Alia Banaja is a local product. Born and raised in Jeddah, she graduated from a local university some years ago. Soon after, she established the first IT business run exclusively by women. At the time, the industry was dominated by males, but over the years Alia has validated her proficiency in the field and had signed up some long-term clients.
Her 2 The Point, formed in 2002, is a medium-sized company in the information technology sector and has worked on the successful implementation of several projects for government and private sector companies such as King Faisal Specialist Hospital and the Department of Home Economics at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, among others.
But Alia and thousands of other Saudi businesswomen faced a dilemma. Saudi commercial law at the time required her to appoint a male legal agent to conduct her affairs with various governmental organizations. Women were not expected to deal with our bureaucracies. And there was no way around it.
For Alia and others who often do not find a trusted male family member willing to commit themselves to carry on those chores on demand, the only option was to hire some male agent practically of the street and sign over the power of attorney, granting him full and absolute powers in company matters.
Over the years there have been various reported cases of abuse of power by these so-called legal agents. Many a businesswoman has found herself on the short end of the stick upon discovering that the appointed agent had hauled away the company goods, leaving her in great financial distress and liability. The legal recourse available was often time-consuming and discouraging.
And so Alia began a campaign to do away with the condition of appointing a male agent. In light of recent progress on the issue of women’s rights in the Kingdom, she and many others like her saw no reason why they could not dispense with this requirement while running their businesses.
Working along with several businesswomen from the Eastern and Central provinces, they formulated a movement to abrogate the requirement for a male legal representative that was issued back in 2004. Initially, the focus was on raising public awareness about the potential dangers of such a rule to female business owners.
The next step was to close down their businesses if their demands for the removal of this condition were not met. And finally, if that did not produce positive results from the concerned government agencies, they would appeal directly to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
After her last meeting with Hassan Aqeel, undersecretary at the Ministry of Commerce and Trade who reiterated the requirements for a male general manager in businesses owned by women and which dealt with both sexes, Alia felt the time to act had finally dawned.
Last week, Alia closed down her local operations. She plans to relocate her enterprise to London. With a heavy heart, she had to inform her employees that she could simply not continue in the face of such a rule, especially when she had been recently cheated, albeit on a small scale, by one of her “appointed male agents.”
After long discussions with her a couple of times, I came away convinced that this was not a self-aggrandizing act or one taken with the selfish interest of promoting herself or her business. Nor does she see herself in the vanguard of women’s rights.
Alia said, “I realize the anguish of the female workers in the company, but the constant pressure exerted by the appointed male agents in my business has disrupted many of my economic interests. I am no longer able to accomplish projects as quickly and efficiently as required, so the closure of my business activity is optimal for the moment. I understand that the closure does not help the economy, but the obstacles to come to work and appoint a male agent was becoming intolerable and burdensome, and causing me a great deal of anxiety.”
And what of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce that was so much in the news a couple of years ago for electing women on their board? Had she heard anything from them? “Nothing, absolutely nothing! I have waited long enough for them to act on behalf of us businesswomen, but the realities are otherwise.”
Basma Al-Omair, head of the Khadija bint Khuwailed Center at the Chamber of Commerce, said, “the decision of closure is a personal matter for the woman. So far I do not have sufficient information on the subject of closures.” The chamber, she said, had sent a request to the concerned minister sometimes back to remove this obstacle, but has yet to receive any reply.
Statistics by the Chamber of Commerce in Jeddah reveal that about 20,000 small- and medium-sized businesses with a capital of more than SR60 billion are in operations, but the statistics reveal little on the number of female owners and staff working in these companies and small enterprises.
A simple question must be put forward to the minister of commerce and trade. Why tout for WTO membership when the simple issue of doing away with this antiquated requirement that affects so many businesswomen adversely in this country cannot be boldly addressed and rectified?
How many Alia Banajas have to suffer before action was taken? Who are we afraid of? Or should we simply confine our women to the home and the kitchen?