Saudi Arabia has a wealth of natural beauty on its shores with the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The coastline is as original as it was ten thousand years ago. It is completely undeveloped desert wilderness. You are stepping back in time.
And now Saudi Arabia wants to become a beach holiday place. It is long-term thinking. After all, the world will turn away from oil soon enough and their economy needs something to stand on. In that sense, it is not a bad idea.
The Saudi beach experience will not be like any you have had before.
The Saudis built roads along the beach that extend far beyond any houses, or any building of any kind. Many roads were built to set up the infrastructure of future growth based on oil money Saudi Arabia has now. Their religious police don't go there. And they certainly don't go farther than the road itself. Yet that is what an adventuring friend and I did. There, I wore a bathing suit. It was just myself, my friend and Phillipino servants who went there to drink. Alcohol.
We put our snorkels and flippers on and set out in to the Dead Sea.
It was like a public television adventure, but I was in it. The fish and the coral were all around us. The water was clear and cool, quite unlike my experiences in Wildwood, NJ.
Saudi Arabian tourism could be a fantastic idea, based on my experiences there. The big obstacles to Saudi tourism are the scorching sun, the religious police, separate and awful facilities for women, the media diet, and the desert itself.
You don’t know what a scorching sun is until you’ve been to the Saudi beach. The sun will burn under the top layer of skin, and you can feel it for a few days. And that is without any redness on the top of your skin. Seriously. Now, I am what I like to say is “skin cancer candidate number one.” Me be pale. Very pale. So my experience may be extreme compared to most of the planet. But if you are a human being, you will need sun protection at the Saudi beach, and I slathered that stuff on every 15 minutes.
They are going to be there somewhere. There is no way they would let go of that power for what will be a major economic influx for the country. In fact, some of their powers have already been curbed.
The religious police were an interesting experience for me. The first Gulf War had just ended and most of the troops had been withdrawn. During their time there, I heard more than one story about a female soldier hitting a religious policeman and then hopping in her vehicle and driving away. The religious codes are enforced by religious policemen, always men, hitting women with little switches if they violated the dress code. So one of them decided to hit this American soldier with his switch because she was wearing her uniform. That’s when she decked him.
Now I am not going to say that the dress code will be addressed like this by every Western woman, but the Saudi religious police need to be ready for more resistance than usual.
Separate But Equal
If Saudi Arabia is serious about tourism, they can’t have the “separate but equal” accommodations for women. Just as the phrase meant historically in the United States, one side has vastly inferior options to the other. Even the Saudi houses were divided between male and female, with the male side being much nicer than the woman’s.
Maybe Saudi Arabian women put up with it, but none of the rest of us do.
Like with any changes, you can’t just change one thing and think everything else is going to remain the same. Saudi Arabian religious police must adjust to a reduced power status, and there's bound to be some backlash. Imagine having the power to admonish almost anybody on the street, and to hit women who offended you, justified or not. Then, enter tourism.
After Saudi tourism, they will not have to power to arrest and punish on the spot. They will be in a business of attraction, not punishment. It will be a major adjustment for those policemen, many of them skinny, short men.
The Media Diet
You will see no pictures of women’s bodies there. It was very weird at first, and then a little funny. The most skin you got was from Egyptian soap operas, where middle-aged women fell in love with hunky young men all the time. And yes, they were fully draped with gobs of makeup. So much makeup, in fact, it was like an abaya for the face.
But this media diet of “no female flesh” had an interesting side-effect: I stopped feeling fat. It was the first time since I was 8 years old that I didn’t feel fat.
It was also the first time I was introduced to the idea of a media diet - that what you consume with your eyes is a diet too. And that visual diet will affect how you feel about yourself and how you see yourself.
To my mind, the media diet in Saudi Arabia is going to be the surprise benefit to Saudi tourism. I have always thought that Saudi Arabia would be a perfect place to recover from eating disorders. I must mention that to the Saudi Ambassador the next time I see him.
The mighty Saudi desert destroys anything in its path. That shit will eat up concrete and decay metal. Good luck building there.
But there is gold in that there overheated sand: adventure.
I am truly one of those high-risk personalities. I walked away from the shore, found my camel bones, and explored tiny huts that had been abandoned not long ago, but long enough for the desert to eat them up. The wind and the sand are brutal.
A Saudi desert vacation paradise has lots of opportunity for visitors to ride camels, lunch in a desert tent like a nomad, watch a fake harem dance, bargain in a fake souq, watch sample sword fights, and have midnight picnics.
About the midnight picnics: damn, those were fun! One thing about Saudis - those people are WAY into picnics. The idea of a picnic was introduced to Saudi Arabia in the 20th Century by the British, and was adopted with the relish of the converted. Now, any visitor to Jeddah, Riyadh or Dhahran will see Saudis picnicking in CVS parking lots. Yes, there’s CVS in Saudi Arabia, along with Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Safeway, which for international legal reasons is called Safestway. As a note, American cashiers are not generally interested in knowing this.
Saudi Arabian picnics, when done right, are something that cannot be missed. It seems the real party starts after dark on the shores of the Persian Gulf. All sober, of course, at least as far as I could tell. There were wedding parties on the beach at midnight - dozens of men singing and dancing and collapsing with laughter on the sand. The hidden joy of life came out late at night in Saudi Arabia. You have not experienced Saudi Arabia until you have been on the beach under the full moon with little kids running up to you and wanting to touch your hair or shake your hand. And, of course, running away at the last minute, only to do it again. And again. And again. It was really fun.
I am optimistic about tourism in Saudi Arabia. If it is done right, tourists could have an unique holiday experience that is different from any other place on Earth. I hope it works out for them.