In a sudden shift, Saudi Arabia is now claiming to ‘welcome’ LGBTQ+ tourists– despite their horrific track record of LGBTQ+ rights violations.
The Saudi Tourism Authority recently updated its tourism website, confirming that authorities do not ask for personal details in this regard. The website’s help section now lists the question “Are LGBT visitors welcome in Saudi Arabia?” The response reads: “We don’t ask anyone to disclose personal details and never have. Everyone is welcome to visit our country.”
This move is the most recent in a series of social changes that the country is implementing, ushered by the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman– although it’s still hard to determine how Saudi Arabia is treating its own queer residents.
Homosexuality remains illegal in the middle eastern country– the birthplace of Islam governed by an interpretation of Sharia law. There have been reports of LGBTQ+ Saudis fleeing their countries in fear of execution. And international LGBTQ+ rights groups find it extremely difficult to determine the extent of discrimination they face, due to a lack of pro-LGBT organisations within the country.
In its most recent report on human rights in Saudi Arabia, the US State Department said there were “no known prosecutions under these laws” in 2021 “except when individuals posted photos of so-called cross-dressing on social media”.
Despite the lack of information, it’s doubtful that this tiny change in their tourism policy actually signals a new beginning. Over recent years, Saudi Arabia has taken a step in a more progressive direction to make itself more approachable to foreign visitors. They introduced cinemas, sidelining of the religious police and all-night desert raves. In 2018, the Gulf Kingdom lifted its ban on women driving. However, several activists campaigning for a woman’s right to drive were arrested shortly before the decision. The same year, they announced women would no longer be required to wear an abaya — a long article of clothing that covers the body from head to toe.
Other answers under the tourism website’s help and support section state that they welcome unmarried couples in the country but must act in a “culturally sensitive manner” and women must wear modest clothing on public beaches. Before this change, the law prohibited men and women from living together unless they are “mahram,” an Arabic term referring to close family members or spouses. Although, authorities turned a blind eye to foreign couples living together even then. In January, Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Saudi Arabia to play for the Al Nassr Football Club. Ronaldo lives there with his girlfriend, Georgina Rodriguez.
Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries where homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty. LGBTQ+ activists and public figures have faced persecution including lashings and imprisonment for offending “public morality” by being LGBTQ+ publicly.
Authorities never even announced this official change to its tourism policy, the news caught wind only as Twitter accounts took notice of this silent update. The country has received international negative attention, especially in recent years. So it’s not hard to tell why they’re more lenient on foreign visitors than on their own residents.