Sunday, September 19, 1999 Published at 03:04 GMT 04:04 UK
World: Middle East
Gulf 'She Zone' bans male shoppers
Among Abu Dhabi's skyscrapers, illicit meetings have been taking place
By Gulf Correspondent Frank Gardner
Amidst the glittering glass skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi, a new type of shopping mall is about to open.
The so-called "She Zone" is for women only; adult males will be turned away by female security guards from India and the Philippines. Only boys aged under 10 will be allowed to accompany their mothers in the $100m complex.
The 42 air-conditioned shops will be staffed entirely by women, as will the business centre, gymnasium, bank and even the 80-seat cinema.
So why the need for such rigorous segregation of the sexes?
Despite its oil wealth, the Gulf remains an intensely traditional and conservative place. Even social relations between unmarried and unrelated couples are frowned upon, so house calls are strictly taboo.
The proliferation of shopping malls in the region has therefore provided young Gulf Arabs with the chance to meet illicitly and to discreetly exchange telephone numbers.
But not all women welcome the attentions of the would-be gigolos who lurk around the shopping malls. Hardly a day goes by without local newspapers in the UAE printing the photographs of local men arrested while harassing women in public places.
Promoters of the She Zone say the idea is to let women shop in peace and comfort, away from the prying eyes of men.
A women-only shopping centre recently opened in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, has gone one step further - it invites female shoppers to deposit their all-concealing black veils on their arrival. This offers them a rare chance to stroll in a public place with their hair and faces uncovered.
In recognition of the growing economic power of women in the Gulf states, the promoters of Abu Dhabi's She Zone plan to open similar branches all around the Gulf.
In Saudi Arabia, women now own five per cent of registered businesses and by next year they're expected to make up more than seven per cent of the public- sector workforce.
In Kuwait, women are often senior executives in the banking and oil industries.
But it is those Gulf Arab women who don't work who usually have the most time to spend their husbands income. Although last year's oil price collapse caused belts to tighten around the Gulf, wealthier Arab women still have a penchant for extravagant jewellery and the latest fashions.
It is this lucrative market that the She Zone and it successors are now hoping to capture.