The arrival of Joseph Fischer in Saudi Arabia, a prelude to a rapprochement?

Although Israel and Saudi Arabia have not formally established ties and Saudi Arabia joined protests from the Arab world on Tuesday following National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s trip to Mount of the Temple, it seems that the presence of Israeli businessmen in Riyadh has intensified lately.

The Joseph Fischer case is a perfect example.

In early December, one of the most prestigious travel and tourism conferences, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, was held in the Saudi capital.

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Among the 5,000 attendees was Israeli tourism specialist Fischer.

During his stay in Saudi Arabia, Fischer did not hide his nationality and did not remain cloistered in the enclosure of the lobby, quite the contrary. He took the opportunity to walk around and chat with the Saudis. Having entered Saudi Arabia with a non-Israeli passport, his place of birth could not be more clearly indicated: “Born in Tel Aviv”.

Even in the absence of formal relations between the Saudi kingdom and the Jewish state, the conclusion of the Abraham Accords in September 2020 paved the way for small changes.

For example, Israeli commercial flights now use Saudi airspace to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and India, a dozen Israeli business leaders have officially visited Riyadh, an American Jewish businessman embarked on a road trip from Dubai to Jerusalem via Riyadh and a number of Israeli journalists were allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia.

Another significant step, Fischer took part in the WTTC summit in Riyadh after contacting the organizers via 4Hoteliers, the Hong Kong-based English website he advertises on, to make sure there would be no problems with his participation. (He was assured not.)

“The country is investing on a large scale in never-before-seen tourism infrastructure projects,” Fischer told the Times of Israel during a recent interview.

“The Saudis are embarking on large-scale projects: big, expensive and ostentatious. »

Joseph Fischer in Saudi Arabia for the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in December 2022. (Courtesy)

Saudi Arabia ranks 14th in the world in terms of geographical area and has a population of 35 million. According to estimates, the country will invest in the next few years 6,000 billion dollars in tourism.

“They’re talking about building a ski resort in the desert for hundreds of millions of dollars. They are building hotels, attractions, new roads and the huge Red Sea project, an entire area dedicated to tourism, totally private, and which will stretch from Aqaba in the north to the southern end of the Red Sea” , explains Fischer.

However, until very recently, it was very difficult for tourists to travel to Saudi Arabia. Muslims had long been allowed there, for the Hajj pilgrimage and other religious reasons, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the country started issuing tourist visas, for the very first time in its history.

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The Red Sea Project. (Credit: AP/Saudi Press Agency)

The timing is no coincidence.

In 2016, the leader de facto of the country, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to by his initials, MBS) announced a new program for the country, dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, with ambitious goals for rapid growth in the tourism sector.

For years, Saudi Arabia has worked to reduce its reliance on crude oil exports. According to Saudi Vision 2030, within ten years, tourism should account for 10% of the kingdom’s gross domestic product and provide employment for at least one million people.

In order to achieve its goal of attracting 100 million tourists by 2030, the country has implemented an electronic visa issuance system. It has also launched a number of ambitious projects – airports, new towns, beaches, national parks, amusement centers and, of course, hotels – some of which have been suspended due to COVID-19. But not anymore.

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Saudi holidaymakers in front of the Jeddah Tower under construction, which is expected to eventually become the tallest building in the world, at the Red Sea resort town of Obhur in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 26 October 2018. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The Red Sea project alone represents 28,000 km2 of islands, beaches, deserts and mountains. It will have around 3,000 hotel rooms, a dedicated airport, marinas and a commercial district. The kingdom estimates that this destination alone will attract one million tourists a year.

A week in Riyadh

“The scope of these projects justifies holding the WTTC in Riyadh this year,” says Fischer.

“I stayed for a whole week. We visited large construction sites on the outskirts of Riyadh and in particular that of Diriyah, origin of the Saudi royal family and site recognized by UNESCO, built of mud bricks. »

The Saudis believe that this site will welcome millions of visitors each year, a kind of “living museum” in which tourists can stroll, between vestiges of the old city, museums, cafes, shops and other attractions.

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People walk past a poster of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with a caption evoking Saudi Vision 2030, outside a shopping mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, December 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

But the kingdom’s efforts to develop its tourism industry have come under heavy criticism, including accusations of human rights violations.

Residents of Riyadh may not be evicted to make way for tourist sites under construction, but foreign media have reported that in Jeddah, the country’s second largest city, the poorest inhabitants and immigrants have been evicted with only 24 hours notice to allow the construction of hotels and entertainment venues.

Amnesty International has released satellite photos documenting the destruction of around 66 residential neighborhoods, which the organization calls a human rights violation.

the Times of Israel spoke to Fischer by phone shortly after returning from the Saudi kingdom. The following interview has been translated from Hebrew and edited for clarity.

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Workers relax while playing cards in the Old City of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

The Times of Israel: Reports are circulating that the Saudis have evicted huge numbers of residents to build tourist infrastructure.

Joseph Fisher: As they told us during the conference: “There is one thing we have in excess: empty land. We don’t need to deport anyone. »

Diriyah is a ruin restoration project.

While you were in Riyadh, what did you see? It is a country where alcohol is prohibited and where women do not have the same status. How will they manage to become a top tourist attraction?

I can tell you that I have seen women driving alone. I have seen women walking alone in stores. I spoke to women on the bus. They were open and talked about economy and tourism. They wore hijabs covering their hair and neck, leaving their faces visible.

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View of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

With such a need for foreign labor to carry out these construction projects, is there not a negative impact for Saudi Arabia, insofar as the neighborhoods in which these workers live are more stricken by poverty and crime, as has often been the case in other countries?

The Saudis bring in millions of workers who work in infrastructure, catering and medicine. These workers are from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. As for safety, I was also walking around at night, while feeling safe. Saudis strictly enforce the law, so I didn’t have to worry about street crime.

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Workers play volleyball in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Will the Saudis allow tourists to consume alcohol?

We asked this question at the conference. We told the Ministry of Tourism representative that alcohol is available in the Gulf and in Egypt, and asked them how they plan to position themselves. He said they would not change their policy on the matter, but would revisit the issue at a later date. I tend to believe that the Red Sea project will take a distinct approach, like the island of Macau, which exists separately from China, with different policies.

The Saudis aim to attract 100 million tourists by 2030. Does that sound realistic to you?

This is indeed their goal. According to them, 30 to 40 million tourists will come for the Hajj pilgrimage, to which will be added 60 to 70 million tourists from the West, China and India, who will visit the new city of Neom, the project in the Red Sea, in Jeddah and in the mountains. There are many other sites of interest, such as the Al-‘Ula region, similar to Petra in Jordan, but much larger. People will be delighted to discover it and we know that when it comes to tourism, getting somewhere before anyone else adds to the pleasure of travellers.

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Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmen al Khateeb, right foreground, arrives at the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in Riyadh, December 2022. (Courtesy Joseph Fischer)

Could Israel’s tourism industry benefit from all this large-scale investment, or is the country completely left out because, after all, it’s Saudi Arabia?

If the Saudis host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, it will likely be in tandem with Egypt, and according to the precedent set by Qatar, they will have to allow the Israelis to attend.

As for other areas, the Saudis are currently seeking to acquire knowledge. They send tens of thousands of Saudi students around the world to train in tourism, hotel management, services and catering. Manpower training is an area in which we could be present. Also, they buy software and cyber technologies.

I believe that by 2030, relations with Israel will evolve according to their opportunities and needs.

A version of this article appeared on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site, Zman Yisrael.

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The arrival of Joseph Fischer in Saudi Arabia, a prelude to a rapprochement?

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