JEDDAH (AFP) — For Asma, spending a day on the beach with her boyfriend was unthinkable until recently in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia.
Now, the 32-year-old is dancing with her partner on white sands fringing the Red Sea, to music thumping from loudspeakers.
It’s a small reminder of the changes underway in the Islamic kingdom, which is attempting to ease some of its tight social strictures in a modernization drive at the same time as a crackdown on dissent.
Music was banned in public places until 2017, a measure enforced by the religious police, and women were only allowed to drive a year later. Beaches are still usually segregated between men and women.
But for 300 Saudi riyals ($80) each, Asma and her boyfriend can enter Pure Beach near Jeddah, with its music, dancing and inflatable water park spelling “Saudi Arabia” in English when viewed from above.
“I am happy that I can now come to a nearby beach to enjoy my time,” she told AFP, wearing a blue dress over her bathing suit.
“It is the epitome of fun… it was our dream to come here and spend a beautiful weekend.”
Beachgoers swim in the turquoise waters and women wear bikinis, some of them smoking shisha. As the sun sets, performers dance to Western music on a lit stage as a couple embraces nearby.
In many countries, these would not be unusual scenes but they are different for Saudi Arabia, which houses Islam’s holiest sites and espouses Wahhabism, a rigid form of the religion.
They are also not seen outside of the Jeddah area, which is known as the country’s most relaxed region. Pure Beach is at King Abdullah Economic City, about 125 kilometres (about 80 miles) north of Jeddah’s city centre.
“I was raised here, and a few years ago we weren’t even allowed to listen to music, so this is like heaven,” said Egyptian Hadeel Omar.
The country is experiencing change under the crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, who came to power in 2017.
But ‘MBS’ has also launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, detaining women’s rights activists, clerics and journalists. A US intelligence report accused him of approving the 2018 brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Gulf kingdom’s social reforms are spurred by a desire to diversify its oil-reliant economy, including by stimulating tourism and domestic spending.
Only business travellers and Muslim pilgrims could visit until 2019, when Saudi Arabia began offering tourist visas.
Bilal Saudi, head of events at King Abdullah Economic City, said the beach was targeting “both local visitors and [foreign] tourists”.
“I feel that I no longer have to travel [abroad] to have a good time… because everything is here,” said Dima, a young Saudi businesswoman, as she swayed to the music.
Staff at the beach said they did not know whether the couples were married or not. It was only two years ago that unmarried foreign couples were first allowed to share hotel rooms.
For the sake of “privacy,” as staff put it, mobile phones are confiscated and kept in plastic bags.
“I was surprised at the freedom and openness at the beach, something that would be experienced in the United States,” said beachgoer Mohammed Saleh.
One thing still missing, visitors said, was cocktails, with a nationwide ban on alcohol still in place.
“Life is normal [in Saudi Arabia],” said Asma, adding: “It wasn’t normal before.”