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Mon 19 May 2008 10:33 AM

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H&M to open women-only department store

WEFME: Swedish retail giant plans first Saudi store staffed entirely by women for women.

Swedish retail giant H&M plans to open a female-only department store in Saudi Arabia, the first time a major chain has established an entire store just for women in the kingdom.

The store will be H&M's first in Saudi Arabia and will be staffed exclusively by women as part of an initiative by the Saudi government to boost employment of women in the ultra-conservative Muslim state, the UK's Times newspaper reported on Monday.

Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict version of sharia law under which women are not allowed to be alone in the company of a man that is not a male guardian, which can either be a father, husband, brother or son.

Restaurants, cafes, shops and offices are all required to have separate areas for men and women.

H&M, operated in the Middle East under a franchise agreement with Kuwait's Alshaya Group, will open its first Saudi store in a shopping mall in Riyadh later this year, according to the paper.

“We will increase the number of women working for us and will have 40 in Saudi Arabia," Alshaya CEO Mohammed Alshaya told delegates at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Sharm El Sheikh on Sunday.

"H&M is embarking on an innovative development to open a store with women working in it. It will have challenges, but we have to do it as this is part of our social responsibility to women in Saudi Arabia.”

Alshaya is expected to open additional H&M outlets in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Egypt this year, the Times said.

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