Saudi Arabia looks to the future — by stepping 5,000 years into the past

The archaeological treasure house of Madain Saleh (above); the Arabian Travel Market’s global reach (below).
Updated 22 April 2018
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Saudi Arabia looks to the future — by stepping 5,000 years into the past

  • Kingdom developing tourism sector as part of economic diversification strategy
  • Vision 2030 foresees 1.2 million new tourist jobs by 2030

LONDON: It is the leading global event for Middle Eastern tourism and it opens on Sunday in Dubai. The Arabian Travel Market attracts the big players of the industry and the wannabes. It showcases 2,800 products to more than 28,000 potential buyers and generates deals worth more than $2.5 billion.

No wonder the world wants to be there, from spas to safaris, from Armenia to Zanzibar and all points between in both the globe and the alphabet.

But this year, one destination is set to attract more attention than any other: Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom’s tourism industry has hitherto centered primarily on the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah; last year’s Hajj attracted around 2.35 million pilgrims, with about 1.75 million of those coming from abroad.

When it comes to non-religious tourism however, it is in the unique position of creating that industry more or less from scratch, which is an enviable place to be.

“It means we are able to learn from the mistakes of others and we can take the best from everywhere,” said Amr Al-Madani, CEO of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia’s archaeological treasure house and home to the Unesco-listed Madain Saleh.

“And we are determined to offer the best in every way,” he added.

Al-Madani recently returned from presenting the plans for Al-Ula at a high-profile gala at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, an occasion that coincided with the visit of Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind Vision2030, the ambitious program designed to revamp not only the national economy but Saudi society as a whole.

Once regarded as practically off-limits to visitors and particularly Westerners (although that was never true), Saudi Arabia is throwing open the gates, as part of plans to diversify its economy and create jobs for its citizens.

The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic development plan, designed to create new revenue streams to lower its reliance on oil, envisages the creation of 1.2 million new jobs in the tourism sector by 2030.

Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority in February said it planned to invest $64 billion in its entertainment sector in the coming 10 years. This investment will include the development of a countrywide network of cinemas, following the lifting of a ban last year.

As well as opening up the 5,000-year-old wonders of Al-Ula, there are plans to develop 34,000 square kilometers of Red Sea coastline and 50 outlying islands into luxury beach resorts.

The scheme has already attracted Sir Richard Branson, founder and boss of the Virgin Group, as its first international investor. He is involved in developing the islands — which he described as “breathtakingly beautiful” — as luxury destinations, and has also visited Madain Saleh.

“This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there is inothing like getting a first-hand impression,” he said after his visit.

He praised the Crown Prince for his vision, telling Arab News, “If you want to succeed you should have an idea and a plan to implement it and just do it. He is doing that and his heart is in the right place.”

Though he is overseeing the development of the Al-Ula sites, Amr Al-Madani said one plan was to offer two-center holidays: “Some days exploring the archaeology and the nature in Al-Ula and then a few days relaxing at the beach,” he said.

As well as unspoilt beaches, the Red Sea coast also enjoys the best climate in Saudi Arabia with pleasant sea breezes offsetting the heat.

The Red Sea project is expected to generate 35,000 jobs.

The Royal Commission has already recruited the first 200 future employees who will work in Al-Ula. The group — half boys, half girls — are all high school-leavers or university students from the region. They have already begun three months of training in Riyadh, learning languages and undergoing assessment by psychologists and careers advisers and will later be dispatched to several locations in Britain and the US to continue learning.

Al-Madani said Al-Ula should be ready to receive its first tourists in three to five years, eventually accommodating a million to 1.5 million a year.

