World Politics

'This is a huge deal': Saudi Arabia ends gender segregation in restaurants

Key Points
  • Saudi Arabia will no longer mandate that restaurants segregate seating areas and entrances according to gender and marital status.
  • The decision is the latest in a series of changes upending decades-old practices in the notoriously conservative Islamic kingdom.
  • In the last year, a growing number of restaurants in major cities have been quietly relaxing gender segregation restrictions.
The Kingdom Tower, operated by Kingdom Holding, left, stands alongside the King Fahd highway, illuminated by the light trails of passing traffic, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016. 
Waseem Obaidi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia will no longer mandate that restaurants segregate seating areas and entrances according to gender and marital status.

The landmark decision, unveiled by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs on Sunday, is the latest in a series of changes upending decades-old practices in the notoriously conservative Islamic kingdom.

Until now, most restaurants had separate entrances and dining areas for women and families and for single men. Even in many Western chains like Starbucks or KFC, partitions often separated customers and in some smaller cafes that lacked space for partitions, women were simply not allowed.

In the last year, however, a growing number of restaurants in major cities have been quietly relaxing those restrictions and letting men and women mingle freely.

"This is a huge deal," said Sebastian Fish, a Swedish national who spent two years living in Saudi Arabia as an oil engineer and left in 2016. He painted an austere picture of Saudi Arabia before the reforms of recent years, describing gender segregation as a part of daily life and expressing skepticism as to whether the change would take hold in more rural parts of the country.

"Any change in Saudi Arabia is always a slow step, so this is significant," he told CNBC. "On the ground, conservative families will still enforce segregation. I do think this is something to celebrate, though."

The move follows nearly two years of unprecedented reforms for the kingdom, including the lifting of its ban on women driving, the end of the male guardianship law restricting solo female travel, ending the requirement of women to wear the head-to-toe abaya and the introduction of tourist visas.

For many young Saudis, the ruling is just a natural continuation of progress they already saw taking place.

"This decision came at the right time, because already the new restaurants don't have gender segregation," Bader bin Mohammed, a 24-year-old petroleum engineer in the Saudi city of Dhahran, told CNBC.

"So the Saudis are already familiar with this. And I think it's a really good decision, because the new generation with the Vision 2030 are already open minded and understand that it's not necessary."

Vision 2030, spearheaded by the 34-year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a reform agenda that aims to diversify the kingdom's oil-dependent economy and attract foreign investment to help create new jobs for a booming youth population.

VIDEO3:2603:26
Saudi Arabia's upcoming 2020 budget

The sweeping changes come alongside harsher crackdowns on dissent, however, and are accompanied by high-profile incidents that have damaged the kingdom's reputation. Those include the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the ongoing detention and reports of torture of several prominent Saudi activists, including women's rights activists, and Saudi Arabia's more than four-year-old military intervention in Yemen, whose conflict has spawned one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of this century.

The announcement also came during perhaps the most significant week in the kingdom's economic history: Monday night will see the disclosure of the Saudi 2020 budget, just two days before the country's mammoth oil company Saudi Aramco ⁠— the most profitable company in the world, valued at $1.7 trillion ⁠— begins trading on the Saudi stock exchange as the biggest IPO in history.

'Give us time'

But for many Saudis, while social change is seemingly happening at breakneck speed relative to the past, there's still a long way to go and it will inevitably be a time-intensive process.

"The fact that restaurants will not have to have two separate entrances, one for singles and the other for families, is great ⁠— from an economic perspective, from a practical perspective." said Mona Shahab, a 39-year-old clinical therapist from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. "Women who are not comfortable showing their faces and eating in front of males who are non-family members still have the choice to have a partition. But when it comes to practicality, and rules, I really think this is a step forward."

"From being able to drive, to I think the most important change which is removing male guardianship for females in Saudi Arabia, that's the main thing I think a lot of us were waiting for," she said. "Because it's all about choices."

"We've come a long way and we have an even longer way to go, no doubt," Shahab added. "So my only hope, and my only request ⁠— and I think a lot of my fellow citizens and people from my generation would agree ⁠— is give us time. Change takes time, give us time."