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Mixed-Gender Nightclub Opens in Jeddah, but Only Briefly

FILE - Saudi women wear the mandatory abaya, or loose-fitting gown, over their clothes in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 8, 2017. Rumors are circulating that a mixed-gender nightclub that does not require women to wear loose robes has opened in the city.

Officials in Saudi Arabia shut down a mixed-gender nightclub that had opened in Jeddah, the country's second-largest city.

Several news sites reported Thursday's shutdown, and American singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, who was to have been the headline act, tweeted his regrets: "Was literally on my way to the venue when I heard it was shut down due to some technicality. Was looking forward to performing. ... Maybe we try again some other time."

According to media reports, a popular Middle East-based nightclub known as "White" opened the branch in Jeddah — regarded as more liberal and diverse than the capital, Riyadh — but it was to be alcohol-free in keeping with the country's Islamic laws.

Earlier Thursday, however, Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority (GEA) denied it had given the licenses required for the opening of the establishment.

In a statement posted on its official Twitter account, the GEA announced the opening of an immediate investigation into videos circulating online that purportedly showed patrons inside the venue.

The authenticity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.

AP reported that the club would be temporary, operating for only a month as part of a citywide festival to boost tourism and domestic spending. The establishment would be mixed gender, and women would not have to wear the abaya, the country's mandatory loose robe. Women are typically barred from attending live events in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been taking steps toward becoming more open, but many rules are still in place. Several mixed-gender events have taken place in the kingdom, although some establishments have been shut down.

'Halal' club

The club's Instagram account was also closed after critics opposed to the venue reported it to authorities, according to a spokesperson for Addmind Hospitality Group, which runs the establishment. The Instagram account subsequently went back online. Some media reports have referred to the establishment as a "halal" nightclub, with the term halal meaning permissible.

Sean Foley, an associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote a book, Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture and Society in the Kingdom, on culture and politics in contemporary Saudi Arabia. He told VOA that the club's status as a "halal" club represents consistency with Islamic norms.

"By using that term, that says that [while] this may be a nightclub, it's a version of a nightclub that can find a way of reconciling religious traditions of a Saudi context with something also that Saudis would like to do," Foley said.

It's "consistent with the way that society already wanted to go," Foley said. And, despite criticism, Saudi Arabia's liberalizing measures have garnered a base of public support, he said.

FILE - Saudi youths play at an electronic entertainment house accessible to men and women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 15, 2019.
FILE - Saudi youths play at an electronic entertainment house accessible to men and women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 15, 2019.

Thousands of young Saudis have studied abroad in the United States, through a kingdom-wide scholarship program, primarily between 2005 and 2010. Now, Saudi Arabia is home to a large population of young professionals, many of whom want to see the same amenities they enjoyed abroad available in their country, said Foley.

"There are thousands of Saudis who are interested in music, who have been to clubs and want to see these events, but they want to see it in their own version. Part of what this is, is providing Saudis with an opportunity to experience the contemporary and the modern world but do so at home, but also consistent with their values," said Foley.

'Modern' image

Foley argues the recent reforms are not a new direction for the country per se, but a return to an earlier period in its history before the Sahwa, an orthodox cultural revolution in the late 1970s that marked a transition toward a more conservative view of music, gender, and cultural and social mores.

It wasn't until the 21st century that these more conservative views, turned around as an artist movement, sought to change the ways in which cultural issues were discussed, he said.

"This movement received a significant boost in 2015 when King Salman ascended to the throne and his son, Mohammed Bin Salman … allowed for a significant amount of cultural reform," said Foley.

FILE - A woman drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 29, 2014.
FILE - A woman drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 29, 2014.

"What's going on is certainly different than the Saudi Arabia of five to 10 years ago, but is certainly consistent with the Saudi Arabia that we've seen in recent years and the Saudi Arabia that the current government wishes to project, an image of a country that is modern," Foley said.

The nightclub opening came as authorities have been leading a much-trumpeted push to modernize the conservative kingdom, including giving women the right to drive. At the same time, the kingdom is facing criticism over the detention and ongoing trials of several female activists, seen as part of a broad crackdown on dissent.