Is architecture a returning profession among women in Saudi Arabia?

“I’m an architect – I don’t believe gender is relevant,” said Sumaya Dabbagh, principal of Dabbagh Architects. “However, when you come from Saudi Arabia, where, during the mid-1980s, women were banned from studying architecture, gender, as an architect, becomes relevant.”

These comments came during a meeting with Dabbagh for this month’s cover story (pg 34). While the feature looks into the Saudi architect’s life and work, it was interesting to note the dynamics of architecture and gender in her home country.

Architectural education in Saudi Arabia has been provided at the country’s main universities, including King Saud University in Riyadh, King Faisal University in Dammam and King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, since the 1960s and 70s, but around 1983, women were prevented from studying the field and instead, were encouraged to study interior design as an alternative – in fact, King Faisal University established the interior design department for females in 1882, nearly 10 years before the interior design department for men was established. According to Dabbagh, the policy created a generational gap among female architects in Saudi Arabia. “I only know of one other,” she said.

While Dabbagh is en route to becoming a renowned regional architect – especially following her award-winning design for Sharjah’s Mleiha Archaeological Centre – Nadia Bakhurji, founder of Riwaq of the Kingdom (ROK), stands as another example of a recognised Saudi architect. Having received her degree in interior architecture in the 1980s, Bakhurji managed to establish herself due to hard work, perseverance and a professional partnership with prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.

Despite the country’s ban on women studying architecture, it has commissioned work by famous female architects including Zaha Hadid, whose practice delivered the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center and the King Abdullah Metro Station.

With the ban lifted nine years ago, recent graduates have only just started entering the workforce. Will it become a popular profession among Saudi women? Only time will tell.

“If I can encourage more to go into the profession or show them that women can become successful architects and add value to their cities and communities,” said Dabbagh, “then I am privileged to be a good role model.”

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