Lionel Messi’s promotional trip to Saudi Arabia has kicked up a storm at his Qatari-owned football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), while also casting a spotlight on Riyadh’s efforts to showcase its heritage and lure foreign visitors. FRANCE 24 spoke to Gulf analyst Karim Sader about Saudi ambitions to turn the desert kingdom into a tourism hotspot.
Messi, who recently lifted the World Cup trophy in Qatar, was suspended by the Parisian club this week after failing to show up for a training session just days after the French league leaders slumped to their latest, humiliating home defeat.
Instead of trading passes with the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, the Argentinian football hero was in Saudi Arabia, a falcon perched on his arm, watching a palm-weaving demonstration and touring the Arabian Horse Museum as part of a lucrative commercial deal to promote tourism in the oil-rich nation.
The ensuing row, which looks set to precipitate the end of Messi’s unhappy two-year spell at PSG, has exposed the competition between Gulf states eager to become major players in the money-making world of football. It has also brought to the fore Riyadh’s ambitions to become a magnet for foreign visitors.
to Diriyah, the land of traditions, heritage and history. Leo Messi, his wife Antonella and his sons Mateo and Ciro had an enjoyable tour where they learned about the history of Saudi and met its generous and hospitable people in At-Turaif.
— Ahmed Al Khateeb أحمد الخطيب (@AhmedAlKhateeb)
Tourism is indeed a pillar of “Vision 2030”, an ambitious plan to modernise and diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil, which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – known as MBS – unveiled in 2016. The aim is to turn this oil kingdom with a dubious human rights record into a high-end tourist destination.
Home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, as well as , Saudi Arabia has primarily attracted Muslim pilgrims so far. In MBS’s vision, the objective is to welcome some 30 million international visitors by 2030 and generate up to a million jobs in tourism.
FRANCE 24 spoke to political analyst Karim Sader, a specialist in the Gulf region, about the crown prince’s plans to turn Saudi Arabia into a Mecca for foreign visitors, and the limits to his ambitions.
FRANCE 24: The controversy over Messi has cast a spotlight on Riyadh’s ambitions for tourism. Just how important is the industry to MBS’s “Vision 2030”?
It is clear that Saudi Arabia is sparing no efforts to build an attractive tourism industry. It’s part of the transformation of Saudi society and the desire for international recognition that MBS is pursuing through his Vision 2030 project. The aim is to develop a number of ‘soft power’ instruments, including tourism. Riyadh is trying to follow in the footsteps of its Gulf neighbours, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, which understood early on that securing international recognition meant investing in sectors with a strong media impact, such as sport, tourism and the media itself.
Of course, the kingdom has a rich historical heritage that has long been overshadowed by the influence of Wahhabism [editor’s note: a hardline form of Sunni Islam practised in Saudi Arabia], including the magnificent site of Hegra, which bears witness to the Nabataean civilisation. But it still has a lot of work to do to build the image of a tourist destination, logistically and socially speaking.
That is why MBS is spending lavishly to attract both industry specialists and global stars like Lionel Messi who can serve as a luxury showcase for the country. The same strategy has been deployed in sports with the spectacular signing of another football superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo [who joined Saudi club Al Nassr last December]. It proved to be a resounding PR coup for the Saudi league, which hardly anyone in the West was familiar with.
In late March, Saudi authorities invited several French musicians, including former first lady Carla Bruni, to give a concert near the remains of the ancient desert city of Al-Ula – a revolutionary step in itself, since we’re talking about a pre-Islamic site. Promoting this type of landmark would have been unthinkable at the height of Wahhabi influence in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite a paradox that the crown prince should be leading this revolution.
Saudi Arabia has set itself a target of creating 200 museums and organising 400 annual events to attract 30 million foreign visitors by 2030. Is this ambitious goal reachable?
As always, the crown prince wants to move fast and hit hard – it’s both his strength and his flaw. MBS is in the process of revolutionising Saudi society and giving this sclerotic conservative kingdom a dynamism that would be the envy of the UAE, a country whose development model has long fascinated him. It’s not just a matter of spending lavishly. In his mind, it is also necessary to ensure investments are profitable by designing a technology-based tourism, betting on the construction of ‘smart’ cities that will attract investors.
The Saudi public will need to be prepared to welcome foreign visitors and manage tourist sites. Some planned sites involve displacing local communities that have been there for many generations, which could lead to protests and security issues. One example is Neom, the futuristic city MBS plans to build in the middle of the desert. So far, the mega-project is a failure and is causing tensions, despite having cost a lot of money and allowed designers, architects and consultants to make a small fortune. In my view, Neom shows the limits of MBS’s ambitions, which could turn against him.
To attract tourists, Saudi Arabia needs to foster a peaceful climate in the wider region. Could this be a factor behind Riyadh’s current proactive stance on the diplomatic stage?
The development of tourism is part of MBS’s “Saudi First” strategy, which aims to guarantee the stability of the kingdom in a pacified regional context, both in terms of security and the economy – and whatever the cost in terms of alliances. Riyadh has freed itself from its traditional alliances and now leads an extremely supple diplomacy. This allows it to engage in a rapprochement with [arch-rival] Iran and China while also preserving its partnership with the United States. Diplomatically, as well as economically, the Saudis are now investing in a pragmatic way. The days of careless spending are over; the cliché no longer holds.
This article was translated from the original in French.
#Messi #scandal #spotlights #Saudi #ambitions #turn #desert #kingdom #tourist #Mecca