Coronavirus frustrates Saudi women's push for financial independence

After spending eight years trying to find a job that would put her chemistry degree to use in Saudi Arabia, Abeer al-Howayan was chosen for a government training programme.

The scheme was to support a $20 billion tourism project in the kingdom's northwestern region.

The 31-year-old learned how to make artisanal soap from French experts flown in by Saudi authorities.

She sells her creations locally as well as online.

"Mine and my partner's ambition", she says, "is to have an international brand with our products."

But now Howayan's future is uncertain once again.

The global health crisis has hammered Saudi Arabia's non-religious tourism industry.

It's among the few new sectors to have emerged under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's drive to diversify the economy.

Women in the U. S. and Europe have taken an outsized hit from the recent wave of unemployment.

But for women in Saudi Arabia the downturn is particularly damaging.

It struck just as their efforts to enter the workforce and gain greater financial independence were gaining traction.

Women make up about 83% of the one million Saudis out of work.

And they are an educated group.

70% of those women have high school diplomas or university degrees.

And many were counting on the new sectors such as tourism to provide their entry to the workforce.

The crown prince has pledged to tackle unemployment.

His task has become even tougher, with austerity measures squeezing the finances of the private sector.

Oil wealth is shared across the kingdom in exchange for popular submission to absolute monarchical rule.

Some say there could be social discontent if jobs don't materialise.