AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Saudi Arabia, change is often described as glacial, but in the past months, the pace has been breathtaking. A new king shifted power to a younger generation of princes, and change is also dramatic for Saudi women in the workplace, even as they're still prohibited from driving themselves to work. It's technology that's opening the door. NPR's Deborah Amos filed this report.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Check out this recent convention at a private girls school in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. There are hundreds of women here who've opened businesses on Instagram. They've turned a popular photo-sharing site into a platform to sell everything from sugary cupcakes to fresh sushi in the desert kingdom. Reema Khateb sells decorative tables and embroidered cushions.
REEMA KHATEB: Every gift, I made it by myself, or something I bring it from Vegas or London.
AMOS: She she had a job, but says this one's better.
KHATEB: Yeah, I'm a banker actually.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: She was a banker.
KHATEB: I was banker.
AMOS: Why'd you decide to do this?
KHATEB: Do what you love, love what you do.
AMOS: Nouf al-Mazrou loves to work with her sisters in a business she started a year ago.
NOUF AL-MAZROU: It's BBQ-Time. It's about barbecue catering.
AMOS: BBQ-Time is a hit, says Mazrou, a single mother with a young son.
MAZROU: I want my own business. I'm free, yeah - no man to take responsibility of that (laughter).
AMOS: In Riyadh, thousands of Instagram businesses are up and running, created mostly by women. Easier than the traditional economy, they can skip government bureaucracy, and they can work from home. It's all happening so fast, Saudi's Ministry of Labor hasn't yet been able to count these businesses as part of the informal economy.
MAHA TAIBAH: We're looking at it. We're trying to figure out how we can actually put a number on it. It happened over the last three years max.
AMOS: That's Maha Taibah, adviser on human capital at the Labor Ministry. She heads a government project to double the number of women in the workplace in the next few years, where 50 percent of the unemployed women hold a university degree. Her team includes star American academics, economists and labor experts.
TAIBAH: You go to the best, so we have Harvard. We have other universities that we're starting to discuss with similar programs to support that initiative.
AMOS: The initiative started under King Abdullah. It's not yet clear the new King Salman has the same commitment to advancing opportunities for women, but there are harsh economic realities even a king can't ignore. Oil prices have fallen dramatically, no longer enough to balance the government budget. Family budgets are also under strain, says Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan. A one-income household is just not enough.
EMAN AL-NAFJAN: Most of us are not rich at all. I mean, about 70 percent of us don't even own our own houses. A lot of us live month-to-month.
AMOS: Still, it's a radical shift in a conservative society with rigid rules on driving, where gender segregation is the norm. The hurdles to find a job and then get to work are still enormous.
MOSA OTAIBI: (Foreign language spoken).
AMOS: In the capital, Saudi's largest charitable foundation offers classes for women who have never mixed with men outside their family. They have to learn simple skills like eye contact, a hurdle for women who wear the face veil, part of Saudis' traditional culture. Mosa Otaibi heads the training program.
OTAIBI: Don't stare a lot. Try to - and sometimes we say, you know what? If you find it difficult to hold an eye contact, look at the forehead in the middle. We have all these tricks.
AMOS: More than 70 percent of the graduates move into the workforce. Economics is changing Saudi Arabia, and women want to be part of that rapid change. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.