A new Saudi Arabia beckons European tourists and investors. Could these changes bring Brussels and Riyadh closer?

Could the Arab nation’s vision of transforming into a tourist hub by 2030 bring the Kingdom closer to Europe? Muddassar Ahmed reports.
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By Muddassar Ahmed

Muddassar Ahmed is a global communications expert that has advised the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the U.S. State Department and the Arab League on their communications strategies. He is also a former independent advisor to the British government, on the board of Global Ties U.S. and a patron of the Faiths Forum for London.

13 Jan 2021

With mass inoculations underway, Europeans can dream of travel again. So, news of a new destination, investing heavily in tourist infrastructure and attractions, is reason to celebrate. Replete with beaches, history, and heritage, Saudi Arabia is an unlikely but exciting destination.

Moreover, the Kingdom’s new direction isn’t only beneficial for Europeans craving new travel experiences. The changes Saudi Arabia is pursuing will have positive effects on the country at large, bringing about major transformations which could draw Brussels and Riyadh closer together.

Historically, except for the admittedly substantial pilgrimage traffic to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia hasn’t allowed tourism for recreational or sightseeing purposes. This is all changing.

The country’s ambitious Vision 2030 aims to rethink much of the way Saudi Arabia functions, impacting industries from energy to tourism. In the next ten years, the Kingdom plans to welcome one hundred million annual visitors, with tourism revenue increasing by 7 percent to contribute 10 percent of the country’s GDP. The hope is this will allow the country to reduce its dependence on petrochemicals and diversify its economy.

“The Saudi Minister of Tourism has promised to inject an astonishing $200bn into resorts, airports, amusement parks and other tourism infrastructure crucial to achieving these goals”

In a recent interview for Arab News, Saudi Minister of Tourism, His Excellency Ahmad bin Al Khateeb, described the country’s offerings.

“The Red Sea is still virgin, pristine, with protected corals and reefs and islands. We have 10,000 discovered historical sites in Saudi Arabia, with five listed UNESCO sites.”

1.5 billion people travelled for tourism in 2019. Of these, 40 percent went looking for sunshine and sea, while another 30 percent were concerned with history and heritage. As the Minister pointed out, Saudi Arabia has ample and largely unexplored iterations of both.

The Red Sea -which attracts millions of tourists on the opposing Egyptian shoreline—remains mostly untouched on the Saudi side. Additionally, the country -birthplace of Islam and cradle of Arab civilisation—features ancient and medieval sites of tremendous significance, which would be attractive to Europeans looking for history they’ve yet to encounter.

The Saudi Minister of Tourism has promised to inject an astonishing $200bn into resorts, airports, amusement parks and other tourism infrastructure crucial to achieving these goals. Not only will these investments reduce the country’s dependence on oil, these changes augur well for Europe as a whole - because, ultimately, Vision 2030 has the potential to bring Europeans and Saudi Arabians closer together.

For one thing, common misunderstandings between Europe and the Muslim world can be defused by greater travel and tourism opportunities. For another, a more global outlook in Saudi Arabia will make the wealthy kingdom a more attractive partner for Europe, not just in travel and tourism, but in other fields and sectors, which could promise a holistic revolution in relations.

“Not only will these investments reduce the country’s dependence on oil, these changes augur well for Europe as a whole – because ultimately, Vision 2030 has the potential to bring Europeans and Saudi Arabians closer"

This revolution begins with Saudi Arabia’s positive decision to welcome travellers from previously banned nations, encouraging foreign investments and decreasing its dependency on oil.

Changes indicative of a more thoroughgoing, top-down transformation, which includes removing radical and anti-Semitic content from its textbooks and allowing women to wear Western-style swimwear on private properties and hotel beaches.

Of course, such changes are part of the grinding process of envisioning a society anew, which will not always proceed evenly or quickly. Yet, the ultimate effect is not hard to imagine. A Saudi Arabia more open to Europe and the world. And a Europe more open to Saudi Arabia.

For those who are concerned with the future of the relationships between our continent and the Arab and Muslim world, this is very good news. And for those dreaming about life after Coronavirus, the announcement of a novel destination with a serious commitment to tourists and tourism is a welcome silver lining.

Read the most recent articles written by Muddassar Ahmed - Book Review: "The Broken Contract" - How reinventing bureaucracy can save democracy

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