RIYADH, Jan 23: Saudis voiced outrage on Wednesday at a US decision to let American servicewomen doff the flowing black robes they previously had to wear outside US military bases in the kingdom.

“That means that they will be breaking our laws and that they are looking for trouble,” said a Saudi businessman.

In deference to Muslim sensitivities, the US military had required women to wear the “abayah” robe off base since American forces were sent to Saudi Arabia in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.

The removal of US forces from the birthplace of Islam is a key demand of Osama bin Laden.

US military officials said on Tuesday the abayah was no longer compulsory but remained strongly recommended.

There was no immediate Saudi government reaction, but one official complained there had been no advance consultation.

“I am surprised that such an order comes in such a way. We had no prior information about it,” he said.

A Saudi religious figure said the rule change flouted Muslim precepts.

“The covering of women to hide their bodies is an Islamic sharia demand, which should not be subject to criticism or (evoke) surprise,” Sheikh Saad al-Saleh, an official at the Saudi Islamic Affairs Ministry, said.

“There must be no exceptions in enforcing the Islamic dress code in Saudi streets. No one of any nationality is exempt in the eyes of religion,” he said.

Saudi Arabia hosts about 5,000 US military personnel, many of them at the Prince Sultan Air Base, a desert facility used to enforce “no-fly” zones against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. Some British servicemen are also based there.

The dress code relaxation follows criticism in the United States of Saudi restrictions. US Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Martha McSally, the nation’s highest-ranking woman fighter pilot, recently filed a lawsuit against the old policy.

Controversy has mounted over the US presence in Saudi Arabia, but Saudi and US leaders have strenuously denied media reports that the kingdom might soon ask US forces to leave.

The US embassy said it was aware of the new directive by General Tommy Franks, head of US Central Command, responsible for operations in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Gulf.

“This is a military issue. As far as we are concerned, our female staff don’t wear the abayah, but they are asked to dress conservatively — female and male alike,” an embassy official said. “You won’t find men wearing shorts either.”

The directive does not challenge Saudi rules against women driving or end a US requirement for servicewomen to be escorted by a man when they leave their base.

Residents in Riyadh said they had rarely seen US servicewomen venture outside the Prince Sultan base in Kharj, some 80kms south of the Saudi capital.

“It is not a sight you see every day here, since virtually all the foreign troops live at a housing complex, with swimming pools and other facilities, inside Kharj base,” the editor of a Saudi newspaper said in Riyadh.

“But if some American women want to deliberately challenge our local customs, then you’ll see a clash, especially with the mutawaeen,” he said, referring to stick-wielding religious police who roam Saudi streets to enforce Islamic codes.—Reuters

Opinion

Editorial

UNGA speech
25 Sep, 2022

UNGA speech

CRISES test a nation’s resilience but also provide opportunities to rise and move forward. Prime Minister Shehbaz...
Dar’s return
Updated 25 Sep, 2022

Dar’s return

Dar will now be expected by his party to conjure up fiscal space for the govt to start spending ahead of the next elections.
Iran hijab protests
25 Sep, 2022

Iran hijab protests

FOR over a week now, Iran has been witnessing considerable tumult after a young woman died earlier this month in the...
Post-flood economy
Updated 24 Sep, 2022

Post-flood economy

WITH a third of the country — especially Sindh and Balochistan — under water, over 33m people displaced, and...
Panadol shortage
24 Sep, 2022

Panadol shortage

FROM headaches to fever to bodily pain — paracetamol is used ubiquitously in Pakistan as the go-to remedy for most...
Star-struck cops
24 Sep, 2022

Star-struck cops

IN this age of selfies and social media, it is easy to get carried away in the presence of famous people, even if ...