RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudis voiced outrage on Wednesday at a U.S. decision to let American servicewomen doff the flowing black robes they previously had to wear outside U.S. military bases in the conservative Muslim kingdom.
``That means that they will be breaking our laws and that they are looking for trouble,'' said a Saudi businessman who asked not to be named.
In deference to Muslim sensitivities, the U.S. military had required women to wear the ``abayah'' robe off base since American forces were sent to Saudi Arabia in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.
The removal of U.S. forces from the birthplace of Islam is a key demand of Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, Washington's main suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
U.S. military officials said Tuesday the abayah was no longer compulsory but remained strongly recommended.
There was no immediate Saudi government reaction, but one official complained there had been no advance consultation.
``I am surprised that such an order comes in such a way. We had no prior information about it,'' he said.
A Saudi cleric said the rule change flouted Muslim precepts.
``The covering of women to hide their bodies is an Islamic sharia demand, which should not be subject to criticism or (evoke) surprise,'' Sheikh Saad al-Saleh, an official at the Saudi Islamic Affairs Ministry, told Reuters.
``There must be no exceptions in enforcing the Islamic dress code in Saudi streets. No one of any nationality is exempt in the eyes of religion,'' he said.
MANY FOREIGN SOLDIERS
Saudi Arabia hosts about 5,000 U.S. military personnel, many of them at the Prince Sultan Air Base, a desert facility used to enforce ``no-fly'' zones against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Some British servicemen are also based there.
The dress code relaxation follows criticism in the United States of Saudi restrictions. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the nation's highest-ranking woman fighter pilot, recently filed a lawsuit against the old policy.
Controversy has mounted over the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia but Saudi and U.S. leaders have strenuously denied media reports that the kingdom might soon ask U.S. forces to leave.
The U.S. embassy said it was aware of the new directive by General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, responsible for operations in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Gulf.
``This is a military issue. As far as we are concerned, our female staff don't wear the abayah, but they are asked to dress conservatively – female and male alike,'' an embassy official said. ``You won't find men wearing shorts either.''
The directive does not challenge Saudi rules against women driving or end a U.S. requirement for servicewomen to be escorted by a man when they leave their base.
Residents in Riyadh said they had rarely seen U.S. servicewomen venture outside the Prince Sultan base in Kharj, some 50 miles south of the Saudi capital.
``It is not a sight you see every day here, since virtually all the foreign troops live at a housing complex, with swimming pools and other facilities, inside Kharj base,'' the editor of a Saudi newspaper said in Riyadh.
``But if some American women want to deliberately challenge our local customs, then you'll see a clash, especially with the mutawaeen,'' he said, referring to stick-wielding religious police who roam Saudi streets to enforce Islamic codes.
Islamically inspired restrictions have long been a bone of contention between Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, who protect it from perceived threats from Iraq and Iran.
``I was outraged about how unfair it was,'' said James Moore, a 37-year-old former British Army sergeant who served in Saudi Arabia for five months during the Gulf War.
``Here we were risking our lives to save their country and we could not even have a bit of Dutch courage (alcohol) or wear crosses or even have a Bible,'' said Moore, from Hull, England.
Britain says sending troops to Saudi Arabia or to fellow Gulf Arab monarchies does not present insurmountable obstacles.
``We always allow for cultural sensitivity. Personnel are fully briefed about how not to upset local customs in the Gulf and in all others areas where the beliefs are different than our own,'' a Ministry of Defense spokesman said.