A Saudi Arabian woman in hijab breathes deeply at a local beach. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

On August 1, Saudi Arabia announced plans for building luxury beach resorts on its Red Sea coastline. The Red Sea project will build luxury hotels, residential units and transport infrastructure on the Saudi coast, including on 50 islands.

The area which covers more than 180 kilometers of the coastline will have its own “semi-autonomous” legal status, and laws “on par with international standards.” In other words, to promote international tourism, it will not follow Saudi Arabia’s conservative and Sharia-based laws.

The plan comes in part of “Vision 2030”, a grandiose economic reform project which includes diversification away from dependency on oil. Vision 2030 has been heavily promoted by the state and is practically the initiative of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, promising a new era of non-oil based prosperity for the country.

The project will be backed by the government’s US$183 billion Public Investment Fund, which is scheduled to get a massive infusion of more funds next year with the share sale of state oil giant Saudi Armaco. the crown prince has promised to invest more than half of those funds into domestic non-oil industries.

The Red Sea resort is scheduled to break ground in 2019, with a first phase completed by late 2022. While it may sound great that Saudi Arabia utilizes its pristine and gorgeous coastline with pleasant year round weather, it will still be intrinsically problematic for the Muslim nation.

Saudi Arabia will have a hard time promoting itself as a beach resort tourist destination given its conservative image, but more problematic is how Saudis will deal with this schism.

Three weeks ago, a Saudi woman was arrested for uploading video on social media that shows her wandering in a miniskirt in an ancient fortress in Najd province. The footage was met with uproar on social media ultimately leading to the arrest of the young lady.

If she were to go to one of those luxury beach resorts, perhaps in a bikini, how would people react? Would Saudis be allowed to behave at the resort in a manner forbidden elsewhere in the country? How would the religious establishment react?

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman waves in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 11, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters

These are only a few of many difficult questions that will arise with this project.

Saudi Arabia’s primary political legitimacy has rested on a narrative of Islam. The House of Saud ruled in accordance with Islam and the followers of Muhamed ibn Abdul Wahab who fought to unify the Arabian Peninsula followed the political leadership of the ibn of Saud.

As long as Islam was strictly implemented, the House of Saud’s legitimacy has remained intact. Additionally, with the discovery of oil, the distribution of wealth became a power yielding force used to gain political loyalty. Political scientists have generally discussed this issue under the notion of the “rentier state.”

Unlike Mohamed bin Salman, the current de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, his predecessors ruled in a context where Islam played a much more vital role in political discourses.

In 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was occupied by hundreds of militants led by Juhayman al-Otaybi. It took two weeks to crush the rebellion which was based on the claim that the House of Saud had betrayed Islam and become corrupt. It is said that Saudi authorities later empowered the religious establishment as a counter-measure to boost its legitimacy.

In Saudi Arabia, Islam has been the primary discourse in maintaining political order. It was at the heart of political discourses in countering the expansive Iranian revolution and the proclaimed reason behind support against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Those days may be long gone, but they still carry the essence of political legitimacy in today’s Saudi Arabia.

A stock image of the pilgrims walking around the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

But the country isn’t like it was before. The “war on terror” brought heavy constrictions on Islamic charities and activities. The once generous scholarships offered to international students of Islamic studies who study in Mecca and Medina have been heavily curtailed, as has the authority once given to the “religious police.”

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s stance against the Arab Spring which raised democratic aspirations across the region and its more recent embargo on Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (which it once supported and hosted) has all made Saudi Arabia’s image inconsistent with the one it once promoted for itself.

Given Saudi Arabia’s large budget deficit as a result of dwindled oil prices and general declining standard of living, there will be no incentive to avoid social unrest with the main form of legitimacy eroded away.

This is perhaps why Arabism has been invoked more recently, with the Crown Prince wanting to reinvent Saudi’s image through museums that expose its pre-Islamic history. He has said Yemen is “the bedrock of Arabism” and as such needs to triumph in its war.

Perhaps transforming the basis of political legitimacy might work elsewhere in a country which doesn’t host Islam’s two holiest sites, but for Saudi Arabia it will be very difficult.

The ban on women driving, which Saudi Arabia is famous for, is perhaps not so much about the act itself but is seen as a last line of defense that still maintains some influence of the old conservative vanguard that built Saudi Arabia.

the country may have heavily changed its policies on Islamic issues, however, it has not radically affected its population at home.

A veiled Saudi woman watches teenagers riding jet skis on the water in the Saudi city of Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, Photo: AFP/Omar Salem

That is why the initial harsh criticisms for the only mixed university in Saudi Arabia – King Abdullah University for Sciences and Technology (KAUST), established in late 2009 – eventually faded away. It is in a secluded area on the Red Sea mostly operated by expats in a closed community where women can drive and dress as they please, but out of mind and out of sight.

However, from time to time videos of events there have been shared on social media have drawn criticism. Yet KAUST is primarily for education and not tourism, and is quite secluded and shielded from the public eye.

The Crown Prince has complained about the US$22 billion spent annually by Saudi citizens on tourism abroad. The Red Sea project is his response to encourage more domestic tourism. Yet it won’t be secluded from Saudis with plans to generate up to as many as 35,000 jobs. The Saudi government hopes it will attract a million visitors a year by 2035.

It will be hard to miss such large numbers of frolicking tourists, unlike the small expat compounds in Saudi Arabia which have attracted terrorist attacks in the past. Should Saudis wake up one day and find their western coast in naked contradiction with the rest of the country, it will likely not bode well for the Saudi regime’s future legitimacy.

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