As an American socialite and hotel heiress, Paris Hilton has built up a global brand on her sexy image — and sometimes very few clothes.
But many believe she has gone a step too far in opening a store selling luxury items in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Hilton’s rise to worldwide fame was boosted in part by a homemade sex movie that went viral online in 2003, days before the debut of her reality TV series “The Simple Life.”
This does not sit well with many in Mecca, which attracts three million Muslim pilgrims from around the world every year.
All Muslims who are able are expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, and non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the city. Most Saudi women cover themselves fully with a black abaya.
Hilton introduced her store on the social media site Twitter, when she wrote, “Loving my beautiful new store that just opened at Mecca Mall in Saudi Arabia!” accompanying the post with a picture.
She later added: “This is the 5th store in Saudi Arabia, and store number 42 in total! So proud to keep growing my brand!”
It is not the store itself that is out of place in Mecca — the presence of Western luxury brands is nothing new in Saudi Arabia.
Hilton’s store sells luxury handbags and accessories and is in the new Makkah Mall, which opened in 2011 with 255 shops, many of them global chains, selling everything from jewelery to electronics, women’s fashion to sportswear. It even has a branch of the lingerie chain La Senza.
Paris Hilton has 42 stores worldwide selling handbags, accessories, shoes, fragrances, watches and T-shirts, and already has four in Saudi Arabia.
However, the combination of Hilton’s personal image with the holiest city in the Muslim world has riled some in the conservative kingdom.
Sheikh Adnan Baharith, a conservative cleric who preaches in Mecca, said: ”It is unnecessary to have her shop here because we do not need it.
”If it was in our hands we would have closed all of her shops in Saudi.”
For others, the outrage was more about the ongoing commercialization of the heritage of Mecca than Hilton herself.
Ahmed Al Omran, who writes the blogs Saudi Jeans and Riyadh Bureau, said: “Some people were angry about it and others saw the humor in it.
“In the end, it’s made a lot of people think about the bigger issue of the commercialization of Mecca where historic sites have been demolished to make way for modern malls and international brands.
“There’s no particular reason to be outraged about Paris Hilton when we already have Gucci and Christian Dior. But for many it’s further evidence of how the character of Mecca is being lost.”
He added: “It’s the combination of the location of the store, who Paris Hilton is and what she stands for.”
Others on Twitter expressed similar concerns.
Muna AbuSulayman, a Saudi host on MBC wrote: “Huge outrage on Paris Hilton shop in Mecca Mall! With or against? Or, don’t care? Personally I am against the (Disneyfication) of Mecca.”
Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer based in Los Angeles, tweeted: ”Wahhabis (the dominant branch of Islam in Saudi) at work! Historic religious sites in Medina are being destroyed, while Paris Hilton opens a new store in Mecca mall.”
A Saudi nursing student Aqila Bint Suleyman wrote: ”Paris Hilton’s new store in (Mecca). Islamic Heritage being torn apart whilst Saudi makes way for atrocities like this!”
While some, like Dubai-based Saudi entrepreneur and founder of Switch restaurant Deem AlBassam, are more pragmatic.
He said: “Saudi is a fair-trade market, where many investors from around the world come to invest and trade. I think it was a smart move from the local partners in expanding to (Mecca) considering it (is) one of the prime locations and hubs in the kingdom’s retail industry.
“The other four branches of the store in the country indicate acceptance from the people and the fifth store is simply catering to their demands.”