Saudi Women Seated in Stadium for First Time at Anniversary Gala

Saudi women have been allowed into the national stadium for the first time to join celebrations marking the 87th anniversary of the kingdom’s founding.

Hundreds of women -- some wearing green sports caps on top of their black veil and waving flags -- were seated alongside their families and away from single men for the musical event on Saturday evening. The King Fahd stadium is mainly used for soccer matches in front of all-male crowds.

Saudi families at the stadium on Sept. 23.

Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia enforces an austere interpretation of Islam, limiting the mixing of genders in public spaces, with women required to have male guardians and wear long cloaks called abayas in public. Some Saudi watchers referred to Saturday’s break with tradition as “historic.”

It comes as the government is seeking to promote Saudi national identity beyond its religious component. That’s part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan, initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to build an economy no longer primarily dependent on fossil fuels, in a society that’s perhaps less constrained by tradition.

The musical show was one of several performances in the capital on Saturday that included fireworks and folk dancing, and which ended with street parties. 

Police closed Riyadh’s main boulevard to traffic and thousands of men and women streamed into the street to celebrate. A DJ blasted electronic dance music, visitors whooped and whirled on carnival rides and young men spontaneously broke out into traditional tribal chants and dances. Some seemed dazed by the sheer shock of seeing so many men and women together, mingling in a tight crowd, largely without incident.

— With assistance by Vivian Nereim

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