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May 25, 2016

Are Movie Theaters Coming to Saudi Arabia?

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

22 May 2016

Jeddah – The big question on every Saudi’s mind following the formation of the Gen­eral Authority for Enter­tainment is whether Saudi Arabia will allow cinemas, which have been banned from the king­dom for more than 30 years.

The issue remains a mystery but General Authority members are ac­tively discussing public screenings of family-oriented films and sports events, according to a person famil­iar with the new authority’s meet­ings who spoke on the condition that his name not be published be­cause he is not authorised to release details.

“They want to start with outdoor screenings but they don’t want to call it ‘cinema’ yet,” the source said. “They will show family movies and football matches, that sort of thing, but it hasn’t been confirmed.”

Staging public screenings of films in cinemas has been rumoured for years. Malls, since about 2004, have been constructed with extra space — now used for bowling alleys and indoor go-kart tracks — to be trans­formed when cinemas are allowed to open. Family-oriented animated films are occasionally screened out­doors in public areas in Jeddah and Riyadh but not on a regular basis.

The new government body’s dis­cussions are the first tangible evi­dence that some form of cinema en­tertainment is under consideration, even if at the preliminary stage.

Muhammad Murad, who works with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in Taif to publicise events to attract tourists, said he welcomes the en­tertainment authority but he added that details of its role are vague.

“It’s not clear what kind of enter­tainment they are talking about,” Murad said. “Most people will think that cinemas will be allowed and that other things that have been banned before will be opened again in Saudi Arabia.”

Fawaz Kurdi, public relations and sales executive for Destination KSA, which publishes lifestyle magazines in Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province, said Destination has been involved in helping the organisation identify what kind of activities are available to Saudis and expatriates.

“We have lots of local events in technology, fashion, culture and food among many other activities,” Kurdi said.

Jou Pabalate, editor of Destination Riyadh, said the authority is estab­lishing an activity calendar. “They want to know what is the ideal en­tertainment for the week,” Pabalate said.

That type of entertainment in­cludes cultural activities, cycling, horseback riding, art exhibits, day-trips and, on some level, live enter­tainment.

Saudi Arabia, particularly in more liberal cities such as Jeddah, has a vibrant underground entertainment network. Private stage plays are rou­tinely performed in north Jeddah, often in a private residence or a low-key restaurant venue. Guests are in­vited via word-of-mouth or tightly controlled distribution of flyers. Concerts and comedy acts are avail­able throughout the city for select, discreet audiences.

The authority’s work has indi­cated that it hopes to bring some en­tertainment out of the shadows and offered through public announce­ments in newspapers and maga­zines.

The motive is financial. Most en­tertainment will generate revenue and keep entertainment dollars in­side Saudi Arabia. An estimated 1.54 million Saudis visited the United Arab Emirates in 2015. Given that Saudi Arabia’s 2016 fiscal budget has a $98 billion deficit, the Saudi gov­ernment is eager to generate reve­nue by encouraging Saudis to spend their tourism money at home.

Felton Alrefaei, a public relations account executive at the Jeddah-based LeGate, which specialises in accommodations for haj and um­rah services, said that a well-pub­licised entertainment programme approved by the Saudi government would be a boon for foreign and do­mestic tourists.

“It will be a very brave move to attract more tourists,” Alrefaei said. “That spending will be kept inside Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudi entertainment author­ity follows the creation earlier this year of the Ministry of Happiness, supervised by Minister Ohood al- Roumi, in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE government established the ministry to streamline govern­ment services to UAE citizens who routinely deal with government en­tities. By making government more efficient the ministry hopes to in­crease customer satisfaction, foster positivity and create public happi­ness.

The Saudi programme differs sig­nificantly. Although Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal­man bin Abdulaziz promises more government transparency, the en­tertainment authority is less about happiness and more about generat­ing revenue. At the same time, the government is responding to Saudis’ complaints that entertainment op­tions in the kingdom are limited to restaurant dining and visiting malls.

Some Saudis remain sceptical about the new agency and have been taking to Twitter with humour.

One Saudi wrote: “Yesterday I was feeling depressed while walking in Tahlia Street so the Entertainment Authority guys grabbed me and started tickling me until I passed out from laughing!”

Another Saudi on Twitter wrote: “The Authority should punish of­fenders by forcing them to push swings in parks… It is punishment and entertainment at the same time.”

May 15, 2016

Can Saudi Arabia Become an Armament Producer?

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

15 May 2016

JEDDAH – The road to a sustainable arms industry in Saudi Arabia is expected to be a long and difficult slog with the likelihood of the kingdom achieving modest incre­mental success but possibly fail­ing to realise a true industrial base within 15 years.

In his road map for a new Saudi Arabia with a diversified economy not dependent on oil revenue, Dep­uty Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Adulaziz laid out his vi­sion of directing as much as 50% of the kingdom’s military purchases to local industry.

Saudi Arabia is the third largest military spender in the world, yet beyond some small manufacturing plants it has no military industrial base. The country’s defence spend­ing in 2015 grew to $87.2 billion, an increase of 5.7% over the previous year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Insti­tute.

