File photo: Cars drive past the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh Image Credit: REUTERS

In the past two or three years Saudi Arabia’s socio-cultural scene has come a long way. In fact, it has advanced a tremendously long way towards placing us among the nations of the civilised world.

The kingdom has now propelled itself to compete (in arts and culture) evenly with some of its neighbours in the region.

But that does not mean that everything has changed. In fact, there still remain some relics of traditional habits that defy the tide of change sweeping the nation.

At a time when Saudi Arabia is geared to achieve Vision 2030, such inconsistencies have led to an increasing debate over their continuation.

From the male guardianship laws to the closure of establishments during prayer times, there are many leftovers from the previous era. That was a time when clerics dictated social mores with an iron fist.

Those things have become irrelevant in today’s fast-changing times. And with a youthful population on the rise, many of these relics will be sooner or later relegated to distant memory.

Some eateries in the country have partitioning, and separate dining areas, one for families and one for single men. This practice took a firm hold in Saudi society back in the ’80s during the robust movement of religious fundamentalism.

The purpose I suppose was to prevent harassment of women by single men or mingling between the sexes when they ventured to cafes and restaurants.

Mingling was taboo then with strict barriers defined between men and women. Men could simply not be trusted to behave in the company of women or so the logic went. While visitors are often surprised, the locals have become used to it, albeit with an occasional twist.

Against the norm

Recently, out for an early morning drive with my wife, we decided to stop by a popular coffee shop to enjoy breakfast. There were two entrances, one for families and the other for singles.

As we walked into the designated area for families, we were not impressed by the confined space within the tiny premises, nor by the dark and heavy curtains and shades that closed the outside view and left us with a claustrophobic feeling which simply did not appeal to us.

My wife suggested another place and as we walked out we chanced upon the area designated for singles. It was well-lit, well-spaced out and with large windows opening out onto the street.

The view was pleasant and cheery and there was hardly a soul in there from whom one could expect any trouble.

I led my wife in and we sat in the near-empty cafe.

A flustered waiter quickly came over, mumbling something about this being for men only, and that we should kindly proceed to the family area. I assured him to not worry and that I was perfectly capable of dealing with anybody being disrespectful.

Now, this has happened to me before, and on more than one occasion. And I was having none of that. Buoyed by the fast-moving changes in the country, I was not going to back down this time and acquiesce to his request to move back to the dingy environment meant for families.

Standing firm

I continued.

“Listen, It’s OK. It is my decision and I don’t believe there would be any trouble. People are not animals, and that includes singles. And if one happens to get out of line, I will quickly put an end to it. Besides, there are no patrons in the single section yet, and so we don’t expect any trouble.”

He threw in a last-minute plea. “But sir, maybe the police …” he stammered, as his fellow workers stood by taking it all in.

“The police have far more important things to do than chasing a couple enjoying breakfast together in a restaurant,” I shot back. I assured him that I will take full responsibility in case some lawman (with more time on his hands) decided to poke around.

Here we are in the 21st century with men and women studying side by side, working side by side, drafting laws in the Shura Council side by side, being part of international sports delegations’ side by side, operating on patients in a theatre side by side, controlling air traffic side by side, and yet we cannot sit at a table side by side!

These leftover mores, traditions, habits or whatever you prefer to call them must be thrown out as they have no value today. They are an inconvenience in this day and age.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.