Two months ago, history was made in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For the first time ever, this controversial and probably the most mysterious country in the world decided to open up for tourists. ”But there is one thing that has to be acknowledged,” says Bogomil Ferfila, Slovenian politics scientist: ‘In Saudi Arabia, there is absolutely nothing to see.”
However, project ‘Vision 2030’ has set its eyes on the goal of bringing 100 million tourists yearly into the Kingdom by 2030. E-visas will be available for citizens of 49 countries, including Slovenia. The prices will be hovering around 80 euros. The project is an idea of Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi’s controversial heir to the throne, and it means a step further for Saudi Arabia to break free from being economically completely oil dependent. But there is still a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome.
”IT IS AN ERA OF LIBERALISATION.”
There is a lot of stigma attached to Islamic countries, especially the ones where religion in its most radical form interwines with every aspect of life. But times are changing, even in Saudi Arabia. ”Mohammad bin Salman has taken away more or less all of the power from religious police, who, for example, used to walk around and command foreign women to cover their hair,” explained aforementioned Ferfila: ”It is an era of liberalisation.”
Even though tourist visas are Saudi Arabia’s something new, tourists are, on the other hand, something old. In 2017 alone, 16 million people entered the country with either business visa or Hajj visa, issued for religious pilgrims. The main purpose of the latter is to pay a visit to Mecca and Medina, whose entrance is prohibited for infidels. Even with tourist visas, this rule will not change – these two Islamic holiest cities remain for Muslims only. This is not surprising, considering that Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with Islam being their national religion, whose governing dynasty Saud actively promotes the teachings of Wahhabism, a fundamentalistic form of Sunnism in all areas of public life.
”In Wahhab Islam, the most radical version of Islam, all images and statues, which depict a living creature – plants, animals, let alone people – are forbidden, music and dance are forbidden, all historical remains are forbidden, because they are considered to be leading to idolatry – that is, to abandon Islam and to woship other saints, not Mohammed,” explained Ferfila. ”Except for the tomb in northern Saudi Arabia. It is the only thing left to see,” he added: ”The most liberal city in Saudi Arabia is Jeddah. I suppose some music might appear there. But I can say with certainty that two men holding hands or kissing a girl on the street is not acceptable, as well as photographing women. Women have their own areas everywhere – on a beach, in a station. … But I see that as a positive thing. In this aspect, we could really learn something from them.”
Even the restaurants are divided into separate rooms. ”You simply cannot sit wherever you want, because they have different rooms for families, women, men,” confirmed Timotej Lampe Ignjić, Slovenian professional skateboarder, who visited Saudi Arabia earlier this year. ”Me and my colleague took a seat in the wrong place, because we were not aware of this rule. A local came to us and kindly warned us. Some things are a little bit different,” he said. ”But nevertheless, I felt just as safe as in any other country.”
”SAFETY IS NOT AN ISSUE, THE RISK OF DANGER THERE IS MINIMAL.”
Safety is one of the most important priorities when traveling to a foreign country. But the perception of Saudi Arabia as a safe country slowly crumbles away with every new political scandal, and there are many of them. To name a few – frequent violations of human rights and oppression of women, involvement in the war in Yemen, last year’s murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. All the evidence of the latter point to the future Saudi King, a 33-year-old bin Salman, who is, based on opinions of many, far too reckless to be in such a high position.
”He took over the position of future king by taking a short, fraudulent route, in which he deposed a whole bunch of influential people and arrested many princes and wealthy people,” explained Ferfila in one of his previous interviews. ”But you should know that for tourists, these aristocratic countries are the safest countries in the world,” he says.”Safety is not an issue, the risk of danger there is minimal. And as far as I am concerned, the murder of the journalist did not cause any internal disorders in the country; I think the speculations about Khashoggi being a double agent, working for Saudi’s government while also working for the CIA, are not far from the truth.”
Mohammad bin Salman has many gracious plans for the future. This year, he decided that women over 21 can get passports and travel outside the country without a companion. Last year, he gave women back the right to drive a car. He also allowes foreign, not married couples to sleep in the same room. ”The Gulf states are aware what eventually, someday oil revenues will dry up. They want to diversify their economy. They are interested in tourism, technology, biotechnology… In Saudi Arabia, oil industry fills about 90 percent of the state budget,” explains Ferfila.
Nevertheless, might there be any hidden motives behind sudden tourism development? ”Every year, boys and men of Saudi Arabia spend 20 billion dollars on women, alcohol and other forms of amusement in the Kingdom of Bahrain. 20 billion. Bin Salman decided to build amusement complexes on 20 islands he gained from Egypt – partly for the tourists, partly for his own citizens. But there are two problems that slow the progress,” explains Ferfila: ”The Wahhabi clergy, who does not approve of using women for prostitution. The other problem is that these are plans that are in the very distant future. Finished, it would certainly attract a part of wealthy men from the Middle East and part of Saudi’s elite, who would then stop spending money. But strategies as this one almost never come true.”
If they come true anyway and Slovenian tourists decide to visit Saudi Arabia, they will have to organize the trip themselves or book via a foreign travel agency. That is because not one travel agency in Slovenia offers trips to Saudi Arabia. ”Among our clients, there is no interest of taking this trip,” said an agent of one of Slovenia’s biggest travel agencies, Relax: ”But we might expand our trip offers in the upcoming years.”
Saudi Arabia, wrapped in a veil of mystery, is therefore sovereignly opening up for progress. It is too early to say if this is a step into democracy and evolution or into downfall and dynasty demise. It is, however, an iconic mix of tradition and progress, or, as Ferfila paraphrased: ”They are at the crossroad between the old and the new, between the religious state and the ‘Chinese model’.” As they take their first steps on a path almost every other country has taken before, learning the alphabet of tourism, many more developed countries in this area have a chance to look at the monarchy, even with its flaws, and learn something valuable: courage to believe.