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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Segregation Forever: Welcome to Saudi Arabia’s Starbucks

posted by on June 6 at 11:10 AM

A western reporter in Saudi Arabia spots a familiar American icon in a mall…

THE hem of my heavy Islamic cloak trailed over floors that glistened like ice. I walked faster, my eyes fixed on a familiar, green icon. I hadn’t seen a Starbucks in months, but there it was, tucked into a corner of a fancy shopping mall in the Saudi capital. After all those bitter little cups of sludgy Arabic coffee, here at last was an improbable snippet of home—caffeinated, comforting, American.

I wandered into the shop, filling my lungs with the rich wafts of coffee. The man behind the counter gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered. I asked for a latte. He shrugged, the milk steamer whined, and he handed over the brimming paper cup. I turned my back on his uneasy face.

Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair.

“Excuse me,” hissed the voice in my ear. “You can’t sit here.” The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.

“Excuse me?” I blinked a few times.

“Emmm,” he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. “You cannot stay here.”

“What? Uh why?”

Then he said it: “Men only.”

He didn’t tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That was the “family” section. As a woman, that’s where I belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers. Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today’s Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces.

Via Sullivan.

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Why is Starbucks building coffee shops that promote discrimination against women?

As a former shareholder (500 shares, I'm in that movie where the .com guys bike into the shareholder meeting), and potentially a future shareholder, I want to know.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 6, 2007 11:17 AM

Starbucks might actually have the pull to effect change there, in small ways. I'd love to see this turn into something that could get the public attention of the corporate HQ.

Posted by Fnarf | June 6, 2007 11:22 AM

I hear the Bear Claws in the Saudi Starbucks are called "Camel Toes".

Posted by DOUG. | June 6, 2007 11:26 AM

I guess this is the reporter's first trip to Saudi Arabia. She's not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer if she's so suprised at how the Saudis treat women. And Fnarf, if there's one thing we Americans should have learned over the years is that people from the Middle East don't like it when we tell them how to live. Ya know what I'm sayin?

Posted by Shaniqua Jackson | June 6, 2007 11:26 AM

I thought this was par for the course everywhere in Saudi Arabia. If so, this isn't news.

Posted by Jason Josephes | June 6, 2007 11:27 AM

It's hard to read about the treatment of women in the muslim world and maintain my carefully crafted veneer of judgment-free multiculturalism.

Posted by Big Sven | June 6, 2007 11:30 AM

I find a difference in "oh, women are oppressed in Saudi Arabia" and hearing it from a first-hand perspective -- particularly since we so rarely hear from the Saudi women themselves.

Oppression of women is not a particularly new practise, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't hear about it. It's because it happens all the time that we shouldn't dismiss it so readily out of hand.

Posted by Gloria | June 6, 2007 11:40 AM

"uneasy face"? "sumptuous lap "? "hissed the voice"?

Was this written by Dan Brown? Boy is that bad writting...

And where was a starbucks ever "improbable"?

Posted by andrew | June 6, 2007 11:40 AM

Wow, everyone seems so blase about how women are treated in Saudi America.

No, this is not "news" per se. But I still found her article fascinating and well worth the read.

And no, if you read the article, you'll find that she's been reporting for the LA Times from Saudi Arabia for several years.

Personally, I applaud her, because I don't think I could handle ten minutes in Riyadh.

Posted by arduous | June 6, 2007 11:43 AM
people from the Middle East don't like it when we tell them how to live.

Sure, but that doesn't necessarily make it ethical for Starbucks to conduct business there in a manner that doesn't respect all of their customers.

Consider the case of apartheid South Africa; the US didn't invade them to "tell them how to live", but - no thanks to the Reagan administration - many US corporations didn't do business there, putting pressure on the country's government to respect the human rights of all of its inhabitants.

Posted by cdc | June 6, 2007 11:45 AM
Starbucks might actually have the pull to effect change there, in small ways

As someone who has picked up a lot of girls at starbucks, I just want to say these Saudi guys are not getting their moneys worth on that coffee...

Posted by andrew | June 6, 2007 11:45 AM

Fucking savages...

Posted by pablocjr | June 6, 2007 11:46 AM

If she's been there for years, she should have known that she wasn't supposed to sit there.

Obviously, I find it reprehensible, but what are you gonna do?

