Apple has spearheaded a push by foreign consumer brands to ensure male and female employees will be allowed to work side-by-side in Saudi Arabia, removing a key obstacle to foreign investment in the kingdom.
The iPhone maker has received assurances from authorities that they would not face prosecution for genders mixing in the workplace.
This could pave the way for Apple and others to open their first offices or shops in Saudi Arabia, as well as being another incremental step forward for women’s rights in the rapidly changing kingdom.
Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, has often talked about the importance of diversity within the company, as well as championing human rights away from its Cupertino headquarters.
“We believe that the most diverse teams create the best product,” he said at Apple’s shareholder meeting in February.
Last week, Apple launched the iPhone FaceTime video-calling system in Saudi Arabia, ahead of a meeting between Mr Cook and Mohammed bin Salman as part of the Crown Prince’s tour of Silicon Valley.
The change came through with an iOS 11.3 software update after Saudi Arabia lifted restrictions on internet calling services.
The Middle East is an under-developed market for western technology companies. Apple opened its first stores in the region in October 2015 — in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Prince Mohammed, who is on a three-week visit to the US, is wooing technology giants as he drums up investment interest in his economic diversification plans.
On Thursday, he met Google executives Sergey Brin and Sundar Pichai. The three men discussed cloud computing and cyber security, Saudi media have reported. Saudi Arabia has been in talks with Amazon and Apple over the potential for setting up data centres in the kingdom.
Prince Mohammed also met Magic Leap, a “mixed reality” headset maker that received a $400m investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund last month.
The PIF has a large stake in Uber and is also hunting for more technology investments and partnerships with entertainment companies as the kingdom’s strict social rules start to loosen. Chinese-owned AMC Entertainment, in partnership with the PIF, plans to open cinemas from next month, after a 35-year ban was lifted.
Meanwhile, new rules allow women to work alongside men as the government looks to boost female economic participation. A third of working-age women are unemployed — a rate nearly five times as high as men.
But regulations are vague and enforcement varies. Employers with offices in the kingdom must guarantee segregated areas for lunch and prayers and some complain of officious inspections.
Luxury brands, whose outlets in the kingdom have been established through local partners, are now looking to set up on their own under recent regulations that allow foreign retailers to own 100 per cent of operations in Saudi Arabia.
“Increasingly sophisticated multinationals want to play ‘the long-game’ in these markets and so make sure that they are on the right side of government rules,” said Sam Blatteis, chief executive of The MENA Catalysts, a regional government affairs consultancy.
Source: Financial Times