The Dark Side of Saudi Arabia in the Eyes of Tourists

What comes to your mind about Saudi Arabia? A country in the Middle East that is home to a number of holy places for Muslims. The country is synonymous with Islamic law and is one of the largest oil producers in the world.

Behind its conservative and religious image, it turns out that Saudi Arabia has a surprising dark side. Especially in recent years, after tourism became one of the sectors to increase state income besides oil.

What do you think the dark side of Saudi Arabia looks like for tourists? Come on, check out the review!

1. Restrictions on freedom of expression and photography

5 Dark Sides of Saudi Arabia in the Eyes of Tourists, Stunned! illustration of tourists taking photos in a crowd (unsplash.com/jakobowens1)

You need to understand that Saudi Arabia is a monarchical country which is different from democratic principles like in Indonesia. Even though you come as a tourist, you cannot carelessly provide reviews, criticism, or photograph the objects you encounter while there. In fact, his government is often said to be anti-criticism.

Reported Conde Nast Traveler, tourists are unlikely to write critical opinions about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is important to note that criticizing the government, royal family, or Islam verbally, in writing, or on social media is an illegal act. Politics, religion and sex should not be discussed in public or on line.

You need to know that swearing at someone and using dirty words is considered an offense that can be subject to a fine. Rude body language is also a taboo subject that is considered an offence. So, you need to be careful with every word and action while traveling.

The most common violation committed by travelers in Saudi Arabia is taking photos without permission. Don’t take random photos of anyone, especially women without permission, take photos of accidents or crimes. Because it is considered illegal and can be fined up to 1,000 Saudi Riyals (Rp. 4,257,145).

Be careful when taking photos in crowds, such as traditional markets. Because, this place is easy to take someone’s photo accidentally. It’s a good idea to ask permission first before doing so hunting Photo.

You need to remember that being a tourist means being a guest. You must follow the rules of the country you are visiting. Like freedom of expression which is often thought to not exist in that country.

2. Restrictions for non-Muslim visitors

5 Dark Sides of Saudi Arabia in the Eyes of Tourists, Stunned! Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (unsplash.com/i_alorabi)

After King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s son, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) became Prime Minister, Saudi Arabia became increasingly open to tourists from various countries. In fact, they also collaborate with European countries and the United States. However, restrictions still exist for non-Muslim visitors.

Mecca remains the only city forbidden to non-Muslim tourists. As is known so far, Mecca and Medina are the two holiest cities for Muslims to perform the Hajj and Umrah. Millions of pilgrims will travel to Mecca each year and require religious visas.

Non-Muslims can still visit Saudi Arabia, but it’s best to choose a destination outside Mecca. If you are non-Muslim, but are interested in visiting Islamic religious tourism, you can visit Jeddah. There are four mosques that allow non-Muslims to enter, such as the Al Taqwa Mosque, the Al Rahmah Mosque on the Red Sea, the King Fahad Mosque, and the King Saud Mosque.

Culture shock What you can experience, especially for non-Muslims, is that shops and restaurants will close for 15-30 minutes when it is time for the five daily prayers. Although the new law allows many shops to remain open at that time. Playing music in the car or even at home during prayer is illegal.

Also Read: 5 Unique Facts about Al Ula in Saudi Arabia, which is Called the Cursed City

3. Shrouded in negative human rights issues

5 Dark Sides of Saudi Arabia in the Eyes of Tourists, Stunned! traditional houses around Souq Al-Alawi, Al-Balad, Jeddah (2008) (commons.wikimedia.org/Jpatokal)

Many countries in the Middle East are often associated with negative issues of gender inequality and human rights. Even influential countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, are not immune from this issue. The world view of human rights in Saudi Arabia has gotten worse since Muhammad bin Salman took office, especially by western countries.

Reported Amnesty International UK, more than half a million people in Jeddah have been forcibly evicted and their homes destroyed. The aim is to become a hotel and luxury building. It can indeed support the tourism sector, but it is a nightmare for the indigenous people who already live there.

Saudi Arabia executed 196 people in 2022. The largest mass execution in recent decades, authorities killed 81 people in one day. The country is ranked 2nd highest in the use of the death penalty. Pity!

The court is considered to be arbitrarily giving sentences, especially to foreign citizens. Detainees and migrant workers often experience acts of violence. The majority of the victims were Ethiopian and Yemeni.

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As previously explained, Saudi Arabia is known as an anti-criticism government. The murder case of journalist from Saudi Arabia based in the United States, Jamal Khashoggi after criticizing the Saudi Arabian government, shocked the world. His body was found in the garden of the Saudi Consul General’s house in Istanbul, Türkiye.

4. A number of regulations were removed to attract tourists

5 Dark Sides of Saudi Arabia in the Eyes of Tourists, Stunned! Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (commons.wikimedia.org/B.alotaby)

So far, Saudi Arabia has had the impression of being pious in the eyes of Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia. Now, you can think about it again and explore further. In fact, Saudi Arabia has relaxed and even removed a number of regulations to attract tourists.

