Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Is Saudi Arabia Opening Up to LGBTQ+ Visitors?

Even though the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals may be a marketing ploy to boost tourism, it could have long-lasting benefits for Saudi society.

Saudi Arabia LGBTQ+ Visitors
The Groves entertainment park, Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

Dana Hourany

In a recent shift of events, Saudi Arabia‘s Tourism Authority Website has updated a new section in its Frequently Asked Questions page under the question: “Are LGBT visitors welcome to visit Saudi Arabia?” The answer to the question reads as follows:

“We don’t ask anyone to disclose personal details and never have. Everyone is welcome to visit our country.”

It is unknown precisely when the website was updated. The policy was in place prior to March 14, 2023, a Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) spokeswoman who talked with CNN said; but, the question and answer weren’t present on an earlier edition of the website.

This is a recent addition to a long list of societal and economic shifts that the kingdom has undergone in recent years. It should be noted, however, that homosexuality remains illegal in the kingdom, with regulations that are rarely implemented today.

These laws originate from Islamic Sharia law, which prohibits all sex outside of marriage, including same-sex sexual intercourse. Under this law, the maximum penalty is death.

Although Saudi Arabia appears to have opened up to the rest of the world in recent years as a result of its new ruler, Mohammad Bin Salman’s vision, experts argue that involving LGBTQ+ people may be a marketing ploy to attract foreigners rather than an indication of true societal change that takes time to manifest and requires new reforms and policies.

New changes to the Kingdom

After assuming leadership of the Kingdom in 2016, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) began the process of transforming a country that, until recently, was closed to modernization and most foreign visitors.

Women have been permitted to drive, travel alone, and attend athletic events since 2016, as well as follow less stringent hijab laws. Cinemas are no longer prohibited, gender segregation laws are progressively being lifted, the intensity of the call to prayer has been reduced, and businesses are no longer closed during prayer hours.

New tourist visa exemptions introduced in 2019 permit foreign men and women to stay in hotels together without confirming the status of their relationship.

In 2021, Pure Beach made its first appearance in Jeddah on the Red Sea, marking a turning point as the primary shoreline in Saudi Arabia where women are allowed to wear swimming outfits. In any case, certain conventional limitations continue to be upheld within the nation, such as the prohibition of alcohol.

In a later upgrade after the conclusion of the World Cup in Qatar in November 2022, Saudi Arabia and the UAE allowed visa-free passage to all ticket holders. This opportunity was seized by numerous fans who explored Mecca and embraced Umrah, the vital Islamic pilgrimage journey.

The kingdom has long struggled to attract tourists beyond those on a pilgrimage journey and was mainly a pilgrimage destination instead of a leisure destination. Additionally, past guests expressed concern about unwelcoming treatment at airport terminal migration administrations as well as a fear of the religious police, known as the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV).

In 2019, the Saudi Cabinet revoked the religious police’s privileges and mandated that they submit their reports to the police and security forces.

This all comes amid a flurry of ambitious reforms spearheaded by MBS’ “Vision 2030” agenda, described by its official website as “a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world.”

All comes at a cost

Although the Kingdom has relaxed laws and allowed more freedoms and rights for individuals, and currently hosts the Middle East’s biggest music festival, some setbacks remain.

At least fifteen writers, bloggers, and activists were imprisoned in 2019, and 37 detainees, including minors, dissidents, and the disabled, were executed.

Although the Kingdom has said that it would relax its death sentence laws, ESOHR (European Saudi Organization for Human Rights) has documented an alarming increase in human rights violations over the previous five years, including a brutal mass execution of 81 individuals on March 12 of 2022.

In terms of LGBTQ+ individuals, they are still subject to arrest and social stigma, while LGBTQ+ organizations remain absent, which limits the reports of discrimination.

According to Darren Burn, CEO of Out Of Office, a luxury travel planning service, and of Travel Gay, the world’s biggest LGBTQ+ travel platform, the move to welcome LGBT travelers could be a wise business strategy.

“Research shows they spend more money in any destination than heterosexual couples, and tend to travel more times a year,” Burn told CNN. “It’s a very interesting and lucrative demographic, and countries are plowing major revenue into [attracting] it.”

However, comfort levels for LGBTQ+ travelers visiting Saudi Arabia remain unclear. Burn said travelers prefer destinations like the Maldives and Dubai, and would require further reassurance from Saudi authorities before flocking in large numbers.

Proceed with caution

Nora*, a 29-year-old LGBTQ+ activist from Saudi Arabia, informed Fanack that this welcoming attitude is accompanied by limitations that will apply to non-cis passing individuals.

“People who present as non-binary or non-cis may experience a different experience,” Nora explained.” It appears that their welcoming attitude means that they will not question your sexuality if you do not make it obvious.”

Furthermore, Nora notes that the decency guidelines that apply to straight couples, such as the prohibition of public displays of affection, will apply to LGBT individuals as well.

“When going there, it is best to understand that you cannot be openly queer, such as by carrying a pride flag or wearing clothing that may be seen as indecent, or to have clear indications of your sexual orientation,” she said.

As a person who grew up during the days of MBS’ father, king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and during the era of the religious police, Nora sees these changes as making her country safer and offering a greater prospect for the future.

“A lot of criticism has been leveled at MBS and his imprisonment policies, where people who speak out can face life or even death sentences. However, for my generation, who grew up in a stricter era than this, what MBS is offering is much better,” she states, explaining that walking around with short hair would make her feel frightened of being harassed for her unconventional hairstyle in the days of Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Now, women are able to walk without hijab, drive, work, and live independently of their male guardians.

A long process

Even though Nora admits that this is another business strategy to attract visitors from around the world and boost the tourism sector, she points out that it could have long-lasting benefits for Saudi society.

“It is not within our customs that LGBTQ+ individuals are accepted, and within the country, the situation in urban areas differs significantly from that in rural areas,” she explained. “However, opening up to queer travelers may be one step towards developing an accepting and educated attitude toward LGBT individuals who are forced to remain closeted due to conservative social rules and taboos.”

Bertho Makso of the humanitarian NGO, Proud Lebanon, believes that this marketing strategy could be interpreted as pinkwashing if not accompanied by other serious reforms.

Pinkwashing is the act of promoting LGBT rights as an indication of liberalism and democracy in order to distract from or legitimize violence against other countries or groups.

Like Nora, Makso maintains that this is a positive step toward a more progressive future for Saudi Arabia, which needs to enact laws to ensure the safety of LGBT travelers.

“I am confident that their new welcoming attitude will attract white foreigners who perceive Saudi Arabia as a mysterious destination that has never been recognized as a tourist destination,” Makso told Fanack. “However, I doubt Arab LGBT people will react the same way.”

He went on to say that this was due to the lack of assurance and safety provided by MENA countries, where the attitude towards LGBT people is highly unpredictable and volatile. During Pride Month in June 2022, both Muslim and Christian religious groups targeted LGBTQ+ events and artwork in Lebanon, one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East.

“It is important to keep in mind that Saudi Arabia remains a conservative Muslim country that still needs time to fully advance in terms of the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens. The best course of action would be to remain cautious and aware of the facts until new laws and policies are in place,” he noted.

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