UMMAHAT ISLANDS (Saudi Arabia), May 19 — Saudi Arabia held its first fashion show featuring swimsuit models on Friday, an envelope-pushing step in a country where less than a decade ago women were required to wear body-covering abaya robes.

The poolside show featuring the work of Moroccan designer Yasmina Qanzal included mostly one-piece suits in shades of red, beige and blue. Most models had exposed shoulders and some had their midriffs partially visible.

“It’s true that this country is very conservative but we tried to show elegant swimsuits which represent the Arab world,” Qanzal told AFP.

“When we came here, we understood that a swimsuit fashion show in Saudi Arabia is a historic moment, because it is the first time to have such event,” she said, adding it was “an honour” to be involved.

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The show took place on the second day of the inaugural Red Sea Fashion Week at the St Regis Red Sea Resort, situated off Saudi Arabia’s western coast.

The resort is part of Red Sea Global, one of the so-called giga-projects at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 social and economic reform programme overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Prince Mohammed, who became first in line to the throne in 2017, has initiated a series of dramatic social reforms in a bid to soften Saudi Arabia’s austere image stemming from its historical championing of a purist form of Islam known as Wahhabism.

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Those changes have included sidelining stick-wielding religious police who used to chase men out of malls to pray, re-introducing cinemas and organising mixed-gender music festivals.

They have coincided with ramped-up repression targeting dissent, including from conservative clerics who might protest such moves.

Shouq Mohammed, a Syrian fashion influencer who attended Friday’s show, said it was not surprising given Saudi Arabia’s attempt to open up to the world and grow its fashion and tourism sectors.

The fashion industry in 2022 accounted for US$12.5 billion, or 1.4 per cent of national GDP, and employed 230,000 people, according to a report published last year by the official Saudi Fashion Commission.

“It’s the first time to have a swimsuit fashion show in Saudi Arabia, but why not? Seriously why not?” Mohammed said.

“It’s possible and we have it here.”

Raphael Simacourbe, a French influencer who also attended on Friday, said there was nothing risque to his eyes but in the Saudi context it was a major achievement.

“That’s very brave from them to do that today, so I am very happy to be part of it,” he said. — AFP