Saudis Courting Tourism

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The New York Sun

Saudi Arabia took an earth-shattering decision last week to fling its doors open to tourism.

The announcement was made Tuesday in Dubai by His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman, the general secretary of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, in a press conference at the Arab Travel Exhibit, a large annual event.

In making the announcement, HRH stressed that tourists flocking into Saudi Arabia must understand they have to follow “specific instructions and rules” once they are inside the kingdom, HRH said, without much explanation. The words were probably meant for his archconservative audience of Muslim Fundamentalist preachers and their many followers back home who must have experienced a heart attack at the news.

What HRH was hinting at were the rules of existence in Saudi Arabia: strict dress code, restricted food and beverage choices, insulated transportation methods, and virtual isolation from the populace. The last time a hint of tourism was made, two years ago, there was quick reassurance that tourists will be married couples who are also senior citizens. Still, the move was rejected by the Muslim Fundamentalist religious establishments.

It remains to be seen what will happen this time around. Among others, rules also must encompass very special hotel arrangements, as in who sleeps with whom, as well as the bringing in of cameras (forbidden), cell phones (forbidden if with cameras), medication (to be inspected), books (generally banned) or other means of entertainment, as in magazines or newspapers containing daring photos or political stories (also banned). Neither crosses nor Star of David jewelry, nor bibles, are allowed. Such paraphernalia are punishable by public lashings and jail for those living or visiting Saudi Arabia on business. No special cases can be expected for prospective tourists.

Although none of this was specified by HRH, there was no need to do so. Such rules already apply to the 8 million expatriates who live and work in Saudi Arabia, amidst the 18 million natives.

Just as with Saudis and others inside the Kingdom, the tourists’ behavior will be carefully monitored by the bearded, bare-footed Saudi religious police, the Mutawaeen, who are grouped under a special branch of security known as the Society for the Propagation of Goodness and Prevention of Vice (sic).

These “men of God” roam the streets, supermarkets, hotels, and public places carrying flexible twigs to whip and arrest women showing a hint of an ankle, or couples who cannot produce a marriage certificate. The religious police motto, often articulated to dazed victims, is that if a man and woman got together their third companion will surely be the devil.

Be that as it may, HRH, Prince Sultan, anticipated a flood of 1.5 million tourists in Saudi Arabia in the first year.

A few phone calls to Saudi friends on the liberal side, produced much laughter. Among other things, my friends, who without a single exception asked to remain anonymous, noted a few more hurdles in the way on any fun-loving tourists about to disembark into Saudi Arabia:

* Beaches and hotel pools are segregated, as mixing of the sexes is strictly forbidden. Couples will therefore have to split the day for swimming and suntanning: Husbands in the morning, wives in the afternoon. Swimsuits will have to be decent: knee-length for men, body wrap for women.

* No Sunday mass is possible as there is not a single church in Saudi Arabia – nor synagogues or Buddhist temples. In fact, practicing any religious ritual other than Islamic worship is a crime punishable by flogging, imprisonment, or worse.

* It will have to be a dry vacation, as there will be no booze anytime starting the moment a tourist steps onto a plane or a boat headed for the Taliban-like Wahabi kingdom. No wine with dinner, and no ham at breakfast.

* Applying for the tourist visa itself will be a bit tricky when it comes to filling in the religious affiliation space. Never put down Jewish. Agnostic will not do either. Christian is touch-and-go (Saudi preachers regularly refer to them as monkeys and pigs). And Shiites are apostates, so that too is out of the question

Otherwise, this should be a fun vacation. Cheers.

The New York Sun

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