Saudi Arabia bans compulsory gender segregation in restaurants

Restaurants in Saudi Arabia will no longer be required by law to segregate women from men, according to the country’s government.

The announcement from the Saudi Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs is the latest in a series of Westernising reforms spearheaded by the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It cited a desire to attract investments and greater business opportunities as a reason for the decision, in a statement published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Until now, women in Saudi Arabia have been required to use separate entrances and sit behind partitions when dining out to prevent them being visible to single men. They were forbidden entry to any restaurant or cafe that was too small to uphold this mandatory segregation.

The new rules are not compulsory, meaning restaurants could still maintain separate entrances if owners chose to do so.

Mohammed bin Salman

For decades, it has been strictly prohibited for unrelated men and women to mix in public, but Mohammed bin Salman has looked to relax these rules by ordering a number of reforms and reducing the powers of the kingdom’s religious police.

In 2017, women were allowed entry into sports stadiums in family designated sections, while a year later they were also given the right to drive. This August, a further ban was lifted to allow women to apply for a passport and travel without first obtaining the permission of their male guardian.

But women and men are still kept separate at weddings, and most government-run schools and public universities.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, has also been chipping away at a guardianship system that requires all women have a male relative’s approval for important decisions, though some key restrictions remain.

Social openness has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent that has seen the arrests of dozens of religious leaders, intellectuals and activists, including women who had campaigned for some of the freedoms that have lately been granted.

The Crown Prince, 34, is the heir to the Saudi throne and de facto ruler. If and when he replaces his father, King Salman, he would be the first Saudi monarch from a new generation after a succession of six brothers that have ruled since 1953.

Prince Mohammad’s reputation in the West as a bold reformer suffered after the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents last year inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

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