Solar Industry Could Create Opportunities for Arab Women
The oil-producing countries of the Gulf all have their eyes—if not yet their policies—on the hope of creating economies that could be petroleum independent. Alternative energy, especially solar, is often a large part of that hope.
The region’s leading oil producer, Saudi Arabia, is a case in point. Development of alternative energy would mark progress toward the kingdom’s goals, as laid out in its ambitious Vision 2030 program of social and economic reforms. Saudi women already have a strong head start in being involved in solar energy. Growth in solar has the possibility to benefit more women, but that possibility will only become reality if companies and governments actively encourage women to pursue alternative energy as a career and pair technical education with leadership training. With Saudi women’s unemployment sitting at 32.8 percent as of 2015, much needs to be done.
Some early research has hinted that Arab women are apt to be more concerned about environmental issues and alternative energy. In a 2016 article tracing the connection between women and the environment, Nura A. Abboud, a molecular biologist and environmental activist, noted the various ways women’s daily lives across the Middle East are strongly affected by the environment and how they have worked on behalf of issues related to it.
Two other researchers, Kellie A. McElhaney and Sanaz Mobasseri, found that companies with more women on their boards of directors were more willing to invest in renewable power, more focused on reducing carbon emissions, and more interested in energy efficiency.
Averaging nine hours of sunlight a day, Saudi Arabia is a promising location for solar investments. Despite a reported delay in the kingdom’s plans to build the world’s largest solar power generation project with the Japanese tech giant Softbank, valued at $200 billion, groundwork has been laid for future growth. For example, in January, Desert Technologies, which is headquartered in Jeddah, announced the completion of the largest privately owned solar photovoltaic module in Saudi Arabia. This facility is just one of a number of solar projects throughout the Middle East and North Africa region and beyond for the company.
Government efforts, including the Saudi Industrial Development Fund and the National Renewable Energy Program, also demonstrate an interest in solar projects and their ability to create jobs.
Effat University has emerged as a higher-education leader in training for solar projects. The private women’s university in Saudi Arabia began a master’s degree program in energy engineering in 2017 with an option to pursue a concentration in renewable energy.
Parallel to this, the university, in conjunction with the Zahid Group of the Altaaqa Company, launched a solar energy project on campus. This project will serve as a laboratory for energy research conducted by Effat students and a place to train students and faculty members throughout the project’s installation and monitoring. Its location will allow students from across the university to collaborate. For example, women from the engineering and architecture departments can benefit. Such focused training complements the science degrees women in the kingdom are already pursuing, which is 50 percent of all science degrees earned in the country.
Outside the kingdom, Saudi women are also making advances in solar energy and other research and technical careers.
Since 2012, the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women has offered female Saudi scientists and engineers who hold doctoral degrees the opportunity to conduct research for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alongside an MIT faculty member.
Past fellows have demonstrated strong interest in renewable energy. Their research has investigated power grids able to efficiently use a variety of renewable energy sources, improvements for solar cells, and the potential of solar power for desalination projects. Coming from a desert environment, the researchers are acutely aware of the dust and high temperatures that can negatively affect solar-panel installations and efficiency.
Past fellowship participants have emphasized the way the experience taught them the importance of teamwork for international research collaborations while also helping them to build their professional networks.
Such networking was on display in 2016 when a past fellowship recipient, Malak Al Nory, moderated a panel on women in energy during the Sixth Saudi Arabia Smart Grid and Sustainable Energy Conference in Jeddah. Bringing together women engaged in the energy industry from around the world, the panel included another past fellowship participant, Noura Mansouri.
The Ibn Khaldun fellowship program’s renewal in 2018 for another ten years means that it is less likely to face the fate of some Saudi scholarship programs covering study abroad, which have shrunk in recent years.
More women leaders can be produced if female students are given the ability to participate in internships. These experiences, when provided in a meaningful way, give students a bird’s-eye view of what day-to-day life is like when working in a sector.
The hard task of institutionalizing policies, practices, and programs with an eye toward optimizing the workplace for every employee must occur before students walk through the door. Young female interns, for example, will need to look around and see other women at all levels of the company getting proper support and not struggling with such issues as childcare.
A 2017 survey focused on the challenges faced by women in the clean energy sector across the Middle East and North Africa clarified some stepping stones. Hiring, promotion, and retention policies should specifically address the employment of women, respondents said. They also said policies such as flex time and the ability to work at home are needed to support women in the workplace.
In addition, it is not enough for the Saudi government, as it states in its Vision 2030, to expect companies to support men and women in their careers. The government must hold companies accountable for taking concrete, measurable steps toward these goals.
Women should be offered ongoing encouragement so they can feel prepared to accept challenges as they move through different levels of responsibility. Programs like those offered by the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco could serve as a template as the solar industry grows in the kingdom. For example, Saudi Aramco’s Women in Business program targets those who are early in their careers and focuses on cultivating soft skills, such as resilience and assertiveness, to help women speak up. For those further along in their careers, Saudi Aramco’s Women in Leadership program helps participants develop their own leadership styles.
Throughout the trajectory of the education and employment of Saudi women, oil has emerged as a powerful force. Sometimes the industry that grew up around oil production has enhanced the lives of Saudi women and girls. Often, however, the impacts have been negative, hindering progress. As oil-producing countries strive for a future beyond oil, the solar industry offers some promise for the meaningful employment of Arab women.
Elizabeth R. Bruce is an independent consultant working in research and editing and has been part of a number of projects focused on Middle East education.