“We spend more on military than the [British], more than France, and we do not even have a local mili­tary industry,” Mohammed said in a recent interview with Al Arabiya, noting that only 2% of Saudi mili­tary purchases are directed to local manufacturing.

“We have a strong demand inside the kingdom for the development of a localised military industry. If we raise the local industry pur­chases to between 30% and 50%, we will be able to develop a new massive industry, which will boost the economy largely and create many jobs.”

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan has been met with scepticism from Western military analysts and cau­tious optimism from Saudi observ­ers.

Kenneth M. Pollack, senior fel­low for foreign policy at the Brook­ings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington said a vi­brant arms industry would be elu­sive for Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has no capacity to build an arms industry,” Pollack said. “Could they start out doing pieces of production and it might lead to something more substan­tial? Sure they could but they must start modest before doing some­thing more sophisticated.”

Pollack said Saudis are missing two key elements in building an arms industry: a sophisticated in­dustrial base and an educated la­bour force.

Pollack said a look at Egypt’s military-industrial base could be a window to Saudi Arabia’s future, noting that Egypt requires in its military contracts that sellers pro­vide help in developing an indus­trial base.

“The United States technically has plants in Egypt but all they do is assemble tanks from kits,” Pol­lack said. “It certainly creates jobs for Egyptians and gives workers a certain amount of sophistication but it adds very little to the local economy.”

Japan and South Korea have built true industrial military bases that have taken decades to achieve, he said. “Japan builds tanks that are pretty darn good,” Pollack said.

One Saudi political analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonym­ity, said it does not matter. “If we can accomplish even 10% of what the prince wants, then we have succeeded. We have to start some­where,” the analyst said.

The issue facing Saudi Arabia is whether creating jobs is the only goal. This can be accomplished by Saudis aggressively pursuing their offset obligations, which have been underutilised, by demanding for­eign arms manufacturers provide jobs and training associated with their products. The alternative is to establish an industrial base capable of manufacturing weaponry that provides jobs and also helps protect the kingdom and generate revenue by exporting military hardware to its neighbours in an increasingly unstable region.

“I am not one of those who envi­sion Saudi Arabia as a major military power,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, an independent defence and foreign affairs consultant and chief execu­tive officer of Strategic Paradigms in Alexandria, Virginia. “The fight­ing spirit… is virtually absent from the military of the Gulf States.”

Although there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia wants to create jobs and, indeed, lacks an educated workforce ready to tackle building a military industry, the Saudi analyst said the need for educated workers to help build a thriving base is over­stated.

“There are nearly 200,000 Sau­dis studying for their graduate and postgraduate degrees abroad,” the analyst said. “When they come home they will need jobs. If we were to build a military industry, we will need high-level and mid-level managers. That’s not a huge number of workers and can be eas­ily filled. The remaining workforce — and that involves thousands of jobs — doesn’t need a university education.”

If the Saudi government envi­sions a sustainable military indus­trial base by 2030, then Iran’s arms industry may be a good reference point. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, an international arms embargo forced the Iranian gov­ernment to develop its own arms industry. Although Iran’s industry is not particularly sophisticated, it produces its armoured personnel carriers, tanks and missiles and ex­ports weapons to nearly 60 coun­tries.

“Iran has been developing its own arms industry for 30 years and it gives you a sense of what time re­quirements are involved,” Pollack said.

The Struggle to Prepare for College in Saudi Arabia

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

15 May 2016

Jeddah – University professors in Saudi Arabia invariably place incoming fresh­men students into two categories: students educated in private or internation­al schools and those young men and women taught in Saudi state schools.

The disparity between the two groups presents special challenges for university administrators and professors. Privately educated stu­dents generally are placed in ad­vanced streamlined classes. Fresh­men educated in state schools are often directed to remedial instruc­tion. Major weaknesses among state school graduates include Eng­lish language and critical thinking skills.

“I can hardly motivate my stu­dents who just don’t want to be in class,” complained one English language department supervisor at a Jeddah university. “They don’t even belong here.”

It is a harsh assessment and not always fair. The Saudi Ministry of Education has taken steps since 2007 to overhaul the education system. Many graduating seniors are fluent in English and eager to engage with instructors at the uni­versity level but overall the system remains mired in outdated teaching methods and lack of supervision of teachers.

The result is that students often score less than 3 when they need at least 6.5 to 7.5 on English skills tests — known by the acronyms IELTS and TOEFL — to qualify for admis­sion to Western universities.

Abdullah Murjan, an English teacher at a Jeddah secondary pub­lic school, said he is assigned to teach gifted students. His students speak English well but struggle with writing.

“Most of the teachers are not well-prepared,” Murjan said. “There is not enough knowledge with pronunciation and grammar. The whole subject is taught in Ara­bic.”

Murjan referred to the Grammar-translation method, conceived to teach Latin in the 16th century. The US military uses the technique to teach soldiers foreign languages be­fore overseas postings.

