What does a purple carpet mean in Saudi Arabia and why do they not use red?

Kingdom opts for unusual colour to mark visits by dignitaries

Governor Prince Khaled Al Faisal welcoming US President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Jeddah, left, and China's President Xi Jinping being received by officials including the Governor of Riyadh province Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud at King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh. SPA/AFP
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For years, the red carpet has suggested glamour, royalty and power, with its use to mark the arrival Hollywood stars going back a century.

But at the Oscars last year, the Academy rolled out a pink carpet for its guests.

Soon after, Saudi Arabia announced it would eschew red for its dignitary visits — opting for purple carpets instead.

Why does Saudi Arabia use purple?

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 Ministry of Culture connected the change in ceremonial procedure to violet-coloured flowers 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 blooms on the country’s lavender, desert germander and basil plants and jacaranda trees.

Rows of the latter, with their violet flowers, blossom 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 nation.

What is the sadu weave design?

Saudi Arabia's purple carpets are edged in a geometric design that refers to the art of sadu weaving, a traditional Bedouin practice 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 and 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.

Why is the red carpet important?

By the early 19th century, the red carpet was already associated with VIP arrivals in the US and Europe.

When then 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.

The red carpet is now synonymous with the pageantry, fashion and adulatory celebrity culture of Tinseltown.

A version of this article was originally published in May 2021