Ikea, as a global brand, prides itself on providing the same experience and products in all markets. However, it appears not all Ikea catalogues are created equal. A Swedish newspaper compared the Swedish and Saudi versions of the manual, and found that in the latter women had been very skilfuly airbrushed out.
A scene of a mother, father and their children in the bathroom, was edited to one of only the father and his children. In another scene, a woman was replaced by a man.
In shots where editing out only the woman was problematic, both men and women were dispensed with. I perused the entire Arabic catalogue and in the Saudi Ikea universe, the world is populated entirely by single dads, children and the occasional cat.
Ikea is extremely popular in Saudi Arabia, but probably not for the same reasons that it is popular in other parts of the world. In an affluent country, the low-cost aspect is not the main appeal. Ikea furniture and Ikea-inspired decor is seen as aspirational, to a lifestyle that is modern and cosmopolitan, and removed from the more traditional furnishing tastes of the Gulf.
The stereotype of marble halls, crystal chandeliers and gold paraphernalia in Saudi interiors is not an entirely inaccurate one but, as someone who had always thought of Ikea as a place to look for basics after moving into a new flat, I found it strange to hear Saudi women praise someone’s taste by saying, “Oh, her new house is so tastefully done, all the furniture is from Ikea!”
Pre-fabricated, self-assembled furniture may not be the average European’s definition of luxury, but to a certain class in Saudi Arabia the company has a prestige that suggests that not only are you rich, but that you have enough money to eschew the tastes of traditionalists and the nouveau riche.
Naturally, most Saudi Arabians do not assemble the furniture themselves. A whole sideline in Ikea furniture assembly has mushroomed, adding more cost to the purchases and rendering the cheapness of the goods almost entirely pointless. At the other end of the income spectrum, the brand is sufficiently pricey to also be high-status for white-collar expats who opt for Ikea’s wares over cheaper locally made furniture.
There is also a more political aspect. In a region sensitive and relatively resistant to foreign influences, Sweden is seen as one of the more innocuous Western countries. When Ikea opened a new store in Jeddah in 2004, the ensuing stampede left three dead. British retail giant Marks and Spencer’s reception in Riyadh around the same time was a much cooler affair. The store was even on a list of firms that consumers were told to boycott due to their perceived associations with imperialism, the US and Israel. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola were also on the list.
This is by no means the first such incident of “deleting women” in the kingdom. As technology has advanced, it has become easier to airbrush offensive images of women in long-sleeved pajamas cleaning their teeth.
In the early noughties, I was a fan of Sayidaty, a popular Cairo-published Arabic beauty and fashion magazine. When I moved to Saudi Arabia I was shocked to see that someone had taken a heavy black marker pen to any photos of women from the neck down — angry strokes of black above which the face of a smiling actress or singer hovered bizarrely.
School books published outside the kingdom were also subjected to the same treatment. As authorities were unable to block all print, film and music from entering the country, they had determined to edit as much of it as was possible.
Although the edited Ikea catalogue was allegedly produced by a third-party franchise, it is highly unlikely no one at Ikea was aware of the requested edits. The official statement read: “We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the Ikea group values.”
Sweden is one of the more strident champions of women’s rights and in this instance there has clearly been a conflict between values and financial concerns. However, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, it would not be the first time a Western institution subordinates women’s rights to business interests.