Saudi state schools use the meth­od to teach English. It streamlines explaining words and phrases and allows instructors to explain the subject in their native tongue. How­ever, the method teaches about English rather than teaching the language itself. It also prevents stu­dents from classroom participation and curbs spontaneous conversa­tion.

“There is little practice and teach­ers don’t force students to speak English,” Murjan said.

The Ministry of Education rec­ognised that students were unpre­pared for university-level courses. In 2008, a royal decree was issued to establish the Tatweer Education Holding Company to develop an education system on par with other countries.

Maryam Albilaly, a coordinator assigned to implement the Tatweer project and run the professional de­velopment programme for teachers in Medina, said it established 25 fe­male and 25 male secondary “smart schools”.

Smart schools use advanced tech­nology as teaching tools. White­boards and projectors were stand­ard equipment and each student in the programme received a laptop computer. It was a first for students in Saudi public schools but the ini­tial phase was short-lived, Albilaly said. The equipment needed regu­lar maintenance but technicians could not keep up with the demand for service. Administrators aban­doned the equipment.

The teachers’ professional de­velopment programme ran better. Tatweer was faced with reversing a culture in which schools had no coherent plan to implement cur­riculum or evaluations to assess teacher professionalism. School ad­ministrators more or less evaluated themselves without established criteria. Evaluation of students’ progress was minimal.

Tatweer developed a programme to assess schools’ progress and the role of administrators and teachers in the school’s educational mission.

“Schools don’t know how to as­sess their own situation,” Albilaly said. “Now (administrators) know they should depend on them­selves to change their schools. The programme is a model for leader­ship. They know exactly what they should do. It’s like a map for them to plan.”

The Tatweer programme has proved to be a success at the ex­perimental stage and the Educa­tion Ministry wants to copy it for other schools. The Tatweer plan has mushroomed from the initial 50 schools to about 900.

While Albilaly said changing the teaching and administrative cul­ture in public schools will lead to better education for students, she acknowledged that she has been unable to chart students’ progress.

Traditionally, Saudi public schools had focused on memorisa­tion with little interaction between student and teacher. Saudi publica­tions were the textbooks of choice, which limited students’ view of the world. Much of that has changed with the introduction of computers, access to the internet and use of in­ternational textbooks. Students are more engaged with their teachers. Laptops encourage performance tasks that can be measured by in­structors, although data on success rates continue to be elusive.

“Before, nobody was trained to deal with cooperative learning,” Albilaly said. “That has changed as students respond to teachers now.”

Educators such as Albilaly argue that a primary goal to boast student performance is to change the infra­structure of school administrations but methodology in teaching Eng­lish remains an obstacle.

English reading comprehen­sion, writing and even the ethics of learning are tough nuts to crack, ac­cording to Murjan.

“Students don’t always do the work,” he said. “I ask them to write something and they go to Google translate and then copy and paste their work.”

Once public school administra­tors have established a thorough method of reviewing teachers’ performances, Albilaly said she ex­pects student progress evaluations to follow. It will lead to better Eng­lish instruction.

“The first step is for administra­tors and teachers to learn how to evaluate themselves,” she said.

May 11, 2016

Mohammed bin Salman: What Does Saudi Arabian Youth Think of Their Prince?

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By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

11 May 2016

JEDDAH – When Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed his post last year, visitors to his office noticed something unusual. Prince Salman, also appointed the new minister of defence, often came to the office and occasionally attended business meetings without his headgear, the iqbal and lightly starched ghutra that is virtually every professional Saudi’s uniform to complement his white thobe.

This suggested an air of informality and subtle disregard for tradition, signalling to the older establishment that Saudi Arabia was about to enter a new era.

The median age of Saudis is 26 years old, and Prince Salman, at 34, embodies the new generation of Saudis who have little patience with institutions that have no transparency and have done little to improve their lives. He is equally comfortable discussing the nuances of social media with young people at a recent conference as he is outlining the kingdom’s strategy for a diversified economy with foreign journalists.

In fact, the prince is one of just a few royal family members – the late foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal is the only other that comes to mind – that can pull off with aplomb an interview in English with a Western journalist.

Yet Prince Salman isn’t quite a rock star thanks largely to the ingrained scepticism of many Saudis who have seen promises disappear into the government’s infamous opaque system in which rules are changed depending on the day of the week. “What is Saudi vision anyway?” one 57-year-old complained to me the other day. “It’s only a vision. Nothing else.”

A 43-year-old Saudi schoolteacher, without elaborating, said he views the prince’s proposals as lacking substance. The teacher expressed the common cultural urge in the kingdom to “clip the wings” of a fellow Saudi who has ambitions for success.

But Prince Salman instils more hope than scepticism among the younger generation, because he came along at the right time and he is the right age. With the exception of the first Gulf War, patriotism has never been the strength of Saudi Arabia as a nation. Ask any Saudi their priorities, and they would identify as a Muslim first and Saudi second. And that remains the case today.

The subtle difference is that the new generation of Saudis came of age during the reign of King Abdullah, who implemented incremental social reforms that provided more jobs and a free university education for young men and women. Women, in particular, are excelling in the Western university environment.

