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How tourism is changing the landscape in Saudi Arabia

April 15, 2020

Saudi Arabia has seemingly become the subject of more and more headlines in news outlets and academic journals over the past several years.  Some of these headlines can be seen as positive.  The progression of women’s rights within the Kingdom has been celebrated both within and outside the country, including the newly granted ability for women to attain a driver’s license.  Such progressive policies are part of the ­Saudi Vision 2030 plan­, which outlines how the Kingdom hopes to build the nation and the economy through investment of oil revenues toward a nation that will eventually need to survive and thrive in a world that is far less dependent on fossil fuels.  A large portion of this plan is fo­cused on growing tourism in the country. 

Those outside the Kingdom which are skeptical of these new and progressive policies have asserted that such moves are superficial and are only meant to distract­ from far more serious human rights transgressions and policies that will or have remain unchanged.  It is fair to say that the bulk of those people that could be considered skeptics and even critics of Saudi policies hail from Western democracies.  Those that would be highly critical of the Saudi hierarchy and their actions are also those that likely have very little interest in ever setting foot inside the Kingdom.  It is then also fair to say that those at the top of the Saudi hierarchy care little for what these critics have to say about their policies.  They do however care to ensure that Muslims around the world can maintain faith in their religion and faith in the nation that is home to Makkah (Mecca), which attracts millions of visitors through religious tourism every year.  This religious tourism is has created two cities within Makkah as addressed by this piece in the Architectural Review.­

In their piece on the intensity of Makkah, the AR illustrates how the investment in supporting tourism there has created a disparity of living conditions.  No longer is Makkah merely a magnet for tourists during the Hajj.  Gleaming office towers and hotels have been erected near the Grand Mosque to support these visitors, but also, development has occurred throughout the entire city toward supporting this sector.  There is now year-round religious tourism in the city which has helped to diversify the economy.  As such, the land around the Grand Mosque has become very valuable and existing residents have been forcibly removed in order to make way for development.  While this is assuredly part of the Saudi 2030 vision plan, Makkah is becoming a place that is made to serve the visiting pilgrims that are wealthy enough to make the journey, rather than a city that acts as home for its own residents. 

Perhaps surprisingly, despite being one of the most conservative theocracies in the World, it also appears that even more progressive steps are being taken to enhance their image as a tourist destination for visitors abroad in another area: entertainment and gaming.  The Vision 2030 plan outlines multi-billion-dollar investments in theme parks and entertainment complexes in Riyadh including a theme park and sports complexes.  In Jeddah, there are hotels and large arenas that host Belote card games.  Although no betting or gambling is allowed on these games, prize money can be offered to the winners of Belote tournaments.  Prizes can exceed 100,000 Euros for top prizes, and these events are held often due to their popularity in the region.

While there are actual real-money casinos for tourists in the mainly Islamic nations of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, other progressive Arab and Islamic nations such as the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait where development of tourism has also been prioritized, these countries have not yet allowed the development of casino facilities within their borders.  Development of facilities for recreational gaming was a line that even these relatively progressive Islamic nations would not cross, but Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most conservative of these nations has crossed that line at least allowing for prize-money to be won for these gaming tournaments.  While the scale of gaming activity is still small within the Kingdom, and gambling itself is illegal, it is a huge first step toward attracting tourists in the same mode as international destinations like Orlando that have been built on entertainment tourism.  While technically an illegal activity in most of the Middle East, many locals still look to gamble at reputable UAE betting sites­ that operate off-shore.  Given the stance on gambling in the Kingdom, a move to become the Macau of the Middle East remains highly unlikely.  While Saudi Arabia and all these other wealthy GCC nations that are all looking to build tourism as part of their economies of the future, gambling is a source of tourism revenue ­will likely remain taboo for some time.­