DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet has approved electronic visas for foreign visitors to attend sporting events and concerts, local media reported, as the world’s top oil exporter tries to diversify its economy and open up its society.
The conservative Muslim country has previously restricted visas to resident workers, business travelers and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to travel to holy sites.
Economic reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aim to lift total tourism spending in the kingdom — by local citizens as well as foreigners — to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015, the government has said.
Plans to admit significant numbers of tourists from abroad have been discussed for years, only to be blocked by conservative opinion and bureaucracy.
“Embassies and consulates will be able to issue the visas within 24 hours of receiving a request,” the daily Arab News reported Saturday, citing a Cabinet decision last week.
It did not specify when the visas will become available.
As part of the crown prince’s agenda, the kingdom has ended a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas, allowed music concerts, including performances by Western pop stars, and organized international sporting events.
However, dozens of activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested in an apparent bid to stamp out opposition to the crown prince, who has consolidated power including with a sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
Despite an international outcry over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October and the Saudi-led war in Yemen, some Westerners seized a unique opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia in December when the new visa system was implemented on a trial basis.