Continuing the rise of women arbitrators in Saudi Arabia

12 March 2024 5 min. read

Embracing diversity and equity in the traditionally male-dominated sector that is arbitration has been a long and often challenging journey for the legal fraternity worldwide. However, notable efforts are being made to attract female professionals to the sector, writes Natalia Barroso, Director at FTI Consulting.

Over the past years, commendable efforts have been made to attract women to the arbitration sector, and one of the most impressive examples can be seen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the strategic push for female representation across the Saudi workforce and the empowerment of women are key pillars of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan.

The Arab world’s largest economy launched the Vision 2030 program in 2016 to diversify itself away from a reliance on fossil fuels, with one of the 14 ambitious goals being to raise the share of women in the workforce from 22% to 30% by the end of the program.

Continuing the rise of women arbitrators in Saudi Arabia

Buoyed by a number of landmark government policies and social liberalization, that target has already been surpassed seven years ahead of schedule, with female workforce participation among Saudi nationals surging to a commendable 35% by the end of 2022, according to the Atlantic Council.

The Vision 2030 program has also helped shatter many of the so-called glass ceilings, helping launch Saudi Arabia’s first female international referee appointed by FIFA, the first female astronaut into space, and the first female train drivers.

Indeed, Vision 2030 presents an unprecedented opportunity for women in Saudi Arabia, creating a new generation of female trailblazers in business, government and the legal profession who are role models for future generations. A good number of those trailblazers are in the sector of arbitration, making vital contributions to the evolving practice of law and thereby creating an expanded role for women in disputes resolution in the Kingdom.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion entitled ‘Diversity in the KSA Disputes Landscape and Beyond’, as part of Riyadh International Disputes Week [held last week’.

The discussion offered invaluable insights into the positive shift towards a more open and diverse disputes community in Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC region, and provided a deep dive into the rapidly evolving role of women in the field of arbitration in the Kingdom.

The road ahead

But with all the positivity right now around the opportunity for women in the region, especially in arbitration, does that mean we are there yet? Certainly not – a great deal of work lies ahead to achieve true gender parity in arbitration, not just in the GCC, but globally.

With its history as a male-dominated environment, nobody can realistically expect equal representation in the short term in arbitration – particularly in Saudi Arabia where the sector is still at a nascent stage. But the progressive momentum generated in the past decade fills us with positivity and reassurance in the Kingdom where we have had the first cohort of female lawyers graduate in 2008, the first female lawyers admitted to the Courts in 2013, and the first female arbitrator appointed by the Saudi Center for Commercial Arbitration in recent years.

These milestones are especially laudable considering that “equal representation” is still a long way off for the international arbitration industry.

With the arbitration sector itself gaining considerable traction and the volume of disputes, particularly in the construction field, slated to rise in the near term, there are significant opportunities for female arbitrators in Saudi Arabia. In order to keep pace with that demand, it is essential to create tailored training for women.

Some women arbitrators, for instance, may benefit from segregated, female-focused training and networking events where they could feel comfortable to discuss challenges and barriers to career progression.

Such events are a valuable opportunity to develop crucial soft skills and build confidence which can help women unlock the next steps in their arbitration career.

Female lawyers also need to get their fair share of subject matter expertise and client exposure – it is important to remember that they cannot simply jump straight into being arbitrators. There is thus an entire ecosystem in the Kingdom that needs to develop to enable gender equality in arbitration, and for this purpose, several stakeholders will need to be involved to create a sufficient pool of qualified female arbitrator talent. This process is therefore a marathon, not a sprint – and the arbitration sector needs every bit of support from all around us to make this happen.

Some of the onus of developing the role of women in arbitration lies with men, especially those who hold prominent positions at law firms, consulting firms and companies in the region. They have the responsibility to champion young females who are future leaders in the arbitration field, and to make room for them in the industry.

Other actions towards promoting gender equality in arbitration include consciously seeking to ensure that teams are representative of both genders, unconscious bias training as well as addressing concerns over harassment and appropriate behaviors in the workplace. Leaders should also be wary of ‘manels,’ or the over-representation of men speaking at conferences and strive for equal representation as much as possible.

By adopting such concerted strategies while celebrating the rise of women arbitrators in the Kingdom, the sector can become a fundamental part of empowering women and shaping the foundation of the new Saudi economy, with a transformative impact on the region’s business and social environments.