Inside the Kingdom

Inside the Kingdom

On a historic day, as Saudi Arabia opened its doors to the world, Anamika Chatterjee spent 24 hours in its capital to explore what a society in transition looks like


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 2:00 AM

8.40 am. My plane lands on time. Ordinarily, it may not have mattered as much. But given that I am to spend only 24 hours here, every minute counts. As passengers wait to deplane, I quickly look through my window to see how the runway looks - as though they have ever looked vastly different from each other. Even though it is windy, I can sense a stillness.
Stillness is not new to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For the world that exists outside the Middle East, it has almost been a mythical place, open to only those who travel for work or pilgrimage. Several, if not all, accounts in the Western media would have you believe that it is frozen in time. Quite possibly then, many of us who are among the first batch of travellers visiting Riyadh on tourist visas might have been lugging with us a mental baggage that outweighs the physical one.
The Saudi Arabia of today is a society in transition. Its recent launch of tourist visas only cements that fact. Having opened itself to the world, it has also opened a world of possibilities where the rest of us can truly hope to understand the essence of the country. As I make my way to the airport, I ask myself if 24 hours are enough to experience and understand a country, its people and culture. Perhaps, perhaps not. The late author V.S. Naipaul had once said, "It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unravelling." I take heart in the fact that I do not have any view of the world I am about to enter - it only arms me with enough curiosity to assess whether the truth lives up to the hype.
The Riyadh airport is bustling. It is the first day of the launch of the tourist e-visas. A group of officials stand with the banner that reads Saudi Open Hearts Open Doors. It's a heartening welcome that also serves to remind me that the piece of paper I have been holding in my hand is not yet another visa, it is a slice of history. It takes a few minutes to complete the formalities before I find a car waiting to take me to my hotel.
From the moment we hit the road, I roll down my window to spot women driving cars. In yet another landmark decision, the ban on women driving in the region had been lifted last year. In the larger scheme of things, it is yet another marker of change the country is undergoing under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The roads are desolate. Forget about women driving cars, there are barely any vehicles. My driver Bilal (name changed on request) informs me that for one, it is a Friday and two, the soaring temperatures (it is nearly 42 degrees) further prevent people from stepping out.
The silver lining is that the desolate roads only foreground the beautiful landscape. There is an interesting mix of mounds of sand on a desert, followed by residential areas that mostly house villas. Twenty minutes into my journey, the only residences I continue to see here are villas.
The Saudi Arabia I had read about in the books and newspapers were often characterised by big walls that would apparently prevent homes from being papered with dust during sandstorms. Through the course of my 35-minute journey, I didn't spot any of these legendary walls. Drawing my own interpretation, I take it as yet another signifier of the change that the Kingdom has been slowly and steadily undergoing.
Bilal, a Sudanese who has spent much of his adult years in the region, is among those who are excited about the churning. "Now that you're here, you will want to come again," he says. Something tells me he may not really be off the mark.
One of the enormous campaigns around the Crown Prince's Vision 2030 is the launch of the giga projects that aim to catapult the Kingdom into one of the region's leading tourist hubs. This includes the Red Sea Project, a luxury destination with an expansive coastline and an archipelago of 90 islands; NEOM, the futuristic city; Amaala, a resort that is touted as potential 'Riviera of the Middle East'; Ad Diriyah redevelopment project; Qiddiya, the cultural hub, among others. The humongous scale of each project, combined with the recent decision to issue tourist visas, makes the country a serious contender for one of the region's tourism hotspots.
The venue is abuzz with people as they make their way to the exhibition showcasing the details of these projects. The tourism ethos of the Kingdom is based on making the most of its existing landscape and giving it a sustainable facelift to attract luxury tourists. As John Pagano, the CEO of Red Sea Company, tells me, "The antiquity and the history is just not known; we have to get that message across. The vision for the project was always to make it available to the world. Now, we don't need to do that because the country is moving in that direction anyway. We have instruments at our disposal that will allow us to overcome any obstacle. The country is moving faster than we are. Before I could finish the work on the destination, they have already launched these visas."
The tourism project of Vision 2030, a larger campaign to diversify the country's economy by lessening its dependence on oil, is divided into two phases - Discover Saudi (from now to 2022), which essentially opens up 20 historical sites in the region to first-time visitors, and Experience Saudi, which unveils the giga projects to them. The larger ambition is to attract about 100 million international and domestic overnight visits a year. Jerry Inzerillo, the CEO of Ad Diriyah Gate Development Authority, says that young people today seek experiences and that plays to countries that are experientially-driven, like the Kingdom.
To mark the end of an otherwise historic day, a gala dinner has been organised close to Ad Diriyah. It has been a long day, but exhaustion takes a backseat as I head there. Like the country itself, Ad Diriyah has been witness to historical changes. From being an ancient trade route to being the home of the Saudi royalty once upon a time to hosting Formula E championships, it's transitioned many times. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ad Diriyah has also been under the process of redevelopment and, given its cultural significance, is poised to have museums, hotels and a marketplace once the work is complete.
It is a starlit night, and I cannot help but marvel at the beauty of Ad Diriyah. It is where the old meets the new - so, naturally the performances that follow celebrate that ethos. The question on my mind is if the redevelopment will mean a complete facelift? Thankfully, Inzerillo has, in several interviews, maintained that everything will be built keeping Ad Diriyah's place in Saudi Arabia's history in mind.
The gala dinner ends with some eye-catching performances on a 3D stage. Amid the hustle bustle, I continue to feel the stillness I'd experienced upon landing. Only this time, it seems to convey that change will now be the only constant.

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