Young Saudis are having fun. Now they want tourists to join them

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(CNN) – I have been visiting Saudi Arabia for almost two decades and during that time I have experienced some amazing things.

I have climbed the spooky and amazingly beautiful mountains of the south. I have scuba diving the pristine coral reefs of the Red Sea off the west coast of Saudi Arabia. I drove rally cars on the northern dunes. I have visited old wells. I spent freezing winter nights in the desert cooking food with red embers buried in the sand. And I walked barefoot along the eastern coast of the kingdom on the sweltering summer evenings.

I flew in fragile microlights, soaring serenely over rich farmland. I’ve been on tactical helicopter missions, roaming the desert floor and making tight turns around sand dunes.

Yet none of this affected me as much as the moment I felt the Saudi change.

It is no exaggeration to say that the recent social upheaval in the country has been deep and rapid.

In 2018, I was in downtown Riyadh, chatting with people in a nearly empty beer garden in the early evening.

The once widely feared and respected religious police arrived by car, pulled over to the side of the road, and started telling people to go to prayer.

Previously this would have caused an immediate reaction, with people obeying their orders.

This time, no one has moved.

It was then that I connected with what the Saudis had felt in the months since Mohammed bin Salman or MBS, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, stripped these guardians of the morality of their power.

It was a feeling of lightness, a freedom of choice.

‘More fun’

Saudi women are chatting in a cafe – until recently they should have covered their heads and accompanied by a man.

FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP via Getty Images

It was two years ago. These days, the religious police have for the most part been entrusted with administrative tasks. Decades of oppressive psychological pressure to conform to Islam’s conservative restrictions have collapsed.

And today, freedom is flourishing, even though it is still controlled by the invisible lines of most of the Gulf states: enjoy, have fun, but don’t get ahead of the rulers.

The open-air cafes along the new festively-looking sidewalks buzz with men and women to have fun, meet, shop, chat, relax.

Mounira Al-Qwait, a 20-year-old fashion designer in a traditional black abaya that she’s styled her hair, explained to me what it means to her.

“We’re not having fun anymore… going to the movies, going out to restaurants and meeting friends,” she said, her eyes twinkling above a niqab covering her face.

Nearby, dressed fashionably without a headscarf (an omission enough to get her off the streets a few years ago), is Tutu, a 42-year-old kindergarten teacher. She told me that she liked the sense of “freedom” and “more energy”.

Green oases stand out against the Saudi desert landscape.

FRANCK FIFE / AFP via Getty Images

“Now our lives as Saudis have completely changed,” she said. “In fact, according to all the decisions taken by Mohammed bin Salman. All Saudis are now happy with all of these changes. “

I was in town this time to cover the G20 summit of world economic powers. The Saudis hosted the November 21-22 meeting – a major responsibility and challenge.

Once finished, I saw Finance Minister Mohammed al Jadaan praise his young team. The “wealth of the nation,” he later concludes.

Its offices in the new digital city district of Riyadh – a futuristic complex of buildings interwoven with cascading water fountains and open, airy pedestrian spaces – are more like Dubai than the dusty old Riyadh.

No turning back

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to loosen the conservative grip on his country's society.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to loosen the conservative grip on his country’s society.

FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

The change is abundant here. Women work in offices alongside men, which was illegal until a few years ago.

Talia, 27, is one of them.

Raised in Riyadh by her single mother, she graduated from the universities of London and Beirut before returning in 2017 when the reforms began. “It was like once a week, almost daily, like there were new announcements coming and it was so exciting,” she told me.

Since then, she has worked with female CEOs and sees no limit to what women can accomplish.

“We have a young crown prince and the country is young – as 70% of the population is under 30 – so I felt the reforms were being done by us for us so we are not going to go. return. “

One of the main reasons for the social upheaval in Saudi Arabia is MBS’s decision to challenge the clerics who had given birth to generations of orthodoxy, producing Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and almost all of the hijackers of the attack of September 11, 2001.