It also helped that social media gave young people an opportunity to express themselves more or less freely as long as they kept their criticisms on religion and the royal family to themselves.

Young Saudis were eager for their country to prove that it was a contemporary, forward-thinking nation. But they had few options to identify with a leader who spoke like them and shared the same values. Prince Salman answered that call because he was willing to take risks. It’s almost beside the point of whether his vision for Saudi Arabia 2030 succeeds.

Young people are attracted to Prince Salman because of his youth, power and vision – a recipe for success to Saudis painfully familiar with unfulfilled promises. And because of his youth, in a culture that values old age and the wisdom that comes with it, the prince managed the almost impossible task of persuading the Council of Ministers to adopt his vision.

His goals of education reform, increased tourism and building cultural centres to teach Saudis their history fall far outside the comfort zone of many government officials. But the Council of Ministers would not have embraced the prince’s future for Saudi Arabia if they perceived him as a political lightweight. His political career started with the Experts Commission under the Council of Ministers and as secretary-general of the Riyadh Competitive Council, which works on economic issues.

Further, most Saudis appreciate that he speaks a language they understand, and who speaks with authority, appears genuine and does not read from a script. He is not reluctant to criticise his own government. When he described Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil revenue as an “addiction”, it was language that no Saudi has heard from a government official, but found it refreshing.

As one, Said, told me recently, “Educated Saudis see the big picture and we find it encouraging, even if we happen to fail on some occasions. There are a lot of uneducated pessimists who don’t understand the prince’s language and they just see another official painting a rosy picture. But the prince is young and has enough time ahead of him to see his vision realised.”



May 1, 2016

Saudi ‘Vision 2030’ Sparks Praise, Skepticism

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

1 May 2016

RIYADH – Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s ambitious reforms to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil and turn to investment, manu­facturing and tourism as a major source of revenue have sparked op­timism among the country’s leading economic analysts but also scepti­cism from some market watchers.

Many economists, however, agree that sweeping reforms to shore up Saudi Arabia’s $98 billion budget deficit is long overdue and a major step towards developing other rev­enue-generating industries is vital to the country’s economic survival.

The centrepiece of Salman’s road map that establishes a vision for Saudi Arabia’s future to 2030 is to is­sue an initial public offering (IPO) of 1-5% interest in Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company with a value estimated at $2 trillion, to capital markets. By floating Aramco on the stock exchange and diversi­fying its investments, the deputy crown prince said the Saudi econo­my would be more resilient.

“I think by 2020, if oil stops we can survive,” Salman told al-Arabi­ya television. “We need it, we need it, but I think in 2020 we can live without oil.”

Anwar Majed Eshki, a former ma­jor-general in the Saudi military and president of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, said the plan doesn’t mean abandoning oil as a revenue source by 2020.

“The plan doesn’t mean that the kingdom lives without oil but it means that the kingdom is to get ready after the oil era by exploit­ing oil to create the alternatives in different fields, most important of which are minerals, investments, industries and tourism,” he said.

Not all economists are convinced. Jason Tuvey, a Middle East econo­mist at the London-based Capital Economics, said revenue will still come from Saudi oil.

“In a sense I think they are try­ing to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” Tuvey said. “The revenue still comes from Aramco. In short, Saudi Arabia will be dependent on oil for many years.”

John Sfakianakis, director of the Economics Research at the Riyadh-based Gulf Research Centre, is more optimistic. He said that, while the road map is ambitious, even meet­ing only some of the prince’s goals would be a vast improvement to the country’s economy.

“It surely can be achieved if it brings everybody under one um­brella,” Sfakianakis said. “Even if it’s not achieved, halfway is enough to dramatically change the country’s dependence on oil. You need to be ambitious to rid yourself of (oil) de­pendency. It’s easier said than done but if accomplished by only 50% it’s very good.”

Ahmed al-Jundi, an executive analyst at the Jeddah-based archi­tectural firm Diyar Consultants, said Salman’s plans can be accomplished if private and public employers are committed.

“This is an ambitious goal but, however, achievable to a large ex­tent,” Jundi said. “It can be achieved through real reforms in all sectors. The current revenues should be reinvested into different markets to guarantee annual returns. The Saudi work force should be utilised correctly to truly provide people the environment to grow. It’s possible to change the economic balance if the entire government machinery completely and seriously submits to the vision 2030.”

Government cooperation is the crux to whether the prince’s vi­sion can be successful; perhaps the most important element to achieve at least partial success to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy from oil de­pendency to a diversified industry and investments is to control cor­ruption.

“The government’s focus should be on achieving goals; systemis­ing, restructuring and allowing the private sector to participate in the different sectors,” Jundi said. “This would lead to transparency and introduce a system of automatic checks and balances.”

He added: “Transparency is a key and market participants are encour­aged, but the government’s sub­stantial attention to the economy and its youth is what truly increases participation and the general confi­dence.”

Tuvey said that by making Ara­mco more transparent, it will “im­prove corporate governance, not just Aramco but also the public sec­tor”.

