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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is opening up to the world. It used to be absolutely impossible to get a visa to enter, unless you were a religious pilgrim (therefore officially a Muslim), NATO military personnel, or a businessman or woman, invited by a local company or by the Saudi government. Even if you secured approval, visas were outrageously expensive, costing several hundreds of dollars. The only loophole was a "transit visa" for those who were going to drive from Oman or Bahrain, to Jordan.
Tourism was not recognized as a reason to visit the KSA. There were simply no tourist visas issued. Full stop.
Then, suddenly, everything changed, at the very end of September 2019. The Saudi government introduced e-visas, for 49 nation nationalities, including the USA, Canada, all nationals of the European Union, as well as the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China (including Hong Kong and Macau).
Everything has been streamlined. The formerly brutal international airports of Riyadh (the capital), Jeddah and Dammam, received incredible facelifts. Now, friendly ladies (still in hijab), speaking perfect English, are processing first-time visitors, taking their fingerprints, photographing them, then welcoming them to Saudi Arabia. There are rating buttons on the walls of the immigration booths: "How are we serving you?" From excellent, to terrible. Riyadh Airport is now clean, well illuminated, and pleasant.
All over the capital city, foreign women are now walking with fully exposed hair: at the airport, in all major hotels of Riyadh, office buildings, even inside the luxury malls.
The Royal Family is sending a clear message to the world: things are rapidly changing: Saudi Arabia is not what it used to be a few years ago. Women can now drive, foreigners (some, at least from the rich countries) can enter the country, and the dress-code for women is getting more and more relaxed.
Words like "the arts" and "culture" have been reintroduced into the local lexicon, after being nearly extinct for decades.
Saudi Arabia has a wide range of problems. They include corruption, the increasing dissatisfaction of the middle classes, the great desperation of the poor, vulnerability of oil prices, cross-border retaliatory attacks by the Houthis in Yemen, the imminent defeat of the Saudi extremist allies in Syria, the prolonged conflict with Qatar, as well as a still undiversified economy based on the export of oil.
After cutting the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi into pieces, precisely one year ago, the KSA suddenly drew strong criticism from all corners of the world.
The continuous killing of tens of thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians has evoked wrath in progressive circles worldwide.
The rulers in Riyadh had to re-think many issues. They calculated, and came to the conclusion that the best way to act would be to open up the country, and basically demonstrate to the would that the Kingdom is "not as bad" as many would like to believe.
The risk is great. Could this strategy really work? Or would it backfire?
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