Posted by Jason Josephes | June 6, 2007 11:50 AM

The next paragraph tells us that the incident happenend four years ago. I doubt anything has changed, but this is hardly "news".

Posted by Lorin | June 6, 2007 11:50 AM

Wow. Y'know... Jason @ 5 is right, it's not 'news', because I know how women are treated in Saudi Arabia, I know I'd never go there in a million years, and I'm disgusted by the treatment of women in a lot of places, but especially the Middle East lately... it's not news, and it shouldn't be shocking, but at the same time it is: it's shocking to see that something so unabashedly American as a Starbucks can be, I guess, bastardised. I'm not trying to be alarmist but geez... I'm a woman with a caffiene addiction. If I was, for one reason or another, in Saudi Arabia and saw a Starbucks, I'd feel a little bit more at home. Being told I can't stay there because I have tits and a uterus, that's like ordering a latte and recieving a punch in the face.

Posted by Monique | June 6, 2007 11:50 AM

I guess we need to complain to Starbucks because they are more likely to listen to complaints than the U.S. State department. Saudi Arabia's treatment of women is just marginally better than the Taliban.

Posted by elswinger | June 6, 2007 11:57 AM

Next thing you know the Saudis will be telling the disabled they can't ride express buses.

Posted by Smade | June 6, 2007 12:03 PM

@ 13? What are you gonna do?

Well, I don't know about you, but I just wrote a letter to Starbucks:

Posted by arduous | June 6, 2007 12:05 PM

Shaniqua, you may think that they "don't like it when we tell them how to live", or that what they like matters somehow, but it doesn't mean we should roll over when they try to impose their oppression on our institutions.

You can't have it both ways; you can live in the modern world, or you can live in the medieval one. Starbucks is the modern world, and in the modern world -- regardless of what people in Saudi Arabia think -- barring women is wrong.

They're wrong. They're no other way to say it. Sometimes "cultural sensitivity" is just wrong. Their interpretation of their beliefs is at odds with the truth. If they want to carry on that way, fine, but if they want the Starbucks logo on it, THEY MUST CHANGE. Not Starbucks. Human rights are not negotiable.

Starbucks must be made to see this as well. They should open both sides to women, or they should pull out of the country, period.

Saudis have been getting a free ride from America too long.

Posted by Fnarf | June 6, 2007 12:09 PM

The problem really isn't American companies making money off of Saudis while following local custom. The bigger problem is Saudi companies making money off of Americans.

Do you know where you buy your gas from?

Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to find out. I know I stick to BP (British Petroleum) as much as I can. I hate helping to fund countries that practice sexual aparteid.

Posted by Laurie Mann | June 6, 2007 12:09 PM

At some point in time Saudi women will stand up, throw off their veils and demand to be treated as humans. African slaves did it here in America, Gay-Americans are doing it now, American women did it last century. Many other peoples/groups/clans have done it/are doing it/will do it. If for one second you expect the power-elite to give up power with out a fight you're really cute but oh so dumb. It's time for Saudi Women to stand up for Saudi women (as many are doing). Our words won't help, and only when Americans stop buying Saudi Oil will be have the power to effect change there.

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | June 6, 2007 12:21 PM

The best way to affect change in the Middle East is to be patient and keep the exchange of commerce, information, and media flowing. As long as they are engaged with the west, modernization will inevitably follow.

Hardball tactics will only drive them backwards.

Posted by Sean | June 6, 2007 12:23 PM

sargon, you're counting on men not outright killing women that do such a thing. it became distasteful to kill slaves, women and homos at some point along the way.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 6, 2007 12:27 PM

As Hitchens put it, "Religion ruins everything," including Starbucks.

Posted by Tiffany | June 6, 2007 12:29 PM

Bullshit, that sounds like blatant U.S. imperialism propaganda, policing and "freeing" the Middle East with "democracy." Let them drive themselves.

Posted by folklife | June 6, 2007 12:29 PM

"only when Americans stop buying Saudi Oil will we have the power to effect change there."

Not quite. Oil is the only thing propping up the monarchy, and if you kick away that crutch, Saudi Arabia will become another isolated wilderness run by brutal Islamic fanatics, just like Afghanistan.