Unexpected in Salman’s road map are plans to develop a military industry. The prince said in his in­terview: “Is it logical that we are ranked the third in world military spending and yet we do not have any military manufacturing capa­bilities?”

Eshki said Saudi Arabia has had factories to manufacture light arms in Al-Kharj for 50 years, “but the concentration will be in spare parts and some types of weapons”.

Eshki said the Saudi government will impose a condition on compa­nies selling weapons that they must invest 30% from sales in the spare parts industry.

Saudi Arabia has long struggled to jump-start its struggling tourism industry, which is primarily focused on Muslim pilgrims. But haj pilgrims are limited to visiting the holy cities of Medina and Mecca and umrah visitors have only two weeks to visit.

The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage recently an­nounced “Umrah-Plus,” a plan that extends a pilgrim’s visa to 30 days to allow visits to a broader range of tourist destinations, including Islamic archaeological and heritage sites. Saudi Arabia offers no tourist visas.

Salman wants to go further, not­ing that there are plans to open the largest Islamic museum in the country and allow more tourists into Saudi Arabia. The tourism com­mission has always focused on do­mestic tourists first and then Mus­lims from Gulf Cooperation Council countries. When pressed in his al- Arabiya interview about opening doors to tourist of all nationalities, Salman replied: “Undoubtedly, in line with our values and beliefs.”

Sfakianakis said tourism remains underutilised.

For growth, jobs and recreation, tourism is an untapped potential,” he said. “To be the highest multi­player than all the other sectors, that means (the tourism industry) must create jobs and serve other areas of the economy and generate output. It cuts across a lot of sec­tors.”

The Rationale Behind Tiran and Sanafir Islands Deal

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

1 May 2016

JEDDAH – It is no coincidence that an an­nouncement concerning a $4 billion bridge linking Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea came just before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “gifted” two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to Sau­di Arabia.

The idea of a bridge between the two countries has been talked about for years but proved to be cost-prohibitive. Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud proposed the idea in 1988 and Egyptian pres­ident Muhammad Morsi suggested in 2012 to revive the proposal.

Acquisition of the islands of Ti­ran and Sanafir may have solved at least part of the costs issues, making construction of the bridge more feasible. Tiran has been con­sidered an anchor point for the bridge and even a railway has been suggested.

Israel and the United States, fol­lowing the protocol established in the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, approved the for­mal transfer.

Saudi Arabia has provided Egypt with billions of dollars since Sisi assumed power in 2013. The king­dom sees Egypt as a vital partner in establishing a coalition of friendly Sunni Muslim nations.

Yet, even though Israel did not object to the transfer, the acquisi­tion gives a major strategic advan­tage to Saudi Arabia because of its location at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, a major shipping lane for Israel and Jordan.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Saudi Arabia would honour the agreement that gives Israelis freedom to use the route. He said the Saudis are expected to assume Egypt’s responsibility of the “military appendix of the peace agreement”.

Possession of the islands allows Saudi Arabia to place military per­sonnel there. In addition, the is­lands serve to help build the pro­posed bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“I was not surprised, but puz­zled by Egypt’s decision to transfer the control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, adjunct research professor for the Strategic Stud­ies Institute, Army War College in Pennsylvania. “The strategic sig­nificance of this move stems from the fact that Israel said nothing about it. Of course, we know now that Egypt informed Israel in ad­vance of its impending move and at least got a tacit approval of it.”

Ahrari said there should be little dispute that the transfer was ap­propriate.

“Technically, the Israelis could have said ‘no’ based on the fact that it was violation of the transfer of territory agreement from Israel to Egypt,” he said.

The analyst said the transfer bodes well for the region, particu­larly because Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel share the common foe: Iran.

“This action also speaks volumes about the growing trust between Egypt and Israel on the one hand and between Israel and the Gulf states on the other,” Ahrari said. “The unifying factor is the fear of Iran. Perhaps, we are witnessing a major realignment of friendship in that part of the world.”

The transfer signals an effort by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to find alternatives to boosting their re­spective economies. The proposed bridge would slash transit times to move goods.

Egypt has seen an alarming de­cline in tourism since the 2011 revolution and even steeper drops over the last year. About 1.2 mil­lion tourists visited Egypt in the first quarter of 2016, a drop from 2.2 million during the same period in 2015.

Saudi Arabia looks to strengthen its infrastructure to provide more tourist destinations, including building more museums. The Com­mission for Tourism and National Heritage has opened most of its archaeological sites to tourists, in­cluding a number of Islamic herit­age sites available only to Muslims.

Linking the two countries will encourage tourism and if the pro­posed “green card” scheme that would give Arabs and Muslims permanent residency status in the kingdom receives approval, the Red Sea bridge would facilitate the movement of workers.

“Egypt has had a lot of trouble with inbound and outbound tour­ists,” said Fazal Bahardeen, chief executive officer of CrescentRating. com, a company that ranks tourism destinations for Muslim travel­lers. “But connectivity, whether by bridge or by land, is a key compo­nent for tourism. It will most likely encourage tourism between the two countries. The relationship between the two countries and the economies of both countries is bound to improve.”