Decoder

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US says conserving oil is no longer an economic imperative

Updated 19 August 2018
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US says conserving oil is no longer an economic imperative

  • Fears of oil scarcity no longer driver of US energy policy
  • Surging shale production brings energy abundance

WASHINGTON: Conserving oil is no longer an economic imperative for the US, the Trump administration declares in a major new policy statement that threatens to undermine decades of government campaigns for gas-thrifty cars and other conservation programs.
The position was outlined in a memo released last month in support of the administration’s proposal to relax fuel mileage standards. The government released the memo online this month without fanfare.
Growth of natural gas and other alternatives to petroleum has reduced the need for imported oil, which “in turn affects the need of the nation to conserve energy,” the Energy Department said. It also cites the now decade-old fracking revolution that has unlocked US shale oil reserves, giving “the United States more flexibility than in the past to use our oil resources with less concern.”
With the memo, the administration is formally challenging old justifications for conservation — even congressionally prescribed ones, as with the mileage standards. The memo made no mention of climate change. Transportation is the single largest source of climate-changing emissions.
President Donald Trump has questioned the existence of climate change, embraced the notion of “energy dominance” as a national goal, and called for easing what he calls burdensome regulation of oil, gas and coal, including repealing the Obama Clean Power Plan.
Despite the increased oil supplies, the administration continues to believe in the need to “use energy wisely,” the Energy Department said, without elaboration. Department spokesmen did not respond Friday to questions about that statement.
Reaction was quick.
“It’s like saying, ‘I’m a big old fat guy, and food prices have dropped — it’s time to start eating again,’” said Tom Kloza, longtime oil analyst with the Maryland-based Oil Price Information Service.
“If you look at it from the other end, if you do believe that fossil fuels do some sort of damage to the atmosphere ... you come up with a different viewpoint,” Kloza said. “There’s a downside to living large.”
Climate change is a “clear and present and increasing danger,” said Sean Donahue, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund.
In a big way, the Energy Department statement just acknowledges the world’s vastly changed reality when it comes to oil.
Just 10 years ago, in summer 2008, oil prices were peaking at $147 a barrel and pummeling the global economy. OPEC was enjoying a massive transfer of wealth, from countries dependent on imported oil. Prices now are about $65.
Today, the US is vying with Russia for the title of top world oil producer. US oil production hit an all-time high this summer, aided by the technological leaps of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
How much the US economy is hooked up to the gas pump, and vice versa, plays into any number of policy considerations, not just economic or environmental ones, but military and geopolitical ones, said John Graham, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, now dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.
“Our ability to play that role as a leader in the world is stronger when we are the strongest producer of oil and gas,” Graham said. “But there are still reasons to want to reduce the amount we consume.”
Current administration proposals include one that would freeze mileage standards for cars and light trucks after 2020, instead of continuing to make them tougher.
The proposal eventually would increase US oil consumption by 500,000 barrels a day, the administration says. While Trump officials say the freeze would improve highway safety, documents released this month showed senior Environmental Protection Agency staffers calculate the administration’s move would actually increase highway deaths.
“American businesses, consumers and our environment are all the losers under his plan,” said Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat. “The only clear winner is the oil industry. It’s not hard to see whose side President Trump is on.”
Administration support has been tepid to null on some other long-running government programs for alternatives to gas-powered cars.
Bill Wehrum, assistant administration of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, spoke dismissively of electric cars — a young industry supported financially by the federal government and many states — this month in a call with reporters announcing the mileage freeze proposal.
“People just don’t want to buy them,” the EPA official said.
Oil and gas interests are campaigning for changes in government conservation efforts on mileage standards, biofuels and electric cars.
In June, for instance, the American Petroleum Institute and other industries wrote eight governors, promoting the dominance of the internal-combustion engine and questioning their states’ incentives to consumers for electric cars.
Surging US and gas production has brought on “energy security and abundance,” Frank Macchiarola, a group director of the American Petroleum Institute trade association, told reporters this week, in a telephone call dedicated to urging scrapping or overhauling of one US program for biofuels.
Fears of oil scarcity used to be a driver of US energy policy, Macchiarola said.
Thanks partly to increased production, “that pillar has really been rendered essentially moot,” he said.