MUSCAT—In almost every town in Oman, labor recruitment centers supply foreign workers for construction projects, retail positions and other jobs.
The expatriate workers are a crucial part of the Omani economy. But they also might be the biggest obstacle to young female graduates of the new universities the Omani government endorsed to boost female participation in the workforce.
Expatriate laborers—often from Bangladesh, India and other South Asian countries—make up nearly 40 percent of Oman’s population of 3.3-million and a quarter of its workers, according to Oman’s Ministry of Manpower. Last year, the International Labor Organization found that foreigners comprise nearly a third of the professional and semi-skilled workers in the county.
The 40,000 young women now studying in higher-education programs in Oman—around half of the students in the country—will compete against those foreigners.
The outlook for Jawad, an ambitious 20-year-old business student at A’Sharqiyah University, illustrates the pressures that are likely to mount in the coming years as the two groups vie for the same jobs.
Jawad is scheduled to graduate in 2019 after completing her English proficiency course and her undergraduate coursework. She will be among the early waves of female students to earn a diploma from A’Sharqiyah, an institution founded in 2009 around 100 miles south of the capital, Muscat, as part of the government’s policy of expanding education for women.
In line with Omani officials’ goals, she’s already thinking entrepreneurially, a remarkable achievement in a conservative Muslim country where women’s participation in the workforce was uncommon in the past.
“In the future, I want to open a shop that sells clothes,” she said. “So I think a business degree will help me understand how to run the business.”
If her parents have sufficient capital, Jawad might be able to open her own store. However, would-be entrepreneurs such as Jawad would do well to work in someone else’s shop as a manager first in order to learn the retail business, said Jamal Salah, a mathematics professor at A’Sharqiyah.
“Generally, students here are prepared to enter the workforce after graduation,” said Salah. “But the company will have to spend some time preparing them.”
Here’s the rub: Indians traditionally fill middle-manager positions in Omani retail shops. What’s more, it won’t be easy for Jawad to break into their ranks, largely because Omani labor rules indirectly encourage businesses to hire foreigners.
Under Omani law, employers have to pay citizens a minimum wage of 325 OMR ($844) a month. No such minimum applies to foreign workers. A Bangladeshi camel herder in Oman might earn around 50 OMR ($155) per month, for example, recent reports said.
In a bid to help new graduates like Jawad, Oman’s Ministry of Manpower has set goals for Omani participation in the private sector. Those goals range from having 15 percent of construction jobs and 60 percent of employees at high-tech firms going to Omani citizens.
None of those jobs have been explicitly set aside for women.
But, in the public sector, officials have made a point of hiring women: They make up around 31 percent of public workers, according to the Ministry of Manpower. In the private sector, only 18 percent of workers are female.
The odds for women are daunting, but there’s been progress.
In 2003, the private sector employed around 13,000 women. By 2012, that number had increased to more than 35,000, according to UNESCO.
Ali Mansouri, who oversees Omani government programs to promote female students at A’Sharqiyah, said he and his colleagues are trying to expand that trend.
“We help them find jobs after they graduate—that is part of the task of the university,” said Mansouri. “We actively aid students in finding jobs. There is a database [of job openings] at the Ministry of Manpower. We direct the graduates to the appropriate department to find a job when they leave the university.”
The system might not be perfect, he added, but it’s a giant leap forward compared to the recent past.
“We have to remember where this country was in the past and where it is now,” said Mansouri. “Not that many years ago hardly any women in Oman had a college education or a job. Now, every day girls come to this university and we give them an opportunity to get an education and the chance for a good job in the future.”