Saudi Labour Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani addresses the audience during the Euromoney Saudi Arabia conference in the capital Riyadh on May 3, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
Saudi Arabia's labour minister is dissatisfied with the level of female employment in the conservative kingdom but their not being allowed to drive is not to blame, he said Tuesday.
Female Saudi unemployment rose last year to almost 34 percent while the overall jobless rate for Saudis fell to 11.5 percent, according to official figures cited by Jadwa Investment, a local securities firm.
"We tried (during) the last four years to increase the female participation in the labour market," Labour Minister Mufarrej Al-Haqbani told reporters.
But still, "I am not satisfied at all" with their employment rate, he said.
The kingdom's ambitious Vision 2030 plan, released last week to diversify the economy away from oil, calls for increased female participation in the workforce and a lowering of overall unemployment to seven percent.
More and more job sectors have opened to women, whose workforce participation -- though still relatively low -- has risen over the past few years.
But the kingdom has some of the world's toughest restrictions on females and is the only country where they are not allowed to get behind the wheel.
With limited public transport, women must rely on relatives to transport them, or pay a driver if they can afford one.
While Saudi women "are highly qualified" and "ready to work", the work environment "is not yet that good for them" but will improve, Haqbani said on the sidelines of the Euromoney Saudi Arabia Conference.
Asked whether allowing women to drive could help female employment, he said: "I don't think this is the reason for their participation" or not.
The issue in all cases is not one for the labour ministry.
"What I care about is the labour, work environment" which the ministry is trying to improve, he said.
A new initiative called "telework" allows women in isolated regions to work remotely in major cities, Haqbani said, without clarifying how this is achieved.
Women's participation in the industrial sector is also rising, he said.
"So we are trying to provide them with a good environment and less costly tools to encourage them to participate."