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  • Writer's pictureDetained in Dubai

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.

Mohammed bin Salman has a very close relationship with Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the UAE,” Stirling explains, “He appears very much to be a protégé with MBZ as his political and economic mentor. But despite the two countries sharing many cultural characteristics, Saudi Arabia is an entirely different beast, and trying to recreate the kingdom in the image of Dubai is unrealistic and frankly reckless.

“While investors and Western policymakers might welcome Salman’s attempts to move the country beyond religious rigidity, he is simply replacing it with autocratic rigidity. He is staging displays that imply a liberalisation and freedom which do not actually exist in the country; and by these displays he is inviting inevitable domestic backlash from a population that remains majority conservative.

“There are dozens of terrorist attacks or attempted attacks in Saudi Arabia every year, both from groups outside the country (such as Houthi rebels from Yemen) and from domestic terrorists. There are significant factions within the Saudi military who are suspected sympathisers with radical Islamism and groups like ISIS. There has never been a successful terrorist attack inside the UAE. These two countries and these two populations are dramatically different, and their histories are different. Saudi Arabia has imposed extremist Wahhabism, and exported it, for over a century; you do not go from that to hosting a Lady Gaga concert overnight and expect there to be no backlash.

“Tourists in the UAE are vulnerable. As the Emirates has emerged as a major hub for tourism and investment, there has been a corresponding surge in cases of wrongful detention, torture, malicious prosecution, and Interpol abuse – and this is a country that is objectively more liberal than Saudi Arabia, and that has been trying to modernise gradually for fifty years. Mohammed bin Salman is trying to emulate the UAE at an accelerated pace by force, and this will put visitors at tremendous risk. What MBS is doing is reminiscent of the Shah of Iran in many ways, and his attempts at rapid Westernisation which ultimately destabilised the country.

“Just as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi relied on the SAVAK secret police to repress opposition to his agenda, MBS has greatly empowered the Saudi Mabahith security apparatus to do the same for him, and the kingdom is now effectively a police state.”

Stirling concludes, “It has proven to be extremely dangerous for the UAE to be perceived as a safe destination for tourists, but it is considerably more dangerous to allow Saudi Arabia to create that perception.”


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