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Hanging out at the
mall, Saudi style

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Hanging out at the mall, Saudi style
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LEFT: Shopping in Saudi Arabia offers a glimpse of the strict cultural codes that govern the entire society. Here, a Saudi woman passes mannequins in the Kindom Center in Riyadh that are legal because they have no heads. RIGHT: Because Saudi men and women are only permitted to work together in hospitals, all the sales people in Kingdom Center's mixed floors are male foreign workers, such as this man helping two Saudi women who are shopping for a watch.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2002


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In many ways, it resembles any upscale U.S. mall. You can get boots by Bally, diamonds from Tiffany, handbags by Coach and Polo shirts from Ralph Lauren.

But look around more closely and things in the Kingdom Center start to seem a bit strange.

At the Rotana Music Factory, Celine Dion no longer wears just a sleeveless dress on the cover of her latest compact disc. Now she's wrapped in a black shawl that a censor drew in.

At McDonald's, women order from one side of a divided counter and disappear with their Value Meals into the walled-off "family section." Men order on the other side of the counter and sit in plain view of everyone.

At Miss Selfridge, a trendy British retailer catering to young women, there isn't a single fitting room. For that matter, there are no female salespeople, either -- only men.

But forget about going to the third level if you're a man. The elevator is marked "Ladies Only."

Saudi Arabia is a conservative Islamic country with no movie theaters, bars or discos. For that reason, Saudis tend to spend a lot of time hanging out at the mall. But for all their Western-style glitz, malls also reflect Saudi culture, which mandates that women be covered -- even on CDs -- and that the sexes remain largely segregated.

"It causes a lot of logistical problems," says Walter Kleinschmit, general manager of the Kingdom Center, Riyadh's newest mall.

When female executives from U.S.-based Saks Fifth Avenue come to visit their store, they have to take taxis because women are not allowed to drive here. Kleinschmit never offers to drive them himself -- men and women who socialize but are not related can be arrested by the mutaween, the Saudi religious police.

Nor are Saudi men and women permitted to work together anywhere but hospitals. So on the mall's "mixed floors" -- those accessible to both men and women -- all the salespeople are male foreign guest workers, even those selling cosmetics and bras.

As for places to try on clothes, "there's this whole paranoia about women hiding with men in the fitting rooms," Kleinschmit says. Instead, women have to put down a deposit and take garments to the women's restrooms.

Now the Kingdom Center is trying to turn gender-segregation into a commercial advantage: It is the first mall in Saudi Arabia to devote an entire floor to women.

In the Ladies Kingdom, reachable by the Ladies Only elevator, there are boutiques, restaurants, a bank, beauty salon and other stores accessible only to women. All security guards and salespeople are females, dressed in Western-style clothing. Customers can check their abayas -- long black robes -- in the Abaya Cloak Room and wander around in jeans and Spandex tops.

The closest a man can get is the steep driveway outside, where he can drop off female kin. But an opaque glass wall blocks the view inside.

The Ladies Kingdom is the brainchild of Prince Waleed Bin Talal, the mall's owner and one of the world's richest men. (The prince gained notoriety last fall when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused to take his $10-million check after Waleed, while condemning the Sept. 11 attacks, also criticized Israel's treatment of Palestinians.)

With an ever-growing number of malls and high-end stores in Saudi Arabia, the prince figured that a women-only floor would provide a competitive edge.

"It was a risky situation but one we felt we could not afford not to take," Kleinschmit says. "It was the only way to bring in the required level of customer."

Open since October, the Ladies Kingdom is doing "better than average" overall, he says. The typical customer is 18 to 26, upper middle class and extremely fashion conscious. Yet many women continue to wear their abayas, veils and head scarves, looking like flocks of blackbirds moving among the glitter.

"We live with it. We're used to it," says Nada Al Ateegi, 33, the British-educated manager of the Ladies Kingdom. "When I travel, I take (the abaya) off, and when I'm here, I respect our culture. When I was 18, I used to cry when my mother asked me to cover myself. Now I'm 32 and I can understand the culture here and live with it."

Like a surprising number of women, too, Al Ateegi says she doesn't mind not being allowed to drive. The traffic in Riyadh is bad, taxis are relatively cheap and "we like to have our drivers and fancy cars," she says.

But Al Ateegi knows how to handle herself behind the wheel. On vacation in Florida once, she found it so expensive to hire a car and driver that she decided to get a license.

"It's not necessary for my daily life, but I know it's very necessary to have a driver's license in case of emergency."

Al Ateegi sees women's lives changing for the better in Saudi Arabia, albeit slowly. The Ladies Kingdom has given several women the chance to start their own businesses, including an artist who has a small gallery and a 22-year-old who owns a gift-wrap shop. Women entrepreneurs will be able to rent office space in a soon-to-open business center.

"I can see the change year after year," Al Ateegi says. "Having a place like this is a big change."

Yet there are constant reminders that this is one of the most conservative, some say repressive, societies in the world.

Kleinschmit may run the entire mall, but the only time he can visit the Ladies Kingdom is when it is closed -- either after midnight or on Friday mornings, the Muslim holy day.

And the mutaween are still on the prowl, ready to swoop down on people like the unfortunate male executive who dared dine with two women in the mall's Planet Hollywood restaurant. He was detained for several hours and had much explaining to do before the religious police finally let him go.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.