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Tourism in Saudi Arabia too risky

Even a decade ago, the idea of tourism in Saudi Arabia was unthinkable.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a dangerous figure. Equal parts despot, dictator, mafia-style don, but also political and social reformer; he is attempting to bend the kingdom to his will and drag Saudi Arabia kicking and screaming into the modern world. If, by ‘the modern world’ what is meant is Dubai.

On one hand, he is the man who, by all accounts, ordered the savage murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018; on the other hand, he is the same man who hosted over 100 mixed-gender music concerts in Saudi Arabia the following year. Mohammed bin Salman placed dozens of princes and government ministers under house arrest in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh in 2017, purging the government of any trace of dissent or competition to his rule; he also lifted the ban on women driving, opened cinemas for the first time in the kingdom, and defanged the notorious religious police.

There is an argument that MBS is ruthlessly consolidating his power for the purpose of forcing reforms on a deeply conservative and stubborn power structure that would resist any changes not imposed by an iron fist,” comments Radha Stirling, CEO of Due Process International, and a leading expert on the region, “His tactics are tyrannical by any standard, with severe crackdowns on dissent; but the targets of repression run the spectrum from Islamists to liberals, whereas previous regimes have been more aligned with religious reactionaries. Mohammed bin Salman is obliterating anyone on the political scene that does not endorse his precise vision for Saudi Arabia or who does not agree with the pace at which he is implementing that vision; whether they are on the right or the left.”

Even a decade ago, the idea of tourism in Saudi Arabia was unthinkable. The country was perceived as a no-go zone for foreigners unless they worked in the oil and gas industry. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Saudi Arabia had nothing to offer as a tourist destination, and even if they wanted to go, they weren’t allowed. The kingdom did not begin offering tourist visas until 2019 as part of Salman’s “Vision 2030” agenda with a goal of tripling tourism over the current decade. After a significant decline during the pandemic due to travel restrictions, international tourist arrivals in Saudi Arabia last year recorded an increase of 575% compared to 2021, with the country expecting an influx of potentially 70 million visitors by the beginning of 2023. Salman’s government recently announced their goal of increasing the number of concerts in the kingdom by 600% this year and he is reportedly bidding for Saudi Arabia to host both the Olympics and the World Cup this decade.