Riyadh - Saudi women's career ambitions take wings.
It did not take long for Saudis to get used to female cashiers at local supermarkets in 2010 - nor did it take much time to get used to saleswomen explaining the differences among vacuum cleaners, mobile phones, cameras and a variety of electronics from tablets to cameras a couple of year later. Then came women behind the wheel in 2018.
Next, Saudi women working at 30,000 feet to ensure the safety and comfort of airline passengers as cabin crew.
Flynas and flyadeal, two Saudi private national carriers, have shattered the big blue ceiling, graduating recently their first class of female Saudi flight attendants and putting them on their initial flights earlier this year, a statement issued on Saturday said.
Doors to careers in aviation are opening across the sector, but it is flynas and flyadeal that have largely taken the lead in attracting Saudi women to the privatised wild blue yonder. With aviation earmarked as a main component in the campaign for economic diversification, privatisation and increased employment of women, flynas has taken the initiative to pursue those goals through the establishment of its "Future Pilots" and "Flight Attendants" programmes, both of which proactively encourage the participation of women. Until now, passengers on Saudi airlines were attended to by foreigners.
Flyadeal, which had begun posting jobs for Saudi women to work as flight attendants in the second half of last year, graduated its first cadre of female Saudi flight attendants earlier this year, and they have started working soon afterwards.
"Saudi women are as competent as their male counterparts when it comes to working as flight attendants and ensuring the safety and comfort of travelers," said Mashael Muteb, flynas' first female Saudi flight attendant who actually trained as a dentist before entering flynas' flight attendants program.
'Until now, passengers on Saudi airlines were attended to by foreigners.'
Mesha'el, who has a degree in dentistry and public health and no background in aviation, adds: "My love for flying and aviation rose when my sister graduated from flight school and there were no jobs for her in this field in Saudi at the time. And I continued studying health as there were no aviation tracks or courses offered at universities in Saudi yet. But that all changed last September, on hearing FlyNas announcement of introducing more jobs in aviation for women.''
Her first experience of flying as a flight attendant was on the FlyNas Airbus A320. She recalls her first time as a flight attendant in the skies and was shocked at how taxing at times it was to deal with difficult passengers.
"One mother was upset with me because I noticed her toddler running around, in the aisle and as I attended to the child, she was furious that I was taking care of her own child, but this was an opening eye experience on dealing with different personalities and aside from hospitality on board the aircraft I was quite pleased with our performance and how we were all ready as new cabin crew on so many fronts.''
There does not seem to be much dispute about the abilities of Saudi women to play valuable roles in aviation. According to flynas, some 300 women and men are expected to attend its flight attendants' programme over the next two years, and the airline expects to begin employing Saudi female co-pilots in the near future.
It was in January of 2018 that Dr. Eqbal Darandari, an assistant professor of psychology at King Saud University in Riyadh and one of the first female members of the consultative Shoura Council, called for the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and Saudi airline companies to support employing Saudi women as pilots, co-pilots and flight attendants.
Empowering Saudi women in business and integrating them into a predominantly male job market is a substantial part of fulfilling the Kingdom's Vision 2030, which also intends to increase women's participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by the end of the next decade. As for the Saudi aviation industry, Dr. Darandari's call for inclusion has, indeed, been heeded.
A recent meeting, part of a "Let's Talk Aviation" campaign organised by flynas in conjunction with Prince Sultan University, attracted women from across the industry.
Raghda Al Sulaimani, Corporate Communications Manager at the small Saudi airline, Nesma, began her professional life as a copywriter before receiving a job offer from the airline. The airline's parent company, Nesma Holding, has a strong reputation for being proactive in employing women and meeting the government's Saudization requirements.
The Kingdom is becoming increasingly clear that female Saudis harbour the same kinds of dreams that infuse the lives of young Saudi males. Esraa Alem, 31, Communication Representative at the Saudi Ground Services Company (SGSC), revealed her path to aviation that is not dissimilar to many around the world who have chosen aviation as a career. ''I got into aviation because my father used to work for Saudia Airlines," she said. "It was always my dream to work in aviation. Now, I have a master's degree in communications, and I'm proud to say that I am among the very first batch of Saudi women to join the staff at SGSC.''
And it is not just the private sector that is opening its doors to women. The Kingdom's General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA) hired Maha Al Yamani, a specialist in risk management, as its first female employee. Al Yamani told those gathered at the "Let's Talk Aviation" gathering that there is an abundance of positions in the aviation sector for Saudi females and in light of the recent doubling of the number of Saudi women working in the field, the future looks bright.
''We have a couple of aviation schools up-and-running," she said. "Some schools train pilots, some schools train maintenance staff and there are other schools like Prince Sultan University that teach the management side of aviation. In 2015, I was the very first lady to join the civil aviation authority. Since then, we have brought 170 women into the authority itself. Meanwhile, in the private sector women have already been working, whether on the ground or in the air. I mean, it may sound silly, but the sky's the limit for us. First, the dream was to get a job, any job, in any field, including aviation. I got the job in aviation and then I got promoted and now I am a director. Who knows what's next? I, for one, am open to any opportunity. We'll see what we can do.''
A series of reforms in the Kingdom over the past two years has focused largely on empowering women. Notable among these reforms was a Royal Decree issued in September 2017 by King Salman lifting the ban on women driving as of last June 24, 2018. The Saudi Vision 2030 roadmap for the future also mandates an increase in the percentage of women in the workforce. Recently, Saudi women broke down the gender barriers at the Ministry of Justice, as dozens of Saudi women started their new jobs in November at the ministry, marking the latest move in the empowerment of women in the public sector.
Flynas CEO Bandar Al Mohanna announced two new initiatives by the company to empower women in the aviation sector, through enabling them to work in the maintenance department, and allowing married couples to work together within shared roles that suit their work schedules.