Visiting Saudi Arabia

I’m not a particularly big fan of soccer, but I love the FIFA World Cup.  Every four years, countries clash on the football pitch in a proxy war for cultural supremacy, creating a spectacle that delivers controversy, thrills, and the illusion that the world can truly come together every once in a while, even if only to focus on a beautiful game.  When would the nations of Denmark and Tunisia join together over anything, much less Mexico and Poland, Switzerland and Cameroon, Uruguay and Korea, Portugal and Ghana?  That was only in the first round. 
Imagine if Ukraine could play Russia on the pitch, or Israel kick-off against Iran?   The matches themselves run back and forth on the spectrum of boredom and excitement.  This year Canada made the finals for the first time since 1986, announcing itself as a true soccer nation (alongside other underrated teams like Australia and the USA).   It was a close opener, losing to the world’s #2 ranked Belgium.  Our second match was against Croatia, and I tuned in from 35,000feet on a Lufthansa flight that screened the game live.  Technology, eh?  When Alfonso Davies scored Canada’s first ever World Cup goal in the opening minutes, I screamed “YES!” scaring the crap out of my fellow Airbus 330 passengers, the vast majority of whom had little interest in this particular game.   We were, after all, en-route to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It’s not a country I ever thought I’d visit, but I received an invite to the prestigious WTTC Global Tourism Summit, and an opportunity to explore some of Riyadh and Jeddah in the process.  Yes, I’m fully aware of the problematic international reputation of Saudi Arabia, just as I’m fully aware that what we hear in the media can differ starkly from reality on the ground.  Among critical news coverage are whispers of a great cultural reformation, a dialling back of religious extremism, and a massive investment in mega-projects to attract international tourism.   I’ve written more about that in an article I hope someone will publish, which gets into the contradictions and controversies.    Here, I thought I’d focus on moments and vignettes without getting too much into the weeds. I expect some readers will take offence regardless.  
As a Jewish journalist, I was a little nervous heading to the highly-controlled kingdom, of course, but I had been provided with a new online tourist visa, and an invitation.  I was greeted with the first of many small cups of Saudi coffee, a blonde elixir spiced with cardamom, saffron, ginger, and others spices, and always served with sweet dates.  Saudi Arabia is trying to get its coffee tradition recognized by UNESCO as a unique cultural heritage, a similar designation as baguettes to France or Balsamic vinegar to Italy.  My first impression leaving the airport was similar to my first impression visiting Dubai.  Endlessly straight, flat roads lined with neon malls, minarets, unusual skyscrapers, and heavy traffic.  I see a large neon sign advertising the Human Rights Commission, as if proudly defying international criticism.   There’s Starbucks, H&M, Dunkin’ Donuts, major hotel chains, gas stations (about 80c a litre, in case you’re wondering).   We pass the world’s largest female-only university, villas and palaces, glitzy car dealerships.  My hotel room at the Jareed Hotel was huge and modern, surrounded by upscale restaurants, and overlooking two giant screens showing the World Cup.  A bottle of wine with fruit sat at the foot of the bed, only the wine bottle held Italian sparkling water. There would be no wine, beer or spirits this week, and it would take some getting used to. Although I’m told there is a black market, alcohol is illegal across the kingdom, and so it will be a rare, dry week of hot, exotic travel.  

I grab an excellent burger from a nearby food truck, and sit with the locals as Spain draws with Germany. Mostly men, but women too, some of whom wear the full abaya, others just a headscarf, and a few with no head covering at all.   Under the leadership of the millennial Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salmon (simply called MBS), the regime is stepping away from the hardcore extremist Islam that denied women rights, and locked up the kingdom to western visitors.  They don’t call it modernization, they call it restoration, and while culture still dictates very conservative values, the kingdom has passed laws to allow freedoms unthinkable a decade ago, and religious authorities have had their wings clipped. In the hotel, I bump into a young Canadian kid here for Middle Beast, a massive desert rave that will attract some 200,000 people, with acts including Carl Cox, Swedish House Mafia, Nervo, Eric Prydz, DJ Khaled, and other electronica superstars. Sounds too good to be sober.    “Oh, there will be drugs and alcohol,” he tells me confidently.  “Possession is okay, you just don’t want to be caught selling it.”   Not for the first time, I catch myself saying: are we in Saudi Arabia?
The Chair of the Royal Geographical Society’s Younger Member Committee and I wander up to the Hollywood actor Ed Norton, who is at the travel conference to speak truth to sustainability bullshit.  We have a great conversation about my first impressions of the kingdom.  He reassures me that it’s very different to what most people see and hear in the news.  We trade details, which is when I discover that Ed Norton is actually an affable British venture capitalist named Justin Cooke.  The real Ed Norton is on stage tomorrow, and turns out he’s a travel ambassador for Kenya, who knew?  Just about everyone I speak to at the luxe World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit is interesting and worth the words.  This includes Carnival Cruises CEO Arnold Donald (a name that just rolls off the tongue) and Mexico’s former Minister of Tourism and now Special Tourism Advisor to Saudi Arabia Gloria Guevara. I ask her if she’s supporting Mexico or Saudi Arabia in the World Cup, and like an experienced politician, she doesn’t provide a definitive art.  

