Saudi Arabia’s new heir to the throne has announced plans for a beach resort where special laws will allow women to wear bikinis instead of covering up their skin.
As part of his drive to modernise the Saudi economy, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has unveiled plans for a luxury Red Sea resort on a stretch of coast line in the country’s northwest.
Knowing that foreign visitors are unlikely to come to beaches where women are forced to cover up in an abaya – a robe-like dress – the government said the resort will be “governed by laws on par with international standards”.
Saudi Arabia’s own laws on women are among the most repressive in the world, with women banned from driving and unable to travel without permission from a male relative.
Women are expected to cover their skin and hair when they are outside, although the laws are not uniformly enforced. Last month, a young woman was arrested for wearing a miniskirt in an abandoned village.
Alcohol is banned under Saudi law and it is not clear if it will be allowed on the resort.
Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund described the project as an “exquisite luxury resort destination established across 50 untouched natural islands”.
“The Red Sea project will be a luxury resort destination situated across the islands of a lagoon and steeped in nature and culture.
“It will set new standards for sustainable development and bring about the next generation of luxury travel to put Saudi Arabia on the international tourism map,” the fund said.
Construction is set to begin in 2019 and the first phase of the project will be completed by 2022, according to the announcement. It hopes to host a million visitors a year by 2035.
The Red Sea project is part of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 – a plan to diversify the Saudi economy and wean it off its dependence on oil.
Some foreign investors have applauded the young prince, who is often referred to by his initials “MbS”, but others have said the plan is unlikely to succeed.
Saudi Arabia may seen an opening in the tourism market as neighbouring Egypt struggles to convince foreigners that its own Red Sea resorts are safe.
The Egyptian holiday area has been wracked by a number of attacks in recent years, including the bombing of a Russian airliner that took off from Sharm el-Sheikh. Visitor numbers have slumped as a result.
The Saudi statement stressed that the project “will be an extremely safe and secure environment that will ensure the protection of all visitors in accordance with the highest international best practice”.
Most foreigners will be able to fly straight into the tourism zone without a visa, another easing of Saudi law designed to make the resort more attractive.
Prince Mohammed was elevated to the role of crown prince in June after his older uncle, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was stripped of the role.
Prince Mohammed is the son of the current king, Salman, and already has broad authority over the kingdom’s economy as well as its defence and foreign policies.
A spokesman for the public investment fund did not respond to a request for comment.