Saudi Arabia, as of Sept. 28, has opened its door for foreign tourists to visit for more than religious reasons to help reduce the country’s reliance on its natural resources. Students who are from and have lived in the Middle East said this new policy can help open both locals and tourists’ perspectives. Students also shared they think the region’s conservative lifestyle may change over time.
A former BYU－Hawaii student who has transferred, Amirah Abdulla, is from Bahrain, a country two hours away from Saudi Arabia. She said she believes the policy change is a great opportunity for the people of Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world, to open their minds to different ideas and cultures. She said this is also a chance for Islamic followers to showcase the love within their faith by inviting diversity in the country.
Exercise and sports science major Roche Donato, a junior from the Philippines, shared how he lived in Qatar, the country next to Saudi Arabia, for 11 years. He said opening the country to tourism can change how people view the country, and it isn’t uncommon for people to have a misconception of the Middle East, as an extraordinarily rich region with oil and luxury. “It is what the media told them, but once you go there, you will see they live the same life as we live, but richer.”
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, said it is a planned economic reform to reduce the country’s reliance on oil and instead diversify its economy by way of tourism and entertainment, according to the New York Times.
With an electronic visa, visitors from 49 countries are allowed to enter the Kingdom and stay as long as three months. According to travellandleisure.com, an eVisa is valid for one year with multiple entries. It costs approximately $120 and permits a maximum stay of 90 days in the country. Within the first 10 days of the introduction of the eVisa, around 24,000 visitors have entered the Kingdom, according to Arab News.
Fulfilling the prophecy
According to Donato, the Middle East used to be a part of one large stake containing eight countries. However, recently, the eight countries were divided into two stakes. He added the majority of citizens in the Middle East are Islamic. and the country is filled with religious complexes where people practice and worship their beliefs.
Donato said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland visited Qatar in 2010 and said Qatar will be where the first church temple is built in the Middle East. Donato said he hopes the new policy could be a sign that fulfills Elder Holland’s prophecy, since the country is opening up more. He said he hopes to see the gospel and Christianity grow more in the Middle East.
According to travellandleisure.com, in order to attract Western tourists, Saudi Arabia has eased some of its conservative restrictions, like granting women the right to drive, traveling without a guardian, and a more relaxing dress code.
The New York Times said it is illegal to bring alcohol or drugs into the Saudi Arabian kingdom and that “public displays of affection are not consistent with local culture and visitors should also avoid using profane language or gestures.”
Men and women visiting Saudi Arabia are expected to dress conservatively. According to the New York Times, women, in particular, are expected to cover shoulders and knees in public, but they are exempt from wearing an obligatory head-to-toe robe.
Abdulla said the new policy is uplifting because she believes people deserve their freedom. “I feel [Saudi Arabia] is coming to the age of the modern world and making it easier for everyone.” Abdulla shared how she needed to conform to the country’s dressing standards or risk being arrested.
Sam Merrill, a senior from Texas studying biology, graduated high school in the United Arab Emirates, a country on the border of Saudi Arabia. He described the U.A.E as the safest country while Donato supported the same point. Merrill said, “You will feel safe . . . because there are security cameras everywhere and a heavy penalty law.”
Merrill also said he is not surprised by Saudi Arabia’s change in policy because most likely the country is trying to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, who also has implemented the change in 2018.