The sky is clear, the sun is shining, and the sea is a glimmering turquoise. What better day to discover the underwater around a small, sandy island in the Red Sea that’s home to busy crabs and a few seagulls.
Jellyfish float near the edge of the boat in waters so translucent the fish are visible deep below. Nouf Alosaimi, a 29-year-old Saudi scuba diving instructor, is wearing a diving suit and a necklace with a silver charm in the shape of shark’s tooth, a nod to her nickname, Sharky. In the water, she wears a swim cap, but on the boat – the sole woman diver among a group of men – she goes bareheaded.
Out here in the Red Sea, it’s easy to forget this is Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim country where the vast majority of women cover their hair and face with black veils, wear long, loose robes, known as abayas, in public, are largely segregated from men and cannot travel abroad without the permission of a male relative.
The serene waters north of the bustling city of Jeddah are the scene of a dramatic experiment to encourage tourism in the reserved and traditionally closed kingdom. It’s exciting for Alosaimi on multiple levels. It’s bringing new opportunities for women, as a corner of the country is carved out with somewhat relaxed rules. And it’s opening up miles of untouched coastline teeming with unexplored seascapes for her and other divers.
“We are here on an island in the middle of the Red Sea. We want to discover this place,” Alosaimi said before her dive. “We may find this island beautiful for a picnic. We are creating a diving product here.”
Alosaimi, a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, is a pioneer in her field, holding a local record for the deepest dive by a Saudi female at 105 metres. The technical dive required five tanks and lasted more than 70 minutes.
Her passion for diving takes her on an hour-long bus ride to work each day from Jeddah to King Abdullah Economic City. There, she works at a dive centre recently opened at the Bay La Sun Marina and Yacht Club in preparation for the kingdom’s plans to open up to tourists later this year.
For decades, visitors to Saudi Arabia have largely either been pilgrims heading to Mecca and Medina or business travellers heading to the capital, Riyadh, or other major cities like Jeddah and Dammam.
Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to change that with the introduction of tourist visas. It’s part of a much larger plan to overhaul the economy in the face of sustained lower oil prices. Tourism is being promoted as a way to create more jobs for Saudis, attract foreign investment, boost the economy and improve the country’s image abroad.
Tourism official Salah Altaleb said the country isn’t targeting mass tourism, but select tour groups interested in nature, diving, hiking and cultural sites.
The government’s sovereign wealth fund, which the crown prince oversees, has identified a 200 kilometre stretch of Red Sea coastline that it plans to transform into a global luxury travel destination with diving attractions and a nature reserve. The fund says the area will be a semi-autonomous destination “governed by laws on par with international standards”, suggesting veils and abayas won’t be required for women.
The Red Sea is also the site of an ambitious US$500 billion (NZ$719 billion) project called “Neom” – an independent economic zone in a corner of the country near Egypt and Jordan that sits on 26,500 square kilometre of untouched land, an area bigger than the US state of Maryland. Prince Mohammed has said he envisions it as a hub for technological innovation that will create jobs and attract investment.
The prince is trying to shake off Saudi Arabia’s reputation as an austere country governed by a conservative interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. He’s brought back musical concerts after a two-decade ban, he’s promised the return of cinemas and he’s behind the decision to lift the ban on women driving this June. Opposition has so far been muted, but dozens of critics of the prince’s moves to consolidate power have been detained.
One lesser-known change has already had a huge impact on Alosaimi’s life. She says the Saudi Coast Guard no longer stops women from going out on boats without a male guardian, such as a husband, father or brother. Rather than do shore dives, she can now explore the waters freely.
Egyptian diver Tamer Nasr, who worked in Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh for more than 20 years, said it could take divers years to map out Saudi Arabia’s nearly 2000 kilometres of Red Sea coastline.
“They have here a huge area to discover,” he said, adding that divers from Bay La Sun Marina have already found a number of underwater wrecks and dive sites that could draw tourists.
Diving remains rare among Saudis. To connect with other female divers in Saudi Arabia, Alosaimi created a group called “Pink Bubbles Divers” and organised a day in Jeddah last year for women to dive together and enjoy a private day at the beach.
Once the ban on women driving is lifted this summer, Alosaimi plans to take a road trip with friends to discover new dive sites further north.
“I used to feel bad because I know the Red Sea in Egypt more than the Red Sea in Saudi,” Alosaimi said. “Now, I have the opportunity to see all these places, the reefs.”