In some ways, it’s surprising that the video went viral at all.
The clip shows a man and a woman side-by-side at a desk, noshing on chips and pita. At one point, the woman (covered head-to-toe in an abaya) feeds the man a chip. They smile and wave to the camera. (The pair work for a hotel in Mecca.)
But that 30-second clip has been shared thousands of times in Saudi Arabia, leading to government pushback and sparking new questions about just how liberal the country is becoming.
The video has been shared more than 113,000 times on Twitter with the Arabic hashtag “an Egyptian having breakfast with a Saudi.” Many who shared the film were critical of the pair's behavior. Shortly after the video began to circulate, the Egyptian hotel worker was detained by Saudi authorities. He was later charged with “working in a profession restricted to Saudis,” according to Reuters.
The hotel owner was also brought in for questioning and charged with “failing to adhere to spatial controls for employing women,” according to a statement from the Labor Ministry, released Sunday. The government requires workplaces to separate men and women, though enforcement is lax.
The country’s public prosecutor also released a statement urging foreigners to follow Saudi Arabia’s laws and respect its values and traditions.
In a follow-up filmed shortly after, the man appeared to apologize for the initial short. He said there was nothing untoward going on between the pair, and she was just his colleague, and that people should stop criticizing them.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has maintained strict rules governing women's behavior. But that has begun to change, as the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began pushing to liberalize the country. This year, he lifted the ban on female drivers, sparking a flurry of social media posts of women behind the wheel.
He also curbed the authority of the country’s “religious police,” tasked with, among other things, monitoring women’s behavior. As my colleague Liz Sly put it: “Glimpses of hair are starting to appear beneath headscarves, the lines segregating men from women are beginning to blur, and the government is slowly retreating from its once vigorous intrusion into women’s lives. On June 24, they will be allowed to drive, the most symbolic and practically important of the changes so far.”
The crown prince has made other changes too. He’s allowed Western artists and performers in. A new cinema — an indulgence banned for decades — just opened.
But there are signs that only so much freedom is coming to the kingdom. Earlier this summer, more than a dozen political activists were arrested. Nine remain behind bars, including several women who fought for the right to drive. Officials have also not eased the guardianship rule, which requires women to get permission from a male relative before traveling, working or even going to a cafe.