Saudi Arabia′s Red Sea divers explore the coast | DW Travel | DW | 28.03.2018
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Saudi Arabia's Red Sea divers explore the coast

The sky is clear, the sun is shining, and the turquoise sea is glimmering. Nouf Alosaimi is on a discovery dive around a small, sandy island in the Red Sea that's home to scuttling crabs and a few seagulls.

Jellyfish float near the edge of the boat in waters so translucent that the fish swimming deep below are clearly visible. The 29-year-old Saudi woman is wearing a diving suit and a necklace adorned with a silver charm in the shape of shark's tooth. It's a nod to her nickname, "Sharky." The wears a swim cap and diving suit in the water. The sole woman diver among a group of men, in the sea, she's momentarily free from the edicts that govern life on shore.

New opportunities for women

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 faces with black veils and wear long, loose robes, known as abayas. In public, women 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 Jiddah are the setting for a dramatic experiment to encourage tourism in the traditionally reserved kingdom. For Alosaimi, it's exciting on multiple levels. It's bringing new opportunities for women, as rules relax in this corner of the country. It's also opening up miles of untouched coastline teeming with unexplored seascapes for divers.

Tourismus in Saudi-Arabien (picture alliance/AP/A. Nabil)

Nouf Alosaimi off a sandy island in the Red Sea

"We are here on an island in middle of the Red Sea. We want to discover this place," Alosaimi said before her dive. "We may find that his island is beautiful for a picnic. We are creating a diving product here."

Alosaimi, a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, is a pioneer in her field. She holds  a local record for the deepest dive by a Saudi female: 345 feet (105 meters). This 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 Jiddah to King Abdullah Economic City. There, she works at a recently opened dive center at the Bay La Sun Marina and Yacht Club in preparation for the kingdom's plans to open up to tourists later this year.

Targeting Tourism

For decades, most visitors to Saudi Arabia have either been pilgrims heading to Mecca and Medina or business travelers heading to the capital, Riyadh, or other major cities like Jiddah and Dammam.

Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to change that by introducing tourist visas. It's part of a much larger plan to overhaul the economy in the face of 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 rather select tour groups interested in nature, diving, hiking and cultural sites.

"Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country that hosts the two holiest sites in Islam, and this fact need to be respected whenever (tourists) travel around, enjoy themselves and engage with people," he said.

Tourismus in Saudi-Arabien (picture alliance/AP/A. Nabil)

Saudi Arabia has the longest coastline of any country along the Red Sea.

The government's sovereign wealth fund, which the crown prince oversees, has identified a 125-mile stretch (200 kilometers) of Red Sea coastline that it plans to transform into a global luxury travel destination, complete 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 $500 billion project called "Neom" - an independent economic zone in a corner of the country near Egypt and Jordan that sits on 10,230 square miles (26,500 square kilometers) of untouched land. Prince Mohammed 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, promised the return of movie theaters, and is 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.

An area to discover

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. Instead of only being allowed to do shore dives, she can now explore the waters freely.

Tourismus in Saudi-Arabien (picture alliance/AP/A. Nabil)

Nouf Alosaimi prepares to dive with Tamer Nasr, an Egyptian diving instructor near King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia.

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 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) 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.

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."

Aya Batrawy, Fay Abuelgasim (AP)