Four Saudi Arabian women graduate Palmerston North air traffic control course

For 11 years, students from Saudi Arabia have travelled to Palmerston North to train as air traffic controllers and this year, for the very first time, women were among the graduating class.

They're part of a growing number of women finally joining the workforce in their home country.

Deema Seddiq is one of them. Her career is taking off, something she didn't think was possible three years ago.

"I can not study in Saudi Arabia for females, so when I saw this scholarship I was like oh that's my dream job."

Her class has just graduated, of 34 students, four are women.

"It was the first time for me working with boys," Seddiq reveals, "usually in Saudi Arabia classes are separated."

Traditionally, women haven't been allowed to work outside the home in Saudi Arabia.

It wasn't until 2018 they were allowed a drivers' licence.

But as the country's dependence on its oil industry shifts, women are finally being encouraged into the workforce.

Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to New Zealand Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani says women "now have more power, more opportunities to participate in sports, academics, in businesses in all sectors in Saudi Arabia."

It's hoped opportunities like this will empower others into professional careers.

Air traffic control instructor Bill Johnstone says the four graduating women are trailblazers.

"They are going to be forerunners, and the pathfinders and the leaders in forwarding the cause of women advancement in the kingdom." 

Almost 200 students from Saudi Arabia have been trained using Palmerston North's simulator. It's a critical part of their qualification, providing a realistic scenario of what they'll face on the job. 

The programme has been paused, partly due to COVID-19. But for Deema, she'll soon be in a real control tower.