A week of fashion and bling on a remote island in Saudi Arabia

Stylist Dima Abid got his start at a time when fashion shows were banned in Saudi Arabia and tourism was virtually non-existent in the ultraconservative kingdom, barring religious pilgrimages.

This week’s presentation of the Saudi woman’s latest collection, with models walking the catwalk over water mostly bare-handed, shows just how far she’s come.

The event took place at a large luxury hotel on Umhad Alsheikh Island off the west coast of Saudi Arabia, accessible only by boat or seaplane.

The sunset show kicked off the first Red Sea Fashion Week on Thursday, heralded by organizers as a milestone for both Saudi fashion and a booming tourism industry vital to diversifying the economy of the world’s biggest oil exporter.

Silky materials or transparent fabrics, bare legs or arms for many models, some even with a plunging neckline. All in white and brown tones.

Another parade is said to feature swimsuits from Friday.

Compete with Dubai

A significant change in this conservative Muslim country is that ten years ago women were required to wear the abaya, a full body covering.

“You can say it’s bravado, but I see it differently: keeping pace with globalization,” Ms Abid told AFP.

“Previous restrictions were removed, and it gave us the opportunity to express our creativity even more beautifully.”

The range of the show’s collections proved that Saudi Arabia is determined to compete not only with the city of Dubai in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, but also with other fashion capitals, said Lojain Omran, Saudi host of “Hello Arab World.” Participated in the parade.

“If you want to reach an international audience in fashion, you have to reach all kinds of people, conservatives and people on the opposite side,” he added.

The parade resort, whose beach villas cost nearly $2,000 a night, is part of Red Sea Global, one of the mega projects at the center of an ambitious reform plan launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and called Vision 2030.

The beaches and their palm trees are seen as potential hotspots, and Red Sea Fashion Week is part of highlighting what’s already there, said Buraq Kagmak, director general of the Saudi Fashion Commission.

“It’s obvious that logistically we’re trying something very new […] On a distant island,” he said.

Promote tourism

“I want everyone to explore not just Saudi design, but Saudi Arabia as a destination,” he says.

Saudi designer Alanood Badr, who attended preparations for Ms Abid’s show, said it was “something we didn’t expect”. “Maldives is nothing to envy!”, he says.

Saudi Arabia is increasing investments in fashion and tourism, as the war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas diminishes economic growth prospects for the entire region.

But Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry has also faced persistent criticism over the human rights situation in the Gulf kingdom, including a crackdown on dissent under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed Salman.

Model Beatriz Resende, who grew up in Brazil, said she often saw the Middle East as a region that wasn’t portrayed in the most flattering way.

The young woman appreciated it only through traveling and modeling. “I’ll be honest. I want people to stop having stereotypes about countries and get to know them better,” he said.

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