Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 17:53
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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?

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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

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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

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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

April 8, 2016

Saudi Filmmakers Shine in Annual Festival

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

8 April 2016

Riyadh – There was a time, not long ago, that any discussion among film-makers about the future of cinema in Saudi Arabia would be a short conversation. Shooting mov­ies on location was an exercise in guerrilla film-making. Screenings took place in Dubai. Young men and women making films were scorned for wasting their time on fluff.

Artists began chipping away at negative perceptions from two very different places in Saudi society. Director Haifaa al-Mansour filmed her stories in and outside Saudi Arabia on shoestring budgets start­ing in 2005. Her film Wadjda was the kingdom’s entry as Best Foreign Language Film for the 86th Acad­emy Awards and nominated as Best Foreign Film for the 2014 BAFTA Awards. Taking a different route, Mohammed al-Turki has been pro­ducing mainstream Hollywood fare such as the Richard Gere movie Ar­bitrage.

Missing from the struggle to pro­duce worthy films has been govern­ment support, or at least benign ne­glect, that would provide a breathing space to aspiring Saudis to pursue their art but conservatives actively discouraged the idea of Saudis be­coming professional moviemakers.

Perceptions about film-making have slowly evolved. The recent Saudi Film Festival, which ended on March 28th in Dammam, was the result of a surprising collaboration between film-makers and the spon­sors, the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts.

“We got a (great) deal of govern­ment support,” Saudi film-maker Asem al-Roumi said. “The govern­ment support took shape by allow­ing us to go public, rather than doing it in secret like we used to.”

Roumi is a graduate of the New York Film Academy and a part-time teacher at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University’s College of Media in Riyadh. His small compa­ny, Asem Films, produces commer­cials and education films and covers special events. He recently directed Ghabash, a 6-minute horror story co-written with Badr el-Kothairy.

Roumi said government support is the difference between making or breaking a young Saudi film-maker. “In the past, a person might think of producing a movie and starts to shoot and write but stops because he doesn’t know where to shoot or where to screen the movie,” he said. “Now we have festivals, thank God.”

Roumi said his entry, Amal, was placed in the student movie catego­ry but did not win.

As film festivals go, the Dammam event was small. Opening day drew about 400 people attending cer­emonies, screenplay workshops and screenings. In all there was about 100 film-makers registered for the festival and about 70 films were in competition. Among the entries were Their Stained Hearts, a Rakan al-Harbi tale about a museum for terrorists and Hajar Alnaim’s Hope that tells of a mercy killing.

Women film-makers were well represented at the festival largely due to a contingent from Jeddah’s all-female Effat University, which has about 150 women in its visual and digital production programme. About 13 Effat students entered screenplays or films in the Saudi Film Festival competition, according to Bentley Brown, an American who teaches screenwriting at the uni­versity. He said Effat students were exploring “topics of intellectual im­portance”.

Saudi film-maker Zainab al-Nasse won the Golden Palm Award for best screenplay for her film Wedding Dress. The award for best student film went to Motor by Mohamed Alhlil. Other winners included best short documentary for the film Yel­low by Mohammed Salman and best short film to Abdul-Aziz Shalahi’s Fiddle.

Although Saudi Arabia has no cin­emas, that is almost beside the point among film-makers. Festivals in Dubai, Europe and the United States allow Saudi movie enthusiasts to screen their films to the public. Most malls built in Saudi Arabia’s urban centres reserved space for future cinemas.

There is no formal ban on cine­mas. Entrepreneurs can open a cin­ema but must face the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice on their own.

Few people in business see the prospect of a profitable business if commission members campaign in front of their cinema to discourage moviegoers from buying tickets. For now, film buffs must be content to attend the occasional cartoon screenings for families in Riyadh and Jeddah while those wide, open halls in malls remain bowling alleys and indoor go-kart tracks.

Roumi, however, said he sees change coming. He points to a cash award to film-makers from the Sau­di Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, affiliated with the Information Ministry, as evidence of the govern­ment’s commitment to film-making as a profession. Eventually, the in­fant Saudi film industry will flour­ish.

“I live in Riyadh and went to the Eastern province where they showed ten movies at one time,” Roumi said. “It’s not a joke. The production values of these movies are a great thing. If that can happen over five days now, imagine what will happen in five years. I expect a lot will happen over the next five years.”

April 6, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Travel and Tourism Revenues Jump 8.6%, Fueled by Promotion of Religious Travel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 12:45
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By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

6 April 2016

Saudi Arabia’s tourism revenues jumped 8.6 percent in 2015 on the back of an increase in domestic and foreign tourists largely due to the kingdom’s efforts to promote religious tourism.

