Kamil wasn’t too pleased about me being on his back. Given that Kamil was a camel, I felt me climbing on his back was pretty much par for the course. But Kamil wasn’t having any of it. As I put one leg over, up he rose in the air, leaving your correspondent swinging down sideways, clinging on frantically to the seat, trying to rescue his camera which simultaneously hoisting himself aboard inelegantly.
I’m not entirely convinced that the Bedouin press ganged into acting as guides for the group of British journalists were telling the entire truth when I enquired my dromedary’s name, as Kamil struck me as an odd monicker, especially when there are hundreds of vastly more suitable names such as Clive, Donald or even Sopworth. But the name stuck just as my clambering routine did in the minds of Fleet Street’s finest, assembled in the 45 degree heat of the Arabian Desert.
The Saudi Supreme Council for Tourism has embarked on a charm offensive and leapt on the occasion of inaugural services from London Heathrow by UK carrier BMI to correct some misconceptions in the minds of the British press corps. Alongside Flight International were representatives of several of the UK’s national newspapers as well as influential trade publications.
Saudi Arabia is keen to create jobs for its burgeoning population, which is due for a boom in jobless twentysomethings over the next decade, and tourism is one area it has spotted it is lagging behind in. The government looks in envy as it sees some 130 flights per week from London alone bringing in holidaymakers to frolic in the sun in Dubai and as many again from other European cities. But they have hit a snag: not many people associate the kingdom, with its strict adherence to Islamic law, as the perfect place for a week’s precious R&R. To put it bluntly, Saudi Arabia has an image problem.
The first step to solving a problem is to admit you have one, as alcoholics are told at the anonymous meetings they hold. The clandestine consumption of alcohol, while we’re about it, is one contributing factor to the kingdom’s image problem, with supposed unequal treatment of women another. The Saudis’ answer to its image problem is to be open, honest and warm.
Despite the head-to-toe black abayas, or cloaks, the female journalists were obliged to wear in public along with full headscarves, there were never made to feel inferior, just different. Saudi Arabia is as much as anything else, deeply traditional rather than radical; most men opt to wear white those gowns with the ubiquitous red and white chequered headdress so as not to stand out from the crowd. Speaking to Saudi women and most will tell you they see it not as restrictive, but liberating, allowing them to be taken seriously. Yet those with an eye for detail will catch little lace along the seams of some of the most daring Saudi women and most cloaks are daringly accessorized with thousands of pounds worth of jewellery as they cruise the women-only floor of the shopping mall or drink tea together in segregated coffee shops.
One can’t help wondering how compatible the Supreme Council’s plans for Red Sea beach resorts will be with the laws that banned the female journalists from swimming, exercising or sunbathing more than their faces with your correspondent will prove to be. It is hard to imagine, for example, many Western takers for a scuba diving holiday to the Farasan islands’ spectacular reefs once the kingdom’s restrictions are taken into account.
But there are plenty of Muslim visitors already flying to the country either for hajj or umrah pilgrimages to Mecca, who could extend their stay to see the country’s sites and then take in a dive or two, the Supreme Council points out. In time, too, the more relaxed attitude that persists in the expatriate compounds that fringe the country’s major cities could extend to the Rea Sea resorts, allowing women to bathe in less cumbersome attire than a baggy wetsuit, insha'Allaah.
The compounds themselves have become heavily fortified following the terrorist attacks of 2003. Security too is part of the kingdom’s image problem. The camel train, for example, was a different take on the caravan we had got used to, a very discreet cavalcade of bullet-proof, blacked-out GM Suburban sports utility vehicles provided by the Ministry of Information, replete with armed escort and a minder-***-censor in every car. Handy for answering those tricky questions when inspecting Deera Square, nicknamed Chop-Chop Square, the scene of public displays of capital punishment on Friday afternoons. Despite having fallen out of judicial fashion of late, the faint blood stains on the square's concrete drains reminded us of the threat of limb amputation that a theft conviction brings with it. It clears all fears of being pickpocketed from one's mind, even if in other cities, our tour guide shepherding may have alerted the quicker brained criminal to our out-of-townness.
Luckily, your correspondent thought as our motorcade sped through downtown Riyadh sweeping everything in its path aside, we were clearly not identified as potential targets. The heavy handedness continued at the diplomatic quarter where the thirsty journalists assembled for dinner at a prohibition-busting embassy only to be delayed by several hours as the caterers negotiated their way through the security cordon a kilometre down the road.Although tourism growth in Saudi Arabia faces some challenges, there are signs that the society is reforming, albeit at the pace of the most conservative member of the ruling council of al-Saud family members. Aviation liberalisation is high on the agenda and finding creative ways to market the kingdom’s historic ruins, religious sites and stunning scenery has just begun. Don’t expect Sunkist Pleasure Tours to start charter flights any day soon, but there will be opportunities for many niche players for sure.
Given the amazing access we journalists were given in a supposed secretive society (with the exception of any mention of defence contracts coming as it did the week allegations in a British newspaper not invited on the familiarisation trip), it would be a surprise if more people were not taken by the charm and hospitality of its people. I just wish my camel toed the line a bit more.
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