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

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • Cambodia purchases 4 million Molnupiravir tablets

    Cambodia has arranged for the purchase of four million US-made Molnupiravir pills – enough to treat 100,000 Covid-19 patients – even though the current rate of daily infections in Cambodia remains low. The medicine will be distributed to state hospitals, pharmacies and private clinics, according to the Samdech

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • Is Cambodia’s travel sector in for another cheerless holiday season?

    The travel and tourism sector was heaving back to life as borders started to reopen, promising a festive vibe for the holidays and New Year. But Omicron and other Covid-related issues are threatening to close the year on a bleak note ‘Seems [like] Covid-19 won’

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration

  • Cambodia planning new border checkpoint at Thma Da

    Cambodia is looking into the possibility of opening a new Thma Da Border Checkpoint with Thailand to boost trade and tourism. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport said on December 4 that Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol led a technical working group