DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A popular Mideast nightclub is opening a branch in Saudi Arabia on Thursday in the latest sign of how far the kingdom has loosened restrictions on entertainment. In line with the country’s Islamic laws, though, it will not be serving alcohol.
The club, White Saudi Arabia, will open its doors with an evening performance by American R&B artist Ne-Yo, the communications manager for Addmind Hospitality, Serge Trad, told The Associated Press.
The “White” club has popular branches in Dubai and Beirut, places known for their nightlife, beaches and partying — unlike Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites. Addmind Hospitality also has venues in Qatar and Bahrain and is operating on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast this summer.
The Saudi club is temporary, though, operating for just a month until July 18th as part of a city-wide festival in Jiddah aimed at boosting tourism and domestic spending. The Red Sea city is seen as more liberal and diverse than the landlocked capital, Riyadh, where restaurants and cafes enforce gender segregation between single men and women.
The pop-up nightclub may reflect an attempt by Saudi sponsors and officials to test the public’s reactions to more entertainment venues like this in the kingdom.
Trad said the dress code is “smart casual,” meaning women will not be required to wear the country’s mandatory loose robe, known as the abaya, or the traditional headscarf and face veil most Saudi women don in public.
The venue is on the Jiddah waterfront, where private beaches do not enforce strict dress codes. In a departure from venues in conservative Riyadh, it will serve sheesha, or hookah, the popular Middle Eastern waterpipe.
Entry to the 18-and-over club starts at $80 a person and can reach $250 a person. That prices out many Saudis, for whom the average monthly wage is around $2,600.
In line with Saudi Arabia’s Islamic legal codes, the venue is being referred to as a cafe, lounge or performance venue in Arabic and not as a nightclub.
Still, that didn’t stop thousands of people from tweeting under the Arabic hashtag “disco in Jiddah “.
While many of the tweets used humor and surprise to talk about the venue, there has been pushback against the club online. Trad said the club’s new Instagram account drew 11,000 followers in less than a day, but was quickly shut down after detractors reported it.
“It was part of the negative feedback we were getting. People were angry about ‘White’ opening there,” Trad said, adding that many others, though, are excited to see what other artists the venue will host.
Over the past several months, the kingdom has seen performances by Mariah Carey , Enrique Iglesias, Black Eyed Peas, rapper Sean Paul, and DJs David Guetta and Tiesto, despite widespread international backlash since October over the killing of Saudi critic and writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents close to the crown prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey.
The concerts, where men and women freely stand next to one another, are a stark change from when Saudi Arabia’s morality police would raid establishments that played loud music, break up parties and report groups of single men and women for sitting together in public. For years, concerts and movie theaters were banned.
Gender segregation remains enforced in many restaurants, coffee shops, public schools and universities, but other rules have loosened with women now allowed to drive and attend matches in sports stadiums that were once only open to men.
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