi Arabia, but the country still ranks near the bottom of all countries—141 out of 144—ranked by the World Economic Forum for women’s equality (the US is 45th). Saudi women still require a male guardian, who has the authority to make a range of legal and financial decisions on a woman’s behalf, according to Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia’s repressive culture will be a barrier in its efforts to modernize and diversify its economy, suggested Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who was joined in a panel discussion with Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund. “No one has done this without attracting a lot of ex-pats,” Blankfein said. “You have to make it attractive.”

For decades, the US and Saudi Arabia were bound together by mutual dependency, Blankfein said, with the US needing Saudi oil and the Saudis needing US customers. Now that North America is essentially energy independent, Saudi Arabia can’t assume a future based solely on economic necessity, he said. In other words, the quality of life and human rights may play an increasing role in how US companies view Saudi Arabia.

Al-Swaha says he hopes improving conditions, and the  untapped potential of the kingdom, will help entice the firms he’s looking for. “We are very hungry and we are very welcoming,” he said.

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