We can debate whether that's preferable to the monarchy, but history suggests we have more influence over countries with whom we are economically and socially engaged.

Posted by Sean | June 6, 2007 12:35 PM

I highly doubt writing to Starbucks is going to change the thousands of years of women being kept down in the middle east. But you might get a coupon for a free latte, so it could be worth something.

Posted by Jason Josephes | June 6, 2007 12:36 PM

@21: Right, when the US stops buying Saudi oil we'll be able to influence them...

First, that's unlikely to happen until they have no more oil to sell. Second, if we did stop buying their oil- they'd pay even less attention to us because they'd be selling it to China or India instead.

Posted by Sure... | June 6, 2007 12:41 PM

No, but it might convince Starbucks to pull out of Saudi Arabia.

Posted by elswinger | June 6, 2007 12:42 PM

Right, that's exactly my point - let them make their own decisions about how to run their country. No western arrogance, imperialism, bombs, or boycotts.

If, in the meantime, we keep the exchange of goods and information open, they will modernize themselves.

Posted by Sean | June 6, 2007 12:44 PM

Can Starbucks at the very least do something about that terrible burnt taste their coffee has?

Posted by Bene Gesserit | June 6, 2007 12:50 PM

"If she's been there for years, she should have known that she wasn't supposed to sit there."

That's like saying Rosa Parks should never have sat in the front of the bus, because she "knew better."

Posted by Ndiane | June 6, 2007 12:50 PM

#31 - I said that very thing to a Starbucks exec once, that I wouldn't drink their coffee because I think they overroast the beans. I got this big indignant spiel about how "uneducated" American taste buds are, not to know that burnt coffee is "obviously" better. C'est la vie - I'll keep buying coffee that appeals more to my "uneducated" taste buds. Used to be Seattle's Best, but the Borg bought them out and will probably start burning their beans any day now, too.

But if you're Bene Gesserit, can't you just alter the chemical composition of the drink yourself?

Posted by Geni | June 6, 2007 1:09 PM

Unfortunately, the effect of these sorts of stories on U.S. readers seems to amount to more of the same "those people are savages" sentiment used to justify the Iraq war, given that most people (commenters here included) don't seem capable of drawing distinctions between one Arabic (or even Muslim) country and another. The U.S. has been an enthusiastic supporter of the oil-rich medieval monarchy in Saudi Arabia for a long time, in spite of their egregious human rights record (in fact, if you remember back to the first Gulf War, you may recall that defending Saudi Arabia was foremost among the reasons given for waging that war.)

So yes, treatment of women in Saudi Arabia (even in their Starbucks) is apalling, and yes your tax dollars are helping to arm the tyrants who keep it that way, and no U.S. foreign policy doesn't show any evidence of giving any weight human rights in general or treatment of women in particular when deciding which countries are our friends and which are our enemies (after all, treatment of women in pre-invasion Iraq was among the best in the region.)

Just bringing this up next time you see a story like this offered as justification for another ill-considered military campaign against the Islamo-fascist menace: If the U.S. were sincere in its desire to alleviate the suffering of women in the Arab world, we would not be in bed with Saudi Arabia. They probably wouldn't even have a Starbucks.

And to those saying we should just leave it alone and wait for trade with the West to work its magical Democratizing benefits, what the hell are you smoking? Since when did being able to buy Coca Cola democratize anything?

Posted by flamingbanjo | June 6, 2007 1:19 PM

Starbucks needs to either convert all their coffee shops in Saudi Arabia to "Family Style" or shut them down.

There are limits.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 6, 2007 1:22 PM

NEWSFLASH: Americans who have a problem with non-American foreigners doing their foreign customs... while abroad in said foreign land. America is shocked that the perfection of American society is not patterned the world over. America is shocked that all its goodwill acts are not appreciated by the world at-large and confusingly refuses to adopt the perfect American way of life.

Good money bets that reporter is 1) White 2)Anglo-Saxon 3) Protestant 4) viewed the particular reporting assignment as an upwardly mobile "good career" move 5) secretly loathes muslim culture 6) states public she is tolerant and all for that diversity stuff 7) states to close friends and family that tolerance and diversity really conflicts with "good Christian" Bible teachings, (but what can she do?)and 8) goes to those underground Christian churches, which are illegal in Saudi Arabia, but feels that God commands her to disregard the laws and moral customs of her host country, because America really knows and does everything the best.

