Before the oil derricks, the shopping malls, the Lamborghinis – even before the Saudi princes themselves – Jeddah was Arabia’s open curtain to the world. As long ago as the 700s, barely a century into the Muslim experiment, pilgrims flocked to the port on their way to the holy places of Mecca and Medina. By the turn of the millennium, the Fatimid caliphs had turned Jeddah into a lodestar for trade, buying pepper from India and selling frankincense to the Chinese. The Jeddans themselves became rich, building refined townhouses four storeys high, their windows framed by delicate wooden lattices, their courtyards cooled by fountains.

Jeddah is still Saudi Arabia’s second city. Yet over the last century, the ‘Bride of the Red Sea’ has seen the kingdom’s economic gravity move east, towards the oil fields in the desert that last year made the Saudis $49bn and accounted for 84% of their exports. But the energy boom can’t last forever. Even optimistic observers believe the bonanza will end in about two centuries – and that’s assuming forecasts about untapped supplies are even correct. Tipsy on the obscene profits of black gold, the peninsula’s rulers for decades paid this looming disaster no heed. Over the last few years, however, they’ve frantically begun to diversify their economy, investing vast sums in new jobs and high-tech industries. Tourism is central to this strategy, and why not? From pre-Islamic tombs to elegant mosques, travellers to the kingdom can uncover the whole story of the Middle East. More to the point, Jeddah may soon reclaim its title as a city of comings and goings. At the end of July, just across the bay from Jeddah’s now-crumbling old town, the MSC Bellissima puffed out from a new terminal, the first large cruise ship ever to leave a Saudi port. Working closely with local officials, the Italian operator plans many more trips, carrying passengers from Jeddah up the Red Sea on a seven-day tour to Jordan and Egypt. In time, Saudi Arabia may even be consolidated into the broader cobweb of Middle Eastern cruising – though the country’s idiosyncratic culture means it’s likely to stay isolated a while yet.

Gulfs apart

In the popular imagination, the Arabian Peninsula is a place bereft of water. The Empty Quarter shimmers to mind: a desert the size of Texas yet without a single oasis to quench your thirst. But travel far enough in either direction and you’ll find two of the most strategically important watercourses on earth. And though the Red Sea, to the west, is only now trekking down the road to cruising stardom, its eastern cousin has long enjoyed international attention. For years, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have welcomed operators like Aida and Celebrity, their ports on the Persian Gulf offering a gateway to the Indian Ocean. As Shaun Ebelthite, editor at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research explains, these smaller Arab monarchies were motivated by similar reasons as the Saudis themselves – moving their economies away from “a dependency on oil”.

Why has Saudi Arabia, with its 1,100 miles of Red Sea coastline and easy access to the Suez Canal, been slower to adapt? In part, the answer is cultural. Deliberately isolated by its fundamentalist rulers, until 2019 foreigners could only visit the kingdom for business or pilgrimage. Traditional tourists were essentially banned, while women couldn’t visit unless they were met at the airport by a husband or male guardian. The country’s ferocious penal code – there were 184 executions in 2019, which probably didn’t encourage tourism either. Infrastructure has traditionally been challenging too. Jeddah may have always been a commercial hub, but much of Saudi’s Red Sea coast is mountainous, lacking natural harbours. Ebelthite recalls the situation when Dubai started its own cruising experiment, with tourists forced to line up on an open dock before going through customs in a makeshift tent.

For someone as media savvy as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto head of Saudi Arabia since 2017, that image is unlikely to have been satisfactory. So it was that, as part of a $1.3tn investment in the post-oil economy, Saudi officials developed the Jeddah Islamic Port, capable of accommodating 2,500 passengers at once. Together with five other new ports, notably up the coast at Yanbu, and by 2028 Saudi’s Red Sea harbours may be welcoming 1.5 million punters. That’s echoed by a broad easing of the tourism regime. Single women are now allowed, while many Western visitors can easily apply for a visa online. As the government’s website puts it, the kingdom is finally “opening its doors” to the public. It likely helps, too, that Saudi Arabia has been so successful in the battle against Covid-19. Unlike its more dysfunctional Arab neighbours, the kingdom – at the time of writing – administered 31.6 million vaccine shots, or 90.79 doses per 100 people. To put that into perspective, Egypt has managed a rate of 6.4 doses.

“We’re very optimistic about further developments in the Red Sea and the Gulf as we look to retain our number one position in the region and see our share increase.”

Shaun Ebelthite, Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies


The growth of New Zealand’s cruise industry in 2018.

