Saudi Arabian Airlines will start recruiting local female cabin crew for the first time in its more than 76 year history as the Gulf State starts to embrace a more moderate version of Islam under the leadership of the reformist Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The airline, which is sometimes simply known as Saudia, has long employed male locals as cabin crew who would oversee young female expat flight attendants who are predominantly from the Philippines, Thailand and Eastern Europe.
But this will be the first time that Saudi-born women can become a flight attendant with the national flag carrier following social reforms that have given women extensive new freedoms.
In 2018, Saudi women were finally allowed to drive cars and leave home without a male relative chaperone. Strict dress codes have been eased, and while women are still expected to dress modestly, it’s no longer necessary to wear an abaya outside the home.
At the same time, there’s been a push to get more Saudis into private employment – including women. Workplaces are no longer segregated by male and female-only areas, and women no longer have to enter restaurants and cafes through separate entrances.
Social reforms embraced by the Crown Prince came at a price for activists, however, who fought for the right to drive, to leave home alone and to work in a greater variety of jobs. Dozens of female activists were detained by Saudi authorities even after the rules started to be eased.
Many of these activists have now been released from prison but live under the threat of being arbitrarily detained at a moment’s notice.
Private Saudi airline flynas has allowed local women to become flight attendants since early 2020 but the pandemic delayed reforms at Saudia, although the changes have finally been pushed through.
There are, though, still significant hurdles for local women to overcome.
Positions are only open to women aged between 20 and 30 years old. And women may face fierce opposition from family members who might be unhappy with them interacting with so many male strangers.
The role of a flight attendant isn’t always highly regarded amongst local people across the Gulf region.