Tearing down the wall: Saudi restaurants adjust to the abolition of gender segregation

Segregation boards, such as this one pictured in a McDonald’s restaurant in Riyadh in 2004, are no longer required under Saudi law. (AFP)
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Updated 28 January 2020

Tearing down the wall: Saudi restaurants adjust to the abolition of gender segregation

  • New law urges restaurants to remove segregation in entrance and separate seating arrangements
  • Many restaurants have already begun to implement the law, but others stubbornly refuse

RIYADH: Saudi diners are still chewing over the Kingdom’s move to end the long-standing legal requirement for restaurants to have separate entrances for males and families.

As a result of reforms — involving 103 rules and regulations, manuals, models, and standards aimed at making life easier for citizens and visitors — men and women no longer have to enter restaurants through separate doors.

Naif Al-Otaibi, general manager of public relations and media at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, said gender-segregation was now a matter of choice.

“It’s optional. 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,” he told Arab News.

Many restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia, including American coffee chain Starbucks, typically have separate sections for families (women on their own or accompanied by men) and males.

The AlShaya Group, operator of Starbucks, The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s among others, has said it will end gender segregation in stores and eateries that were opened before the new rule came into effect.

“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,” the company told Arab News.

An employee at one of Starbucks’ gender-segregated outlets said maintenance contractors had recently conducted an inspection of the site with a view to commencing remodeling work. “They will take out the wall that separates the male area from the families section,” the staff member told Arab News.

“They will also remove the signs at the entry points that say, ‘families’ and ‘males’ and merge the two separate sections.”

Just a few years ago all of this was unthinkable in a very different Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom had a strict policy of not allowing women to dine in a restaurant without a mahram (male guardian). They would be turned away if they did not comply with the rule.

Recalling an incident that happened 20 years ago, “D.K.,” a 37-year-old Saudi woman who wished to remain anonymous, said she found herself inside one of the white vehicles belonging to the religious police whose official job description was the “prevention of vice and promotion of virtue.”

She had been dining with her friends at a McDonald’s restaurant without a mahram.

But D.K. is amazed by the changes that have taken place since, and said the ending of gender segregation in restaurants was a huge step forward for the Kingdom.

She praised King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for advancing women’s empowerment by increasing their employment opportunities, enhancing the quality of their social life and expanding their personal freedoms.

While these steps might seem unimpressive to the average person in the West, cumulatively they were opening up the Kingdom in a big way, D.K. told Arab News, though she admitted that some conservative sections of Saudi society still wished to see the continuation of gender segregation in restaurants.

However, most restaurant owners were eager to move with the changing times.

Al-Amin Mahmoud, a 35-year-old father-of-four from Madinah, takes his family every weekend to a different restaurant. While in Jeddah on a short vacation, he faced a problem when he discovered that some restaurants did not have separate sections for males and families.

“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,” he told Arab News.

Father-of-three Habib Saleh, 41, said that businesses had the option to accept or reject the gender-desegregation decision.

“This is akin to the decision to ban sheesha from restaurants. Many people objected, saying smoking sheesha was the main reason they frequented the restaurants in the first place. Some restaurants who implemented the rule naturally lost regular customers, which affected their revenue,” he added.

Saleh pointed out that when considering applying the new rules, some business owners faced the same dilemma of having to be prepared to lose some customers.

“It will take time before people get used to it. Of course, people will either reject it or be suspicious about it at first. And we have to keep in mind that some of the people who are objecting to this decision do not mind eating in mixed restaurants when they are abroad. So, there is some amount of contradiction.

“We have to remember that the segregation rule was in force for more than 30 years, so don’t think that people will accept it quickly,” he said.

For his part, Abdulrahman Al-Harbi, an architect, believes implementing the desegregation law will improve the bottom lines of restaurants in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Harbi said not only would managing a restaurant become easier but construction bills would also shrink. “I prefer open spaces. A good designer can provide clever privacy solutions to customers in different ways.

“If we want to call ourselves a civilized society, we must get used to a mixed-gender environment,” he added.

Abdul Aziz Al-Qahtani, the owner of Bicicleta Coffee Shop in Riyadh, said that since opening a new branch in the capital’s U Walk, only one cashier counter was required.

“We had customers coming in and asking for separate sections, but we have to keep pace with development,” he said. “This change in the law has reduced costs in many areas for us. Now we don’t need two cashiers to serve a family section and a male section.

“We also don’t have to have large spaces any more to be able to divide it up into two sections.”

US ambassador to Saudi Arabia advises American community to shelter in the Kingdom during coronavirus

Updated 33 min 22 sec ago

US ambassador to Saudi Arabia advises American community to shelter in the Kingdom during coronavirus

  • John Abizaid published video message addressed to the American community
  • He says food supplies, health care and emergency services are all good in Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH: The US ambassador to Riyadh advised the American community in Saudi Arabia to “shelter in place,” instead of returning to the US amid the present crisis.

“Food supply is good, emergency services are sound, medical system is functioning,” said the US envoy John Abizaid on a video message addressed towards the American community.

He advised those who are adamant on returning to research and study the local situation as communities have been disrupted and many quarantine areas have sprung up.



“It’s very concerning to see how things are going there (in the US), but on the other hand I’ve got great confidence in our ability to weather the storm, not only there but here.”

He hailed the efforts made by the Kingdom to protect against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and said: “They took action early, they stopped the movement of people into the Kingdom, they shut down the air corridors, land corridors, you name it. Of course it makes us all feel isolated, but on the other hand it is also clear to me that it makes us safer.”

Abizaid described the Kingdom’s preventive measures as “ahead of the problem,” but that did not mean the situation could not spiral for the worst.

“There are about over 1,500 cases in the Kingdom right now and it is continuing to rise, but not at a rate like we’ve seen in the States or Italy or Spain or elsewhere.”

The ambassador and everyone at the embassy are social-distancing and working electronically. He said that none of the embassy staff had COVID-19.

He has reassured Americans that the embassy has a Center For Disease Control representative who has been talking to Saudis and the health ministry, saying that the Kingdom is doing a good job.

“My relationship with the Saudi security services has been exceptional,” he said, adding: “Good cooperation, we all have the same goal in mind, which is to keep the virus from spreading, to ensure that our medical professionals in the Kingdom can practice without being overcrowded or overworked.”