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Saudi Arabia's first women-only hotel: Is it progress?

Some say it's a sanctuary for business women. Others see it as another sign of gender segregation in a male-dominated society.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / May 14, 2008

A sanctuary? The Luthan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, means "sanctuary " in Arabic. The hotel is owned by a Saudi princess and has an all-female board of directors.

Hasan Jamali/ap

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia's newest hotel, flickering candles in every corner enhance the serenity. And as you walk down royal-red halls, you'll notice something else: not a man in sight.

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"It's women-owned, women-managed, and women-run – from our IT engineer to our electrical engineer," boasts Lorraine Coutinho, executive director of the Luthan Hotel & Spa.

To some, Saudi Arabia's first women-only hotel is a sign of progress, a place where women can conduct business without interference in a male-dominated society.

Until January, women could not check into any hotel alone unless accompanied by a male family member or they had written permission from a male "guardian." Now, the only requirement is that the hotel register the names of female guests with the police.

But others say the new hotel simply reinforces gender segregation in a nation that still doesn't let women drive.

"It's not good because maybe some people will try to make other hotels to keep ladies separate from the men," says Hasna al-Qunayeer, a professor of Arabic linguistics at King Saud University. "Always they will keep men and women separate."

Her daughter agrees.

"It's taking a step backwards," says Aseel al Bakr. "These religious clerics are trying to say that men and women [being] together could lead to adultery. And it's not true."

Located on the outskirts of the capital, the upscale 25-room hotel caters to travelers who prefer an all-female environment and want to relax in its extravagantly luxurious spa.

"We're targeting the Saudi businesswoman," says Ms. Coutinho at the Luthan, an Arabic word meaning "sanctuary" or "refuge." "The idea is to offer women in Saudi leisure facilities whilst they're business travelers."

"I enjoyed it ... I like the idea of only-for-ladies ... because I feel so free," says Fadwa al-Homoud, a physician from the eastern town of Khobar who recently stayed at the Luthan. "I can use the services ... In a regular hotel, I can't use the spa."

Riyadh, Ms. Homoud adds, "is a very conservative city ... it's a very difficult city for a woman to be alone. I prefer to stay in a place like this."

Homoud recalls how a couple of years ago she flew to Jeddah for a meeting and forgot the permission letter signed by her father. It was late at night, but the hotel refused her a room. "I said it's better to give me a room than let me stay out on the street. I'm a doctor!" Homoud says.

She had to call a male friend, who took out a room for her in the name of his business.

And last year, while staying at Al-Faisaliah Hotel, one of Riyadh's plushest, Homoud says she was constantly annoyed by hotel staff who kept asking her why she was going upstairs. "I said, 'Don't ask a stupid question! I'm a resident of the hotel!' "