April 25, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Roads Less Traveled Leaving Tourists Behind

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By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

24 April 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has improved the preservation efforts at key tourism sites, including ones that attract hundreds of thousands of hajj and umrah pilgrims each year, but the lack of highways and transportation is hampering the tourism industry.

Driving north for 336 km from Jeddah to Yanbu on Route 5, motorists unfamiliar with the Saudi Arabian highway may notice something unusual after passing the small city of Thuwal. There are no convenience stores, petrol stations or rest stops for most of the drive.

Motorists who do not read Arabic may also miss small signs directing them to exits for rest stops that are several kilometers off the highway. Indeed, some roadways and rural regions are so under-developed that tourists are banned from exploring them at all.

While major highways link the kingdom’s largest cities and secondary roads serve the small cities and towns, reaching villages can be more of a challenge, often accessible only by dirt roads. Once travelers leave the cities, they often have to organize their own petrol, food and water to reach their destination.


Although the kingdom’s Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has improved the preservation efforts at key tourism sites, including ones that attract hundreds of thousands of hajj and umrah pilgrims each year, the lack of highways and transportation is hampering the tourism industry, according to Dr. Erdogan Ekiz, a professor at King Abdulaziz University’s Tourism Institute.

“Highways and transportation are the tourism industry’s greatest weakness,” Ekiz told Salaam Gateway.

Billions of dollars have been spent on tourist sites with an emphasis on halal, religiously significant venues, but getting there can be a challenge. The government hopes that its 2016 budget allocations will help solve the transportation problems, but in the meantime, tour operators need to be creative in getting clients to places.

Fahad Al-Safh, operator of Explorer Tours, one of the oldest tourism companies in Saudi Arabia, told Salaam Gateway that a key route to the country’s most important archaeological site, Mada’in Saleh, cannot be used.

“The government closed the old highway to tourists and tour operators between Medina and Al-Ula,” he said.

The older Route 15 between Medina and Al-Ula is also a challenge, even for an experienced driver, but it is also an important artery for tour operators who pick up clients at the Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport for tours to Mada’in Saleh.

The lack of services and the government’s orders that tour operators avoid the old highway puts them at a disadvantage.

“There is a need for better government infrastructure, but they are doing it step by step,” Al-Safh said.

Saudi tourism officials will also be faced with increased burdens on religious destinations with the launch next year of the Umrah Plus program, which allows umrah pilgrims to extend their visits to religious landmarks outside of Medina and Mecca.

Adding to any tourist’s frustration is Saudi Arabia’s substandard public transportation. Bus routes are heavily used between Jeddah and Medina and onwards to Riyadh, and a short rail line between Riyadh and Dammam is popular, but there are no intra-city bus lines or long-distance routes that reach far-flung tourist sites. Saudis and expatriates rely on taxis, while bus coaches are decades old and cater to people who cannot afford a car.

That might change in western Saudi Arabia, however, with the Haramain Mecca-to-Medina high-speed rail line scheduled for completion in 2017. The government also allocated $6.4 billion for transportation and infrastructure in its 2016 budget, the bulk of the funds set aside for 2,000 km of new roads and railways and upgrades at important tourist destinations such as Yanbu, Ras Al-Khair and Jubail, according to the Saudi Ministry of Transport.

In the meantime only the adventurous tourist will travel alone instead of relying on tour operators’ chartered buses to get around.

“Highway improvements will be made, but transportation will continue to be a big challenge,” Ekiz said.

© 2016


April 20, 2016

Saudi Arabia on the Cusp of Medical Tourism?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 06:20
Tags: , ,

By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

19 April 2016

Religion is the engine that drives Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry, but when it comes to medical tourism, where the kingdom could provide  high-quality healthcare to Muslim patients, the kingdom falls flat.

Despite being considered one of the world’s top countries in healthcare, with Western-trained surgeons and technologically advanced hospitals, Saudi Arabia lags behind the United States, Costa Rica, India and Thailand in terms of medical tourism.

A relatively new niche, medical tourism caters to patients who travel abroad for anything from cosmetic surgery to organ transplants, usually to save money.

Saudi Arabia is in a unique position to do well in medical tourism, given its religious significance to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

In its report on Saudi Arabia, the American International Journal of Contemporary Research noted that a combination of sophisticated marketing campaigns in other countries and the difficult process of issuing medical visas in Saudi Arabia conspired to make the kingdom an also-ran. Pilgrims with an umrah visa and people with a business visa may find healthcare, but medical visas are harder to come by.


Medical tourism in Saudi Arabia seldom even crosses most European tour operators’ radars.

“I’m unaware of any services [in] Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Premhar Shah, CEO and medical director of the United Kingdom-based Medical Tourist Company.

Shah said his company has turned its attention to Dubai, which has improved medical care and has increased its number of accredited hospitals.

