At the core of Saudi Arabia’s societal evolution are Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s groundbreaking Vision 2030 policies, which promise empowerment and unprecedented opportunities for women, thereby reshaping the landscape of the nation. This colossal project extends beyond mere economic diversification to encompass significant social and cultural reforms, aiming to drive the nation towards a more diversified, inclusive, and prosperous future.

I had the privilege of an insightful conversation with Jana Yamani, whose leadership as managing director of Project 1932, the largest mentorship program in the region, has been significant in empowering women. Having graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she also serves as an advisory board member for prestigious initiatives such as the Princess Nourah Prize for Women’s Excellence, – the prize honors and showcases the achievements of Saudi women, – among others. She previously served as the executive manager at the Misk Foundation, an organization of the Crown Prince, dedicated to educating future leaders in the country.

What are the implications of Vision 2030 for women in Saudi Arabian society? 

Before Vision 2030, although people might not be aware, women [in Saudi Arabia] were empowered, they had ambitions and aspirations, and were able to execute them. It was more of a case of males holding positions of leadership. Women were given the opportunity to receive education, but many families were hesitant to enable their female members to work in certain environments. With Vision 2030, numerous everyday policies that had been a restriction for women evolved to enable their fuller participation and empowerment in society. The majority of the change in policies such as abolishing the requirement of approval of a legal guardian for women to travel, or allowing women to drive, are now facilitating women’s autonomy. Vision 2030 has led to accelerated changes, creating more opportunities for women in government, sports, entrepreneurship and beyond.”

How about the political leadership? Are there women involved in the decision-making as well? Is Saudi Arabia interested in having women in higher political decision-making? 

Lately women have taken more and more leadership positions in the government. We have several deputy-ministers and assistant ministers as well. The transition for women to assume these roles is relatively recent, therefore what needs to be understood is that women have to be prepared, they need to be given more time and experience in order to take on the ministers’ roles. It is definitely happening, but in a culture where men have dominated these positions for almost a hundred years, women need to demonstrate their experience and track record to show they can handle these responsibilities. Regarding diplomacy, Saudi Arabia also appointed its first female ambassador in 2019, and since then more have taken on this role.

Yamani went on to clarify that this is simply her interpretation of history and the current context.

What has been the societal response to the increase in opportunities for women and the opening up of traditionally male-dominated spaces? Is there significant opposition to these changes?

As in many societies, there’s a minority that opposes change. Some hold onto traditional beliefs or fear the unknown. However, they’re not the majority. Due to the top-down implementation of change, there has consequently been a noticeable shift in the mindset of families, reflecting a broader transformation from bottom-up. Given the significant shift in government direction, people are unlikely to express opposition towards their sisters, wives, or daughters having more opportunities.  

Yamani additionally explained that there has been overall a positive response from most of society in regard to these changes.

Do the changes extend to the countryside or are they limited to Riyadh and other major cities?

 In Saudi Arabia, the government is pushing for change, even in smaller towns. With 13 provinces, each led by a prince, younger leaders are driving attempts to modernize traditional thinking. While some resistance exists, it’s a minority. A nationwide push for progress ensures that every part of the kingdom is impacted by ongoing transformations.  

How do you foresee these changes affecting the Saudi’s economy or the workforce dynamics? 

In 2017, the women’s workforce participation rate was 17%. By 2021, it had increased to 35%, surpassing the Vision’s goals. Traditionally, societal norms dictate that husbands and fathers bear the financial burden for women, regardless of if they are working or not. Freed from expenses like rent and food, women’s increased participation in the workforce means that their increased spending power is driving more money into the economy, resulting in a boost in economic activity. Moreover, the private sector is experiencing a significant transformation with a rising number of female entrepreneurs bringing about more positive changes in the economy and society as a whole.  

As the managing director of Project 1932, previously being executive director at the Misk Foundation, how do you ensure that policies within your projects prioritize equal access and opportunities for women?

The scholarship has been opened to both genders, which has revealed an important trend: In recent years, female participation in programs I have been involved in has consistently surpassed males by over 60%. Such results indicate not just equal but greater access for women. They are taking possibilities because they see a window of opportunity for personal development and leadership. There is furthermore a cultural shift happening where women are more vocal about their achievements and aspirations. This trend indicates a growing desire among women to contribute and grow personally and professionally. Notably, women are actively pursuing larger roles, as evidenced by their outnumbering of males in various programs. 

What are your strategies or priorities for further advancing what you have achieved regarding women’s rights and opportunities in Saudi? 

 Honestly, just to continue with our current approach. With the optimistic evolution of women’s roles in recent years, and given the country’s current pace of progress, we anticipate this wave of achievements to continue, paving the way for even more opportunities in Saudi Arabia in the future.

Written by Jolan Maria Boganyi, Edited by Reed McIntire


Pictured: Jana Yamani and Jolán Mária Bogányi
Photo credit: Jolán Mária Bogányi

Photo credit of featured image: Jana Yamani