An internationally renowned Saudi Arabian businesswoman addressed a roomful of men and women at an important economic forum this week on the issue of women in the Saudi Arabian workforce, ignoring vehement backlash from conservative religious authorities.

Lubna Olayan is a rare but successful businesswoman involved in the reformation of the Saudi workforce. She opened the Jeddah Economic Forum in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, calling for mutual respect of Saudi citizens regardless of “social class, religion or gender,” reported The New York Times. “My vision is of a country in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender, who is serious about finding employment can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified,” she said to her mixed-gender audience.

Olayan is one of a growing number of female leaders who attend the World Economic Forum annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Participation of female leaders increased from 9 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2003. Olayan is the chief executive officer of the Olayan Financing Company and president of the Sulaiman S. Olayan Foundation.

Screens separated men from women at the forum in Jeddah but the attendees were able to cross into each other’s sections to mingle. Some of the women were veiled; many were unveiled.


At the same forum, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority denounced all calls for greater women’s rights, declaring the mixing of unveiled women with men as a violation of Islamic teaching.

The Financial Times of London reported that Saudi religious official Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik condemned the behavior of Olayan, after she delivered the opening address. The Grand Mufti warned of consequences to come as a result of the mixing between men and women.

“Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe,” said the Grand Mufti. “It is highly punishable. Mixing of men and women is a reason for greater decadence and adultery.”

Reports indicate that women make up less than 5 percent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, despite international governments’ efforts to support women’s economic rights. Financial Times journalist Roula Khalaf reported that “the religious establishment views any concession as an erosion of its powers.” The Saudi regime has been “treading carefully,” Khalaf writes, as it struggles under immense pressure between religious conservatives and opposing activists.