May 5, 2018 / 5:25 PM / 6 months ago

Saudi body appears to retract call to end gender segregation

RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi body seems to have backtracked on a new initiative calling to end prayer-time store closures and gender segregation in public places - potentially divisive reforms for the deeply conservative kingdom.

Arabic-language newspaper Okaz reported that the Quality of Life program to improve life in Saudi Arabia had cited both practices as requiring “immediate change” in order to increase the public’s participation in its activities and boost investor confidence.

The article, published on Friday, was later removed. Reuters saw a copy of the document it cited, but a different version posted on an official website did not mention gender segregation or store closures among needed reforms. No timeframe was specified.

Loai Bafaqeeh, chief executive of the Quality of Life program, refused to comment on the apparent discrepancy.

“We are looking into all things that relate to the citizen and resident, including things that involve improving the quality of life, such as families entering sports stadiums and women driving,” he told Reuters by phone on Saturday.

Saudi Arabia has for decades imposed strict social rules, including bans on alcohol, music and mixing of unrelated men and women.

Much of that is now changing under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who curbed the powers of the religious police in 2016 as part of ambitious social and economic reforms that saw cinemas reopen last month after a nearly 40-year ban.

The kingdom, which is set to allow women to drive this summer but still requires them to have a male guardian, does not have an all-encompassing codified legal code. It relies instead mainly on Islamic sharia law, with police and judiciary citing social customs in enforcing certain prohibitions.

Analysts say there is no legal basis for enforcing store closures or segregation.

The religious police still patrol some public spaces, but no longer harass people for being on the streets during prayer time or enter private establishments to enforce gender segregation. Many Saudis, especially in big cities, welcome the limits on their authority.

Unrelated men and women are increasingly allowed to enter family sections of restaurants together, and public events have generally done away with such divisions. Stores still close multiple times a day for prayer for about 30 minutes each, but some allow customers to stay inside and continue shopping.

The potential changes were not mentioned in an event on Thursday celebrating the Quality of Life program, which includes entertainment, health, sports and education.

Editing by Stephen Kalin and Clelia Oziel

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