Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sun, sea and the opposite sex as Saudis slowly relax



Sun, sea and the opposite sex as Saudis slowly relax

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Beachgoers play at floating blow-up water park, at Pure Beach in King Abdullah Economic City, about 125km south of Jeddah’s city centre on the Red Sea. AFP

Sun, sea and the opposite sex as Saudis slowly relax

For Asma, spending a day on the beach with her boyfriend was unthinkable until recently in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia.

Now, the 32-year-old is dancing with her partner on white sands fringing the Red Sea, to music thumping from loudspeakers.

It’s a small reminder of the changes underway in the Islamic kingdom, which is attempting to ease some of its tight social strictures in a modernisation drive at the same time as a crackdown on dissent.

Music was banned in public places until 2017, a measure enforced by the religious police, and women were only allowed to drive a year later. Beaches are still usually segregated between men and women.

But for 300 Saudi riyals ($80) each, Asma and her boyfriend can enter Pure Beach near Jeddah, with its music, dancing and inflatable water park spelling “Saudi Arabia” in English when viewed from above.

“I am happy that I can now come to a nearby beach to enjoy my time,” she said, wearing a blue dress over her bathing suit.

“It is the epitome of fun . . . it was our dream to come here and spend a beautiful weekend.”

Beachgoers swim in the turquoise waters and women wear bikinis, some of them smoking shisha. As the sun sets, performers dance to Western music on a lit stage as a couple embraces nearby.

In many countries, these would not be unusual scenes but they are different for Saudi Arabia, which houses Islam’s holiest sites and espouses Wahhabism, a rigid form of the religion.

They are also not seen outside of the Jeddah area, which is known as the country’s most relaxed region. Pure Beach is at King Abdullah Economic City, about 125km north of Jeddah’s city centre.

“I was raised here, and a few years ago we weren’t even allowed to listen to music, so this is like heaven,” said Egyptian Hadeel Omar.

Phones confiscated

The country is experiencing change under the crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, who came to power in 2017.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
People attend a party in the Saudi Red Sea resort of Jeddah on September 17. AFP

But ‘MBS’ has also launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, detaining women’s rights activists, clerics and journalists. A US intelligence report accused him of approving the 2018 brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Gulf kingdom’s social reforms are spurred by a desire to diversify its oil-reliant economy, including by stimulating tourism and domestic spending.

Only business travellers and Muslim pilgrims could visit until 2019, when Saudi Arabia began offering tourist visas.

Bilal Saudi, head of events at King Abdullah Economic City, said the beach was targeting “both local visitors and [foreign] tourists”.

“I feel that I no longer have to travel [abroad] to have a good time . . . because everything is here,” said Dima, a young Saudi businesswoman, as she swayed to the music.

Staff at the beach said they did not know whether the couples were married or not. It was only two years ago that unmarried foreign couples were first allowed to share hotel rooms.

For the sake of “privacy”, as staff put it, mobile phones are confiscated and kept in plastic bags.

“I was surprised at the freedom and openness at the beach, something that would be experienced in the United States,” said beachgoer Mohammed Saleh.

One thing still missing, visitors said, was cocktails, with a nationwide ban on alcohol still in place.

“Life is normal [in Saudi Arabia],” said Asma, adding: “It wasn’t normal before.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Hun Sen: Stop Russia sanctions

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said sanctions against Russia as a result of its military offensive in Ukraine should be stopped as they have produced no tangible results, and predicted that a global food crisis would ensue in 2023 as a consequence. Speaking to an audience at

  • Chinese tourists 2.0 – Coming anytime soon?

    Regional tourism is grappling with the absence of the prolific travellers and big spenders – the Chinese tourists. Cambodia, which has welcomed over two million Chinese tourists before Covid-19, is reeling from the economic loss despite being the first to fully open last November ‘To put

  • PM reflects on shoe throwing: Free speech or act of violence?

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility. Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when

  • Siem Reap’s Angkor Botanical Garden opens

    The Angkor Botanical Garden was officially opened on May 19 with free entry for both local and international visitors for the first six weeks. The garden was established on a nearly 15ha plot of land in Siem Reap. “After the first six weeks, Angkor Botanical Garden

  • Pub Street on the cards for Battambang

    The Battambang Provincial Authority has announced that it is considering establishing a Pub Street in the area around the heritage buildings in Battambang town in a bid to attract more tourists. Battambang provincial governor Sok Lou told The Post that the establishment of a Pub

  • Hun Sen: Don’t react to hostility

    Prime Minister Hun Sen urged tolerance and thanked members of the Cambodian diaspora for not reacting to the hostility on display towards him by others while he was in the US to attend the May 12-13 ASEAN-US Special Summit in Washington, DC. In an audio