Saudi tourism set to accelerate as ban on women driving lifted

Saudi Arabia is building a raft of new tourism sites, which will complement existing attractions such as the Riyadh National Museum, pictured. (AP)
Updated 30 September 2017
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Saudi tourism set to accelerate as ban on women driving lifted

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women behind the wheel has laid the foundations for a growth spurt in the Kingdom’s tourism sector, analysts forecast.
The country has the ambitious target to attract 1.5 million visitors by 2020 as the country reduces its dependence on oil.
Apart from pilgrimages, Saudi Arabia attracts relatively few international tourists, with the sector dominated by the domestic market. But with tourism earmarked to become a major driver of growth, the Kingdom is looking to widen its appeal.
“Ending the ban on women driving will help to change Saudi Arabia’s image around the world, and will make both men and women more likely to travel to Saudi Arabia,” said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
“Previously (the driving ban) was one of the best-known facts about Saudi Arabia and was seen as a symbol of the oppression of women — so much so that many people didn’t realize Saudi women could study, work and do many other things,” Kinninmont said.
The move to allow women to drive comes as part of a program of reforms designed to curb restrictions and facilitate female access to employment, with the aim to raise the level of women’s participation in the labor force to 30 percent from 22 percent.
Crispin Hawes, managing director for the Middle East and North Africa at advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, said that while much remains to be done to develop the Kingdom’s tourism sector to appeal to the global market, lifting the ban on women driving represents “a significant step forward.”
“In the past five years the issue of women driving has taken on a life of its own and frequently comes top in external perceptions of the Kingdom. What the Saudi (government) has done is neuter that issue, which of itself is an important visual gesture,” he said.
“It’s part of a longer-term process that will make Saudi more attractive to people who might consider spending money and time visiting the country, but this is one element in a multi-stage journey.”
The decision also bodes well for domestic tourism, which stands to benefit from the increased mobility of Saudi families. “One implication is that households will no longer have to pay out for drivers, giving them more disposable income, which could be used for trips,” said Jason Tuvey, Middle East economist at Capital Economics.
Women will also be able to carry out their share of driving errands, freeing up family leisure time which could be used for domestic tourism purposes.
Tourism currently accounts for around 2.5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product (GDP) compared to the vast 50 percent contribution generated by the oil and gas sector, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Plans to increase investment in tourism from $8 billion to almost $46 billion by 2020 will see a significant shake-up of the industry, as a series of high-profile projects get underway, according to the WTTC.
These include the ambitious Red Sea resort development, which will transform a 200 km stretch of coastline into a luxury tourism destination complete with an airport, seaport, hotels, residences and transport infrastructure.
The project, which is set to create 35,000 jobs and add SR15 billion ($4 billion) to the Saudi economy, will target foreign visitors with relaxed rules within a specified tourism zone.
According to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which will finance the initial stages of the project, “It will set new standards for sustainable development and bring about the next generation of luxury travel to put Saudi Arabia on the international tourism map.”
Last week PIF announced the launch of the Entertainment Investment Company with SR10 billion to support development of the sector and encourage Saudis to spend their leisure money at home rather than seeking amusement abroad.
“The Saudi Arabian government has been a great example to the travel and tourism public sector in prioritizing tourism growth in the country in order to generate further economic wealth and jobs as the country diversifies their income streams,” said Gloria Guevara, WTTC president and CEO, in a recent statement.
Another major project in the pipeline will include a Six Flags theme park, safari and recreational facilities as part of a 334 square kilometer city south of Riyadh.


Palestinians in financial crisis after Israel, US moves

Updated 22 March 2019
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Palestinians in financial crisis after Israel, US moves

  • A Ramallah-based economics professor said the Palestinian economy more generally, remain totally controlled by and reliant on Israel
  • Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian Authority faces a suffocating financial crisis after deep US aid cuts and an Israeli move to withhold tax transfers, sparking fears for the stability of the West Bank.
The authority, headed by President Mahmud Abbas, announced a package of emergency measures on March 10, including halving the salaries of many civil servants.
The United States has cut more than $500 million in Palestinian aid in the last year, though only a fraction of that went directly to the PA.
The PA has decided to refuse what little US aid remains on offer for fear of civil suits under new legislation passed by Congress.
Israel has also announced it intends to deduct around $10 million a month in taxes it collects for the PA in a dispute over payments to the families of prisoners in Israeli jails.
In response, Abbas has refused to receive any funds at all, labelling the Israeli reductions theft.
That will leave his government with a monthly shortfall of around $190 million for the length of the crisis.
The money makes up more than 50 percent of the PA’s monthly revenues, with other funds coming from local taxes and foreign aid.

While the impact of the cuts is still being assessed, analysts fear it could affect the stability of the occupied West Bank.
“If the economic situation remains so difficult and the PA is unable to pay salaries and provide services, in addition to continuing (Israeli) settlement expansion it will lead to an explosion,” political analyst Jihad Harb said.
Abbas cut off relations with the US administration after President Donald Trump declared the disputed city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital in December 2017.
The right-wing Israeli government, strongly backed by the US, has since sought to squeeze Abbas.
After a deadly anti-Israeli attack last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would withhold $138 million (123 million euros) in Palestinian revenues over the course of a year.
Israel collects around $190 million a month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through its ports, and then transfers the money to the PA.
Israel said the amount it intended to withhold was equal to what is paid by the PA to the families of prisoners, or prisoners themselves, jailed for attacks on Israelis last year.
Many Palestinians view prisoners and those killed while carrying out attacks as heroes of the fight against Israeli occupation.
Israel says the payments encourage further violence.
Abbas recently accused Netanyahu’s government of causing a “crippling economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority.”
The PA also said in January it would refuse all further US government aid for fear of lawsuits under new US legislation targeting alleged support for “terrorism.”

Finance Minister Shukri Bishara announced earlier this month he had been forced to “adopt an emergency budget that includes restricted austerity measures.”
Government employees paid over 2,000 shekels ($555) will receive only half their salaries until further notice.
Prisoner payments would continue in full, Bishara added.
Nasser Abdel Karim, a Ramallah-based economics professor, told AFP the PA, and the Palestinian economy more generally, remain totally controlled by and reliant on Israel.
The PA undertook similar financial measures in 2012 when Israel withheld taxes over Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition at the United Nations.
Abdel Karim said such crises are “repeated and disappear according to the development of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Israel or the countries that support (the PA).”
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including now annexed east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Abbas’s government has only limited autonomy in West Bank towns and cities.
“The problem is the lack of cash,” economic journalist Jafar Sadaqa told AFP.
He said that while the PA had faced financial crises before, “this time is different because it comes as a cumulative result of political decisions taken by the United States.”
Abbas appointed longtime ally Mohammad Shtayyeh as prime minister on March 10 to head a new government to oversee the crisis.
Abdel Karim believes the crisis could worsen after an Israeli general election next month “if a more right-wing Israeli government wins.”
Netanyahu’s outgoing government is already regarded as the most right-wing in Israel’s history but on April 9 parties even further to the right have a realistic chance of winning seats in parliament for the first time.
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014, when a drive for a deal by the administration of President Barack Obama collapsed in the face of persistent Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.