Back in September, before the disappearance and murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, I came across a story about a new electronic visa system introduced by the Kingdom that promised a lightning fast response: “Applicants simply need to complete their personal details online, upload a photograph and a copy of their passport, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will then confirm eligibility within seconds.”
It seemed almost too good to be true. For anyone familiar, as I am, with what has been an often cumbersome and lethargic Saudi visa process, one which invariably led nowhere, this was an offer too good to miss. Granted, there was a rider attached. The visas are tied to the purchase of tickets for a Formula E race in December in the town of Diriyah, north of the capital Riyadh. The E stands for electric. In a nod to environmental sustainability, all of the cars taking part in the race will be powered by electricity.
Diriyah, of course, is where the historic pact between the House of Saud and Muhammed Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab was agreed in 1744. The puritanical and strict Islam that Saudi Arabia follows, Wahhabism, has its roots there.
I have been to the town. It is an ancient and beautiful place, with ruins that are full of echoes of the past; deservedly, it has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site. One does wonder, though, as the electric cars race at breakneck speed around the old desert buildings, what the founder of Wahhabism would make of Formula E. It is a safe guess that he wouldn’t be a fan.
I am not a big fan of motor racing either. Still, it did seem like a good opportunity for me to return to Saudi Arabia. It would, I reasoned, be a chance to see how the Kingdom is responding to the wave of changes introduced by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, or “MBS”, as he is known. Under his all-encompassing tutelage, this is a country, we are told, that is open to foreign business and tourism; a tolerant society that has returned to a moderate Islam and is gearing up for the great day when it will be freed of its addiction to oil.
The authorities could not be more welcoming. As Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Turki Al Faisal, Vice-Chair of the Saudi Arabia General Sports Authority, put it: “I want them [tourists] to meet the people and to see who we really are. The best way for people to see the real Saudi Arabia is to come and this is their chance.”
So, at the end of September, I leaped at the invitation and logged on to the visa site. There is a form to fill out: name, age, gender, the usual sort of thing. And then I hit the nationality button. It is a drop-down menu with virtually every country in the world, even the tiny French possessions of St Pierre and Miquelon, listed. But where was my country, Canada? Nowhere to be found. Nor were Iran, Qatar or Israel an option. I was halted in my tracks. Without that piece of essential information my path to visa eligibility confirmation “within seconds” was blocked.
My visa and I were collateral damage, it seemed, in a diplomatic brouhaha that broke out in August after Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Minister had the temerity to criticise the arrest of Samar Badawi, the sister of the imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, and other women activists. Claiming infringement of their sovereignty, the Saudis recalled their ambassador from Ottawa, gave the Canadian ambassador 24 hours to get out of the country, and froze all new business and investment deals. They also ordered thousands of Saudi students studying at Canadian universities to come home and even banned the purchase of Canadian barley.
The self-righteous indignation of the Saudis simmers on, with Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir recently demanding an apology from Canada before normal service can be restored. “It is outrageous from our perspective that a country will sit there and lecture us and make demands,” he fumed, before adding sarcastically, “We demand the immediate release and independence of Quebec, (the) granting of equal rights to Canadian Indians.”
Al Jubeir’s fulminations about sovereignty would ring a tad less hollow if it were not for another country that also hadn’t popped up in the fast track visa programme nationality menu: Qatar.
For more than a year, Qatar has been subjected to a land, air and sea blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. Last year, the Qataris were presented with a list of thirteen demands that, had they accepted them, would have utterly compromised their sovereignty. Qatar sensibly rejected the demands and has effectively weathered the blockade, much to the chagrin of the Saudis and the Emiratis. No Formula E race for them, it seems.
And what about Iran? Well, yes, the Saudis do have serious issues with the Iranians as they struggle to meet the challenges posed by a growing tussle for regional hegemony. As for Israel, it is somewhat problematic for Saudi Arabia. However, much has gone on behind the scenes as the Israelis and the Kingdom seek common ground on the matter of Palestine and what to do about a problem called Iran. That being the case, it seems rather ungenerous of Riyadh not to let the Israelis enjoy an electric car race in the desert, not least because the country which calls itself the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites has no problem with other countries which attack Muslims openly: Myanmar has inflicted a genocide on the Rohingya and China is busy putting Uighurs into re-education camps and separating parents from their children. No matter, as far as the Saudi government is concerned; citizens of both countries are welcome to apply for a fast-track visa and enjoy the race.
However, in the wake of Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Bin Salman is struggling to re-establish the image as a moderate reformer that he has enjoyed in the west. Given what the Turks have already released about the killing and with the possibility of more to come, that image may well be damaged beyond repair. Still, he is pushing on, announcing boldly at Riyadh’s Foreign Investment Initiative on 24 October that “all our projects are on track.” Including, I presume, Formula E racing.
When, after weeks of prevarication, the Saudis finally admitted that the murder of Khashoggi was a pre-meditated attack carried out by government agents, the Kingdom went into full damage control mode. I logged back onto the visa site at the end of October and, lo and behold, both Canada and Qatar were on the drop-down nationality menu. Game on. Formula E here I come? I don’t think so. I am a critic of the Crown Prince.
Mohammad Bin Salman is in a bit of a race himself, fast gearing his country through rapid and, many would argue, highly reckless change. Glitzy events like Formula E not only exclude countries that the authorities in Riyadh don’t like but may also be leaving behind ordinary Saudis who are struggling to adapt to the speed with which their rash young prince is altering their lives. As he powers on, MBS would be well advised to check in his rearview mirror. He may be surprised at what he sees. Then again, in a reckless race of his own making, he may already be heading towards an unavoidable car crash.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.