“Most patients from Dubai and the Middle East travel to Malaysia and the UK for treatment, but now there is improvement in Dubai and we see patients going there,” Shah told Salaam Gateway.


Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, already has the infrastructure in place for medical tourism. The kingdom has 95 medical facilities, including 74 hospital programs, accredited by the Joint Commission International, which certifies medical facilities worldwide. Overall, Saudi Arabia has nearly 400 hospitals.

It also has a reputation for groundbreaking surgery. Since 1990 Saudi surgeons have separated 34 sets of conjoined twins from 20 countries — all free of charge — at the King Abdullah Specialist Children’s Hospital in Riyadh.

Perhaps the most significant treatments — if not the most lucrative — are organ transplants, which are generally unavailable to foreign patients. The kingdom is a desirable destination for organ transplants among GCC citizens because countries that used to provide low-cost transplants, such as war-torn Iraq and Syria, are no longer stable.

Dr. Faisal Shaheen, director general of the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation, said transplants increased 40 percent in 2015 from a year earlier. But he did not expect an increase in foreign patients because Saudi citizens and expatriates with legal residency are the first to receive care.

Shaheen said that government Saudi hospitals conducted 1,031 liver, kidney, heart and lung transplants in 2015, but that was largely due to Saudis unable to obtain transplants in other Middle Eastern countries.

“Lebanon and Jordan have started to become more rigid in their requirements for commercial transplants,” Shaheen told Salaam Gateway. “These countries are where most people from Saudi Arabia go to.”

To complicate efforts to open Saudi Arabia to foreign patients, an estimated 6,600 Saudi and expatriate patients are already on waiting lists for transplants.

“Only about five percent of the cases for transplants are non-citizens,” Shaheen said. “A foreigner must be in the kingdom for a year and have an Iqama (residency permit). We can’t accept patients with a visitor’s visa.”


Shaheen said that private hospitals offer a glimmer of hope for foreign patients. Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital and the Saudi German Hospital in Jeddah and the SAAD Specialist Hospital in Al-Khobar provide transplants for medical tourists.

Fakeeh Hospital, which is the largest private hospital in Saudi Arabia with 600 beds, established a Medical Tourism Department that helps issue medical visas and coordinates with tour companies to arrange transportation.

“In Saudi Arabia we have the private sector that can help issue a visa to be treated,” Shaheen said. “But (the visa) must be from an accredited center like SAAD, Soliman Fakeeh or Saudi German Hospital.”

© 2016

April 14, 2016

Tourism Officials See Growing Saudi Interest in Heritage

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 05:25
Tags: , ,

By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

13 April 2016

Following decades of government neglect, Saudi Arabia has turned dozens of historical sites throughout the kingdom into tourism destinations. It’s been a boon for tour operators, but equally important is that a new generation of Saudis have taken a keen interest in their cultural and religious history.

The kingdom boasts more than 100 heritage sites. The most popular are perhaps the Naseef House in Old Jeddah, built in 1872, and Al-Ula, a town near the ancient ruins of Mada’in Saleh that was once at the crossroads of an important trade route between Medina and Tabuk.

But there are also more obscure sites largely unknown to tourists, such as the Eieiraif Fortress atop a hill in Hail and the Divan Heritage Souk in southeast Qassim province.


Since 2011, European and North American research teams have scoured the Arabian Peninsula discovering relics from the age of the dinosaurs through the Bronze Age.

Off-limits to non-Muslims are several Islamic archeological sites, among them the Joatha Mosque, about 20 kilometers northeast of Hofuf; the Aldoor archaeological dig, an ancient burial mound, in southeast Al-Ahsa, and the ancient village of Al-Garah, dating to the Abbasid and Umayyad dynasties in northern Saudi Arabia.

“Tourists can easily visit any heritage site,” said Erdogan Ekiz, a professor at King Abdulaziz University’s Tourism Institute. “One just needs identification, and permission is not needed. But the Islamic sites are only for Muslim tourists. Those sites are considered much like Medina and Mecca as holy places.”


Ekiz said that interest has increased significantly in recent years as more hajj and umrah pilgrims are visiting religious sites as a way to learn more about the Prophet Mohammed.

Another sign that the government is committed to its history is a new course offered by King Abdulaziz University on national heritage. The curriculum is expected to be offered to students for the fall semester of 2017, said Ekiz.

Fahad Al-Safh, operator of the halal travel company Explorer Tours, said that many heritage sites had been destroyed before tourism authorities fenced off areas starting in 2000 in order to begin the slow process of starting archeological digs.

“Most of the tourists who visit these [non-Islamic] sites are Westerners … who are not Muslim,” said Al-Safh, who noted the majority of his clients are non-Muslims and Western expatriates living in Saudi Arabia.

But he notes that Saudis today are much more knowledgeable of their heritage than the previous generation. “The new generation is interested in seeing something related to their history,” Al-Safh said.

Meteb Al-Mahmoud, who operates Amazing Tours, said government attention to preserving heritage sites has improved dramatically.