MBS’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is the latest in a long line of ossifying leadership that has passed from the nation’s founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, to his increasingly older sons.

It took 30 years for Abdulaziz to conquer the four geographically distinct regions of the country – Asir in the south, Al-Ahsa in the east, Hejaz in the west and Najd in the center – and establish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 23. . 1932.

It took MBS less than five years to rock the kingdom in a way his predecessors dared not, arresting and detaining more than 200 princes and businessmen whom he accused of corruption.

His vision to change Saudi Arabia by 2030 requires a diverse economy and the empowerment of young people.

Taskmaster difficile

Masmak Fort: Where it all began for Saudi Arabia.

Masmak Fort: Where it all began for Saudi Arabia.

RABIH MOGHRABI / AFP via Getty Images

Ministers describe him as a tough builder who will listen but will not tolerate dissent once a decision is made, or any failure to implement the reforms he wants.

At Fort Masmak, in the old quarter of Riyadh, where in 1902 Abdulaziz began his campaign to build a kingdom under his control, a metal spear point protruding from ancient wooden doors testifies to the strength of his historic actions.

MBS’s vision is no less robust. Human rights activists have been jailed, dissidents including journalist Jamal Khashoggi have been brutally murdered, but MBS has such support for what he has done that so far young people seem to agree with that.

” It’s a [topic] this has been discussed around the world, “Mohammed al-Ajwi, a 26-year-old accountant told me, referring to the murder of Khashoggi, which was ultimately blamed by Saudi authorities on rogue operators within the inner circle. by MBS. denied any personal involvement in the murder, while US and foreign intelligence agencies believed he had ordered it.

But al-Ajwi adds: “The government has already said what it has and that was a clear answer for us people of Saudi Arabia. So it was a mistake of a few people. That’s all for us. “

From Masmak Fort, a busy six-lane highway now connects Digital City and a financial district where eye-catching new buildings are constantly appearing. When I first arrived in the kingdom in 2003, Riyadh only had two towers. Now there are dozens of them.

Yet leave the city behind, and in the harsh deserts of the Nejd region that surrounds it, you can still find the Saudi Arabia of the past.

The royal white camels are cared for in the old farms. Beautiful green oases add intense doses of color. On rocky outcrops, ancient natural water cisterns vital for generations of pastoralists are still in use.

I got to see all of this through my job, but it’s about to get easier for everyone.

Last year, as part of its vision to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy by 2030, MBS announced the opening of the kingdom’s doors to tourism.

Unexpectedly, it has experienced a remarkable boom this year.

When the kingdom closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Saudis went on vacation to their backyard. The regions of the country are so diverse and the country so large that it is possible even for the locals to feel that they are taking a break away from home.

Ancient wonder

Far from the Nejd is the coastal Hejaz, home to Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, already cosmopolitan and relaxed due to the influx of centuries of pilgrims.

Here, the windows of the upper floors of the old houses jut out into the street, allowing the refreshing sea breezes to pass through the rooms and interior courtyards, circulating above cool and refreshing pools.

Sitting in one of these humble houses is a treat I will never forget, a chance to relax away from the worries and annoyances of the outside world.

To the south, the peaks of the Asir mountains receive snow in winter, giving them an alpine feel. In summer, they still offer a little respite from the scorching deserts.

To the east, where the pan-flat desert meets the Persian Gulf, date orchards proliferate above an even more precious commodity, the kingdom’s oil.

But the best treat to attract tourists is the one I haven’t seen yet – Hegra.

The site, sometimes known as Mada’in Salih, or Al-Ḥijr in the western region of the Hejaz was settled in the first century AD by Nabataeans who carved large buildings out of the rocks and left cave scriptures. . It is a site that rivals Petra in neighboring Jordan, which was also built by Nabataeans.

While Petra attracts thousands and thousands of tourists a year, Hegra is still uncrowded.

But that could all change soon.

And if MBS’s promises hold out longer than a sparkling desert mirage, as the kingdom’s young population fervently believe, the world will find much to discover.

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