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  • Saudi Infrastructure Gets Upgrade to Lure Pilgrims and Tourists

    Muslims doing the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca have for years clambered into cars and buses after finishing in one holy city and headed through the barren Hijaz mountains on a five hour drive to Medina, another sacred place.

    Now they have a new option. Saudi Arabia earlier this year opened the $15 billion Haramain High Speed Railway, a 300km/h line between the cities that was built by the Spanish company Talgo with technology designed to protect it from sand and extreme heat.

    The project is one of several infrastructure initiatives aimed at reviving the kingdom’s economy as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushes his “Vision 2030” plan to create new engines of growth beyond oil.

    The hope is that the 450km train line will help boost the number of umrah pilgrims visiting Saudi Arabia from 6.8 million this year to 30m by 2030 and that they, in turn, will inspire the creation of more private sector restaurants, hotels and tour operators.

    “This was a fast trip, we didn’t feel time at all,” said Abeer Abu-Kamel, a Syrian doctor, as she got off the train’s first trip from Mecca after performing umrah with her mother. “Next time we want to take it all the way to Medina.”

    Another passenger said she was scared because it is the first time she travels by train. “But alhmdulilah (thanks to God) it was a smooth ride and now I’m thinking I might use it everyday,” said Renad Saleh, a 27-year-old student who lives in Jeddah but goes to school in Umm al-Qura University in Mecca.

    Officials say the train can handle up to 60 million travelers annually and will eventually link up with a proposed railway project connecting the capital Riyadh with the west coast.

    Prince Khalid al-Faisal, Mecca’s governor and a nephew of the king, said: “We want to welcome 30m comfortably and receive them in a way that meets our ambition to improve the experience of our guests. We want to offer the best services.”

    The danger, say sceptics, is that the rail line becomes another case of state oil revenues being used for stimulus spending that has limited trickle down benefits, reviving memories of plans for other magaporjects, like Riyadh’s new financial district, that have failed to take off.

    Karen Young, a Gulf scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the move was a departure from ambitious Saudi plans that relied on foreign direct investment and a return to the traditional pattern of oil revenues fuelling state spending.

    “The tourism plans fit this pattern and are a very good source of new economic activity, but not necessarily of creating jobs for nationals, at least at the outset of construction in mega-projects like the railway and airports,” she said.

    Saudi nationals are generally uninterested in construction jobs, which tend to be done in the kingdom by immigrants from South Asia. But Nabil al-Amoudi, transport minister, said operating the train would provide 3,000 jobs to Saudis as drivers, conductors, stewards and ticket sellers.

    Saudi Arabia wants to increase the inflow of visitors for both hajj and umrah, the two main Muslim pilgrimages. While hajj must be performed once in a lifetime by all able-bodied Muslims, umrah can be performed at any time of the year.

    More than two million umrah pilgrims arrived in the kingdom during the current season, and for the first time they were allowed to travel to any city in the kingdom for up to 15 days after visiting Mecca and Medina, a step to encourage more spending.

    The authorities also hope the rail line will revive one struggling urban project, the King Abdullah Economic City, where the train will stop. The city was launched a decade ago but has struggled to attract investment and residents.

    Persuading foreign investors to come to the kingdom has become increasingly difficult as the country continues to deal with the fallout from killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but officials hope that ramping up state spending would boost growth and investors would eventually come around.

    The government unveiled an expansionary budget earlier this month, pledging to increase spending on infrastructure and transportation by 28% in 2019. It wants to take advantage of higher oil prices to boost economic growth in the private sector and reduce unemployment which remains high at 12.9%.

    “2018 was a year to contain unemployment among Saudis, but there is good news as we continue a full restructuring of the labour market,” said economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri who predicted that unemployment rate would begin to go down next year.

    The Haramain train will also stop at another landmark infrastructure project: the new Jeddah international airport, which started serving some local routes over the summer and is expected to become fully operational by the second quarter of 2019.

