Ask the average person what they visualize when Saudi Arabia is mentioned. Beyond the usual rash of tired stereotypes lies a hint at how to change public perception for the better.
Since 2019, some of the answers you hear might refer to a successful Ministry of Tourism campaign that showcased the physical richness and diversity of Saudi Arabia, titled #WhereInTheWorld.
Few campaigns have so vividly stimulated the public’s imagination by telling you what a country is not: Not the Maldives, not Utah, not Italy and certainly not Siberia.
For years, Saudis themselves have had to answer what Saudi Arabia is not when asked by those who have never visited the Kingdom. Constantly defending the country’s reputation on issues such as gender equality, civil liberties and geopolitics has left little room to highlight the country’s cultural wealth.
In a February 2020 Gallup poll, only 5 percent of American respondents who were asked about their perception of Saudi Arabia held a “very favorable” view, while 65 percent held an unfavorable position.
The #WhereInTheWorld campaign demonstrates that to start a conversation that intrigues the public, you must reshape the visual landscape of what people imagine Saudi Arabia offering to the world.
In that vein, the Kingdom’s ministries of tourism and culture should choose to dedicate additional resources to promoting Saudi soft power in countries entitled to the tourist visa, particularly in markets where negative sentiment toward Saudi Arabia is not so institutionalized.
According to Invest Saudi, tourism is expected to contribute SR412 billion ($110 billion) to the country’s economy by 2027, constituting 11.1 percent of GDP. While Saudi Arabia will not struggle to draw in visitors, it is wise to consider how to diversify tourist flows from underrepresented countries.
Generally, nationals of 49 countries are eligible for the Saudi e-visa, which reportedly takes minutes to secure. It is commendable that countries such as Singapore, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Latvia are on the list. Such a move shows that the Kingdom is interested in attracting tourists from destinations that can too often be neglected as non-priority countries for outbound tourism.
From high-profile influencers to ordinary travelers, thousands have visited Saudi Arabia under the new tourist visa, seeking out adventure, opportunity or the thrill of a lifetime. Within 10 days of tourist visas becoming available at airports, 24,000 foreign visitors entered Saudi Arabia.
Certainly, some came to the Kingdom hoping to confirm their biases, ultimately challenging them instead.
What so many people lack are genuine opportunities to interact with Saudis themselves and witness the countless iterations of Saudi culture that are well-kept secrets among the Kingdom’s citizens and residents.
To many potential tourists, however, the idea of traveling to the Kingdom can be prohibitively daunting, especially when they do not yet understand how warmly Saudis would welcome them.
One manner of humanizing the Kingdom to the international community is by opening cultural embassies, a model proposed in 2019 by the UAE to spread a message of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in major global capitals.
With the opening of Saudi cultural embassies in smaller countries not typically targeted for tourism, curious individuals could attend a screening by some of the Kingdom’s young filmmakers who challenge the public’s understanding of what it means to be a Saudi female artist. They could participate in a food tasting of traditional Saudi dishes, wherein they learn that Saudi Arabia often feels like 13 different countries in one, with distinct offerings in every region. A Saudi dialect course can familiarize aspiring students with the inextricable link between the hospitality of Saudi Arabia and its language. Alternatively, they could join in a think tank-style panel event where they hear from Saudi intellectuals, scholars and academics about the country’s political and economic trajectory in the run-up to 2030.
Few experiences are as enlightening as interacting with a country’s nationals in an authentic setting. What so many people lack are genuine opportunities to interact with Saudis themselves and witness the countless iterations of Saudi culture that are well-kept secrets among the Kingdom’s citizens and residents.
Ultimately, what so many Saudis lack is a manner of telling their nation’s story to the world.
Those working in Saudi cultural embassies would be able to answer visitors’ questions honestly, setting aside traditional talking points in favor of conversations that paint a realistic picture of the immense progress that the Kingdom has made in so few years. In exchange, visitors prepare to have their assumptions overwritten by images and information of a Saudi Arabia transformed under Vision 2030.
Essentially, these cultural embassies can turn the #WhereInTheWorld campaign into a living project sustained by Saudis abroad. Such an initiative could shift public perception in markets where visitors to cultural embassies later become tourists to Saudi Arabia. Eventually, many will spread the word of their experience and encourage family and friends to visit.
Now is an opportune time to leverage the international goodwill engendered by the Kingdom’s liberalization drive. The world has witnessed Saudi Arabia mark cultural milestones such as enabling women to drive and naming the country’s first Saudi female ambassador, announce it will grant green cards, also known as the Premium Residency, to top foreign innovators and creatives and successfully host major global events such as the Spanish Super Cup, Formula E and preparatory meetings for the G20 Summit in November.
These achievements have been impressive in scale and nearly unbelievable to those living in Saudi Arabia prior to the launch of Vision 2030.
Imagine, then, the surprise that awaits those whose engagement with Saudi Arabia has not yet begun — those for whom a cultural embassy could start the journey of a lifetime.
One day soon, perhaps that first step can begin for them at home.
• Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in the Gulf. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and specializes in communications on geopolitical and cultural issues