Saudi Arabia has announced the construction of a luxury resort on the Red Sea where women will be allowed to wear bikinis instead of having to fully cover their bodies.
Experts believe the ambitious move initiated by the new heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is another attempt to modernize the oil-dependent economy.
Women face extreme restrictions under Saudi laws, including not being able to drive or travel without the permission of a male relative. Women are also expected to cover their bodies in public, making bikinis traditionally unacceptable.
But the government said that the resort will be “governed by laws on par with international standards.” The resort will cover 50 islands and is expected to attract tourists from across the globe amid relaxed visa restrictions.
“It goes without question that Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 is to … improve the relatively negative image of the kingdom in the world with regard to treating women,” said Massoud Maalouf, a former diplomat and an advocate of women rights in the Middle East and North Africa region.
He said by law foreign women are allowed to wear western clothing within their compounds, but they have to cover their whole body with an “abaya” — robe-like garment — in public. However, this law is not strictly implemented and foreign women can sometimes be seen in public with modest western dresses. Women, both foreign and Saudi-born, are not required to cover their faces, he said.
“Saudi Arabia, like the United States, has a spectrum of regional culture. The coastal cities tend to be more relaxed where as the central part of the country tends to be more conservative,” said Fatimah Baeshen, director of the Arabia Foundation in Washington, D.C. “So foreign and Saudi women dress across the spectrum, some wearing headscarves, others not wearing headscarves at all. Some covering their face while others choose not to.”
Baeshen, a Saudi national and socioeconomic strategist, thinks the resort will open the kingdom more to domestic, regional and international tourists. “Saudi Arabia already has a strong brand in religious tourism. This is a broader effort to diversify as well as augment its religious foot traffic to include leisure tourism as well,” Fatimah said.
Saudi Arabia faces immense criticism from women rights groups for imposing a strict dress code.
A young woman last month was arrested for wearing a short skirt and cropped top in a viral video. She was released without charge for the “suggestive clothing” after the incident caused an international stir, according to the Washington Post.
“This apartheid system is not fair. It’s a great insult to the women of Saudi Arabia that foreigners have greater rights than local citizens,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East & North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Whitson said she hopes the latest move is sign of more openness “but it has to be done correctly and Saudi women should be given complete rights.”
She said prior to the announcement Saudi women were only allowed to wear swimsuits inside segregated gymnasiums and women-only swimming pools or some close compounds but the resort would be the first open place to allow Saudi women to wear bikinis.
Maalouf believes rigid rules for women will not change quickly in Saudi Arabia.
“Nothing hints that rules for Saudi women will be relaxed in the near future. However, Prince Mohammed’s vision 2030 might, down the road, allow for more flexibility in women’s dress code,” he said. “With such rigid rules currently, it is hard to expect quick and radical changes to take place.”