    The old terminal, built in 1981, has struggled to cope with increasing demand and fallen into disrepair in recent years. “I don’t blame travellers for complaining about the current airport,” Prince Khaled said. “It has not been upgraded in a very long time.”

    The new terminal, built over an area of 810,000 sq m and cost $9.6 billion, is expected to serve around 80m passengers annually, more than double current capacity.

    “The current airport cuts our legs short. It incapacitates the city from fulfilling its full potential,” said Nidhal Taibah, a founding partner at the Saudi office of EHAF Consulting Engineers. “The new airport will make a huge difference.”

  • How Saudi Arabia Plans to Transform the Pilgrimage Experience

    As part of the Saudi government plans to diversify the economy, the kingdom’s authorities hope to increase the number of visitors to the country, including Muslim pilgrims who come to see the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

    While hajj is limited by the fact that it has to happen at a specific time and confined to a small geographic area, officials see a huge potential in umrah —known as the lesser pilgrimage— which can be performed any time of the year.

    The government’s Vision 2030 plan calls for increasing the number of umrah pilgrims from its current levels of 6.8 million annually to more than double that in 2020 and ultimately to 30 million by 2030.

    Achieving these numbers will require logistical upgrades (hardware) and many policy changes (software). The last few years saw expansion projects in Mecca, as well as building a new airport in Jeddah and a high-speed train connecting the holy sites. On the policy front, the government is working on several initiatives and plans under the umbrella of a new program that has not been made public yet.

    My latest story for the Financial Times shows that a wider use of technology is major part of these plans that, in addition to increasing the number of pilgrims, aim to enrich their experience and offer better services to visitors.

    One area where officials see potential for technology to make an impact is safety: How can you prevent deadly accidents like the stampede that left hundreds of pilgrims dead in 2015? Among the ideas being discussed is developing a system powered by artificial intelligence to fully control crowd management.

    “It will take years to develop but would solve the most difficult challenge because it will allow you to avoid human errors,” said a persona familiar with the matter. Another idea is to develop a driverless transport system in the congested zone around the Grand Mosque in Mecca, he added.

    The government is also working on an online platform to make umrah more accessible to individual Muslims who now find themselves forced to depend on tour operators in their countries and can only come as part of groups at specific times chosen by these companies. By removing the middleman, officials hope more visitors would be encouraged to make the trip any time they want.

    Finally, the government wants open up the market of hajj and umrah local tour operators to Saudi and foreign investors. This step is likely to be controversial as the business sector has been controlled by a small band of Meccan families for hundreds of years, but officials say disrupting this market would lead to better services and more choices for pilgrims.

    “The challenges are unique and you can’t compare them with anything that exists. There are many problems but it’s a huge opportunity for innovation,” the person briefed on the plans said.

  • Saudi Arabia’s football federation has banned referee Fahad al-Mirdasi for life over match fixing just few weeks before he was expected to appear in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

    SAFF said Mirdasi confessed to offering to fix the King’s Cup final that took place last Saturday in Jeddah and asked FIFA to hand a global ban to the referee and remove him from the upcoming tournament.

    At 32, Mirdasi was seen as one of the most promising prospects for refereeing in the kingdom and Asia. He officiated in last year’s Confederations Cup in Russia as well as the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

    The federation said Mirdasi sent WhatsApp messages to a top official from Ittihad club seeking payment to help them win against al-Faisaly in the final match. English referee Mark Clattenburg, who was appointed Head of Refereeing at SAFF last year, replaced Mirdasi in officiating the game which ended with victory for Ittihad.

  • I shared some thoughts on Saudi Arabia’s chanes at the World Cup with Jeffrey Marcus for his newsletter. Expect more on that here as the tournament approaches in the coming weeks.

  • Back to Blogging Ways

    My first serious attempt to write online was through blogging, and that’s how many people have come to know me. My original blog Saudi Jeans, launched in 2004, was one of the first in the region and remained active until I moved to New York for graduate school.

