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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Saudi authority orders female gym to shut after 'deceitful' video

Footage of woman exercising could be a violation of Saudi Arabia's cybercrime law

All-women gyms are popular throughout Saudi Arabia but still frowned upon by some conservative members of society. Amer Hilabi / AFP
All-women gyms are popular throughout Saudi Arabia but still frowned upon by some conservative members of society. Amer Hilabi / AFP

Saudi Arabia’s sports authority has ordered the closure of a women's gym in Riyadh after a Kuwaiti social media star, Halema Boland, published a video of a woman exercising there.

The video published on Friday shows the woman, who Ms Boland describes as a “Tunisian kickboxing champion", working out in leggings and a tank-top. She also performs Zumba, a popular Brazilian dance workout.

The General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia announced over the weekend that the gym's licence had been suspended, the woman in the video had been fired from her job as a trainer, and legal proceedings had been initiated.

“The gym had its licence suspended over a deceitful video that circulated on social media promoting the gym disgracefully and breaching the kingdom’s code of conduct,” the authority's chairman, Turki Bin Abd Al Mohsen, said in a statement.

“The General Sports Authority asserts that it will put an end to such misdemeanours that deem offensive to society. All such irresponsible people will be under pursuit.”

Saudi Arabia has strict laws governing social media, but with one of the region's highest internet usage rates the regulations are selectively enforced.

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Under Saudi cybercrime law, publishing material through social media that is “inconsistent with public order or morality or religious values” is a crime.

Those found guilty of breaking the law face up to five years in jail and a fine of up to 3 million Saudi riyals (Dh2.94m).

Saudi Arabia has begun undergoing social reforms as part of a progressive agenda set by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has promised to return the kindom to "moderate open Islam".

Women will be allowed to drive this year, for the first time, and public cinemas are reopening after being banned for nearly four decades during which Saudi society was subject to strict control by religious authorities that often functioned outside the law.

Prince Mohammed has also spoken about the kingdom's strictly enforced public dress codes. “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men," he said last month. "This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover."

Despite the changes being introduced as part of the crown prince's Vision 2030 plan to make the kingdom more attractive to international investors, Saudi society is expected to remain largely conservative.