Economic necessity is forcing hardline clerics and conservative society in Saudi Arabia to accept the idea of women in the workplace, a government official said in an interview this weekend.

Faisal bin Muammar, head of a body promoting “national dialogue,” said high unemployment among Saudis and the reliance upon seven-million foreign workers was forcing the hand of opponents to women working in the desert country of 24-million people.

The debate — as demonstrated at a major forum last month of clerics, ministers and businesswomen — has now moved to whether women can work in the same office space as men, or if firms must provide segregated areas to allow women to work.

“Most agreed to open a wide arena for women to get jobs, since girls now graduate more than boys from universities. We cannot go on having seven-million foreigners and our graduate women in their houses,” bin Muammar told Reuters.

“But how to establish it (is the issue), whether it is in separate or mixed places … We need to make rules for it, which clerics, families and social leaders need.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world, where social values and a powerful clerical establishment impose male guardians on women, segregate them from unrelated men in public areas and ban them from driving.

Liberal reformers in government, such as Labour Minister Ghazi Algosaibi, have sounded alarm bells about living with unemployment, which is officially estimated at 12 per cent and much higher for women, while millions of foreign workers could one day demand national rights.