Sep 28, 2019

Saudi Arabia opens doors to tourists in effort to wean economy off oil

Participants attend the launch of the new tourism visa in Ad Diriyah, a Unesco-listed heritage site, outside Riyadh on September 27, 2019. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

The Saudi government on Friday announced details of a new tourist visa program that will allow foreigners to visit the Gulf kingdom for up to 90 days at a time, the Financial Times reports.

Why it matters: This is the first time that Saudi Arabia will allow foreigners to visit for the sole purpose of tourism and comes amid a broader push to reduce the country's reliance on oil money, NBC News notes. Visas were previously limited mostly to business travelers and the millions of Muslim worshippers who make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca each year.

The big picture: The effort to open the kingdom's doors has been spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who wants tourism to account for 10% of the economy by 2030 — up from 3% right now.

  • MBS views the neighboring United Arab Emirates as a model for success, but continues to grapple with the fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year — which the U.S. intelligence community believes he ordered — and other negative perceptions of the country's human rights record.
  • Saudi tourism officials dismiss those challenges, with one telling the FT: "We have not witnessed any specific slow down since [the death of Khashoggi]. Our partners have been with us and continue to be with us, and we would work to engage them more."
  • Ahmad al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, tells NBC News: "It will change the perception, they have to come and see us, they have to come and see the Saudis and live in Saudi Arabia and experience Saudi Arabia."

Go deeper: Pompeo doubles down on claim of Iranian "act of war" in Saudi Arabia

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Human rights concerns overshadow Saudi campaign to attract tourists

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Saudia Arabia is trying to recast itself to the West as a more liberal, fun destination, but the country’s questionable human rights record continues to haunt its attempts to boost tourism and make its economy less oil-dependent.

Why it matters: Critics of Saudi Arabia claim the legal changes and popular entertainment meant to lure tourists distracts from human rights abuses and the country's involvement in the Yemeni civil war, per the Guardian. Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's image on the world stage have also been starkly affected by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi Consulate in Istanbul 1 year ago.

Go deeperArrowOct 5, 2019

A year after Jamal Khashoggi's murder, Saudi trial veiled in secrecy

Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The men accused of murdering and dismembering journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, have been on trial for his murder since early January, but Saudi Arabia is keeping the proceedings secret.

Why it matters: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has consistently denied ordering the killing, though media reports and a UN investigation have raised serious doubts about that claim. The Trump administration insisted after the murder that it was waiting for more information before assigning blame, but has neither accused nor absolved the crown prince.

Go deeperArrowOct 2, 2019

Saudi crown prince denies to CBS that he ordered Khashoggi's killing

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 18. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) denied to CBS News' "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast Sunday that he ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But he said Khashoggi's killing had been a "mistake."

Why it matters: Per CBS, this is the crown prince's first on-camera interview about Khashoggi's murder. A CIA report concluded with "high confidence last November that MBS did order the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018. A UN investigator recommended in June a further probe into the crown prince's role.

Go deeperArrowSep 30, 2019