Sail of the century: How a cruise ship may be charting a course toward the Kingdom’s future
There is a world of difference between the Saudi Arabia portrayed in some international media outlets and the country that Saudis experience every day. That contrast could not have been more obvious to me than on a recent cruise organized by the government as a way for Saudis to enjoy a “staycation” that matched international standards.
Having been successful so far in reducing coronavirus numbers and keeping them low, the Saudi government has gradually eased restrictions introduced to protect the Kingdom from the COVID-19 pandemic. Internal flights and limited international flights have resumed, with the prospect of even more in January, and there has been a gradual and carefully controlled return to prayers and Umrah pilgrimages.
Now comes the Red Sea Experience cruise, a pleasant surprise to many Saudis and expats who were unable to enjoy a holiday abroad this year. Operated by Silversea Cruise, the Monaco-headquartered luxury cruise line with more than 25 years’ experience in the business, the voyage was an opportunity for honeymooners, families, singles and retirees to enjoy the uniquely magnificent marine life of the Red Sea by day, and some of the best on-ship entertainment and services in the world by night.
Despite coming from Jeddah, the “Bride of the Red Sea,” I plead guilty to ignorance of the wonders of this beautiful natural treasure. But then again, before the sweeping reforms that began four years ago, we Saudis really had little in the way of choice when it came to enjoyable staycations; treasures of cultural heritage such as AlUla were off limits, and most activities one would enjoy on holiday, such as musical performances, were forbidden altogether at home.
On this four-day trip, I saw breathtaking beaches that I never knew existed. On Sindalah Island, I enjoyed dinner at a restaurant that was on a par, both in food quality and ambience, with its Michelin-starred parent outlet in Marbella, Spain. On board the ship, we enjoyed quiz nights and star gazing, watched movies, listened to jazz and all-time favorite songs performed live and, of course, viewed magnificent scenery throughout the cruise.
More than anything, this was a sneak preview of what the future of the Kingdom looks like — bright, beautiful, and a far cry from anything you may read about in the international media.
Faisal J. Abbas
Overall, it was a welcome mental break from the doom and gloom of following the daily coronavirus news. In fact, thanks to the strict health measures on board, and repeated testing before boarding, everyone enjoy their time safely and without worry.
But what I enjoyed most was the social aspect of the experience. Many people don’t know this, but we Saudis used to be somewhat bizarre when it came to social gatherings, and especially when families were involved; we were obsessed with privacy, and practically defined “social distancing” long before it became a health and safety requirement.
What was fascinating about this cruise was that women and men from all across the Kingdom, some single, some married, some liberal, others conservative, all managed to enjoy what must surely have been the best time they’ve had in 2020 without a single “personal space” issue, or anyone complaining about intrusion or feeling discomfort.
Many told me that, now that they have experienced it, they would definitely do it again, whether coronavirus restrictions are lifted or not. Others had some negative remarks about service, or issues such as poor Wi-Fi or a waiter getting their order wrong, but these are things you hear from customers at any hospitality outlet in the world.
Perhaps most significant of all was that the cruise ship sailed from Jeddah toward NEOM, city of the future and the crown jewel of the Saudi reform plans. So, more than anything, this was a sneak preview of what the future of the Kingdom looks like — bright, beautiful, and a far cry from anything you may read about in the international media.
• Faisal J. Abbas is Editor in Chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas