German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be packing a headscarf in preparation for her tour of four Arab countries which kicks off on Saturday.
Merkel has been known to cover her hair when the occasion required it
Even though Saudi law stipulates that Saudi and foreign women may only appear in public wearing a headscarf and a long black garment, Germany's most powerful woman will not risk incurring the wrath of the religious police when she appears in Riyadh wearing a trouser suit and with her hair uncovered.
Merkel is following the precedent set by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who reportedly agonized over the decision not to cover her head for talks in Riyadh, thus paving the way for Merkel's unconstrained appearance.
Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia
"The times have changed, foreign guests are not obliged to wear the headscarf any more," a Saudi journalist explained. "All the same, Camilla, the wife of Prince Charles, wore a headscarf during her visit last year."
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also opted to cover their heads for Riyadh talks during their times in office.
Saudi King Abdullah is a strict Muslim. However, his religion has not prevented him from shaking hands with female politicians from foreign countries.
In Saudi Arabia --where women are not permitted to drive and require the written consent of their male "custodians" for every important decision -- even a handshake is a radical gesture with which all Saudis would not agree.
Condoleezza Rice paved the way for Merkel to go without a headscarf
Although some Saudi women have inherited positions of influence or are highly respected for their business activities, no women have ascended to powerful positions in the country.
Talks with other women are not on Merkel's agenda, which is hardly surprising considering the brevity of her trip. Her meetings will focus primarily on economic questions, the Middle East, violence in Iraq and other perennial regional issues.
The chancellor's trip, which begins on Saturday in Egypt, will take her to Saudi Arabia on Sunday and then on to Kuwait and the emirate states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In Egypt, she is scheduled to have a quick look at the pyramids of Giza by night.
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