Geoffrey Miller: What Saudi Arabia’s rapid changes mean for New Zealand

Geoffrey Miller: What Saudi Arabia’s rapid changes mean for New Zealand

Saudi Arabia is rarely far from the international spotlight.

The war in Gaza has brought new scrutiny to Saudi plans to normalise relations with Israel, while the fifth anniversary of the controversial killing of Jamal Khashoggi was marked shortly before the war began on October 7.

And as the home of Islam’s two holiest cities – Mecca and Medina – Saudi Arabia will be a particular focus over Ramadan. The Muslim holy month gets underway this week for 2024.

For non-Muslim New Zealanders such as myself, the idea of visiting Saudi Arabia long seemed like an impossibility. Until September 2019, the country did not grant tourist visas at all. That has now all changed. For many people, including New Zealand passport holders, an e-visa programme now makes Saudi Arabia one of the easier countries in the Middle East to visit.

As a long-time learner of Arabic and as a PhD student at the University of Otago investigating New Zealand’s relations with the Gulf states, I was very keen to visit the country for my research in late 2023.

As my research covers politics, entry under the e-visa scheme was not an option in my case, but after much discussion I was eventually invited to visit Saudi Arabia as a guest of the Ministry of Education. This obviously came with some limitations and compromises, but I accepted the invitation to gain access to a country I had read and heard so much about. Saudi Arabia has a population of 36 million and is the biggest country by both area and population in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the capital, Riyadh, I was given a tour around the country’s biggest university, King Saud University, from which the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), graduated with a law degree in 2007. I was also taken to visit iEN TV, an innovative state-owned network of educational TV channels that grew to support home learning during Covid-19 pandemic.

Throughout my trip, my guides and others I spoke to were always keen to point to the rapid change taking place under modernisation reforms led by MBS called ‘Vision 2030’. By Western standards, some of the steps – such as some mixed-gender classes at King Saud University – may seem small, but they should not be underestimated in the context of a conservative society.

At a shopping mall in Riyadh, a guide pointed to a woman walking without a headscarf and remarked to me that even a decade ago, the situation would have been unthinkable as she would have been immediately stopped by religious police. MBS heavily limited the powers of the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ to enforce behaviour on the streets under a 2016 decree.

Elsewhere, plenty of other signs of Vision 2030 ‘megaprojects’ were visible around Riyadh, including a massive new overground metro system.  This is nearly complete and was running test ‘ghost trains’ during my visit. Given the traffic in Riyadh – a city of some eight million people – the new trains are a necessity.

Other tourism-focused initiatives in Riyadh and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia range from the heritage-driven to the futuristic. The former category includes a renovation of Riyadh’s old town district, known as Diriyah, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 and is home to palaces, mosques and museums. In one of my most authentic Saudi experiences, I was taken there on an Arabic-language tour with a group of Saudi school principals who were visiting Riyadh from the provinces.

A complete contrast came afterwards, when the party was taken to ‘Boulevard City’, a flashy new entertainment district with a Disney castle that vaguely resembles a cross between Times Square and Dubai. The project might be seen as a kind of miniature prototype for the new Red Sea city of Neom, another MBS megaproject spanning 26,500 square kilometres which could itself ultimately make or break Vision 2030. (I did not have the opportunity to visit Neom, which is in the early phases of construction).

The city of AlUla, located in the north of Saudi Arabia, is arguably the jewel in the tourism crown. For anyone who has visited Jordan, AlUla will have a familiarity that is no accident. The city was built from around the second century BC by the Nabataeans, who also built Petra. But at least for now, AlUla has a far more boutique feel. The rock carvings found in the Hegra district are undoubtedly stunning. But I also highly enjoyed a tour with a local guide of AlUla’s Old Town, where 12th century mudbrick homes are being restored using traditional methods.

Given Saudi Arabia’s conservative reputation, there will undoubtedly be debates inside and outside the country about the merits of Saudi Arabia’s various megaprojects. Tourism is clearly playing a major role in Vision 2030 and the country is spending heavily on promotion. Last year’s controversy over potential sponsorship by ‘Visit Saudi’ of the FIFA Women’s World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand was a case in point – and claims of ‘sportswashing’ need to be considered carefully.

MBS is certainly betting big on tourism. A new airline, Riyadh Air, is set to launch in 2025 and is set to be Saudi Arabia’s answer to the existing globally-focused Gulf airlines such as Emirates and Qatar Airways. These carriers already operate non-stop flights to New Zealand from their bases in Dubai and Doha.

Direct flights from Auckland to Riyadh are now likely to be on the horizon as well.

New Zealand is unlikely to remain untouched by Saudi Arabia’s big plans.

Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian. He is currently working on a PhD at the University of Otago on New Zealand’s relations with the Gulf states. Disclosure: Geoffrey visited Saudi Arabia as a guest of the country’s Ministry of Education.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.