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Coastline of contradictions: Saudi Arabia's sharia-free holiday plans

A new luxury tourism project might be good news for Saudi coffers, but the venture will allow for activities forbidden in the rest of the country and undermine the regime's political legitimacy along with it

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced plans to build beach resorts on the Red Sea as part of a project that will include luxury hotels, residential units, and transport infrastructure on 50 islands and along the coast.

The area, which will reportedly cover more than 180km of coastline, will have its own “semi-autonomous” legal status, and laws “on par with international standards”. In other words, to promote international tourism, it will not follow Saudi Arabia’s conservative and sharia-based laws.

Will Saudis there be allowed what is forbidden elsewhere on their soil? How will the religious establishment react? These are only a few of many problematic questions arise with this project

The plan comes in part of the kingdom's Vision 2030, a grandiose economic reform project, initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which includes diversification away from dependency on oil. Vision 2030 has been heavily promoted by the state as promising a new era of prosperity for Saudi Arabia.

While it may sound great that Saudi Arabia utilises its pristine and gorgeous coastline with pleasant year-round weather, it will be intrinsically problematic for the country.

Given its conservative image, Saudi Arabia may have a hard time promoting itself as a beach resort tourist destination, but even more problematic is how Saudis will deal with this schism. 

Last month, a Saudi woman was arrested for uploading video on social media that showed her wandering around an ancient fortress in Najd province in a miniskirt. The footage was met with uproar on social media, ultimately leading to her arrest.

Now you might wonder, if this same woman were to go to one of those luxury beach resorts perhaps in a bikini, how would people react? Will Saudis there be allowed what is forbidden elsewhere on their soil? How will the religious establishment react? These are only a few of many problematic questions that will arise with this project.  

The essence of Saudi political legitimacy

Saudi Arabia’s primary political legitimacy rested on a narrative of Islam. The House of Saud ruled in accordance with Islam and the followers of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab who fought to unify the Arabian Peninsula followed the political leadership of the ibn of Saud.

In Saudi Arabia, Islam has been the primary discourse in instigating political order

So long as Islam was implemented, their legitimacy remained intact. Additionally, with the discovery of oil the distribution of wealth became a power-yielding force used to gain political loyalty. Political scientists have generally discussed this issue under the notion of the “rentier state”.

Unlike Mohammed bin Salman, the current de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, his predecessors ruled in a context where Islam played a much more vital role in political discourses.

In 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was occupied by hundreds of militants led by Juhayman al-Otaybi. It took two weeks to crush the rebellion which was based on the claim that the House of Saud had betrayed Islam and become corrupt. It is said that Saudi authorities later empowered the religious establishment as a counter-measure and to boost its legitimacy.

In November 1979, Mecca's Great Mosque, the home of Islam's holiest sites, burns after gunmen led by Juhayman al-Otaybi attacked (AFP)
In Saudi Arabia, Islam has been the primary discourse in instigating political order. It was at the heart of political discourses in countering the expansive Iranian revolution and the proclaimed reason behind support of the mujahidin against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These days may be long gone, but they still carry the essence upon which Saudi Arabia built its political legitimacy.

Inconsistent with itself

Today, Saudi Arabia isn’t like it was before. The “war on terror” brought heavy restrictions on Islamic charities and activities. The once generous scholarships offered to international students of Islamic studies who study in Mecca and Medina have been heavily curtailed, and so too the authority once enjoyed by the “religious police”.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s stance against the Arab Spring and its more recent embargo on Qatar for, among other complaints, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (a group it once supported and hosted) have made Saudi Arabia inconsistent with the image it once promoted for itself.

Given Saudi Arabia’s large budget deficit as a result of dwindling oil prices and general downgrading of living standards, there will be no means to avoid social unrest now that the main form of legitimacy has been eroded away.

This is perhaps why Arabism has been more invoked recently, with the crown prince wanting to reinvent Saudi’s image through museums that expose its pre-Islamic history, or saying Yemen “the bedrock of Arabism” needs to triumph in its war on Houthi forces.

Perhaps transforming the basis of political legitimacy might work for a country which doesn’t host Islam’s two holiest sites, but for Saudi Arabia, it's a tall order.

Out of sight, but not mind

The ban on women driving which Saudi Arabia is famous for is perhaps not so much about the act of women actually getting behind the wheel, but what is seen as a last line of defence that preserves the influence of the old conservative vanguard that built Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia may have changed its policies on Islamic issues overseas, however this has not radically affected its population at home. That is why the initial harsh criticisms for the only mixed university in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), established in late 2009 eventually faded away.

The university is located in a secluded area on the Red Sea mostly operated by expats, a closed community where women can drive and dress as they please, but out of mind and out of sight. However, from time to time, videos of events there have been shared on social media and drawn criticism. Yet KAUST is primarily for education and not tourism and is very secluded.

The crown prince has complained that $22bn is spent annually by Saudi citizens on tourism abroad. The Red Sea project is meant to encourage domestic tourism in response and, in addition to visiting as tourists, the project is also expected to generate up to 35,000 jobs for Saudis. Furthermore, the Saudi government hopes it will attract a million visitors a year by 2035. It will be hard not to notice such large numbers, unlike the small expat compounds in Saudi Arabia which have even attracted terrorist attacks in the past.

Should Saudis wake up one day and find their western coast in contradiction with the rest of the country, it will not bode well at all for the Saudi regime’s legitimacy.

This piece first ran on Asia Times.

Mustafa Salama is a political analyst, consultant and freelance writer. Salama has extensive experience and an academic background in Middle East Affairs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, tourists walk along a beach at an Egyptian resort in Sharm El-Sheikh (AFP)

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