The total contribution of Saudi Arabia’s travel industry to the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2015 was 190.3 billion riyals ($50.7 billion), or 8 percent of GDP, compared to 175.2 billion riyals, or 7.7 percent of GDP, in 2014, according to the March 2016 World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) report.

For 2016, WTTC forecasts the kingdom’s increase in total travel and tourism contribution to GDP by 4.2 percent. After that an annual rise is predicted at 4.4 percent per year to reach $81.6 billion — about 9.2 percent of GDP — in 2026, according to the Council.

Further, religious tourism to Mecca and Medina will likely increase the number of tourists interested in halal and Shariah-compliant services from 17.5 million in 2014 to 25 million by 2025, according to the latest statistics provided by Riyadh-based Aljazira Capital.

According to Aljazira, the Saudi government is meeting the demands of more visitors by continuing to strengthen its transportation infrastructure, including two major projects that are still under construction: the Haramain High Speed Rail, which will link Mecca and Medina, and the new Riyadh Metro. The government also invested heavily to expand the Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz Airport in Medina.

Saudi Arabia’s Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has developed a two-pronged approach to attracting Muslim visitors to the country by emphasizing religious tourism to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina and preserving and offering tours to the kingdom’s numerous archaeological and heritage sites.

Far down on its list of priorities are efforts to attract foreign tourists from outside the GCC region.

“Religious tourism will continue to grow,” said Feton Alrefaei, an account executive with LeGate, which specializes in accommodations for hajj and umrah services. “The world is in crisis now, especially in the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia is safer and more appealing to tourists. And Saudi Arabia has been more open in the last five years.”

Dr. Erdogan Ekiz, head of the Travel and Tourism Department at King Abdulaziz University, said 65 percent of foreign visitors are on hajj and umrah visas, while 26 percent enter on family visas.


Ekiz said the Saudi government is taking a step further to boost religious tourism by preparing to launch its Umrah Plus program that allows hajj and umrah pilgrims to remain in the country longer.

Government regulations limit pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, but Umrah Plus, scheduled to become effective in 2017, allows them a full month in the country, as opposed to the current 15-day limit, and the ability to move more freely.

“Umrah Plus will allow visitors to explore archeological and heritage sites and visit other areas other than the two big cities,” said Ekiz.

Muslim and non-Muslim domestic and foreign tourists visiting the kingdom for recreational activities still enjoy halal and family-friendly experiences, although visits to museums and other cultural centers pale in comparison to the desire to see the two holy cities.

Last month the National Museum in Riyadh staged an exhibit on the early capitals of Islamic culture. The exhibit attracted more than 7,000 visitors, although less than half were families. The majority were visitors on official business or high school and university students, according to the tourism commission.


The increasing numbers of tourists, whether fulfilling their religious obligations or enjoying a family outing, have created a demand for the tourism commission to recruit more guides.

The commission announced this month that 4,500 Saudi citizens were employed in 80 tourism facilities under its Training Ends with Employment program. At the end of 2015, 1.2 million direct and indirect jobs were generated in the tourism industry with a forecast of 1.7 million jobs by 2020, according to the commission.

KAU’s Professor Ekiz said the commission has moved to hire more women by developing an events management program that will diversify the tourism industry’s labor force. About 200 women will participate in the program.

“It’s a humble start, but it’s the first of its kind,” he said.

© 2016

April 1, 2016

Kingdom of Luxury Shopping

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 10:26
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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

1 April 2016

Jeddah – Marwa Alkady was shopping recently for clothes for her husband on Jeddah’s fashionable Tahlia Street and she wasn’t about to devi­ate from her plan for his ensemble.

By the end of a long day she had everything she wanted: embroi­dered midnight blue thobe for the winter, Mont Blanc fountain pen for the pocket, white Dunhill ghutra and Burberry cufflinks to match his IWC Schaffhausen watch.

“We went to London last summer, so he’s kind of spoiled,” said the 25-year-old newlywed. “After seeing what the shops have there, we have the same expectations here. Once you have the taste of best clothes and jewellery, you really don’t want to lower your standards.”

Travelling abroad has raised the bar for many Saudis, who find lux­ury brand shopping almost a neces­sity. In a country with a rigid dress code of thobes and abayas, a new generation of Saudis is emerging for whom individuality is a key compo­nent to expressing themselves.

The luxury brand industry in the past decade has experienced phe­nomenal growth of as much as 9.5% annually. The proliferation of malls, disposable income and cheaper travel to the West — particularly London, Paris and New York — have led to luxury brands developing so­phisticated marketing campaigns to attract affluent Arab buyers.

In Saudi Arabia, a study by mar­ket researchers Canadean, sales of clothing, footwear, accessories and luxury goods reached $11.9 billion in 2012, a 9.5% jump from 2011. Even during the first full year of the reces­sion in 2009 sales climbed a respect­able 5.8% over the previous year.

