Saudi Arabia opens its first women-only hotel

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For a country that goes to such great lengths to segregate unrelated men and women, it took Saudi Arabia a long time to hit on the idea of women-only hotels.

The kingdom's first hotel exclusively for females opened yesterday, offering plush lodgings with a full-range of health and beauty facilities for ladies to pamper themselves, away from the accusing eyes of a male-dominated society.

"Inside this physical structure, we are all women," said the Luthan Hotel's executive director Lorraine Coutinho. "We even have bell-women. We are women-owned, women-managed and women-run, from our IT engineer to our electrical engineer.

"This is meeting a very big demand. There are women's hotels all over the world, from Berlin to the United States."

Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world, where women are prevented from meeting male friends in public, driving cars or taking up employment in many jobs. New rules announced in January allow women to stay in standard mixed-gender hotels without a male family member in tow, but bureaucracy and conservative family values mean few have been able to make use of their new-found freedom.

The Luthan Hotel & Spa is owned by a group of 20 Saudi princesses and businesswomen, but it was left to seven princes headed by Sultan bin Salman, a son of Riyadh's governor, to officially inaugurate it. "This meets the Saudi woman's need for a place to stay as she moves around her country," he said. Prices range from 350 riyals (£47) per night to 979 riyals, with weekend "spa break" rates for about 2,000 riyals.

"This is a good response to those who always say women aren't taken care of here," said Mohammed al-Adhil, deputy head of Riyadh Chambers of Commerce. "Even in the West there are women's places where men can't go."

The few female journalists who came along liked the hotel but not the fact that men dominated the opening ceremony. "It's a pioneering idea," said Iman al-Samra of al-Rai TV. "There was a big need, since you don't need a mihrim [male guardian] with you." Another said dismissively: "You know what they're saying about this place, that it's the hotel for lesbians."

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