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Women in Saudi Arabia: Making Their Mark in the Hospitality Industry

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Kaushiki Khanijo

Enabling and empowering Saudi women in every sector, utilizing their skills and potential for the progress and economic prosperity of the nation, is a fundamental aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. With the goal of increasing women’s engagement in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030, Saudi Arabia is committed to providing opportunities and support for women to thrive professionally.

To accomplish this objective, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in implementing a range of initiatives aimed at fostering a supportive atmosphere for the economic advancement of women. The country has embarked on a mission to:

  1. Empower women to have a strong presence in policy and decision-making by actively promoting and expanding their leadership roles within the civil service, as well as in middle and senior management positions.
  2. In addition to providing on-the-job training for employees, it is crucial to offer targeted training programs that align with labor market demands and cater specifically to unemployed women. Alongside this, it is essential to establish a reliable and affordable transport service, such as the Wussool program, to ensure safe and convenient commuting to and from the workplace.
  3. Implement the Qurrah program, which offers affordable childcare services to support working women in balancing their professional and personal responsibilities.
  4. Promote the significance of women’s involvement in the job market through impactful media campaigns and public education initiatives that showcase inspiring role models and success stories.

Just five years ago, women in Saudi Arabia faced significant barriers when it came to working in hospitality companies, as many Saudi families frowned upon this sector. Women had to go to great lengths to persuade their families to allow them to study or work in hospitality and tourism. Family support and trust played a vital role in women’s decision to join this industry, and from the family’s perspective, education, and healthcare were considered the top choices for women’s work.

The Saudi government is actively working towards empowering women to take on leadership positions in both public and private sectors. In a bid to promote gender equality, the government has made it mandatory for companies in the tourism and hospitality sector to hire women in all departments. As a result, Saudi women now make up 22 percent of the total workforce in this sector (Ministry of Tourism, 2020).

Today, women in Saudi Arabia are making their mark in the field of hospitality management after participating in rigorous training programs.

The Ministry of Tourism and multiple Giga Projects, with the partnerships of several local and international institutions and universities, have been funding initiatives designed to meet the needs of the Kingdom’s burgeoning hospitality labor market. And many of those participating in a range of training programs have gained invaluable practical experience in the industry while learning relevant hospitality and management skills.

The advancement of women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia is evident through the growing array of job opportunities for women across various sectors. As part of this commitment, Red Sea Global (RSG) is on a journey to establish itself as a pioneer in vocational training, with a focus on transforming lives and challenging stereotypes. They have followed a holistic approach to talent development starting from program design (tailored educational programs, never seen before, backed up with global accreditations), to strategic partner selection, talent oversight, and securing job placements post-graduation, employing a comprehensive approach that ensures Saudi talents are not only trained but also thrive in their future roles at the Red Sea Project and its destinations.

Specifically, Bunyan Academy, located in KING Abdullah Economic city, contributes to the development of the hospitality and tourism industry, fostering collaboration with EHL to deliver cutting-edge human capital development solutions through the VET by EHL program.

Together, Red Sea Global and Bunyan Academy have reached a noteworthy achievement in this ongoing partnership within the hospitality industry, which is the emergence of the first Saudi female butlers. In a recent interview, we had the privilege of gaining insights from these trailblazing individuals who mark a significant milestone in the evolution of gender roles in the Saudi workforce.

What motivated you to become a butler, and how did you overcome any challenges or barriers you faced along the way?

Reem Alyami: “At first, I was unfamiliar with the responsibilities of a butler—or even it being a possible avenue for a Saudi woman. Through persistent inquiries with my teachers and research, I gained insight into the unique role that butlers play in a hotel. I identified with the part of a conductor, orchestrating various services at the hotel to meet the specific needs of guests. And furthermore, I felt confident that my strength, my assertiveness, and determination would be my driving force to overcome any obstacles that come my way and help me be successful in going above and beyond to deliver excellence service.”

Please tell us about the training programs you underwent to acquire the necessary skills for this profession.

Haneen Ali Alqadi: “The profession of butler is very new in Saudi Arabia, and therefore I felt pressure to live up to the expectations—and a little scared at first, to be honest. The VET by EHL program I attended at Bunyan played a crucial role in shaping me into a well-rounded professional and giving me confidence. As butlers, I find myself taking on diverse roles such as housekeeping, food and beverage management, or laundry services for my guests. This experience has not only broadened my skill set but has also equipped me to handle various situations with responsibility, professionalism, efficiency, and dare I say care for the customer.”

How do you envision your role as a butler contributing to the overall progress and economic prosperity of Saudi Arabia?

Reem Alyami: “As a trailblazer in this newly established role for Saudi ladies, I recognize the pioneering nature of my position. In the absence of established precedents, I’ve faced the challenge of not being able to seek guidance from other professionals. Nevertheless, I embrace this opportunity to push boundaries. My vision for the role of a butler extends beyond individual service—I aspire to be a role model for future female butlers, setting the standard for excellence and contributing to the progressive evolution of Saudi Arabia’s hospitality landscape. Through my commitment to impeccable service, I aim to inspire and pave the way for other Saudi women to excel in similar roles, thereby making a meaningful contribution to the overall progress and economic prosperity of the country.”

