Saudi Arabia Arrests Man Filmed Eating With Female Colleague

The arrest of an Egyptian man filmed eating with a female colleague has sparked an online debate in Saudi Arabia, where modest progress in women's rights has come into conflict with traditionally conservative social values.

The video, which went viral on Saudi Twitter, showed a man with an Egyptian dialect eating breakfast alongside a woman wearing a full face veil in Jeddah. Many have assumed her to be Saudi, the BBC reported.

The part of the video that has sparked the most controversy is when the woman appears to feed the man, a level of intimacy considered inappropriate by many Saudi social media users. The two can also be heard joking about eating breakfast together without anyone else being invited.

Such familiarity is not common in the conservative kingdom, where families and single women must sit apart from single men in many workplaces, restaurants or cafés. Women are often prohibited from such settings without being accompanied by a male guardian, usually a father of husband but sometimes a brother or son.

The Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced that the man in the video was arrested and accused of "committing several violations and taking up a post exclusively reserved for Saudis."

An Arabic hashtag translating to "an Egyptian having breakfast with a Saudi" has been used over 113,000 times on Twitter as users debate the direction of the country, whose leaders are nominally attempting to expand personal liberties in pursuit of a more modern country.

Some users suggested the video was not scandalous at all and questioned why colleagues could not share a meal and a joke without facing arrest. But others said their behavior was inappropriate and even called for the woman's arrest as well.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—son and heir of King Salman and widely considered the real driving force behind the throne—has become the international face of the Saudi ruling family.

The 33-year-old is spearheading the Vision 2030 project, which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy so it's not so reliant on crude oil and create a more "vibrant society." Foreign money is key to the plan, and Salman is hoping to turn the kingdom into a business powerhouse to rival the wealthy Gulf states.

An important element of this image is greater freedoms for Saudi women. In recent years, women have been given the right to attend soccer matches, apply for certain jobs and go to cinemas and concerts. Women were also given the right to drive, a battle that Saudi female activists have been fighting for decades.

But some observers suggest little is really changing. The lifting of the female driving ban was accompanied with mass arrests of feminist activists, as the government sent a message that rights are granted by the crown, not won by organized protest.

Human rights groups have warned that the male guardianship system, considered the most oppressive element of gender relations in Saudi Arabia, remains in place, hugely restricting women regardless of other reforms.

The BBC said viewers in Egypt were surprised at the scandal the video created. Television presenter Osama Gawish, for example, said he was not sure what to make of the arrest. "Doesn't [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman want a new, open Saudi Arabia with concerts and movie theaters and beaches and a 2030 vision?" he asked.