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Saudi's sub-zero Snow City the new hot ticket in Riyadh

Women have so far exceeded 75pc of the numbers flocking to frolic in Alpine temperatures.
Updated 31 Jul, 2016 01:03pm

RIYADH: Having to wear ski jackets in Riyadh is unheard of, but a new snow park in the Saudi capital has made them a must despite outside temperatures exceeding 45 Celsius.

Saudi women wearing the compulsory traditional abaya that covers the body from head to toe are now donning thermal coats and cosy boots as they sit on sledges to scoot down the slopes of “Snow City”.

This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows Saudi children playing on sledges at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP
This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows Saudi children playing on sledges at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP

Unusually in the ultra-conservative kingdom that applies strict segregation rules and where even restaurants have separate sections for “families” and single men, they are also joined by males.

The complex is a rarity in Saudi Arabia where there are only small-scale amusement parks for children, and where cinemas or theatres are not allowed.

Stretching over 5,000 square metres, the entertainment project does not have proper ski pistes as such, but its modest indoor slopes still manage to provide frosty fun in a country that is mostly desert and searing heat.

This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows a general view of Saudis playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP
This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows a general view of Saudis playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP

“I've never touched snow,” says Ali al-Ajmi, 40, who has never travelled out of the Arabian Peninsula.

Dozens of people throng the front counter to gain access to the play area which opened in mid-July after four years of construction work costing some 100 million riyals ($26.7 million).

Where's the sun?

Surprisingly, women currently represent the bulk of visitors in a country where they are subject to strict constraints, including a globally unique ban on driving.

This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows Saudis playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP
This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows Saudis playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP

One employee at Snow City said the centre's management initially faced the problem of not having enough boots for women as they had not expected females to represent more than 10 per cent of visitors.

In fact, women have so far exceeded 75pc of the numbers flocking to frolic in Alpine temperatures.

“There is privacy and we're enjoying our time here,” says one woman who identifies herself as Umm Ahmed, 37. “I like the place. It provides entertainment.”

The temperature inside is a cool -3 degrees Celsius.

“It's freezing,” chatters 14-year-old Abdulrahman Hamad after spending some 90 minutes playing in the snow.

This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows a Saudi man and a boy sliding on a sledge at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP
This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows a Saudi man and a boy sliding on a sledge at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP

A younger boy appears to feel the pinch of the freezing air even more, and suggests a novel way of countering it.

“It looks cloudy and feels very cold. Why don't they also put a sun in here?” asks four-year-old Salman.

The facility is not the first of its kind in the arid Gulf region.

The emirate of Dubai boasts an indoor ski resort that opened in 2005, featuring ski slopes complete with towbars and a chairlift.

Entertainment options

Saudi Arabia has long relied on religious tourism, attracting millions of the faithful for Haj and Umrah.

But with more than half of its population under the age of 25, the kingdom is also now pushing to provide more entertainment options for its residents, many of whom turn to neighbouring Bahrain or Dubai for leisure activities.

This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows Saudis playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP
This file photo taken on July 20, 2016 shows Saudis playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh. ─ AFP

In April, the authorities launched an ambitious economic diversification plan to wean the kingdom off oil as the main revenue earner, with development of tourism and entertainment projects among other wide-ranging goals.

US company Six Flags Entertainment Corporation announced in June that it is holding talks with Saudi Arabia to build theme parks in the country.

On Snow City's Facebook page, many commentators have eagerly welcomed the new attraction.

“Turns out women are allowed in,” one Facebook user noted.

And in a comment reflecting some of the attitudes currently prevalent in Saudi Arabia, a woman asks: “Is there a day for ladies only?”