Under the leadership of Prince MBS, Saudi Arabia will become a moderate and increasingly liberal Islamic country. Unfortunately, many new regulations are considered to be contrary to Islamic law. For non-Muslim countries this will be considered part of innovation and openness in the modern era, but for Muslim-majority countries it can be considered another dark side.

Previously, the rules regarding women’s rights in Saudi Arabia were very strict. Now, it has become looser and is still within reasonable limits for some people. Women have more freedom to leave the house, drive, and work in various sectors.

During this time women were prohibited from watching matches, fashion shows, and live concerts. Now there are no longer any restrictions for women to carry out these activities. Even several world artists, such as Nicki Minaj, Black Eyed Peas, Jason Derulo, and Super Junior

Previously, wearing tight clothing and wearing bikinis on the beach was prohibited. A number of commercial beaches in Saudi Arabia allow women to wear bikinis and other revealing clothing. In fact, tourists can pay for tickets at private beach to freely play in the water, dance and listen to music.

Cinemas reopened in Riyadh in 2018. The boundaries between men and women are getting thinner. In fact, nightclubs also opened in Saudi Arabia the following year, giving the country a glamorous feel.

5. Historical sites are destroyed for the sake of development

5 Dark Sides of Saudi Arabia in the Eyes of Tourists, Stunned! Abraj Al-Bait and the Kaaba (unsplash.com/konevi)

Another dark side that makes you shake your head is the many historical sites that have been destroyed for development. Reported Qantara, in 2021 large-scale demolitions were carried out in downtown Jeddah and several other areas. Many residential areas, apartments and supermarkets were demolished.

The local government claims that it wants to clean up the “slum” area. Areas south and east of the old town, Balad, parts of which have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites were affected. Architect Atef Alshehri has another view, the slum area in question is an environment that grows organically. They do not conform to modern urban planning principles, for example around Balad.

The area around Balad is inhabited by low-income families, in contrast to the area north of Jeddah which is dotted with luxury restaurants. Their ancestors came from southern Arabia, migrating from the African continent. They came as slaves or on the pilgrimage, then settled permanently outside Jeddah.

Reported The Art Newspaper, urban planning in Saudi Arabia not only has political and economic goals, but also the Wahhabi ideology adhered to by the kingdom. At least 90 percent of old areas in cities holy to Muslims have been demolished to make way for hotels, shopping malls and apartment blocks. This has been happening for decades, unfortunately public protests will not be visible in anti-criticism countries and demonstrations or similar are considered illegal.

Recent documentation will be difficult to find and has been carefully censored. News related to this damage also rarely appears, including in the British, American press and other international media. More concerning, the eviction of cultural heritage there has been authorized and planned by state authorities.

Development projects turned Mecca and Medina into cities without a past. Historic architectural elements and important sites have undergone many changes. Instead, it is dominated by modern skyscrapers. Although the aim is to increase the capacity of Hajj pilgrims, which increases every year.

The remains of the Ottoman historic center of Mecca and the Islamic sites within it were lost following the expansion of construction. The house of Hamzah, the Prophet Muhammad SAW’s uncle, which was more than 1,300 years old, was destroyed and converted into a hotel. The house where the Prophet was born, which existed since 570 AD, has also been demolished to make way for a skyscraper.

There are many more sites related to the Prophet’s family affected by development towards a modern city. The house of Khadijah, his first wife, the tomb of his daughter, Fatimah in Medina, and the tomb of his nephew, Hasan ibn Ali, were destroyed in the 1920s. The ancient house of Rasulullah’s father-in-law was torn down and the Hilton Hotel stood.

There is still more, the Ajyad Mecca Fort which was built by the Ottomans in 1780 on a hill overlooking the Grand Mosque was destroyed. Then, Abraj Al-Bait was built which became one of the tallest buildings in the world. Its functions are varied, including as a hotel, shopping center, astronomy museum, and viewing tower that can see the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba.

While Saudi Arabia can boast seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, none of them are Islamic monuments. Such as Al-Ahsa Oasis (2018), Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (2008), At-Turaif District (2010), Hima Cultural Area (2021), Jeddah which is the gateway to Mecca (2014), Rock Art in the Hail area (2015 ), and the Uruq Bani Mu’raid Protected Area (2023).

Saudi Arabia, especially Jeddah, can look like Dubai and is full of modern, futuristic buildings. However, historic buildings are increasingly being eroded and could make the country lose its identity. Moreover, the local government is aggressively pursuing future city ambitions, NEOM and Saudi Vision 2030 which could add to the negative impact.

Now you know the dark side of Saudi Arabia for tourists. Currently, the country is more open to individual and non-Muslim tourists. However, behind the luxurious accommodation that you can enjoy, there are local residents and lost historical sites. What do you think?

Also read: 10 tourist destinations in Saudi Arabia that must be visited during Umrah

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