​Walking the palatial and fragrant hallways of the Ritz-Carlton Convention Centre among traditionally robed Arabs, Asians, Africans and Europeans leaves me feeling optimistic. It’s a true melting pot of culture, gathered to tackle major issues in the realm of hospitality.  I expect it must feel the same at COP Climate Conferences, or the United Nations, except with 250 CEOS and 52 Ministers of Tourism in attendance, something concrete might actually get accomplished here.  Canada is notably not in attendance, likely because of an on-going diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia.  This intersection of tourism, politics and commerce can be controversial. Although I expect I’ll be heavily criticized for visiting the kingdom, I’m here with an open mind, and an open heart, full of questions which I’m not afraid to ask.  Over the course of the week, I have a dozen terrific conversations with Saudi men and women, all of whom speak of a country transforming itself at rapid speed, eager to modernize, and ready to welcome the world.
We fly to Jeddah, the Saudia Airlines in-flight entertainment interrupted when we fly over Mecca for a special prayer.  There are R-rated movies in the system, in case you were wondering.  Jeddah is hot and humid, and the traffic is bonkers, especially at night when Saudi Arabia comes alive. Our business hotel is opposite the Red Sea, with a wide lane for bike and walking traffic, and concessions on the beach. Most women are fully covered up in their abayas, some not. 
I had picked up a SIM card at the airport, and unlike China, all foreign media is available, including articles highly critical of the regime.  Reading about beheadings, death squads and brutal royal purges makes for disturbing reading. MBS sounds like an ambitious guy you simply do not want to cross.  He also sounds like an autocrat who will do whatever it takes to realize his goal of reaching 50% GDP from non-oil revenues by 2030.  He’s also a millennial, so I wonder what show he’s currently binging on Netflix.  You can go down Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 rabbithole here.  The giga-projects are mind-blowing. 
Huge public art exhibits line the highways, and the glitz of the Jeddah Ritz Carlton is staggering. The Royal guest house looks bigger than Buckingham Palace. We dine in fantastic restaurants, visit a floating mosque, and then skip a museum to watch Canada play Morocco on an outdoor big screen, with a pro-Morocco crowd gathering on hundreds of bean bags.  The crescent moon is out, the sea breeze is warm, the mosque is lit up behind us…it’s one of those unexpected choice travel moments.   Along with fellow Canadian journalists we cheer for our team, but it doesn’t help. Canada loses all three group stage matches, and crashes out of the World Cup with its beaver tail between its legs.  Locals are friendly though, somewhat bewildered by the fact that a group of Canadian tourists are here in the first place. At least tonight, because we’re alongside a Formula One race track, and Jeddah already receives millions of tourists a year on their way to make the Hajj and Umrah in Mecca, located about an hour’s drive away. That’s still off limits to non-Muslims, at least for now.

​For all the construction and moonshot tourism developments (check out this wild vision for The Line), my week’s highlights are the old towns of Jeddah and Riyadh, which feel more authentic with their wooden windows, mud-houses, souks, galleries and mosques.  I learn about Saudi clothing, their customs, coffee ceremony, their homes and lavish feasts. Gradually, my overall discomfort with the regime gives way to the truth of all travel, which rears up whether you’re visiting a highly-controlled regime or permissive democracy: cultures are different, and not every culture wishes to emulate our own. Where we see oppression, they see tradition; where we see a gin and tonic, they see decadence. Neither has the right to judge and convict, but we all have the right to engage, listen, and learn.    In sha’Allah, we can all come together – men, women and children – over coffee and glazed dates, with mutual respect and understanding of our differences. In sha’Allah, may tourism continue to drive positive change on the planet we all call home.