Saudi woman arrested for hip-hop dance at Riyadh concert despite kingdom's 'reform' bid

Saudi woman arrested for hip-hop dance at Riyadh concert despite kingdom's 'reform' bid
A young Saudi concert goer was accused of 'disrupting social etiquette' after a viral video showed her dancing in the traditional black abaya robe and niqab face covering.

4 min read
29 October, 2019
Saudi Arabia has recently opened up its doors to world entertainment and tourism [Getty]
A Saudi women who was seen dancing at a concert in a video that went viral online has been arrested and could face prosecution, authorities in the ultra-conservative kingdom said.

The young woman was accused of "disrupting social etiquette" after the viral video showed her dancing in the traditional black abaya robe and niqab face covering.

She showed off her hip-hop moves to a mixed-gender crowd during the kingdom's Riyadh Season festival, running from October to December as part of the kingdom's latest drive to open up to the world and generate income.

It is unclear whether the dancer will receive a fine, prison sentence or a slap on the wrist, though Saudi authorities warned it would issue fines for a number of public decency offences for tourists visiting the country, including immodest dress and public displays of affection.

Violations listed include littering, spitting, queue jumping, taking photographs and videos of people without permission and playing music at prayer times, the interior ministry said.

Those caught violating the law could face fines ranging from 50 riyals ($13) to 6,000 riyals ($1,600).

That came after the ultra-conservative kingdom launched a visa programme allowing holidaymakers from 49 countries to visit one of the world's most closed-off countries. For years, the only foreigners allowed into the country were mainly Muslim pilgrims and business people. 

"Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country," tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.

"Visitors will be surprised... by the treasures we have to share - five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty."

Read more: Visiting Saudi Arabia? 19 things that are illegal for tourists

Khateeb said the kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women.

Foreign women, however, will be required to wear "modest clothing", he added, without elaborating.

Earlier this month, the ultraconservative kingdom hosted K-pop superstars BTS who were the first non-Arab artists to perform at a stadium concert in Saudi Arabia. The move was slammed by rights organisations which dubbed the performance as an attempt to "whitewash" the kingdom's rights abuses.

Using the twitter hashtag #BTSDontGo, fans and human rights activists urged the group not to go to Riyadh, using the hashtag to highlight Saudi Arabia's track record on human rights.

"This is such a bad business move this is really a big f*** you Saudi women, LGBTQ fans but also to Muslim fans especially what happening in Yemen… doesn't this contradict their message? Of love yourself?" one Twitter user said before the concert.

"The prince had someone executed, gay people are publicly whipped and thousands are tortured because they dare to speak out about the regime... this is not a good thing they are going here," another said.

Hard sell

In a rare move, Saudi Arabia last year began issuing temporary visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events in a bid to kick-start tourism.

But the austere kingdom, which forbids alcohol and has a strict social code, is seen by many as a hard sell for tourists.

Prince Mohammed is seeking to change that through a sweeping liberalisation drive that has brought new cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and sporting extravaganzas to Saudi Arabia.

International criticism of the kingdom's human rights record, including the gruesome murder last year of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a crackdown on female activists, could further put off foreign visitors, observers say.

Read more: What reform? The perils of the Saudi 'public decency' law

Saudi Arabia has splurged billions in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch.

In 2017, the kingdom announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

Last year, construction of Qiddiya "Entertainment City" was launched near Riyadh, which would include high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area.

The country is also developing historic sites such as the centuries-old Madaain Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.

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