ICC Note: Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed is heavily outspoken about the need to liberalize the country’s society, specifically in regards to creating economic diversity. The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) argues that economic liberalization cannot occur without religious freedom. CDHR says this is because foreigners will be reluctant to engage Saudi Arabia unless the country respects the religious freedom of its own citizens.
06/01/2018 Saudi Arabia (CDHR) – King Salman “lays the foundation stone at the Qiddiya entertainment park near Riyadh” (the Saudi capital) on April 28, 2018. The 334-square kilometer project is supposed to compete with Disney World, attract millions of Saudi and other Gulf tourists and create 57 thousand jobs. Saudi youth immediately took to the social media and almost without exception expressed resounding cynicism about the project’s financial benefits. Based on past experiences, Saudi youth (the highest users of social media per capita in the world) believe foreigners will reap the financial benefits in forms of employment, since the Saudis are not technologically and modern hospitality trained. This cynicism is not confined to this project, but to Prince Mohammed’s economic reform, in general. This dangerous mistrust will likely continue until tangible economic benefits are realized by the Saudi people, which may not happen in time to avert internal political and economic strife.
The Qiddiya entertainment park is one of three giga-destination theme projects designed to attract foreign investments and millions of domestic, regional and global tourists to explore Saudi heritage, top of the line entertainment theme parks and spend billions of riyals and dollars to make up for the far-reaching decline in oil prices, the main source of Saudi income.
Like all things new, different or forbidden (in this case,) some adventurous tourists, especially from well-to-do and advanced societies will likely come to Saudi Arabia when allowed, but getting them to spend and return or encourage others to visit may prove a forbidding undertaking. Most tourists travel to explore, meet people from different lands and relish amenities, at least comparable to the countries they come from.
Despite cultural differences, most countries have certain elements in common, such as gender-mixing, alcohol consumption, night clubs, freedom of worship, access to indigenous people, free movement and lack of dress codes. Tourists will find these fundamentals conspicuously missing now and in the foreseeable future in Saudi Arabia. This is due to centuries of isolation (or as a Saudi historian put it, quarantine), the regime’s fear of modernity and severe religious and political taboos and restrictions. Given these entrenched issues, Prince Mohammed has to take riskier steps than he has done so far. He needs to initiate political and further social reforms and guarantee freedom of worship and movement, if he and his subordinates want tourists from different faiths, cultures and ethnicities to return and spend. Creating more tourist attractions, and a freer and friendlier social and business environment are essential if Prince Mohammed’s ambitious economic reform plans are to at least partially succeed.
Given Prince Mohammed’s iron-fisted approach to solving the Saudi economic predicament, he is walking a fine line between imposing his will on the entire population and convincing the cynical Saudi youth and investors that his economic projects are a win-win proposition. Prince Mohammed’s ultimate success will depend on political stability and popular support, as well as support from his fragmented ruling family and foreign investor beneficiaries.
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