Saudi Arabia opens its doors to tourism – but should you step through them?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia conjures up many things – vast oil wealth, playboy princes, ultra-conservative religious dogma and lots and lots of sand.
But one image it certainly doesn’t trigger is that of a warm and welcoming embrace for secular tourists.
In fact, aside from a pilot scheme which ended in 2010, in recent years the absolute monarchy has limited visitors to those on business, on pilgrimage, visiting family or merely transiting to a third country.
That, however, is about to change.
From April 1st, Saudi Arabia will roll out its new electronic tourist visa allowing non-Muslim visitors the chance to visit, including (gasp!) female travellers over the age of 25 without a male chaperone.
In terms of tourist appeal, the country certainly has its fair share of sights, the monumental carved-rock tombs of Mada’in Saleh and various spots along its Red Sea coast chief among them.
The move to open the country up to tourism is part of a wider programme of reforms being spearheaded by the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and represents a clear desire to move the country away from a reliance on oil.
The reforms include cracking down on corruption amongst members of the country’s royal family, reportedly seeking to turn away from the fundamentalist doctrine of Wahhabism and giving new rights to women.
So, with the country opening up and becoming more liberal, should you visit?
The decision to contribute your tourist dollars to Saudi Arabia’s coffers is not such a simple one. Firstly, let’s remind ourselves of the system those dollars will be supporting.
Despite recent modest concessions towards modernity, including allowing women to drive and a supposed loosening of strict dress codes, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has done little to bridge the massive gap which exists between men and women’s freedoms.
This is still a country where women are required to have a male guardian and cannot perform simple tasks such as opening a bank account without the permission of said guardian.
And contravening the strict social code can lead to horrifying consequences. A female rape victim can be flogged or imprisoned if they violated purdah (the strict segregation of the sexes) by voluntarily entering the company of their rapist.
Homosexuals, meanwhile, fare even worse.
LGBT Saudis – or foreigners in the country – have faced punishments ranging from public flogging to imprisonment and even the death penalty for engaging in same-sex activity (although cases where a death sentence has been ordered have generally consisted of an amalgamation of ‘crimes’).
The real deal?
Despite the loathsome abuses of human rights, for an intrepid solo female traveller (over the age of 25, remember) who wants to see a country very few non-Muslims get to see, Saudi Arabia could undoubtedly hold some appeal.
But perhaps it is naive to presume that visitors will be able to get an insight into the real country at all.
If Saudi Arabia takes Dubai as an example, it may opt for luxurious resort complexes, gleaming shopping malls – and tourists who are safely segregated from the realities of everyday life in the kingdom.
If this is the country’s approach, it means visitors who head to Saudi expecting an ‘authentic’ cultural experience may find it just out of reach.
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