Why Saudi Arabia is rolling out the purple carpet for VIP guests, making the switch from red

Saudi Ministry of Culture has announced the new decision on its social media accounts

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, walks down the purple carpet in Jeddah during his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Saudi Press Agency
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, walks down the purple carpet in Jeddah during his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Saudi Press Agency

For years, the red carpet has suggested glamour, royalty and power. But its monopoly on VIP events might be coming to an end. At the Oscars this year, the Academy rolled out a pink carpet for its guests.

And now, Saudi Arabia has announced that it, too, is eschewing red for its dignitary visits – and opting for purple carpets instead.

It’s not that controversial of a choice. Red and purple were long the colours associated with royalty, because the dyes for those vibrant colours were the most expensive – and ergo, the most desirable way to express one’s admiration for visiting dignitaries.

However, purple also has specific connotations in Saudi Arabia's culture. The decision was announced by the Ministry of Culture, which connected the change in ceremonial procedure to the violet-coloured plants currently in bloom across the Asir region.

“The lavender carpets are identical to the colour of the kingdom’s deserts and plateaus in the spring,” said the Saudi Press Agency, referring to the country’s lavender flowers, desert germander, basil and Jacaranda trees.

Rows of the latter, with their violet flowers, have recently blossomed in Asir’s capital of Abha, striping the city in purple. As Saudi Arabia ramps up its tourism industry, it is keen to promote Asir, with its verdant, mountainous climate – and tribal practices such wearing floral crowns – that differ from the image of a purely desert-strewn nation.

Saudi Arabia has switched the red carpet for a purple one during dignitary visits. Courtesy Saudi Press Agency
Saudi Arabia has switched the red carpet for a purple one during dignitary visits. Courtesy Saudi Press Agency

Saudi Arabia’s new purple carpets are also edged in a geometric design that refers to the art of sadu weaving, a traditional Bedouin practice that has recently been inscribed on the Unesco list of Intangible Heritage. It has been put down as a heritage practice for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, though it is widely used across the Gulf, including in the UAE.

Sadu weave is typically made out of wool from sheep and goats, and hair of camels, with a pattern of geometric shapes that runs in stripes down the fabric. The colours are usually red, brown or black, and the motifs – though not the practice itself – are still in common usage in cushions that are popularly and commercially produced across the region.

In traditional sadu, the red dye comes from the root of the madder plant, which grows in Asia and the Mediterranean. By contrast, the red used in European carpets, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, comes from the cochineal scale insect, which lives in South America and was a highly prized export before synthetic dyes were developed.

By the early 19th century, the red carpet was already associated with VIP arrivals in the US and Europe. When former US president James Monroe visited South Carolina in 1821, the city of Georgetown laid out a red carpet for him, and passengers from some upper-class train coaches disembarked in New York on red carpets at the turn of the century.

In the 1920s, the trend moved to Hollywood. The Egyptian Theatre rolled out a red carpet for the premiere of Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks, in 1922, and in 1961, the Academy Awards started using a red carpet to welcome its invitees to the ceremony.

‘Red carpet’ is now synonymous with the pageantry, fashion and adulatory celebrity culture of Tinseltown. But given the low numbers for this year’s awards, and the move away from cinematic releases, the switch to pink and purple carpets may indeed turn out to be a cultural, as well as a colourful, shift.

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Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed visits Saudi Arabia

Updated: May 6, 2021 06:06 PM

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