In what ways do you believe your presence as a female butler challenges traditional gender norms in Saudi society? Have you faced any resistance or skepticism from individuals or families regarding your choice of profession? If so, how did you handle it?

Ms. Haneen Ali Alqadi: “Saudi Arabia has undergone rapid transformations in recent years, reshaping societal norms and redefining the role of women. While these swift changes have been embraced by many, it’s clear that not everyone can easily discard the past. I vividly recall my initial encounter with a guest at the hotel, who expressed surprise at having a female butler. However, as they witnessed my commitment and dedication, their perception shifted, and they became incredibly supportive. Beyond the challenges posed by societal shifts, the unwavering support of our families has played a pivotal role in facilitating this transformative journey. Their encouragement empowered me to pursue education, enroll in the VET by EHL program at Bunyan, and eventually embark on my role as a butler. It’s a testament to the collective efforts driving change and the importance of familial support in navigating these profound transitions.”

What are some unique skills and qualities you bring to your role as a butler?

Ms. Reem Alyami: “Beyond the obvious multitasking and organization skills this role requires; personally, I believe in the utmost importance of understanding a guest’s emotions; they become like my family throughout their entire stay. Knowing what they require at different times and providing them with that experience contributes to a memorable stay they will cherish for a lifetime.”

Ms. Haneen Ali Alqadi: “Impeccable observation skills are paramount for me, requiring constant attention. While this is crucial, providing solutions to even the smallest issues is what sets me apart in my profession. I firmly believe that addressing every detail, coupled with my hospitality skills, is what makes me excel in my role as a butler.”

Can you share any memorable experiences or interactions you’ve had while working as a butler?

Ms. Reem Alyami: “I’m relatively new to the operations, and recently, I had the chance to engage with our first set of guests. Among them was a delightful small family with an adorable toddler, dressed in a beautiful rainbow-colored outfit. When I inquired about her preferences, she shared that rainbow colors were her absolute favorite. Taking this to heart, I decided to craft a surprise—a rainbow-colored plate filled with an assortment of candies. The joy on her face and the family’s elation turned this gesture into an unforgettable experience. They even expressed their happiness by wanting to capture the moment in pictures, a request I gladly fulfilled. The smiles on their faces, especially the little girl’s, truly made my day.”

How do you balance your professional responsibilities as a butler with your personal life and family obligations?

Ms. Haneen Ali Alqadi: “The hospitality industry requires a substantial amount of personal time and commitment, operating incessantly without breaks for holidays or celebrations. As a butler, I am committed to providing tailored support to my clients’ unique needs, making myself available 24/7. This poses a dual challenge. First, in maintaining a consistent level of attention to detail, courtesy, and discretion for our clients, whose appreciation makes the extended hours worthwhile. Second, in managing relationships with family and friends who must adapt to my unconventional schedule. I must express deep gratitude to my family for their remarkable accommodation and unwavering encouragement; I couldn’t be more thankful to them.”

Do you see yourself as a role model for other Saudi women aspiring to enter non-traditional professions? If so, how do you hope to inspire them?

Ms. Reem Alyami: “I certainly hope I can someday be a role model. I feel a profound responsibility not just to myself, but to my entire country, Saudi Arabia. I hope that the unique opportunity that was given to me will open the door to many more women, and that I will become an inspiration for women to enter unconventional professions. Through my journey of breaking barriers and challenging norms, I hope to instill in them the confidence and determination to pursue their dreams fearlessly. I want to convey that every woman has the potential to excel in any field she chooses, and by doing so, we collectively contribute to the progress and diversity of our nation.”

What advice would you give to young Saudi women who are considering pursuing a career path that challenges societal norms?

Ms. Haneen Ali Alqadi: “By sharing our experiences, we aim to inspire young Saudi women to embrace challenges as opportunities for growth. Success is a journey, often accompanied by setbacks and learning curves. The path to challenging societal norms may not be easy, but the rewards are worth the effort. Therefore, we advocate for resilience and tenacity, urging aspiring individuals to persist in the face of obstacles.”

Ms. Reem Alyami: “We will pave the way and serve as your guiding force. Count on us, and you are welcome to reach out anytime. We are committed to making ourselves available to any woman who has questions or wishes to delve deeper into the role of a butler. We aim to provide the guidance and mentorship that we didn’t have—except from our teachers—when embarking on this new and groundbreaking role.”

This remarkable achievement serves as a testament to the significance of adopting a comprehensive policy approach to address gender equality and empower women. By tackling obstacles that hinder women’s employment, such as balancing work and family responsibilities and transportation issues, Saudi Arabia has witnessed a notable increase in women’s participation in the labor force. From 2016 to 2019, there has been a remarkable rise of nearly five percentage points, from 17.7 percent to 23.2 percent, and the country is well on its way to achieving its target by 2030.

Kaushiki Khanijo is Associate – EHL Education Consulting.

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