The Other Magic Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is making a very risky bet that it can become an international tourist destination.

A man visiting the Hejaz train station near al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 4. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
A man visiting the Hejaz train station near al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 4. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

AL-ULA, Saudi Arabia—In the middle of the desert, the photographer framed his shot. Admiring her surroundings, his subject struck a pose and flicked her hair back and forth, embracing the open sky as her shoes crunched into the sand. Another tourist posing for a picture in front of a Middle Eastern archaeological site—among the most familiar clichés in the region.

But sitting in the middle of the northern Saudi desert, I found myself unable to turn away. The ease of both the Saudis and foreigners involved belied the novelty of the scene. The setting may have been as old as time. In the context of Saudi Arabia, the scene was near revolutionary. The only problem is nobody knows how this revolution will turn out.

For decades—indeed, roughly the entirety of its history—Saudi Arabia has been effectively closed to tourism. That’s not to say the kingdom doesn’t host large numbers of foreigners. More than a third of the population of Saudi Arabia is made up of expats, including American oil workers, Filipino nurses, Lebanese consultants, and Pakistani construction workers. And each year, millions of Muslims pass through the kingdom to perform hajj and umrah, visiting Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

Nonetheless, outside of these specific fields, Saudi Arabia has long been one of the world’s most difficult places to visit. That sets it apart even from its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which universally offer visas on arrival to citizens of most Western countries. Many would-be travelers have thus concluded that the kingdom has little to offer. Saudi Arabia is a vast country encompassing a slew of culturally and geographically diverse areas with millenniums of history. But even for many deeply intimate with the Arab world, it’s often dismissed as a vapid expanse of desert with a culture based on archaic religiosity and consumerism.

This has long been a source of resentment for many Saudis. Even domestic tourism has generally been scarce, with Saudis preferring to spend holidays abroad—as attested by the pervasiveness of Saudi-accented Arabic in London’s Knightsbridge and the traffic on the King Fahd Causeway connecting the kingdom with Bahrain during long weekends.

It’s not as if the kingdom lacks potential tourist attractions. The country’s Red Sea coast is unspoiled, boasting the same reefs and beaches as its Egyptian counterpart but lacking the overdevelopment and pollution. Cities such as Jeddah and Diriyah attest to the kingdom’s history and boast stunning architecture. And particularly in the north—rarely visited even by Saudis themselves—the vestiges of millenniums-old civilizations lie in often stunning landscapes, escaping the tourism oversaturation experienced by similar sites elsewhere in the region.

Previous attempts to stir tourism, however, have had mixed results. The most recent, occurring during the reign of King Abdullah, led to the creation of the country’s first tourism visa—permitting travel for foreigners on guided tours—facilitating the growth of a limited tourism infrastructure around some key sites.

But this push for tourism has garnered new energy since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to power. A key element of Vision 2030—the crown prince’s economic reform agenda, which aims to shift international perceptions of the kingdom while providing jobs and fostering economic growth outside of fossil fuels—is increasing internal and external tourism. “The focus on developing tourism in Saudi Arabia is probably one of the most promising of its diversification efforts,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on the Persian Gulf states.

The Saudi government has poured money into the effort, and the results are already visible across the country. Billboards in major Saudi cities and advertisements in papers announce an unprecedented slate of events, attempting to win over many of the Saudis who’ve traditionally traveled to neighboring countries for entertainment. Meanwhile, an e-visa—easily applied for over the internet—has been introduced for foreigners traveling to events such as the recent Formula E race outside of Riyadh. And even long-standing festivals, such as the decades-old Janadriyah, the Arabian Peninsula’s largest showcase of local culture, have begun to engage in greater outreach to potential foreign visitors—something that has been accompanied by an easing of traditional gender segregation rules. (This year, for example, Janadriyah did away with separate “singles” and “families” days for the first time in its history.)

There have already been some grumblings among Saudis regarding the potentially corrupting effects of increasing numbers of tourists, but the government has made efforts to avoid provoking more conservative elements in Saudi society. The extent of social disruption is likely to be minimized given that the government’s main target right now is to persuade Saudis themselves to travel around their own country.

In this sense, analysts say, the government’s tourism push is not just a matter of economics—it’s also about fostering national pride. “Exploring Saudi Arabia and its natural wonder, its archaeological history, its religious past (not just Islamic but pre-Islamic) is a huge part of the nationalism that MBS has tried to foster as part of his rise to power,” Young added. “It is a generational shift in national identity and an effort to capitalize on the largest participants in that market—Saudi youth.”

“Al-Ula is the testing lab,” said Saeed al-Wahabi, a Saudi writer and political analyst who is currently a fellow at the EastWest Institute, referring to a historical town near Medina. Founded by royal decree in July 2017, the Royal Commission for al-Ula (RCU) has focused on trying to improve the area’s tourism infrastructure while aiming to eventually host as many as 2 million tourists annually.

Al-Ula does seem to merit the attention. Its towering sandstone cliffs are stunning as natural features of the landscape—and they are profound as repositories of history, bearing the etchings, including Arabic script, of the various civilizations that have made the area home. The majestic ruins of Madain Saleh immediately called to mind its Nabatean sister site, Petra—albeit lacking the hawkers and crowds that haunt the famed Jordanian tourist attraction. Most important, the locals, men and women alike, recruited to help run the “Winter at Tantora” festival seemed genuinely thrilled to play host to international visitors and show off their hometown’s historic wealth. Their enthusiasm and evident pride were infectious.

Judging from the way the photos I posted on social media were received, Saudi’s push for tourism has much promise; my friends and acquaintances were as curious to know more about Saudi society as the local Saudis were to share their culture. Of course, some foreigners exploring the country may find it impossible to leave behind politics in Riyadh. That’s understandable, given the unavoidable double meaning in the RCU’s frequently expressed hope to improve Saudi Arabia’s image abroad. Left unspoken is how some Saudi policies, domestic and international, may have contributed to that image in the first place.

But ultimately, al-Ula and Madain Saleh are places of escapist fantasy—reminders of millenniums of history that put current political turmoil in new relief. The success of Riyadh’s tourism push will now depend on others finding that shift in perspective appealing. Saudi Arabia may not be gunning to unseat Ibiza—or even Sharm el-Sheikh. But its tourism industry has finally made it onto the map.

Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an International Security Program fellow at New America. He was based in Sanaa, Yemen between 2011 and 2014. @adammbaron.

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