    This new blog, however, is not a revival of the old one as doing that would cause a conflict with my current job as a reporter for the Financial Times. Instead, a good way to think about this site is to view it as a companion to my reporting work for FT.

    In some cases that will mean providing additional context to stories I’ve written, including stuff that didn’t make it to publication either for editing or space reasons. In other cases I will seek to link to related stories and highlight some issues that probably don’t merit writing a full news story but still worth more than a tweet. Many journalists (and non-journalists) do a similar thing these days using Twitter threads, but I just find that format clunky and inelegant.

    Now I’m not sure how frequently I will be posting stuff here, but I hope I can do that regularly enough to get back into the habit of blogging, and I hope that you might find some value in it. Cheers!

  • The Financial Times today published a special report titled Investing in the Arab World. My contribution to the report is this story on how recent Saudi reforms and easing of social restrictions are unlocking previously untapped sectors like tourism and entertainment, making them more attractive to local and foreign investors.

    Part of the reporting for that piece was done in Taif, the city that used to serve as Saudi Arabia’s summer capital before air conditioning technology arrived to the kingdom. I spent a couple of days there, staying at the InterContinental which was built in the 1970s and where it still feels like the 1970s. Now I may complain about the old hotel but I can’t deny its charm.

    Taif is known for its pleasant weather and bright pink roses that produce a fragrant oil used to make perfumes and soap. The city is also home to Souk Okaz, a pre-Islamic Arab market where poets used to compete against each other. The government has been organising a festival on its site for the past 12 years, and officials hope it will become a major tourist attraction one day.

  • Mike Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia on Sunday during his first foreign trip just few hours after he was confirmed as US Secretary of State. As he arrived in Riyadh, the message conveyed to the traveling press with him was simple and stern: the kingdom must end its dispute with Qatar in order to form a united front against Iran in the Gulf.

    But as he stood next to his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir at the royal terminal of King Khalid International Airport, Pompeo used a softer tone and ended his remarks by saying “Gulf unity is necessary and we need to achieve it” without elaborating on the issue. The two officials did not take any questions and the US top diplomat soon boarded his plane heading to Israel.

    It remains unclear how much pressure the US is planning or willing to apply on their Gulf allies to end the rift. “We are hopeful that they will, in their own way, figure out how to remove the dispute between them,” Pompeo told reporters after leaving Riyadh. A proposed GCC summit in Camp David has been pushed from April to September as the Trump administration shifted its focus to the talks with North Korea.

  • Middle East Monitor (MEMO) on Wednesday published a news item saying that Saudi authorities have arrested nearly one million people in four days over the last week. The London-based website attributed that to Saudi daily Okaz. Arresting that number of people in a few days seems impossible, no matter how efficient Saudi security forces are. So what’s happening here?

    In March 2017, Saudi authorities announced a grace period of 90 days for undocumented foreign workers to correct their status or face deportation. That amnesty was later extended by another 30 days and ended by July 25, 2017.

    As the amnesty ended, security forces launched a campaign called “A Nation Without Violators” to track violators of residence, employment and border-security systems. The government has been releasing monthly updates on the outcomes of that campaign.

    The latest update, published today, talks about more than one million violators. But the language in these updates can be confusing, which probably explains why MEMO and other sources misreported the situation.

    The word “arrest” is probably inaccurate to describe the situation. A better way to put it is to say authorities have dealt with more than one million cases since the beginning of the campaign last August. Some of the cases were fined, others were referred to their diplomatic missions and the rest were deported.

    It is unclear how many undocumented workers live in the kingdom, but a member of the Shura Council last year called for measures to deport 5 million people living illegally in the country. Such calls have gained momentum in recent months as unemployment rate among Saudis continues to rise, fuelling anti-foreign sentiments.

  • Unemployment rate among Saudi citizens keeps rising despite government effort to ban foreigners from certain sectors and limiting work in them to locals. Worries by officials go beyond unemployment itself which is seen as a precursor for other serious issues, form fear of increasing crime rate to making young citizens more likely to be lured by extremist groups at a time when the country is aiming to offer a more moderate image with hopes to attract foreign investment and tourists.

