By Abeer Allam
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A14
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA -- When they leave their homes, the women of Saudi Arabia put on veils and shroud themselves from head to toe in shapeless black cloaks.
But even though their faces are invisible in most public places, the kingdom's female residents spend more on hair care and cosmetics per capita than almost any other women in the Middle East.
Saudi women trade beauty tips on Twitter, and teenagers gather for "makeup nights," showing off their command of the latest "smoky eye" look. Meanwhile, the country's radical clerics denounce them as "distorting God's creation" and succumbing to temptation.
Last year, Saudi women spent almost $2.4 billion on cosmetics, among the highest per capita in the world, and analysts predict that the market will grow by 11 percent this year.
Here, "women of all ages spend more on their appearance," said Jacqueline Clarke, research director of Diagonal Reports, which tracks trends in the beauty market worldwide.
Most women prefer professional salon products, but official rules restrict licenses for beauty parlors. Only by having a "dressmaker's license" -- with tailors on the premises -- or an owner with influential connections can a salon avoid raids by the religious police.
The strict gender segregation in the kingdom, along with bans on public entertainment such as movie theaters and nightclubs, make weddings, engagement parties, birthdays and even condolence visits critical for Saudi women: They dress to the nines to impress one another and the mothers and relatives of eligible bachelors.
Noura Saed, 25, spent nearly seven hours and $270 on her hair and makeup at a salon in the capital, Riyadh, for a friend's wedding. In a typical week, she spends about a third as much on beauty products.
"Weddings are the most important events and a good opportunity for us to dress up," Saed said. "Men often complain that we spend a lot on appearance. Well, if you live in Riyadh, what else can you do but shop?"
Salons also provide an opportunity to meet friends. "Saudi women spend a lot of time in the hair salon for socializing, and they buy higher-end products," Clarke said.
In the past, upper-class Saudis learned about beauty trends by traveling abroad. Today, satellite dishes and the Internet allow all Saudi women to discover the latest looks, with many admiring the appearance of Western movie stars and Arab pop divas.
But the country's beauty industry continues to face harsh criticism. Sheik Mohammad al-Habadan, a religious commentator, recently suggested that women should show nothing more than one eye in public. Revealing both, he said, could promote lascivious thoughts.
And some beauty salons cooperate with such social pressures, displaying materials pointing out the dangers of damnation that come with a woman plucking her eyebrows or showing a made-up face to anyone but her husband.
-- Financial Times