Saudi Arabia is on a mission to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on oil revenue.
As part of this, they are looking to become a global tourist destination – something that their UAE neighbours, particularly, Dubai, have accomplished to great effect.
Unbeknown to many Westerners, Saudi Arabia is a country rich in tourist attractions and Bedouin hospitality.
The landscape includes Red Sea beaches, luxury seafront accommodation, beautiful desert dunes, archaeological sites, nature reserves, cultural events, souks and far more.
It is also an intercultural hub, welcoming millions of Muslims from all corners of the world to undertake the annual Islamic pilgrimage. Although Saudi Arabia has appealed to Muslim tourists for years, Western reluctance to travel to Saudi Arabia (and possibly Saudi Arabia not always making Western travel possible) means that most Westerners are unaware of what Saudi Arabia has to offer.
As part of the Saudi Vision 2030 expansion plans however, it’s hoped that this will all change.
Take for example, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion NEOM mega project currently being built on the Red Sea, the lifting of cinema bans, admittance of women to sports events, sanction for women to drive and a revived cultural scene which includes concerts and international cultural events.
These initiatives are all part of the efforts to make Saudi Arabia more attractive and appealing to international travellers and investors.
However, critics of Saudi Arabia are quick to argue that these changes lack substance and that Islam’s tight grip on Saudi culture means that the changes we see in Saudi Arabia are superficial only and that the religious zealots upholding the system will prevent true change happening.
This sentiment was indeed reflected in a recent exchange between the AccorHotels’ CEO, Sebastien Bazin, and a notable Emirati attorney.
The AccorHotels’ CEO recently suggested that people visiting Saudi Arabia “might need to almost certainly drink” and that Saudi Arabia should take lessons from the UAE.
He stated that Dubai and many other places in the Middle East had got it right and that these provide examples for Saudi Arabia to work from. He suggested that Saudi Arabia might even consider restricted drinking zones.
In turn, a quick comeback was made by the UAE’s top ‘legal eagle’, Dr Habib al Mullah, who stated that the CEO is insensible and ignorant to Saudi culture.
Maybe Dr Habib al Mullah is right.
The ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of the Quran followed in Saudi Arabia is deeply entrenched in all elements of Saudi life and culture. Every aspect of Saudi culture is shaped by literal Quranic interpretations and religious codes. These practices are upheld by clerics in considerable positions of power and the penalties of falling foul of them can be severe.
Although the current Crown Prince is trying to reduce this power, his likely success in doing so is questionable as the Wahhabi religious movement has been key in both the founding of the Saudi kingdom and the ongoing protection of the monarchy. Is he really going to upset those who play a role in keeping the Saudi dynasty in power?
Even if the more liberal elements of Saudi society were to suggest ‘zones’ in which people can drink, or, relax in environments more akin to those at home, it’s questionable whether this will ever be allowed to happen.
When Dr Habib al Mullah suggested that the Accorhotels’ CEO was ignorant of Saudi culture, then maybe he had a good point. Conditions in the UAE and the influence of religion on local culture were far different and far more liberal; a reason why the ‘zones’ became possible.
It may be that Saudi Arabia becomes the ‘must go’ tourist attraction for Middle Easterners, but with the current situation, the idea of Saudi Arabia becoming a true destination for Westerns may still be a pipe dream.