Creeping past a line of terracotta-coloured palaces in a Riyadh suburb, my car slowed at a building styled on the White House and turned a sharp right. In a nearby side street, dark blue-mirrored sliding doors guarded the privacy of my destination: The Luthan, Saudi Arabia’s first women-only hotel.
Owned by a group of Saudi princesses and businesswomen, the hotel is a pioneer in the Middle East, but part of a wider global trend for hotels that ban men, either completely or from specific floors – women can now choose female-only accommodation in cities from Copenhagen to Singapore and Vancouver. In most cases the idea has come from marketing departments who believe women appreciate different decor and amenities than men, but in Saudi Arabia there are more concrete advantages for female guests.
The Luthan – whose name means “sanctuary” in Arabic – opened in 2008, the year the Saudi kingdom first permitted women to stay in hotels without a male guardian, and offers an environment where locals and foreign visitors can walk around freely without the abaya, a black robe teamed with a headscarf. Later this year the 25-room hotel – an independent – will face competition from a heavyweight international rival when Riyadh’s five-star Four Seasons opens a female-only floor (the 50th) as part of a $40m redevelopment, with rooms costing more than double the price of those at the Luthan. It is a major development in a fledgling market that offers women rare communal space to relax in a country with tight restrictions on their movement and behaviour.
During my stay a graduation party blasted music from the restaurant and attractive rooftop terrace, and there are frequent women-only wedding celebrations – one Saudi male friend termed the guests the “Desperate Housewives of Riyadh” – but it was the spa that seemed the hub of hotel life. My free ten-minute massage there was excellent, and the room was buzzing with non-resident members who come to swim, work out and use the Jacuzzi.
“In every country, not just Saudi Arabia, I would prefer to stay among women,” said one Saudi guest I met in the breakfast room. A first-time visitor to the hotel, she had left her kids at home to take a break with her sisters, swapping her abaya in favour of a white shirt with Burberry-check trim.
Men were not completely absent. When my shower broke, I was told a man would fix it – though in the event he was so closely chaperoned by female staff that I never saw him.
Not everything was perfect. Some of the decor already felt tired, and though the location on the edge of the city created a sense of seclusion, it meant the reception needed an hour to rally a taxi. The only alternative is to have your own chauffeur – they may be able to visit their own hotel, but women are still not allowed to drive themselves home.