Nicky Valentine of the London-based NV Luxury Ltd., which ad­vises international luxury brand companies on expansion and man­agement issues, said tourism and accessibility to luxury products have a lot do with robust sales.

“Growth has increased due to dis­tribution of brands,” Valentine said. “Tourism levels increased in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”

Shaun Borstrock, associate dean of School of Business, Innovation and Projects at the University of Hertfordshire in England and who tracks luxury brands’ global market­ing strategies, said luxury retailers tap into two kinds of Middle East consumers: the buyers who “shout” their wealth with showy accesso­ries and those who “whisper” their affluent lifestyle with understated branding.

“When we are talking about true luxury we have consumers who are not opposed to spending con­siderable amounts of money and are willing to buy big-name items that are European and have herit­age,” Borstrock said. “Then you also have the lesser known brands the consumer buys in which they are saying they know what’s going on. These consumers who buy a watch, for example, will go to a horolo­gist for a watch made especially for them rather than a mass producer of watches.”

Luxury retailers are adapting to the shopping habits of citizens and expatriates in the Gulf region. The increased numbers of malls, espe­cially in Saudi Arabia, shapes the way retailers think about the mar­ket.

“The mall environment is more practical and they are open pretty late into the night, 11.30 and 12,” Val­entine said. “These are destination malls with attractions like aquari­ums in saturated areas. Women’s fashion sections and men’s fashions are more popular there. It’s like a lit­tle Bond Street.”

Theme malls are expected to in­crease substantially in Riyadh with retail sales expected to grow from $92 billion in 2013 to $130 billion by 2018, according to a 2014 study by the auditing firm KMPG.

In 2014, Riyadh’s mall retail space was about 1.45 million sq. metres with an increase of another 700,000 sq. metres projected by 2018, according to KMPG. Six malls in Riyadh that will anchor luxury brand retailers are planned through 2018. The Majid Al-Futtaim Mall, at 180,000 sq. metres, is sched­uled for completion in 2017 and the 250,000-sq.-metre Diriyah Gate is to open a year later.

Luxury brand sellers are eager to fill the expansive theme malls be­cause the financial risks are mini­mal. The sole agent distributor re­quirement in Saudi Arabia was an ironclad agreement for many years in which foreign businesses were required to obtain a Saudi agent to establish a store or company in the kingdom.

The sole agent requirement be­came voluntarily after Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organisation in 2005. However, most luxury re­tailers continue their relationships with their agents instead of directly establishing their own stores to re­duce the financial risks.

“The onus is on the licensee who is in effect buying the franchise and is taking the financial risks,” said Borstrock, who noted that there is no advantage for foreign companies to go it alone in Saudi Arabia. “Lux­ury brands want the representation [in foreign countries] but don’t want the burden.”

Luxury brands tailor their prod­ucts for the Arab consumer but keep their core identity intact.

“A range of 70-80% of the stock would be the same,” Valentine said. “Then the adaption may be in jewel­lery brands like diamonds. There is a huge market for big fat sets, necklac­es, headdresses, bangles and rings.”

There is a risk that too much tai­loring to Middle East tastes may reduce the luxury accessories that buyers really want. A common per­ception among Saudi women buy­ers, according to shopper Alkady, is that many stores are selling inven­tory that have failed to attract buy­ers in the West.

“I don’t think that any brand wants to sell their rejected stock,” Valentine said. “The flagship stores get the top collections. It depends on the size of the store. I looked at Tiffany’s in the Middle East and they have a pretty big footprint with an upgraded collection that is larger than their store in Manhattan.”

Borstrock said the perception is common but he noted it’s impossi­ble for luxury retailers to fully stock every store, especially high-end retailers with hundreds of stores worldwide.

“Louis Vuitton in a typical season produces about 200,000 items for any one market,” he said. “It’s im­possible for them to show every sin­gle item in every single store.”

March 29, 2016

Opinion: Barack Obama and the West Have Abandoned Their Ally Saudi Arabia – But They Will Regret It

By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

29 March 2016

Saudis have recently taken to describing President Barack Obama using an Arabic phrase “tarajala unn faras addiblumasiah” which, roughly translated, means: “He (who) alights from the horse of diplomacy”. Or to be blunt: he who has forgotten what it means to be president and is instead behaving like an ordinary man.

It follows Obama’s recent interview in The Atlantic, in which he described some US allies as “free riders”. Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal was especially offended, and although Obama did not single out Saudi Arabia the interview confirmed most Saudis’ fears that the US president has betrayed Saudi Arabia amidst growing Western hostility towards the kingdom.

