Saudi National Day: the women ready to welcome the world to the kingdom

As Saudi celebrates its 89th National Day, we talk to three women from across the country who are helping to foster the kingdom's newest industry

Rawia Abdulrahim Alriffi is a First Officer with Etihad Airways and looks forward to her country opening its doors to tourists. Courtesy Etihad 
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Saudi Arabia celebrates its 89th National Day today, and there’s a chance that it could be the last year that the festivities are predominantly attended by Saudi citizens.

That's because the kingdom is on the brink of change. After decades of being closed off to visitors, tourism visas are imminent and Saudi Arabia is getting set to open to the world.

Culturally, the introduction of tourism will allow us, as Saudis, to share the beauty of our country and people

Inside this sprawling country awaits a wealth of treasures, ripe for tourists to discover. In Al Ula, travellers can explore the site of an ancient Nabataean village, the second-biggest such place in the world after Petra in Jordan. On the country's Red Sea coastline, tourists will be able to enjoy a seaside paradise that is set to rival the Maldives for its pristine islands and fascinating marine life. In the Tabuk area in the north of the country, tourists will flock to futuristic mega-city Neom, where shopping, entertainment and hospitality come powered by renewable energy and smart technologies.

Saudi Arabia has many places that are set to attract tourists from across the world when tourism visas are introduced. Courtesy Royal Commission for Al Ula

It’s an exciting time for the country and for the people who live there, especially those working to foster a tourism industry that is in its very early days. As travellers begin to visit the country from all across the world, a new sense of the kingdom is sure to develop. For Ashwaq Mohammed AlBabtain, one of the women working at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Development Company, that can only be a good thing.

“Culturally, the introduction of tourism will allow us, as Saudis, to share the beauty of our country and people, giving visitors a flavour of our warm and welcoming hospitality,” says the assistant manager.

Tackling global stereotypes

This Saudi National Day Ashwaq Mohammed AlBabtain is forward to exploring the country's natural beauty, something that is waiting for travellers to explore when Saudi tourism visas are launched. Courtesy The Red Sea Development Company 

The changes are all part of Vision 2030, an initiative to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy. As part of this, the country wants to become one of the world's top five destinations for tourists. Ambitious as this may be, the announcement of several new projects like a Six Flags theme park in a purpose-built entertainment district or a world-first wellness destination dubbed Amaala, are signs the country is taking the objective seriously.

People definitely don't think Saudi women can be pilots

For AlBabtain, the arrival of tourists from around the world will be an opportunity to help quash stereotypes about Saudi people.

“After living and studying overseas, I believe there’s a misconception that women in Saudi are suppressed. People believe that we are not allowed to travel or get an education, they assume we can only leave the house in a black abaya and we must always cover our faces. I explain to people I meet from overseas that this could not be further from the truth,” explains the 28-year-old.

The Red Sea Development Company is one of many projects set to usher in tourism in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy The Red Sea Development Company 

In her role at The Red Sea Development Company, AlBabtain champions sustainable issues and works closely with the environment team. With the project being built across an archipelago of more than 90 islands, conservation has been a critical part of the development, which will fit well with today's travellers who are becoming ever-more eco-conscious,

As one of the very first female employees at the company – she was number 34 on the payroll – AlBabtain is excited to be part of the very first tourism offerings in her country.

“To be a part of a Vision 2030 giga-project that is a pioneer in luxury, sustainable tourism, while contributing to Saudi Arabia’s growth and development is an opportunity that I cherish,” she says.

Introducing Saudi Arabia's natural beauty

A hiker in Saudi Arabia's mountain canyons. The Kingdom is set to launch tourism visas imminently. Courtesy The Red Sea Development Company

“When people think of Saudi Arabia, they don’t usually think about our beaches and our coral reefs, not to mention the wildlife such as turtles, dugongs and hundreds of species of birds,” AlBabtain says.

“Travellers will soon experience first-hand our nation’s natural diversity, our pristine beaches and lagoons and our desert landscapes, dotted with mountain ranges and volcanoes.”

That natural beauty is something that AlBabtain plans to enjoy today, as she celebrates Saudi National Day with her family. Born and raised in Riyadh, her family roots are in Al-Qassim-Buraydah and that is where her National Day festivities take place.

“We are going to gather as a family to watch the fireworks and enjoy the very pleasant breeze. I’m also planning to explore the region with a group of friends and potentially go camping on one of the beaches,” says AlBabtain.

Rawiah Abdulrahim Alriffi is a First Officer with Etihad and will be celebrating Saudi National Day in the air. Courtesy Etihad Airways

A fellow Saudi woman working in the tourism industry, albeit based in neighbouring UAE, is Jeddah-born Rawiah Abdulrahim Alriffi. First Officer with Etihad Airways, she has been living in Abu Dhabi for almost eight years and loves the similarities between the UAE and her home country.

As one of the first Saudi women to carve out a successful career in aviation, Alriffi has been with Etihad five years and loves that her job allows her to fly around the world taking in many cultures and visiting foreign places. All this travelling has exposed Alriffi to some of the widely-held misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and the people who live there.

“People have several misconceptions, more than a few come to mind. They believe that we are all veiled, that we can’t talk to men or be open minded,” Alriffi says, adding with a laugh: “People definitely don’t thing Saudi women can be pilots.”

Moving towards Vision 2030

Alriffi is eager for her country to open to the world. “I’m happy that Saudi has big tourism plans for the future because it will help us improve our infrastructure, create job opportunities, reduce poverty, beautify our cities, bring people together from all over the globe and become more tolerant.”

“For many years Saudi was dependent on oil and now, with Vision 2030, it’s time for us to show the world our natural attractions such as the deserts, mountains, valleys, the Red Sea, and our cultural and heritage sites.”

'When people think of Saudi Arabia, they don’t usually think about our beautiful beaches, coral reefs and volcanos, not to mention the wildlife such as turtles, dugongs and hundreds of species of birds,' says Ashwaq Mohammed AlBabtain

Etihad currently operates 77 flights per week between the UAE and the kingdom, as well as daily seasonal flights to Medina. As Saudi's tourism industry begins to take flight, Alriffi’s schedule could be set to include many more flights to and from her home country.

This National Day, Alriffi isn’t the only Saudi woman that is up in the air. Captain Yasmeen Al Maimani, the first woman to fly a commercial plane in the Kingdom, is marking the momentous day by doing what she does best, flying a plane.

Having trained in Jordan and then the United States, Maimani swapped her US pilot's licence for a Saudi Arabian one in 2013, but struggled to find work as men had traditionally held most aviation positions in the country. Earlier this year, Nesma Airlines granted the aviator her commercial pilot’s permit and she has been happily flying across the country ever since.

Captain Yasmeen Al Maimani has opted to celebrate Saudi National Day by doing one of the things she does best, flying a plane. Courtesy Yasmeen Al Maimani

Maimani is looking forward to taking to the air more often as Saudi Arabia builds its reputation as a tourism destination. “Saudi Arabia has so many amazing places that you simply cannot imagine and tourism will allow more and more people see these destinations.

“As tourism in our country grows, it will also have a big impact on aviation. There will be more flights in and out of the Kingdom and more and better aircraft, enshallah,” said the 29-year-old.

Maimani is also keen to see more young Saudi people, especially women, considering a career in tourism and aviation. “I really encourage people to seriously consider Saudi tourism and aviation as an industry. Not only those who are keen to become pilots but for anyone looking to work in any of the industry’s multiple sectors. It’s an excellent way to show the world what the culture and landscape of our country is all about.”