Inside Saudi Arabia's Hotel for Women

Al Luthan Hotel and Spa boasts that it offers guests 150 services, 25 posh guest rooms, and 0 men.

The women-only hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's first, opened earlier this year after the government lifted a key travel restriction on women. In January, Saudi Arabia allowed women to stay in hotels without a male guardian or "mahrim," the chaperone that was long required under the country's strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Checking into Luthan, I had to help the diminutive Filipina bellhop carry my suitcase. I met women manning the reception, running the spa, and serving food. The only man I saw during my stay was one maintenance man checking the spa fountains in the early morning.

"We are a women-only organization," Dr. Nasreen Al Dossary, a businesswoman who works with the hotel.

Al Luthan, which means "the refuge" in Arabic, opened as a high-end women's spa with twenty Saudi princesses as the main investors. The hotel concept fit with Saudi Arabia's segregated society -- women value their privacy, sit separately from non-relative men in restaurants, and must use separate entrances to some public buildings. Inside the Luthan, women can relax and take off the black robes or "abayas" they are required to wear outside.

"I don't think that we are different from any other hotel, except that we're giving more privacy for women," Al Dossary told ABC News.

The hotel, which sits a short drive away from central Riyadh, seemed less than half full. Hotel staff confirmed that occupancy was around 45 percent.

But downstairs the spa was bustling. Saudi women were working out and surveying services from Thai massage to traditional Indian yurvedic healing treatments, administrated on a hand-carved wood table.

"Our guests are no different from any other hotel, except perhaps looking for a more pampered stay," said Al Dossary.

Abeer Subzi, 27, came to the Luthan, along with her mother and best friend, for some pampering in the sanctuary, paying about 690 Saudi Riyals (roughly $184) a night.

"I love it, I don't want to leave … everything is available. I can use the gym, the spa, the pool, everything," Subzi told ABC News, referring to the fact that women are barred from using pools and fitness facilities in most Saudi hotels. Subzi says there are health clubs in her hometown of Jeddah, but that they are few and far from where she lives.

The hotel experience is a cross between girl- power and pampered princess. There are rooms awash in pink, notably in the downstairs Internet lounge. The Luthan plays host to a summer finishing school for Saudi girls, with a curriculum that includes makeup application, career counseling, and on-site company visits. "We're trying to develop Saudi women and we're trying to develop the business side of Saudi women," Al Dossary explained.

The lifting of the ban on women staying in hotels alone was taken by many as a sign of changing public perception and government policy on female emancipation.

Not all reviews of the Luthan have been as positive. Some Saudi women, like Samar Fatany, saw it as a societal setback.

"I wasn't very happy … we're trying to overcome this segregation and this divide between citizens of this country," said Fatany, a broadcaster and women's activist based in Jeddah.

"It was a symbolic victory … the hard-liners were against women working or traveling on their own," said Fatany.

As an all-women's enterprise, the hotel is aware there would be resistance.

"Like in any society you'll have some people with the idea and some against it," Al Dossary said.

"They are starting to see Saudi women in business, starting to see how good they are. And they started feeling the pressure of having half of the society paralyzed. You need to have all of these people working together in order for the society to move on," she said.

Al Luthan's founders see their approach as a carefully calibrated step forward, pitched as a luxury hotel experience that fits with the norms of Saudi society. It comes at a time of an emerging Islamic hospitality sector – hotels, particularly in the Gulf region, that cater to a religious Muslim clientele. Along with prayer rooms, Halal dining, and markers toward Mecca, Islamic hotels have some separation of the sexes. Separate floors for women are available in major hotels around the Kingdom.

Al Luthan may be the first all-women's hotel in Saudi Arabia, but in the West the genre seems thriving, presumably for different reasons. One British travel website,, showed more than forty hotels and outdoor programs for women in Europe, Canada, and the United States. The Premier Hotel in New York's Times Square has a women-only floor.

"I think we're developing really fast, we're moving really fast, and we're proving ourselves really fast," said Al Dossary. She adds that Luthan plans to open more locations around Saudi Arabia.

Al Luthan Hotel & Spa, Riyadh, +966 1 480 7799.