Cafes, diners and restaurants in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are set to be taken down in conjunction with a new law prohibiting the previously obligatory public segregation of men and women.
As part of the reforms enforced by King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, women will no longer be required to enter public dining areas through separate doors. Instead, gender segregation would now be an issue of choice made by the customers and owners themselves.
"It's optional," the Saudi news agency Arab News quoted the General Manager of Public Relations and Media at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs Naif Al-Otaibi as saying. "We did not specify the number of entry points, so the investor is free to have multiple entry points and segregate (males from females) in their restaurant."
One organisation that has sincerely welcomed the reform is the AlShaya Group which operates chains such as Starbucks and the Cheesecake Factory within the kingdom, stating that it is aiming to end the gender segregation in the stores that it operates, including those which were opened before the rule was established.
As the organisation told the news agency: "We at Alshaya are planning to transform the old stores' designs following the new desegregation law, but that will take place over the course of the next two years."
According to an employee at a Starbucks outlet with segregation infrastructure, contractors have been making visits to plan remodelling and reconstruction work within the chains, with the aim of removing the wall that separates the male section from the families' section as well as removing related signs.
While there are many who are pleased with the new law and reform, there are also many who are uncomfortable with it.
A 35-year-old father of four named Al-Amin Mahmoud, for example, recalled his experience when not being able to take his family to certain restaurants due to their lack of a separate family section. "I respect that decision, but I did not feel comfortable. I knew that the decision had been implemented. However, for me, having grown up in a conservative family and society, it does not suit me."
This new law comes over a month after gender segregated signs were banned at the entrances to restaurants, and is part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's recent social reforms that he has enforced as part of the "modernisation" of the kingdom and the opening up of the country to foreign investment and tourists visiting for purposes other than pilgrimage and religious reasons.
Amongst the laws that have been enforced are those such as foreign unmarried couples being able to stay in hotel rooms together, free-mixing in public areas now being allowed, the abaya no longer having to be worn, and the increase in concerts and entertainment events throughout the kingdom. The move has upset many among its conservative society and the scholarly class, with arrests of critics – even scholars – being carried out by authorities for speaking up.