Saudi young woman Asma can now spend the weekend with her boyfriend at a beach on the Red Sea coast in Jeddah, and even dance with him to the tunes of music at a night party on the sand that provides a “fun” time for the goers.
“I am glad that I can come to a nearby beach and enjoy my time with various games and activities,” the 32-year-old told AFP, who wore a blue shirt over her wet swimsuit.
Asma, who has dyed part of her hair yellow, said the experience provides “the ultimate in fun…a dream that we come here for a beautiful weekend” in the city that she knows is the most open in the country.
Since Mohammed bin Salman, son of Saudi King Salman, became crown prince in 2017, the wealthy kingdom has undergone radical economic, social and religious reforms.
Women were allowed to drive, music concerts were allowed, and the ban on mixing between men and women was ended. The powers of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were reduced and the Mutawwa’in disappeared from the streets.
But these changes were also accompanied by a crackdown on critics, journalists, and opponents, especially human rights activists.
The “Pure Beach” beach in King Abdullah Economic City (about 125 km south of Jeddah in the west of the country), which opened last August, provides a new and only experience in the kingdom, which has been known for decades to be very conservative.
By day, patrons use the beach with unrestricted turquoise water and white sand, with women allowed to wear bikinis, smoke shisha, and have pets.
After sunset, Western music blares loudly from a stage set in the sand. In front of the stage, two lovers were dancing quietly, not caring about those dancing around them, among them a young man dancing topless, and another dancing in a short blue dress.
Beach officials are not sure of the existence of a marriage relationship between every couple of the visitors, but they confiscate mobile phones and put them in plastic stockings to preserve the “privacy” of the visitors of the place, according to an official at the place.
Asma stressed that “life has become normal” in Saudi Arabia because “it was not like that before.”
For years, women had their own beaches only or others where mixing was allowed, but it was the preserve of foreigners, not Saudis. For decades, Saudis have traveled to regional destinations or other parts of the world for entertainment more freely.
“I was surprised that there is freedom and openness and a public beach open to everyone, which provided me with a comfort similar to that in the United States,” said engineer Mohammed Saleh, who returned to the kingdom after a 10-year absence to study and work.
“I did not imagine that I would participate in a night party on the beach in Saudi Arabia,” said the young man, who enthusiastically came with a group of his friends.
The beach, which costs about 300 riyals ($80) to enter, includes inflatable water games that bear the name of Saudi Arabia in English, and a number of pioneers set out to enjoy them.
30 million tourists?
Saudi Arabia, which has 35 million people and has been closed for a long time, began in 2019 issuing immediate tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries, mostly European, after the bulk of the visas were limited to work, Hajj and Umrah.
The Kingdom seeks to attract 30 million tourists annually by 2030 and to push its citizens to spend on entertainment in their country.
Bilal Saudi, who is in charge of events in the city, said the beach “targets local visitors in addition to attracting tourists” from outside the kingdom.
As dancing blue and yellow lights illuminate the darkness of the beach behind her, young Saudi businesswoman Dima, who wore a see-through shirt over her beachwear, said, “I feel like I no longer have to go abroad to have a special time…because everything is here.”
The place does not serve alcoholic drinks due to the fact that it is prohibited in the Kingdom, which a number of visitors considered lacking in the place.
“I grew up here and a few years ago we weren’t allowed to listen to music and come to the beach…so it’s heaven for us. I really can’t describe how I feel,” Egyptian Hadeel Omar said in English.