Desert Mirage- How Saudi Arabia Doomed Its Own Future | Sarah Stook

As the prices of oil crash around the world amidst uncertainty, many countries which rely on the so-called ‘black gold,’ are in panic. As the barrel becomes more valuable than the oil it contains, these companies and government scramble for buyers. They’re not the one gaining the money; they’re the one parting with it. This time, potential customers are being PAID to take oil, as there is nowhere else to store it.

From Venezuela to Scotland, and Iran to New Zealand, people are definitely feeling the pinch. Our older readers may remember OPEC (Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) starting an oil embargo as revenge for nations who supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. They may also remember the 1979 crisis that came out of the Iranian Revolution. Both saw long queues and rationing at petrol stations across the world.

In those cases, the price of oil went up due to lack of demand. We will not likely see this kind of actions- or at least we hope we won’t- as a result of the recent crisis, as it is about price and not demand at the moment.

One country, however, will surely be seeing this as a worry.

When one thinks of Saudi Arabia, it conjures up images of grand mosques, women clad in enveloping black, vast material consumption and millions visiting the holy city of Mecca. Most of all, you will think of oil.

The fortunes of the vast, sandy and rugged landscape changed massively in 1938, when miners finally struck oil. An unconvincing ally of the West, Saudi Arabia has used its vast oil reserves as protection against any misfortune. Whilst countries surrounding it have seen the tight fist of the USA and UK when they have been wronged, Saudi Arabia has managed to keep itself safe through wealth, oil and relative stability in a region of uncertainty. Not every Saudi is a millionaire who buys half of Harrods on a weekend, but the rich of the country are VERY wealthy.

Oil, however, is a finite resource. As the world seeks new energy methods through fracking and renewables, Saudi Arabia finds itself less relevant in the industry. It is still extremely powerful country and will always be a centre of Islam, but it will wane in power. One day, the oil reserves will dry up unless they somehow find more. There will be a day where Saudi Arabia’s long deserts reveal no more black gold.

As a result, the kingdom will have to adapt to market and social change. Though it is still known for its lawlessness and association with Pablo Escobar, Colombia is pushing itself as the pre-eminent Central American destination. Days of travel bans have waned in Cuba, as tourists flock to see the old Cadillac cars and beaches. 25 years after the brutal massacre of 1 million people, Rwanda is emerging as a destination for animal conservation, including the elusive mountain gorilla.

Saudi Arabia is doing just that, attempting to turn itself into the hottest new place to visit in the Middle East.

Sure, that’s going to happen.

 

Why will Saudi Arabia fail?

There will be readers questioning why a relatively stable country will not manage this transformation, whilst the aforementioned countries are not exactly known for being the paragon of safety. The answer is simple- the history and social attitudes.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never really been a holiday destination, except for those pilgrims who flock every year. Even before 1979, you wouldn’t find many Westerns going on a jolly there. When the Seizure of the Grand Mosque occurred, Saudi Arabia regressed even further in attempt to cave into the demands of the ultra-Islamist occupiers. This led to cinemas closing down, public music being banned, only men being allowed on television and the religious police being given far more power.

The Crown Prince Mohammad, a so-called ‘moderniser,’ has set out Vision 2030. Its plan is to wean the country off oil and to diversity its economy. Cinemas are opening. Women can drive. It all seems too good to be true.

Which it, of course, is.

Even people who are aware of the modernisation programme probably won’t be booking economy flights to Riyadh. Even as it hosts Formula 1 events and concerts- most notably popular K-Pop band BTS- restrictions apply. As other countries have glamorous grid girls, female visitors to Saudi Arabia still must wear the suffocating abaya, not something one might like in the sweltering hot desert. Alcohol may be possible behind closed doors, but there will be no mercy against those who are caught with it. Dancing to your favourite tunes in after-parties is also a big no-no.

To those who are already Muslim, or even just generally culturally conservative, it does not seem like an issue. Vision 2030 isn’t just about encouraging Muslim visitors outside of Mecca, but everyone else as well. To the average Westerner, who probably wants a cocktail by the beach, Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly an intoxicating option.

The Crown Prince has announced plans to open a resort in the Red Sea where Sharia law does not apply- which will allow for bikinis and beverages. The second you’re in there, it’s almost as though you’re in private accommodation. It sounds like you’re in a resort in Dubai or Mexico, doesn’t it?

It’s not that simple.

Chiefly, the issue is with the religious elders in Saudi Arabia, who wield power beyond belief. Though the Royal Family has its say, more people in Saudi Arabia will listen to an imam than they will to a decedent prince. Carving off an area, however remote, will be tough. Just the idea of women showing their shoulders and drinking a light beer is enough to drive the religious conservatives wild. Even non-Muslim women in the country must wear the abaya wherever they go. Though the religious police lost power after the infamous girls’ school fire of 2002 and mainly bother locals, it wouldn’t be great to cross them.

Sharia law may not apply in the resort, but there is no doubt that the rest of the country may cause problems for tourists. Fornication, homosexuality and blasphemy are death sentences- literally. Prisons aren’t as comfy as they are in the UK. A small slip of the tongue can land you in a hot, cramped cell. This automatically prevents LGBT travellers, those who are openly of non-Muslim faith and those who just want sex with their partners. It’s both against human rights and just pretty stupid from an economic standpoint.

This Islam-only attitude of the country is probably the biggest roadblock. Even in other Muslim countries like the UAE, you’ll probably find a large Christmas tree in your hotel, but not in Saudi Arabia. No religion under than Islam can be promoted or openly practiced there. Even Muslims who are members of minority sects suffer. Wearing a cross or a Star of David is absolutely not going to happen.

Well, I cannot imagine many Jews would like to visit, considering the virulent anti-Semitism that plagues the land.

It’s not just about alcohol, bikinis and your favourite books being banned. It’s about the history of the country.

Saudi Arabia is synonymous with terrorism. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers hailed from the country. Even though it eventually withdrew his citizenship, Saudi Arabia tolerated favourite son’s Osama Bin Laden’s villainous actions for far too long. Money is believed to flow to al-Qaeda and Islamic State amongst others, as well as financing Islamist mosques across the world- including the UK. You can imagine it’s not enough of an incentive to visitors.

It is also synonymous with human rights violations. Only recently could women drive and vote, and whilst they can now mostly travel without men’s permission, it is still a very dire situation for the fairer sex. Whatever the reforms, we’ll always know Saudi Arabia is a no-woman’s land. Even said reforms are slow, and not enough to make the country a fair society. Homosexuality is one thing that will never be tolerated, especially since anyone found practicing it will be put to death.

Though it’s not a terrorism hot spot like Egypt or Tunisia, it is not without its issues. The UK Foreign Office talks of risks at the Yemeni-Saudi border. The US army’s base is not without extreme contention, so it’s fair to say it is somewhat of a risk to foreign visitors- even if they are Muslim.

 

In Short?

Saudi Arabia’s venomous history, social structure and intolerance make it a doomed venture. Whilst other Muslim countries like the UAE and Oman have opened themselves up to become popular destinations, its larger neighbour isn’t up to the task.

With a history of terrorism and its place as a reluctant ally of the West (only because they’re scared a popular revolution would topple the monarch), it has not aligned itself as a premium holiday hub. A country that has been stepped in misogyny and homophobia will not be one that can reform itself to the point of tolerance. Instead of spending its money on real tourism, it spent it on hate.

They can have all the F1 races and boxing fights in the world, but the popularity of Saudi Arabia is merely a desert mirage.

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