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How Falling Oil Prices Helped Spark A Revolution Of "Accidental Entrepreneurs"

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Photo: Courtesy of Noura Mohammed Ismael.
Noura Mohammed Ismael at work in her studio. She launched her own business repurposing vintage items into new creations last year.
Noura Mohammed Ismael calls herself the Saudi Tomb Raider.

About a year ago, the 30-year-old asked her husband for an electric Bosch drill as a birthday present. She remembers how he told her to enjoy her gift, but warned, "For the love of God, don’t mess with the electricity and break the apartment!"

Drill in hand, Ismael watched YouTube tutorials and gradually learned to transform vintage items from flea markets and antique shops into new things altogether, bringing a second life to an odd assortment of hand-me-downs. An old Polaroid camera became a toilet-paper holder, and a stack of Saudi license plates now forms a cute clutch.

Soon, friends and neighbours began giving Ismael their castoffs in hopes that she would make them into something new, and her hobby became a business. The petite craftswoman has burn marks from working with electricity and drills — not the typical look for a Saudi millennial. "I’m all bruised up!" she proudly announces.

Rummaging through flea markets and other people's antiques was hardly what Ismael envisioned her job would be when she was earning a B.A. in graphic design from Dar Al-Hekma University for women in Jeddah, followed by a postgraduate degree from the University of Edinburgh in 2012. But good jobs in graphic design proved hard to find.

We weren’t meant to become just stay-at-home moms — I’m sorry. We are more than that. We are superwomen.

Narjis Ajabnoor, chef
"After trying everything and going to conferences and meeting people, I lost hope," she tells Refinery29. To add to the stress, Ismael's husband's job took the couple to the opposite side of Saudi Arabia, from Jeddah to Dhahran. “I had to sacrifice my family and social life and my [previous] job,” says Ismael, who was then working as a corporate social-responsibility supervisor.

But then, she realised: Everything she needed for a rewarding career was right under her nose.

"I was fixing something at home, and it inspired me to ‘pimp the antiques’ and turn them into something retro. I started a new tiny business called RetroFit, selling items on social media. I got the name from the dictionary; it refers to the addition of new features to an older system. My market is so niche; it’s weird for a girl. Everything here [in Saudi] is in the food business or retail,” she says. Prices of her homemade creations range from U.S. £16 to £400.

“I know it’s crazy, but I love doing it!” she says.

With the price of oil, Saudi Arabia's main export and economic lifeline, dwindling at a 14-year low, it is no surprise that Saudi women are looking for alternative ways to earn a living. So-called “accidental entrepreneurs,” like Ismael, have had to come up with creative new ways to pay the bills.

This was also the case for Norah Almesned, a millennial who last March launched a hybrid artificial flower-decorating business in the nation's Eastern Province. Always a keen decorator, she says she was inspired by a childhood spent in Italy. She named her company RosaBella: rosa meaning rose and bella meaning beautiful.
After earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, Almesned decided to look for a job at a major international company, reckoning she needed experience and contacts to eventually see her flower business into full bloom.

“To be honest, I always dreamed of running my own business since college, but I needed the experience first,” she tells Refinery29. After graduation, she worked in human resources, then in finance in the petroleum industry, all in hopes of expanding her skills so she could leave her job and work on her own.

Private businesses in Saudi with no ties to the government had started to boom, and women were starting to participate in what are called HBB, or home-based businesses, ones that are run from entrepreneurs' homes. Almesned wanted in.

Almesned hopes to earn enough to open a shop for her floral arrangements and leave her day job. For now, the venture exists only online. Her aim is to expand the business to natural flowers with a delivery option — a service that isn’t yet available in the country.
On the other side of the country, a bowl of chicken, asparagus, and pesto capellini changed Narjis Ajabnoor’s life. The 20-year-old from Jeddah was out to lunch with her cousin at a restaurant. While digging into her favourite dish, made with “pesto sauce with sun-dried tomatoes and smooth goat cheese, all together hugging the pasta,” as she describes it, she spotted a fully veiled woman in the kitchen.

Intrigued by the sight of a woman working in what is traditionally an all-male environment in Saudi Arabia, Ajabnoor spontaneously asked the waiter if they were hiring. Moments later, the restaurant manager approached her. They talked, and she was hired.

Now, eight months later, the sophomore at King Abdulaziz University, where she studies administrative science, is happily working as a cook, alongside 23 other women. Dressed in knee-length uniforms, white hijabs and black baggy pants, the women prep the food or set the tables. The restaurant is divided into segregated shifts, one for men and another for women, to satisfy Saudi labor laws that limit the mingling of the sexes. The women begin the day at 6 a.m. and leave around noon, when the men come in.
"Most women love cooking, so why not make a living out of it?" Ajabnoor says. "Saudi women are taking their own responsibilities into their own hands by making money and being more independent. It is a revolution to women here. We are seeing flowers grow, so we continue to water them 'til they reach perfection. We are finally being noticed."

Not everyone is finding greener pastures in the nation Saudis refer to as the Kingdom, however. Some citizens have gone abroad to study and realized that job prospects in the country were so slim, they didn't even bother trying to find a job there.

“I love K.S.A.,” 27-year-old Yasmeen, who did not want to use her last name, tells Refinery29, referring to the Kingdom’s initials. But she no longer lives there. “My choice not to stay was strictly because of family restrictions. When I left, I was 19 and had just finished high school. I didn't know what to do with my life. As per my education, I started in interior design but ended up becoming an architect. I worked at a Saudi embassy [abroad] during college, and was so grateful for their support. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have managed.”
For cultural reasons, women have long been limited to jobs based in the home or to specific professions — such as teaching at all-girls schools or working as nurses. But that has started to change.

And not everyone attributes all the new businesses to falling oil prices. "The last five years has shown tremendous growth in Saudi entrepreneurship, but it is not because of the recent oil-price drop," says Ahmad Helal, an expert on the Saudi-entrepreneurship ecosystem.

"The interest from Saudis looking to start their own businesses might be attributed to the surge in women studying at universities outside of the Kingdom — and just cultural acceptance. Saudi women have made huge strides by going into professions that extend beyond health care and education, which was the traditional route," adds Helal.
As more and more "accidental entrepreneurs" like Ismael, Almesned, and Ajabnoor are starting their own businesses, a new sector of the Saudi economy has opened. Women are using their resources to make it work wherever they are. Meanwhile, steady employment has empowered Saudi women in immeasurable ways.

"My business added so much to me. It made me stronger and more independent. It takes me into Wonderland each time I decorate a vase,” says Almesned.

Ajabnoor agrees: "Hey, we weren’t meant to become just stay-at-home moms — I’m sorry. We are more than that. We are superwomen."
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