Ever since Obama described Saudi Arabia as a “so-called ally” before becoming president Saudis have been sceptical of his commitment to Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. But many who watched Obama’s conciliatory speech to the Muslim world from Cairo in 2009 were hopeful the US would reverse its disastrous strategy towards the Middle East.

However, much to their bewilderment, Saudis found themselves relegated to the status of the red-headed stepchild at the family picnic while Obama courted and then secured a nuclear arms deal with Iran. They could only stand by and witness with incredulity as Washington embraced as an alley a nation that barely hides its role in state-sponsored terrorism and its support of Bashar Al-Assad’s murderous regime.

Washington found a new best friend by gutting its long-standing friendly relationship with the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia.

Adding further insult to Saudis, Obama equated Indonesian women wearing the hijab to Islamic fundamentalism because Saudis “funnelled money” to radical imams to “teach the fundamentalist version of Islam”. It was a slap in the face to every Muslim woman who considers it her right, her choice and a demonstration of her piousness to cover her hair.

Lost in all this noise is the failure of Saudi Arabia’s critics to acknowledge the burgeoning Islamic feminist movement among Saudi women.

These are the words, just about any Saudi citizen on the street will argue, of a man who fails to understand the vital nature of diplomacy between nations. He has abandoned his obligation to the office of the presidency to speak crudely about an ally as if he were gossiping with his neighbour over the backyard fence.

Obama’s inelegant remarks and very public attitude toward Saudi Arabia also reflects the growing vitriol in the American media directed at the kingdom. Seemingly forgotten is the vast counterterrorism intelligence apparatus that Saudi Arabia shares with the CIA and the FBI. Saudis are waging their war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen with the blessing of the White House. They created the 34-nation Islamic Military Coalition as a counterterrorism measure. Last month, the government offered to send ground troops to Syria.

Saudi loyalty, however, is ignored. Media fascination with Wahhabi Islam puzzles Saudis. How do the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, who is regarded as a mere footnote in Saudi and Islamic history, gain such traction in the West’s insistence that it is the root of the modern terrorist movement? Conspiracy-minded Saudis, and there are more than a few, argue that Wahhabism influence is a Western invention to create a bogeyman to explain the source of jihadi militants.

Neither can they fathom the West’s schizophrenic attitude toward the hijab, the symbol of oppression to many Western feminists who want to free Muslim women from patriarchal oppression (a notion many Saudi women embrace). Yet they want to deny Muslim women the choice to wear a garment that honours and respects God. To Saudis there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy with the employment and wage gap between American men and women, shuttering Planned Parenthood clinics that provide basic medical services to women and the misogynistic tone on the Republican Party presidential candidates’ campaign trail.

Perhaps American wrestler Mick Foley put it best in 2011. When Fox News Redeye host Greg Gutfeld complained about the victimization of women in Muslim countries, Foley replied: “The world gets an F in their treatment of women, but we’re (America) getting a C-minus and we’re bragging about it.”

Lost in all this noise is the failure of Saudi Arabia’s critics to acknowledge the burgeoning Islamic feminist movement among Saudi women who seek only their rights granted in Islam. These are rights that many Muslim countries fail to fully provide. And certainly Saudi Arabia must share responsibility in denying some of these rights.

But the kingdom’s ministries of Interior, Justice, Labour and Social Services have been chipping away at obstacles that stand in the way of Saudi women’s rights. Today women have greater access and fairer justice in domestic courts, the right to be represented by a female attorney, to practise law and the right to seek employment without having written permission from their male guardian. Yet women’s rights in Islam, which adheres to the principles of Sharia, doesn’t conform to the Western narrative of liberal feminism.

It is evident the political winds have shifted dramatically since relations between the US and Iran have thawed. There is an eagerness among Americans that the US wean itself from Saudi oil. By doing so, the US is free, without fear of consequences, to push a more aggressive agenda targeting what it sees as Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, particularly its treatment of the Shia population and women’s rights.

Few Saudis begrudge Americans’ desire to free themselves from their dependency on oil. No one wants to feel they are held hostage by another country. But to abandon Saudi Arabia loses sight of the big picture. The militant attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels are not the acts of a loose band of confederates or jihadi lone wolves killing innocents in an attempt to spread fear in the West. It’s not sloppy indiscriminate killing. It’s an act of war inspired by Daesh that is becoming more sophisticated and cunning with each attack.

Saudis have long abandoned hope that the US would use its resources to step in and snuff out Daesh and its followers. The country best equipped to wage a campaign against terrorists by using its vast intelligence network is Saudi Arabia. At a time when European Union leaders are urging the world’s intelligence agencies to share information, the loss of Saudi Arabia as an ally would be a blow to ending extremist influence.

Rob L Wagner is an American journalist and former managing editor of the Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper. He is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 

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