Did you know that Saudi Arabia segregates people at restaurants according to gender?
Yes, it’s true, but the internet and media have been buzzing with news that the country has stopped the practice.
According to the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs, restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia will no longer be required to have separate areas for families and bachelors, a long-established practice in this culturally conservative and highly religious country.
Many international news sources have reported the story using headlines such as...
“Saudi Arabia ends gender segregation in restaurants” (BBC) and
"'This is a huge deal': Saudi Arabia ends gender segregation in restaurants" (CNN)
...giving the impression that the country really has ended gender segregation in restaurants.
However, in the interests of helping foreigners moving to or travelling to the country for work, let’s explore if this really is the case.
Why Is there Gender Separation in Restaurants in Saudi Arabia?
Well, it’s a mix of cultural norms and religious practice.
Saudi Arabia has long followed certain interpretations and traditions that place a lot of emphasis on the protection of family as well as concepts such as honour and shame.
According to the interpretations of sharia law followed by many Saudis, they believe that genders should be kept separate.
So, for example, when inviting people to your home to eat, the men sit in one room and the women in another. Mixing of the sexes is a bit of a taboo.
In Saudi culture you simply don’t mix with women outside of your immediate family – sisters, aunts, nieces and cousins.
Although it is changing nowadays, free mixing outside of the home is generally viewed as extremely shameful behaviour. It’s just not done.
Even today if you go to some parts of the Arab world you can still see boyfriends and girlfriends sat in the same café together, but at different ends of the room, talking to each other via their phones or texting one another. To be spotted at a table with a boy or girl you are not married to would result in extreme shame for both families. So, they have found novel ways to go on dates but without it being obvious.
As a result of this, in Saudi Arabia you have always had different areas in restaurants. Usually an area for men and then a family area. You’ll see this in a café, a McDonalds or a pastry shop. This helps keep the sexes apart and prevent possible shame being brought upon their family or tribe.
But, gender segregation has ended, right?
Well if you look at the fine print, no.
The authorities have not stopped it. What they have actually stated is that there is no longer a legal requirement for restaurants and cafes to have gender-segregated entrances. Entrances.
So, the law has simply changed to say that two entrances based on gender are now no longer legally required.
However, restaurants and cafes can still have separate entrances based on gender if they wish, and when it comes to segregated seating and dining areas, nothing has changed.
One therefore must question the validity of headlines such as, “Saudi Arabia ends gender segregation in restaurants”.
It may also be wise to question why many media outlets are reporting it as such.
The reality is change is slow to take place in Saudi Arabia. Although this may be a first step in a direction, it has a long way to go in overcoming cultural and religious challenges from those who see such ‘reforms’ as a challenge to their identity and faith.
What Do I Do When I Am in Saudi Arabia?
It will be clear what you can or can't do.
In some of the swankier parts of Riyadh and Jeddah you may very well see restaurants and cafes in which there is no segregation. So, it will be fine for you to also follow suit.
However, in many other parts of these cities and across much of Saudi Arabia the people will expect the usual system to be in place - men in one area, women and families in another.
If you're unsure, then just ask! They will very quickly set you straight.
Learn About Saudi Culture
If you want to learn more about Saudi culture and business, then have a look at our excellent online cultural awareness course on Saudi Arabia. This eLearning cross cultural training course, can be accessed individually or licensed and uploaded to inhouse intranets and LMSs for corporate wide use.
Saudi Culture Live Training Webinar - Alternatively, you may wish to take part in one of a live training webinar with one of our Saudi culture and business experts. Our training webinars are customised to meet the specific needs of you and your business. If, for example, you are travelling to the country to negotiate a contract, then the training would focus on Saudi negotiation culture.
Reading Materials - If you're only looking for reading materials, then you are in the right place as we have a library of the most comprehensive culture reading materials on the web. From our generic Saudi Culture Guide, to our Saudi Management Guide for people managing Saudi teams and our detailed Saudi and Business Culture Insight Report, we have you covered!
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Main image by Map of the Urban Linguist Landscapeon Flickr (CC BY 2.0)