In the Middle East, even your holidays are political
A COUNTRY THAT draws 39m foreign tourists each year is on the brink of anarchy, if you believe the Saudi media. “Turkey is not safe for travel,” blared a recent headline in a Saudi newspaper. The kingdom’s embassy in Ankara has warned of rising petty crime aimed at Saudi citizens. Another story claimed that 2,187 people were killed in gun violence in Turkey in 2017. (There are no such warnings about America, where gun deaths are far more common.)
It is true that one Saudi visitor in Turkey last year was murdered and dismembered. However, his killers were not locals but a 15-member Saudi hit squad and the murder took place inside a Saudi consulate. The victim was a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who had upset the Saudi regime. His death made tense relations between the two countries much worse. Hence the campaign by Saudi officials to discourage their citizens from travelling to Turkey. It seems to be working: Saudi tourist arrivals were down by 31% in the first five months of this year compared with last.
Many Arab regimes restrict where their citizens may travel. In 1989 a Thai labourer stole jewellery from the palace of a Saudi prince, a caper known as the “blue diamond affair”. Three Saudi diplomats were then murdered in Bangkok in murky incidents that may or may not have been connected with the theft. The kingdom promptly banned its nationals from visiting Thailand. Most of the jewels were returned. But the prohibition remains in force. Last year Thailand saw just 28,000 Saudi visitors, compared with 75,000 from much smaller Kuwait.
Cheap, Arabic-speaking and comparatively clement, Egypt has always been a popular destination for Gulf tourists. But Qataris now avoid it because of politics: Egypt was one of four countries to impose an embargo on the emirate in 2017. The embargo has even turned the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, into a political spat: Saudi Arabia and Qatar accuse each other of obstructing travel for Qatari pilgrims. The United Arab Emirates has forbidden travel to Lebanon since 2012, supposedly because of kidnapping risks. In 2011 some 32,000 Emiratis flew to Beirut. Last year fewer than 1,800 did.
In Egypt, citizens aged under 40 need state-security approval before flying to Turkey. The ban was imposed in 2014 to stop Egyptians from crossing into Syria to join Islamic State. That is no longer a worry. Yet the rule remains in place, as one woman recently discovered while trying to spend a long weekend in Istanbul with her foreign partner. (Airport police helpfully encouraged him to take the holiday solo.) Permits are also sometimes required for notorious hotbeds of Islamism like Georgia and South Korea.
By discouraging travel to Turkey, the Saudi government may hope to keep tourist rials at home. King Salman has set an example the past two summers. Instead of his usual visit to a palace in Morocco, he has taken staycations at Neom, a planned $500bn city on the kingdom’s north-western coast. The summer heat is no doubt unbearable, but on the bright side, there are no crowds at the beach: the city has no residents yet.