Next on the News... an American is shocked to learn that the rest of the world does not live on a 4000 cal. diet, yet the rest of the world "claims" to be healthier than America

Posted by phenics | June 6, 2007 1:24 PM

@15: Wow, me and other Monique have more in common than just a name...

I totally agree. It may not be anything new, as "family " sections are practically the norm in Saudi, but its still fucking awful.

Booooo Starbucks.

Posted by Original Monique | June 6, 2007 1:31 PM

If only robbery and murder could come under "foreign customs", I'd be made!

Posted by Gloria | June 6, 2007 1:34 PM


Funny, I've always seen it the opposite way. Americans clearly love the burnt taste, otherwise Starbucks would never have spread beyond Washington state. That indicates to me that Americans have lousy palates and can't tell the difference between burnt coffee and good coffee. I doubt they could even tell the difference between robusta and arabica.

Posted by keshmeshi | June 6, 2007 1:36 PM

#33-I have a friend who bases her coffee choice on brands rather than taste. She turns her nose up at coffees she's never even tried. I think she feels that somehow Starbucks is sophisticated and the best. So, there's an example of a totally "educated" Starbucks coffee fan. THE SHIT IS BURNT.

As Bene Gesserit, my powers are more suited to other tasks than fixing poor coffee.

Posted by Bene Gesserit | June 6, 2007 1:41 PM

only people in seattle would debate the taste of coffee so passionately while the rest of the country is happy to drink whatever is given.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 6, 2007 2:11 PM

Wow, a segregated Starbucks. Do they have segregated public schools, different insurance and service costs based on sex, different pay rates based on sex, etc? That would be really savage.

Posted by jamier | June 6, 2007 2:36 PM

Nice 1 @42. Bellevue Ave, shouldn't your comment be that they need to appease their oppressors? That was your shtick the other day.

Posted by vegetable lasagna | June 6, 2007 2:59 PM

Do you like being wrong in your predictive modelling of my ideas?

I don't think anything can be done that doesn't make the situation worse for them or for us.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 6, 2007 3:06 PM

Phenics @36: Do you believe that women should have the right to wear what they want in public and vote and drive and otherwise generally be treated as adults? If not, why not, and why should any reporter, be they WASP or otherwise, agree with you?
This isn't a question of cultural imperialism- it's a question of human rights.

Posted by Ursula | June 6, 2007 3:11 PM

Coming soon, in the South, Starbucks with Whites Only counters ...


Better convert to family style, is all I'm saying, cause this is a PR disaster waiting to explode ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 6, 2007 3:15 PM

if we could get the saudi women to move off to one side, i'd be in favor of destroying SA's infrastructure of air-conditioned modernism, and that of the tackiest place on earth, Dubai, the home of Michael Jackson, as we pull out of iraq.

Posted by maxsolomon | June 6, 2007 3:34 PM

This is great coming from the publication that thinks protesters demanding higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organize in the developing world are stupid. Does the Stranger staff think women in overseas factories get maternity leave? It just goes to show, attach gays, women, or muslims to a story, and suddenly it matters to the Stranger.

Posted by Jay | June 6, 2007 4:55 PM

Just wondering, in Saudi Arabia does the Starbucks mermaid wear a burqa?

Posted by Ben | June 6, 2007 5:15 PM

Well Jamier, since Saudi women are not allowed to drive, your insurance postulation is moot.

Posted by Tiffany | June 6, 2007 5:23 PM

Maybe America should just butt out of other countries life styles and work on making America's standards, freedoms, and laws so freakin desirable that other nationals demand the same of their governments. America needs to stop being the world's police, nanny, arms dealer, fashion model, mother, father, what get the idea.

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | June 6, 2007 5:27 PM

Yeah, it's none of our business if other countries want to practice slavery (still going on in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states despite being made illegal in 1964), or topple walls on homosexuals, or imprisoning women for years as prostitutes for letting a wisp of hair escape the veil. Torture and murder are fair game, right?

Posted by Fnarf | June 6, 2007 8:53 PM

I think America wastes its efforts on making sure that values such as McDonalds, stupid TV shows and Frankenfood. A bit exaggerated, but there's a big push for cultural domination through the marketplace. With Saudi Arabia, the emphasis is on getting their oil and was on having our troops there (though we pulled our troops out in 2003ish.)

