[RIYADH] Having to wear ski jackets in Riyadh is unheard of, but a new snow park in the Saudi capital has made them a must despite outside temperatures exceeding 45 Celsius.
Saudi women wearing the compulsory traditional abaya that covers the body from head to toe are now donning thermal coats and cosy boots as they sit on sledges to scoot down the slopes of "Snow City".
Unusually in the ultra-conservative kingdom that applies strict segregation rules and where even restaurants have separate sections for "families" and single men, they are also joined by males.
The complex is a rarity in Saudi Arabia where there are only small-scale amusement parks for children, and where cinemas or theatres are not allowed.
Stretching over 5,000 square metres, the entertainment project does not have proper ski pistes as such, but its modest indoor slopes still manage to provide frosty fun in a country that is mostly desert and searing heat.
"I've never touched snow," says Ali al-Ajmi, 40, who has never travelled out of the Arabian Peninsula.
Dozens of people throng the front counter to gain access to the play area which opened in mid-July after four years of construction work costing some 100 million riyals (S$35.8 million).
Surprisingly, women currently represent the bulk of visitors in a country where they are subject to strict constraints, including a globally unique ban on driving.
One employee at Snow City said the centre's management initially faced the problem of not having enough boots for women as they had not expected females to represent more than 10 per cent of visitors.
In fact, women have so far exceeded 75 per cent of the numbers flocking to frolic in Alpine temperatures.
"There is privacy and we're enjoying our time here," says one woman who identifies herself as Umm Ahmed, 37.
"I like the place. It provides entertainment." The temperature inside is a cool -3 degrees Celsius.
"It's freezing," chatters 14-year-old Abdulrahman Hamad after spending some 90 minutes playing in the snow.
A younger boy appears to feel the pinch of the freezing air even more, and suggests a novel way of countering it.
"It looks cloudy and feels very cold. Why don't they also put a sun in here?" asks four-year-old Salman.
The facility is not the first of its kind in the arid Gulf region. The emirate of Dubai boasts an indoor ski resort that opened in 2005, featuring ski slopes complete with towbars and a chairlift.
As the birthplace of Islam and custodian of its holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has long relied on religious tourism, attracting millions of the faithful for the annual hajj and year-round minor pilgrimages.
But with more than half of its population under the age of 25, the kingdom is also now pushing to provide more entertainment options for its residents, many of whom turn to neighbouring Bahrain or Dubai for leisure activities.
In April, the authorities launched an ambitious economic diversification plan to wean the kingdom off oil as the main revenue earner, with development of tourism and entertainment projects among other wide-ranging goals.
US company Six Flags Entertainment Corporation announced in June that it is holding talks with Saudi Arabia to build theme parks in the country.
On Snow City's Facebook page, many commentators have eagerly welcomed the new attraction.
"Turns out women are allowed in," one Facebook user noted.
And in a comment reflecting some of the attitudes currently prevalent in Saudi Arabia, a woman asks: "Is there a day for ladies only?" AFP