Saudi Arabia has unveiled plans to transform its Red Sea coast into a luxury beach destination governed "by independent laws."
According to a document reported by Bloomberg, the development will be a "semi-autonomous" area within the kingdom, leading to speculation that the kingdom's traditional rules on dress and prohibition on alcohol will not be applied.
The document said the area will be ruled "by independent laws and a regulatory framework developed and managed by a private committee."
But beyond potentially challenging the kingdom's conservative laws, the project will be truly massive, covering 34,000 square kilometers – including 50 islands. This means it will span an area bigger than the country of Belgium.
The project aims to transform Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline into a global tourism hotspot, with luxury hotels and pristine beaches. Work on the project is expected to start within two years and it will be funded by the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund.
According to reports, the area will not require visas or will grant visas on arrival, making it easily accessible to travelers from around the world. It is also expected to add some $4 billion to the Saudi economy annually while creating 35,000 jobs.
Under Saudi Vision 2030, a key goal is to increase the number of tourists in the kingdom. Currently, while millions travel to Saudi Arabia each year, this is primarily for religious tourism to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
Ever since the ambitious Vision 2030 was revealed, many have been speculating how the kingdom will open up to encourage non-religious tourists. The Red Sea development could clearly bring plenty of beachgoers to the kingdom, but it all hinges on how things move forward.
"If you can’t change restrictions on alcohol and dress, that market disappears," Crispin Hawes, a London-based managing director at Teneo Intelligence, told Bloomberg, referring to foreign tourists.
A Saudi political commentator explained that the kingdom is purposely waiting two years to start the project.
"We are waiting for social change within the upcoming two years before we start the project. Let the people talk about it, discuss it," Saeed Al Wahhabi said.