“In Saudi Arabia, you need a man”

Female engineers on a Spanish-led subway project in Riyadh reveal what life is like for them

Muslim women pray outside the Great Mosque in Mecca in 2009.
Muslim women pray outside the Great Mosque in Mecca in 2009.Mahmud Hams / AFP

“In this country, you need a man,” explains Vega Gutiérrez, one of the Spanish engineers working on the construction of a subway system in Riyadh.

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive and they cannot study, travel or undergo medical procedures without permission from their male guardian. They must also conceal their bodies under black tunics called abayas.

But neither these restrictions nor the desert kingdom’s poor image have managed to hold back a group of pioneering women who now face a major professional challenge. FCC is at the helm of the FAST consortium, which is building lines 4, 5 and 6 of the 176-kilometer-long network, the company explains on its website. FCC’s main consortium partners are Korean multinational Samsung and French power and rail company Alstom.

They painted such a dire picture before coming, that once you’re here it doesn’t look so bad”

Sandra Yagüez, topographer

Gutiérrez talks about the problems of getting around, which include not being able to take the car to visit other project sites, buy the weekly groceries, or simply go to a restaurant.

A native of Salamanca , this engineer is in charge of the contract for line 5, and has been in Riyadh for 15 months.

Gutiérrez admits that she is fortunate because her husband is working on the same project, and that gives her some degree of independence outside the workplace. But others are not so lucky.

“The driver has become my shadow,” says Berta Tapia, head of the topography department on the same line. Her husband and children stayed behind in Barcelona. “It’s not just a problem with getting around. If you don’t have a husband with you, you cannot socialize with other men or colleagues,” she notes.

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The hurdles can be subtle, and difficult to deal with for women who are used to leading entire teams of people.

Male work colleagues who are natives of Saudi Arabia, for instance, have trouble addressing them directly, and when they do, they never look them in the eye.

“They are not used to it because they don’t do it here, but little by little they are getting accustomed to it,” says Almudena Álvarez, an engineer in charge of the design department. “You learn not to do things such as hold out your hand, unless they do it first. In their mindset we do not exist, so they are learning.”

The issue goes beyond the anecdotal, and affects the way work is organized. “You don’t have the freedom you do in other countries to call a meeting, for instance, so you get around it by using a male colleague,” admits Gutiérrez. “You have to adopt a different attitude. Something that would be considered the end of the world in Madrid... if it happens here, I just try to remember where I am.”

If you don’t have a husband with you, you cannot socialize with other men or colleagues”

Berta Tapia, head of the topography department

Not that it came as a surprise. These women knew they were coming to the most conservative and misogynist country in the Middle East. They knew conditions would be tough, but the professional challenge was too much to pass by. It is a very ambitious project, and right now there are not a whole lot of public construction projects going on in Spain, they all agree.

It is more complicated to issue orders or to chide someone for a poorly done job. “There is a cultural side,” admits Álvarez. A native of Vigo who has been here for 10 months after a project in Panama, she says she soon realized that criticism needed to be voiced more delicately than she was used to doing.

“We Spaniards are very direct, and that is often taken the wrong way...” she explains.

In any case, all interviewees agree that because they are Westerners, the Saudis do not worry too much about what they do, as long as they are covered up and act discreetly. “They are more surprised at us than anything else,” says Vega.

In Saudi Arabia, women cannot even study engineering. A few brave ones have traveled abroad to do so, but now either work for national oil company Aramco or perform clerical duties elsewhere. The first school of architecture at a women’s university only opened in 2005.

This tendency toward absolute segregation has created opportunities for foreign women. That is the case with Sandra Yagüez, a young topographer at another engineering firm that is restoring and expanding a college campus.

“During the guarantee period for the project, women users will not be able to communicate with the men carrying it out, so I will be in charge of that,” she explains.

“It is a contradiction: they don’t let women in, yet they need them,” says Yagüez, who was forced to marry her boyfriend if she wanted to live with him in Riyadh.

She has her own separate office at the construction site, and at first some of her male colleagues would step out of the way if their paths crossed. “I work in the shadows,” she confesses.

Yet Yagüez remains upbeat. “They painted such a dire picture before coming, that once you’re here it doesn’t look so bad.”

Her colleagues at FCC have reached a similar conclusion. “In the end, wearing the abaya is the least of it; it’s like a uniform,” says Álvarez.