  • Saudi police said security forces shot down an unauthorized toy drone in the Khozama district in the capital Riyadh. The police said officers at the area checkpoint dealt with the situation “according to their orders and instructions in this regard” and an investigation is underway.

    The statement came hours after social media users started circulating videos that appeared to show heavy gunfire in the upscale (and usually quiet) district that has many royal palaces, including the king’s palace. The videos were soon followed by tweets claiming that a coup was taking place, some of them falsely attributed to the Associated Press.

    One of these tweets that were forwarded to me claimed that “Royal Saudi Land Forces (KSA) Lieutenant General Allukas Nepils is leading the military push to oust King Salman.” Anyone who knows Saudi Arabia or speaks Arabic would easily detect that the name mentioned there does not sound real.

    Others raised questions about the official statement because the gunfire in the videos sounded too intense if the target was a toy drone as police said, but I think it should not be surprising that a security checkpoint might overreact to a drone near the royal palace. Journalist Danny Gold said he was with Iraqi troops when they were trying to shoot down an ISIS drone and “the pace and amount of fire in the video i just saw sounds consistent to what i witnessed.”

    Reuters later reported that the king was spending time at his farm in Diriya and was not at the palace during the incident.

  • Wakanda Will No Longer Watch From the Shadows

    AMC premiered “Black Panther” last night for a VIP audience in Riyadh, heralding the return of cinema to Saudi Arabia after a ban that lasted for more than three decades. The company announced that they will started selling tickets to the public the next day, much earlier than previously expected.

    The venue for the screening was a converted theater at the conference center in King Abdullah Financial District. The rest of the project remains unfinished after years of constructions and delays. AMC said they will remove the elegant Italian leather seats from the theater and replace them with reclining black seats.

    The opening felt a bit rushed, like several other projects launched recently in the kingdom, but the invited guests were excited to be there. The theater has become half empty before the end of the movie, a sign that many in the audience have probably already watched it in Dubai, Manama or other places.

    Selecting a movie about a crown prince trying to transform a rich kingdom carried a clear symbolism but real life seldom resembles the movies. It is usually the other way around.

  • From Wikipedia: The eyebrow flash is an unconscious social signal, wherein a person, wishing to approach another whom they recognize and are preparing for social contact (such as a greeting), raises their eyebrows for approximately one-fifth of a second.

  • “One of the most exciting parts of Arab Fashion Week Riyadh, the first official fashion week hosted in Saudi Arabia, was the sheer amount of Saudi girl power on display. It was an all-woman, all-the-time event…”

  • Foreign ministry told journalists to come for a press conference at 1pm. Around noon they sent a message saying it was postponed until 2pm. The presser didn’t actually start until 5:30pm.

  • Saudi Arabia establishes a college for cyber security and artificial intelligence. The new college will be named after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a proposal from Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the prince.

  • I should use this account more often.

  • On the challenges of Saudi economic reform: “The difficulty lies in the fact that there is no textbook to guide you. You have always to rethink it to measure. There is no guidebook. There are so many uncertainties, but there are basics you have to watch, like the level of spending and middle class income.”

  • Saudi foreign minister says kingdom’s position on the Palestinian cause is “unflinching” www.spa.gov.sa/1706038

  • Barcelona just broke their own transfer record for a player they don’t really need www.theringer.com/2018/1/6/…

  • Chrome is turning into the new Internet Explorer 6 www.theverge.com/2018/1/4/…

  • Saudi attorney-general confirms the arrest of 11 princes www.alriyadh.com/1652437

  • Twitter says it does not block or remove controversial tweets of world leaders because it would hide important information people should see and debate blog.twitter.com/official/…

  • White House officials explain how they manage Trump to limit the damage caused by his tweets Axios

  • Taiwan to allow gay marriage in first for Asia.

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