Aisha Bint Abdullah

Aisha Bint Abdullah

Journalist

The Independent reporter shares the Riyadh way of life through her eyes

Melissa Twigg is a reporter for The Independent, one of Britain’s longest-established and outspoken newspapers. She is also young and sinlge. Two years ago, her status may have posed a few challenges working around the Kingdom’s stricter regulatory framework on women visiting the country. Today, in the context of the country’s laxer gender segregation laws and reforms on women’s rights, Twigg puts both to the test in her recent visit to Riyadh, on the occasion of the city’s first Arab Fashion Week.

In her report, aptly and simply titled “What it’s like to visit Saudi Arabia as a woman”, Twigg recounted how she was “moving freely around the city”, rarely, if ever, restricted from entering certain places because of her gender. She also found it “relatively easy” to adapt to wearing the Abaya – the traditional religious cloak worn by Saudi women and, according to a recent announcement by a top Saudi cleric, no longer compulsory in the Kingdom.

From one activity to the other, Twigg’s Riyadh experience was constantly pushing to answer one question: Could Saudi Arabia become an attractive touristic destination for women?

Twigg’s Abaya had not yet been delivered when she decided to walk down to the hotel lobby and head for breakfast, donning her “Western” clothes. Politely and almost apologetically, the male receptionist asked her to wait in her room until her Abaya arrived.

A new way of life

“But I could feel the slow move towards emancipation gently unfurling,” later writes Twigg in her report, lauding the radical changes made and led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in recent months; ones that she believes will ultimately reshape the Kingdom’s way of life for the better under the Saudi National Vision 2030. Twigg was particularly pleasantly surprised with the laxer approach to gender segregation in the country, and more importantly, equality, from “measures to get women driving, attending football matches and, most importantly, climbing the career ladder”.

The very occasion on which Twigg paid her Riyadh visit, the Arab Fashion Week, was unimaginable only two years ago in the Kingdom, she says. Now a palpable reality, the show has already attracted global fashion powerhouse names.

“Tourism is central to the government’s epic plans to diversify away from a dependence on oil,” says Twigg, noting that the Kingdom has already begun revising processes and conditions to ease visa regulations and encourage the influx of visitors and tourists from this summer onwards. “But despite all this change, can one of the most conservative societies on earth ever become a viable tourism destination, particularly for women?” she asks.

Life in Riyadh

Along the Riyadh streets, Twigg strode across one of the city’s most popular souks, relishing in the colorful setting and interactions she saw. “I felt privileged to get a glimpse into a world so few Westerners have seen – one that momentarily felt entirely untainted by outside influence,” she writes.

On the same day, Twigg headed to a ladies-only fashion bazaar. In the Kingdom, these bazaars are typically held at hotels or conference rooms, reserved for women from all ages. In a setting of complete privacy, women at the bazaar can remove their Abayas “in the safety of the female-only space to shop, eat sweets and drink perfumed coffee,” as Twigg describes it.

During her visit, she says that many women she met were vocally happy with the changes Saudi Arabia is undergoing, particularly on issues and reforms centering on their rights and state of affairs. Among them were a group of women in arts, and others who recently broke into fields that once posed high – or nearly impossible – barriers for women’s entry and growth.

Twigg was particularly struck by the female curators of the “imposing National Museum of Saudi Arabia”; she admired the museum’s “immaculately presented exhibits and detailed model recreations of Mecca” as much as she did the passion and knowledge the curators exhibited as they took foreign visitors through the history and heritage of Saudi Arabia in different languages.

Moving forward

And while she praised the many palpable, positive changes she saw in the Kingdom, Twigg did not shy away from situations that left her slightly “rattled”, as she puts it; such as wandering through central squares where beheadings still took place, and seeing the ongoing gender segregation measures in queues and public spaces such as airports and official offices.

Despite her reservations, Twigg considers the slow but sure move toward progress in the Kingdom a surefire success. “I was surprised by how much freedom I – a young, unmarried, female journalist – enjoyed,” she writes, and rarely, if at all, restricted from entering places because of her gender – with the exception of men-only hotel swimming pools and spas, naturally.

Twigg quickly adapted to the Abaya and, throughout the rest of her trip, did not feel the need to tailor her wardrobe to culturally sensitive outfits. Despite most of the functions she attended being reserved to women only, she also took part in gatherings where both men and women were discussing the future of their country, and the possible repercussions of the changes it was undergoing.

More than meets the eye

Twigg was equally impressed with the many touristic destinations and areas around the Kingdom that are worth visiting and exploring outside of the city of Riyadh. She mentions Jeddah as an example of a famously cosmopolitan and creative city compared with other areas in the Kingdom. “To the north of Riyadh is the Jubba Paleolithic Kingdom and Mada’in Saleh – Petra-like rose-gold archeological sites that rise out of the dusty sand and deserve far more attention than they currently receive,” she adds.

Of course, Twigg does not fail to mention the developments to come on the Saudi tourism front, with plans to open up Saudi coasts overlooking the Red Sea; by 2022, an international resort is slated for a full throttle launch on the northwest coastline. Saudi Arabia will “no doubt attract some international visitors keen to explore the coral reefs in relative solitude”, and remains “one of the more intrepid holiday destinations currently on the market”, concludes Twigg, pitting the Kingdom against other touristic destinations in the region such as Dubai and Jordan.

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