In Part I of this two-part series, we saw Saudi’s modern face ready to attract millions of would-be tourists to unspoiled patches of land.
But Saudi is after all an iconic and sacred land for pilgrimage and that aspect has not escaped Saudi’s leadership who aim to capitalize on this by expanding, and modernizing religious tourism.
And Saudi’s cultural heritage sites are suddenly telling the rich history of the kingdom like never before.
Pilgrimage sites and religious tourism
The Saudi government has taken on tourism projects to lessen dependence on oil, but investments in certain sacred areas, and the deep pockets of Saudi’s coffers may prevent private real estate developers from getting involved, according to Reuters.
In October 2017, Saudi’s PIF said it was forming two real estate development firms to boost the capacity of Mecca and Medina to receive pilgrims, in projects expected to create billions of dollars of business.
“The government is mobilizing the fund, believed to have about $180bn of assets, to lead urban development and industrial projects around the country, even as the PIF manages stakes in top Saudi companies and makes foreign investments such as last year’s purchase of a $3.5 billion stake in Uber,” Reuters reported.
“The scope of the PIF’s activities has caused concern among some private Saudi businessmen. The reforms aim to stimulate the private sector but with so many huge projects going to the PIF, some businessmen fear they could be crowded out by the deep-pocketed fund.”
The PIF said the first phase of its development of an area near the Grand Mosque in Mecca would cover 9.1 million sqft and deliver 115 buildings and will include 70,000 new hotel rooms and 9,000 housing units.
Construction started with the first phase expected to open in 2024. By 2030, the area will contribute $2.1bn annually to gross domestic product, the fund said.
It also plans to develop 14 million sqft near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, adding 500 housing units and 80,000 hotel rooms, PIF said.
Expanding Islamic tourism is a top goal of Saudi reforms, which seek to develop non-oil income to transform the Saudi from an oil dependent economy to one that relies on private sector development.
The PIF did not reveal how much money it would invest, how it would award contracts, or the extent to which private investors would be brought in, Reuters said.
“Riyadh has said it wants to involve private capital in major projects to reduce pressure on state finances, but in many cases a legal framework for such ventures has not yet been created.”
Saudi bin Laden Group, a leading contractor has been facing a crisis stemming from a crane crash at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where the original expansion, led by the group, was taking place, and which caused loss of life in the dozens in September 2015.
While the company was cleared of responsibility, it left a bitter taste with Saudi authorities and its CEO Bakr Bin Laden’s whereabouts are still not clear after being detained in the November 4, 2017 anti-corruption probe.
News of his settlement with the government came with the announcement that certain assets were ceded.
Tourism and heritage projects
In august 2016, more than $6.9bn of tourism projects were approved by Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Program on Sunday, according to Arab News.
The NTP is part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy away from oil.
The NTP committee has approved 13 initiatives run by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Arab News reported, although it did not disclose full details of the projects.
They are understood to focus on preserving the Kingdom’s national heritage. The NTP has already stated that it intends to support cultural initiatives such as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for the Care of National Heritage and Culture, and fund the development of heritage sites, museums, handicrafts centres and other places of national interest across Saudi Arabia.
“Additional support and funding will be allocated to help develop museums and exhibitions that were previously approved by the NTP but are still awaiting funding,” said Arab News.
In particular, the NCP aims to develop tourist sites including Jazr Forsan, Souk Okaz city in Taif, Al Ula and Al Ra’as Al Abyadh in Madinah, the newspaper said.
The committee plans to work with the Ministry of Finance to provide a further $810 million) of funding to hotel, tourism and heritage projects in the Kingdom, including interest-free loans to investors working in tourism projects.
Among other PIF projects, the fund said it would lead the $4.8bn redevelopment of Jeddah’s waterfront corniche.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) recently announced that nine projects will be awarded across the Kingdom at costs amounting to more than $115.4 million.
The commission said that another five projects will also be awarded within the SCTH cultural heritage projects that will cost more than $373 million.
These new projects include the establishment of new museums, development of existing ones, expansion of the National Museum, maintenance, fencing and posting of awareness notices in the archaeological and heritage sites in addition to other projects to rehabilitate a number of archaeological sites across the Kingdom.
The program for cultural heritage in the Kingdom now has 230 projects.
The new projects include the design of museum exhibitions; executive plans for the rehabilitation of Al-Saqqaf Palace in the Makkah region; expansion and development of the National Museum (first phase); design and preparation of the executive plans of the SCTH regional museums in Dammam, Tabuk, Baha, Hail, Jouf, Najran and Asir; museum projects in Al-Qasim, Arar, Tima and Ahsa, and the railway museum in Madinah; the rehabilitation project of Khuzam Palace and other historic and heritage buildings in Ahsa; and the rehabilitation of ten heritage buildings in Yanbu (first phase).
The projects also include the rehabilitation of the archaeological sites in al-Jouf Region, including five sites in Skaka Province and another two in Domat-al-Jandal Province.