Saudi Arabia to drop strict dress code for foreign women

Move comes as kingdom is set to open applications for online tourist visas for citizens of 49 countries on Saturday

The new visas could attract more adventurous travellers, particularly those who want to visit pristine islands, see little-known historical sites
Arabian Business
The new visas could attract more adventurous travellers, particularly those who want to visit pristine islands, see little-known historical sites

Saudi Arabia will drop its strict dress code for foreign women as it seeks for the first time to lure holidaymakers and the spending that could help develop the kingdom’s economy away from its reliance on oil.

Foreign women won’t have to wear an abaya, the flowing cloak that’s been mandatory attire for decades, though they’ll be instructed to wear “modest clothing,” said Ahmed Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage and a key adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Officials say it’s a promising non-oil sector that could help draw Saudi tourist dollars back home and bring in a new kind of foreign spending, sister publication Arabian Business reported

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“We encourage the private sector and the investor to come and explore the massive amount of opportunity,” Al-Khateeb said, detailing plans to expand airport capacity, add hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms and develop restaurant and lifestyle offerings.

The kingdom has already grappled with a slew of social changes over the past few years, and some Saudis are thrilled by the transformation. 

“I can imagine how many job opportunities there will be in the tourism sector, as well as food and retail,” said Njoud Fahad, a 28-year-old travel blogger. “Society will be enriched by all the diversity of people coming in from all around the world with their culture and language.”

Al-Khateeb said the government is targeting 64 million visits by 2022 and 100 million per year by 2030 - up from 40 million today - though that includes both domestic and foreign tourists.

The new visas could attract more adventurous travellers, particularly those who want to visit pristine islands, see little-known historical sites.

Tour guide Wael Alkaled, 34, said he often gets inquiries from foreigners about the photos he posts on Instagram showing off the untouched beaches and mountainous terrain of his northern region of Tabuk.

“People come to me to ask where is this place, we’d love to visit,” he said. “The launch of the tourist visa will create different work opportunities and more business.”

Al-Khateeb said he believes Saudis will embrace the influx of tourists.

“We have hundreds of thousands of Saudi students who studied outside and came back, and we welcome different cultures, different religions,” he said. “We are a very welcoming nation.”

He pointed out that the country has already gone through massive changes over the past few years, including an end to a ban on women driving and the introduction of cinemas and mixed-gender concerts.

“If you disagree with something, you have the right not to go for it or not to visit,” Al-Khateeb said. “Today most of the changes are behind us.”

While abayas will be optional for foreign visitors and residents, they will be subject to rules requiring modest dress, he added.

“What the tourists can see here in Saudi Arabia and explore is the culture - the strong and great culture that we have,” said Al-Khateeb. “We remain authentic.”

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