The pace of change in Saudi Arabia recently is giddying with locals embracing never-before-seen levels of freedom. Local women, in particular, are being relieved of the burden that was the draconian laws regarding dress, driving, observance, overseas travel and seem to be rushing headfirst into a new era with gusto. The once-feared religious police have been all-but stripped of their medieval powers, as the country looks to successful neighbours to help mould a path for change. Initiatives from the Saudi government such as the King Khalid Foundation have helped. However, the driving force behind the most recent changes is down to the 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or “MBS” as he’s affectionately known locally.
Visas have only just been issued to tourists visiting the Kingdom for reasons other than Islamic pilgrimage, either to Mecca or Medina since September last year. What’s more, In the three months since, the country has played host to Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title fight in a 15,000 seater stadium built from scratch. As well as a WWE female wrestling event, the first-ever public performance by a Saudi ballerina, major football matches (a national obsession) and a year-round regional culture and arts festival. Tourism finds itself dipping a tentative toe into the water of an industry that currently only accounts for 6% of national GDP (vs 87% from oil), change in the country is well underway. Its epicenter being in the stunning desert region and UNESCO-protected Al Ula area.