Saudi Arabia Hosts Groundbreaking First Swimwear Fashion Show in his Wahabi History

In a groundbreaking event, Saudi Arabia held its first swimwear fashion show on Friday, showcasing designs by Moroccan designer Yasmina Qanzal. The poolside event featured models in one-piece swimsuits in shades of red, beige, and blue, with many displaying exposed shoulders and some with partially visible midriffs.

This significant step comes in a country where, less than a decade ago, women were required to wear full-body abaya robes. “It’s true that this country is very conservative, but we aimed to present elegant swimsuits representing the Arab world,” Qanzal told AFP. She added that hosting such a show in Saudi Arabia was “a historic moment” and “an honor.”

The event was part of the inaugural Red Sea Fashion Week at the St. Regis Red Sea Resort, part of Red Sea Global, a major project under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 social and economic reform initiative led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Crown Prince has spearheaded numerous social reforms, including diminishing the power of religious police, reintroducing cinemas, and hosting mixed-gender music festivals.

These reforms are part of Saudi Arabia’s broader efforts to soften its austere image and expand its fashion and tourism sectors. In 2022, the fashion industry contributed $12.5 billion to the national GDP and employed 230,000 people, according to the Saudi Fashion Commission.

Syrian fashion influencer Shouq Mohammed, who attended the show, remarked on Saudi Arabia’s ongoing efforts to open up to the world. “It’s the first time to have a swimsuit fashion show in Saudi Arabia, but why not? Seriously, why not?” she said. French influencer Raphael Simacourbe, also present, noted that while the show may not seem risqué by Western standards, it was a significant achievement within the Saudi context. “It’s very brave of them to do this today, and I am very happy to be part of it,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, a nation deeply rooted in Wahhabi ideology, has long been associated with religious conservatism and the propagation of strict Islamic teachings. However, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom is undergoing significant transformations, challenging traditional norms and reshaping its societal landscape. This article explores the phenomenon of Wahhabi extremism and the changing face of Saudi Arabia in the era of Mohammad bin Salman.

Understanding Wahhabi Extremism:
Wahhabism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, originated in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. It advocates for a puritanical form of Islam, rejecting modern interpretations and emphasizing adherence to traditional practices. Wahhabi teachings have often been associated with extremism, promoting strict gender segregation, intolerance towards other faiths, and the imposition of harsh punishments.

Historically, Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Wahhabism and custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, has been a major exporter of Wahhabi ideology worldwide. This influence has fueled the rise of extremist groups and contributed to the spread of radicalization in various parts of the world.

The Rise of Mohammad bin Salman and Reform Agenda:
In 2017, Mohammad bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS, ascended to the position of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Since then, he has embarked on a bold and ambitious reform agenda aimed at modernizing the kingdom and diversifying its economy away from oil dependency. Central to his vision is the transformation of Saudi society, including efforts to curb the influence of Wahhabi extremism.

MBS has initiated several reforms that challenge the traditional Wahhabi narrative. These include lifting the ban on women driving, granting women greater rights and freedoms, and promoting a more moderate interpretation of Islam. Additionally, he has cracked down on extremist clerics and preachers, restricting their influence and advocating for a more tolerant and inclusive religious discourse.

Challenges and Criticisms:
Despite MBS’s efforts to reform Saudi Arabia, challenges remain in countering Wahhabi extremism. Critics argue that while some reforms have been implemented, they have not gone far enough to address deep-rooted issues within the kingdom’s religious establishment. The continued crackdown on dissent and human rights abuses have also raised concerns about the sincerity of MBS’s reform agenda.

Moreover, the kingdom’s interventionist foreign policy, particularly in conflicts like Yemen, has perpetuated instability and contributed to the spread of radical ideologies in the region. Critics argue that true reform cannot be achieved without addressing these underlying issues and promoting genuine political and social liberalization.

The era of Mohammad bin Salman has brought about significant changes to Saudi Arabia’s socio-cultural landscape, challenging the dominance of Wahhabi extremism and advocating for a more moderate and inclusive society. While MBS’s reforms represent a step in the right direction, the kingdom still faces challenges in overcoming deep-seated religious conservatism and addressing systemic issues within its religious establishment. Moving forward, it will be crucial for Saudi Arabia to continue its path towards reform while addressing criticisms and ensuring greater accountability and transparency in its policies.

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