“You see improvements in Mada’in Saleh and in Hail in the north, but less attention is paid in the south,” said Al-Mahmoud said. “[The government] bases its improvements on the importance of the sites, and there are less visitors and less interest in the south so things have been slow down there.”

The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has never made it a secret that its first priority is to boost domestic tourism, followed by attracting Muslim visitors from the GCC. But down the road, the commission is eyeing the international non-Muslim market, especially since the government is eager to diversify its revenue sources.


Today the archeological site Mada’in Saleh, Old Jeddah, the rock art venue in Hail and Al-Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family, are registered with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage is preparing other sites to attract non-Muslim visitors interested in Saudi Arabia’s cultural history.

For now, however, the emphasis will remain on Muslim tourists as the commission develops plans to research and preserve more Islamic history sites with a focus on the era of early Muslim caliphs.

The first step is identifying Islamic sites. The commission will then promote those venues to Saudi students, in particular, to “link” them to their “Islamic history based on the tangible and credible historical information,” according to the commission.

“The government is paying attention to its national heritage,” Ekiz said.

© 2016

April 9, 2016

Recapturing Railway History a Slow Effort in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 11:37
Tags: , , ,

By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

6 April 2016

Saudi Arabia is slowly transforming its historic Hejaz Railway stations, some of the country’s most important and underappreciated early-20th century cultural and heritage landmarks, from a hopeless cause into multimedia museums.

The projects, launched in 2005 by the Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, fall short of fully restoring locomotives and carriages that operated from 1900 to 1924 during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, but features them in exhibits in the Medina and Tabuk regions.

The Medina and Mada’in Saleh railway station museums are complete and open to the public while the Tabuk station remains under construction. Tabuk’s facility is scheduled for completion in September 2016.

The government’s awakening to the value of the railway and its stations as cultural heritage sites has been a long journey. Even the railway’s significance to transport hajj and umrah pilgrims from Damascus to Medina has only recently been recognized.

“Everything we know that we call the Hejaz is in fact a fusion of the Ottoman culture and the Arab culture and the railway is a small part of that,” said Atef Alshehri, a Saudi architect who specializes in preserving heritage sites. “Cultural awareness, our awareness in our roots, is still in its infancy in Saudi Arabia.”

The Medina museum opened to the public in 2014. It features a German-made Hartmann locomotive and several railcars. The refurbished station, with its Ottoman-inspired architecture remodeled as a museum, offers tourists a history of Medina, especially during the time of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

The Tabuk station has a state-of-the-art museum separate from a much smaller station with one locomotive and two railcars featured as exhibits.

The Mada’in Saleh station and workshop “represents the site’s central tourism activities area by providing the basic services, such as reception, tourism information and guiding services and museum displays,” according to the tourism commission.


The fact the commission achieved as much as it did in rescuing artifacts is a testament to its recognition that if it didn’t act quickly, the railway’s history would be erased forever.

As late as the 1980s, most of the old rail system, starting at the Jordan-Saudi border, was intact. Steam locomotives and carriages remained on the tracks as if frozen in time. But entrepreneurs began upending the trains to take the tracks to sell for scrap, and then the overturned locomotives were cannibalized as well.

Back in 1924, when the last long cargo train pulled out of the Medina for Jordan, locomotive engineers dismantled one carriage after another during the journey for wood to feed the steam engine.

Gerhard Henrich, a Hejaz Railway historian in Riyadh, says evidence of the railroad is scattered throughout the Medina region.

“When I last visited the area, there were stripped cars overturned along the line, and I found steel rails stamped with the manufacturer’s name used to construct roofs for buildings,” Henrich said.

Henrich says the stations are made of stone, so the shells remained intact. But windows, doors and fixtures disappeared.

When rare Ottoman coins were discovered under one station, treasure hunters scoured all the stations along the route, causing further damage.

About 15 years ago, the government fenced in all stations and crossings along the route to prevent further vandalism but did little to preserve the remnants, according to Henrich.


However, the commission felt confident enough about its preservation project to submit an application in April 2015 to list the railway as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Alshehri said the value of the Hejaz Railway as a cultural landmark cannot be underestimated. He noted that Medina’s population doubled to 60,000 between 1900 and 1910 because the railway made the city easily accessible for the first time.

In addition, a major purpose of the railroad was to transport pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. Although the railway never extended beyond Medina, the intention was to deliver pilgrims to Mecca as well.

“The railway was planned among the historic pilgrim route from Damascus, which had been a route since the beginning of Islam,” Alshehri said.

Alshehri is enthusiastic about the commission’s efforts to create museums from the stations, but he said he’d prefer the government also consider fully restoring at least one locomotive to become operational and rebuild a portion of the line.

“The government has done a good job with the Medina station, especially making alterations from a station into the museum,” he said. “But train memories are not the buildings. There is no attempt to revitalize the trains to travel a short distance, to give the actual experience of travelling by steam. There is nothing to show how they actually operated.”

Just a decade ago it was considered improbable that the Hejaz Railway would be saved at all. And the work has only just begun.

“It’s a big, big job in a big, big country,” Henrich said. “They have a lot of work to do.”

© 2016

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