That said, this policy does remind me of South Africa of 20 years ago. There's a good 2001 column by Colbert King of the Washington Post to that effect at

Posted by Ebenezer | June 6, 2007 9:29 PM

Why is she there? Let's see . . . could it be the huge salaries offered in Saudi, or that she couldn't get a job anywhere else as a reporter (talk about bad writing). I live on the Arabian Peninsula - do I love being treated as a second class citizen because I'm a woman? Of course not. Do I love my huge tax free salary I earn at my (by American standards) part-time job? You bet your sweet ass I do. It's their country, as disgusting as you may find it it's not your business. She's got her own personal reasons to be there I'm sure. You can't have it both ways.

Posted by yinzer | June 7, 2007 3:36 AM

Why is she there? Let's see . . . could it be the huge salaries offered in Saudi, or that she couldn't get a job anywhere else as a reporter (talk about bad writing). I live on the Arabian Peninsula - do I love being treated as a second class citizen because I'm a woman? Of course not. Do I love my huge tax free salary I earn at my (by American standards) part-time job? You bet your sweet ass I do. It's their country, as disgusting as you may find it it's not your business. She's got her own personal reasons to be there I'm sure. You can't have it both ways.

Posted by yinzer | June 7, 2007 3:41 AM

Whatever is a multiculturalist liberal to do?! One could lambaste Starbucks for not globalizing enough, i.e. imperially enforcing American standards of equal treatment for women on the mores of the natives. Or one could applaud Starbucks's reprehensible and savage disrespect for women; after all, we wouldn't want to let any equal rights policy of an American homogenizing corporate behemoth raze the quaint local customs that degrade and mistreat women.

I'm sure too many on the Left prefer multiculturalism and corporation-bashing to the promotion of human rights and the equal dignity of women.

For Saudi society, what we call "human rights" they will rightly call cultural "imperialism" and "globalization". The world could use some more globalization.

Posted by Eric of Bethesda | June 7, 2007 10:42 PM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 1:47 PM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 1:48 PM

It isn't clear to me how you could be in Saudi Arabia for 4 years and then suddenly notice that everything is segregated. That would be like living in Barrow Alaska for 4 years and suddenly noticing it is cold outside.

"Just wondering, in Saudi Arabia does the Starbucks mermaid wear a burqa?"

The Starbucks mermaid is not used in Saudi Arabia because the sylized woman is considered pornographic there. I believe what is inside the middle of the logo is a crown.

As a liberal who has traveled to dozens of countries on five continents (including many Muslim nations), I don't want to impose my cultural beliefs onto other people and tell them how to live their lives.

However, my desire to not impose my beliefs runs into a brick wall when people are oppressed or hurt.

Desire to not impose beliefs was used to justify slavery as well as Apartheid in South Africa.

The only thing tolernce is not tolerent of is intolerence.

Women are people too, and accepting that they are not as a matter to not offend would be like accpeting that the stoning of the 15 year old girl is Iraqi Kurdistan is acceptable because it is their way of life.

Starbucks, like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and every other foreign and American company that set up shop there lacked spine.

When Dunkin' Donuts opened up in Saudi Arabia they refused to segregate. Dunkin Donuts have only one entrance and one area to order and sit.

As far as I know, they are the only US chain to do this. But, if Dunkin Donuts can do it, then I think McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and everyone else can as well.

That said, I know many women who choose to wear a hijab (headscarf) out of choice. I know sisters where one dresses in Mudd jeans with bebe tops and the other more conservatively with a headscarf.

I think when nations make laws that women cannot wear headscarves they are being quite intolerant.

In France they said that "We have banned religous articles in schools, and therefore Christian's can't wear crosses and Muslims can't wear headscarves, same thing."

Except, of course, that France is wrong. The girls and women who wear headscarves feel that they are relgious and are conforming to the values of their religion.

Christianity does not require, suggest, or compel that anyone wear a cross.

Many of my best friends are Muslim and many are the finest people I know. This attempt to place a stigma on all Muslims as being fundamentalist wackos is harmful to Muslims living in this country and harmful to our relations with others.

Posted by Scott | June 17, 2007 12:08 PM

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