Just enjoyed a fascinating visit to Saudi Arabia, a country where great change is taking place step by step.
This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there’s nothing like getting a first-hand impression. It was quite an experience to be there on the day that women were given the right to drive for the first time. In a country where women’s rights still lag behind the West, this was a huge announcement and a much-welcomed sign of progress and one welcomed by every woman we met. It’s one of many incremental reforms driven by Saudi-Arabia’s young and charismatic Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who, with his father, is committed to moving his country into the modern world, and bringing its citizens with him. From the vantage point of a foreign observer, much of this may appear too little, too slow. But I understand what Prince Muhammad is trying to do, and I think it is an enormously difficult job to promote change while reconciling the various forces that seek to pull this vast country in very different directions. More than half of Saudi-Arabia’s wonderful, charming and so incredibly hospitable people are under the age of 25, yet for most of its statehood, the country was held in the grip of an aging religious establishment whose hardline approach controlled much of private and public life.
During my visit, I had the chance to enjoy a fascinating tour of the Saudi Arabia that few people have got chance to see before. We were taken to the Red Sea, where a huge project to turn a giant lagoon into a beautiful tourism destination is underway. Covering more than 50 islands between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh, the project will also create as many as 35,000 jobs in an area remote from major cities.
Seeing this Red Sea Project up close, I was amazed at how completely untouched the landscape is. Standing on the islands, we could see turtles pulling themselves in and out of the water to lay their eggs, while eagle rays and dugongs swam past. It is a truly unspoilt ocean environment, possibly one of the last marine wonders of the world, and given the right protections, it could stay that way for decades to come.
This was the time for me to get into the Red Sea for a dip, before we visited the incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mada’in Saleh. I’ve been fortunate to visit Petra in Jordan, which is a ruin from the same ancient civilisation, but this was even more stunning. The surrounding mountains are a work of art themselves, with breathtaking colours and 131 awe-inspiring rock-cut tombs. I offered to arrange for some Virgin Balloons to go to the UNESCO World Heritage site, it would be so spectacular to see it from a hot air balloon.
As a kid if I was asked who my hero was, I would say Lawrence of Arabia. So it was a real treat to visit the railway that was once a target for Lawrence of Arabia in the revolt against Ottoman domination. The train I am standing next to was one that he blew up in the conflict, which has been restored back to the track.
It is so exciting that this side of Saudi Arabia is starting to come to light. At the moment Saudis travel abroad for their holidays, and there are few visitors who holiday in Saudi Arabia. It will be wonderful to attract visitors to marvel at the beauty of Saudi Arabia, and get to know its people too.