Stats NZ

Of course, these shifts are important key prerequisites for a buoyant cruise industry. But the actual draws of Saudi Arabia are impressive too. Achille Staiano, vice president global sales at MSC Cruises, is unambiguous. He describes the kingdom’s heritage as “extremely impressive”, claiming that travellers will easily be able to “go ashore and explore plenty of undiscovered destinations”. Glance at the Bellissima’s itinerary and it’s hard to disagree – even if you just limit yourself to Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic history. Hegra, for instance, is a Nabatean city built over 2,000 years ago. It may be practically unknown outside the peninsula, but its tombs are spectacular, carved so nonchalantly into the desert rock that they almost feel painted. From there, cruisers can tour the country’s rich Muslim heritage. That includes Al-Wajh, an old fishing town with houses made from coral, and Jeddah itself, with its medieval Shafi’i mosque. More active travellers have plenty to engage them too, with outstanding diving and sandy beaches right up to the Jordanian border.

Conservative estimates

How will cruises in Saudi Arabia actually work? For any other country, that question might feel unnecessary, even strange. But with the kingdom’s deep conservative instincts, MSC has had to walk on tiptoes as it approaches its Arabian adventure. That’s doubly important considering MSC’s national partners. Unusually, the Italian operator is organising its cruises with Cruise Saudi, a public body owned by the kingdom’s main investment arm. Given Cruise Saudi and its royal backers hope to generate over 50,000 oil-free jobs by 2025, and eventually transform Jeddah into a fully-fledged home port rivalling Dubai or Abu Dhabi, there’s clearly little room for manoeuvre.

In other words, though foreign media has lately been abuzz with the liberalisation of Saudi society, from women drivers to monster truck races, life aboard the Bellissima will still take traditional attitudes into account. “In respect of local customs, alcohol won’t be served during our ship’s calls in Saudi Arabian ports,” says Staiano, though he adds that they’ll be allowed once the ship enters international waters. This makes sense if you know the ship’s likely passengers. MSC has always insisted that it doesn’t want the Bellissima to become a foreign ghetto, instead hoping that half her guests will be Saudis themselves. As Ebelthite suggests, that immediately limits what the operator can offer, with conservative Muslims unlikely to be comfortable with too much dancing and boozing.

In a similar vein, the operator will need to educate Western guests about what’s acceptable once they go ashore. Even in the relatively liberal enclave of Dubai, after all, foreign guests have sometimes fallen foul of the drinking laws. All this speaks to a broader problem with marketing Saudi Arabia as a cruising hotspot: its reputation. Gentler visa rules aside, its fundamentalist leanings remain. After all, this is a country whose ruler is suspected of ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and where 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were born. That may be less of a problem with European cruisers, who Ebelthite argues are “less politicised” than their North American counterparts. But attracting lucrative American travellers, he suggests, could be the “largest hurdle” to MSC’s success in the country – though he adds that a cruise is still the best way to experience Saudi Arabia while still enjoying a ‘Western’ holiday.

“Drive and ambition”

Though the Bellissima is the first big cruise vessel to dock at Jeddah, it’s unlikely to be the last. MSC has many more Red Sea itineraries planned throughout the 2021-2 season, while Silversea Cruises plans to dock at the Jeddah Islamic Port too. At the same time, Ebelthite wonders whether cruises could be a good way for intrepid visitors to sip at the pool of Saudi culture – before returning for a longer drink later. Given how much the rugged interior of the country has to offer, from wild animals like leopards and oryx, to mountains 12,000ft high, he surely has a point, especially given cruises have already helped stimulate tourism across the other Gulf monarchies.

Staiano is similarly ebullient, noting that MSC soon plans to integrate the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia into its cruising network too. From this winter, the MSC Virtuosa will start calling at the Saudi port of Dammam, just north of Bahrain and within touching distance of the UAE. “The Middle East has, as we also have at MSC Cruises, real drive and ambition,” he says. “We’re very optimistic about further developments in the Red Sea and the Gulf as we look to retain our number one position in the region and see our share increase.” Might we even see a time when cruise ships sail round the whole peninsula, linking Jeddah in the west to more established ports in the east? Ebelthite certainly hopes so, adding that Jeddah’s midway location between the Mediterranean and the Gulf could bring some “much-needed diversity” to grand cruises east of Suez.

All the same, the Middle East often has a way of crumbling even the best plans to dust. Mohammed bin Salman may be desperate to turn his kingdom into the next Dubai, but a second Khashoggi-style assassination could yet render him an international pariah. Then there’s the question of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours. Sailing from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf sounds wonderful in theory. But if Iranian drones in the region continue to disrupt international shipping, operators may be reluctant to take the risk, especially if Covid-19 rears its sickly head once more. To put it another way, the future for Red Sea cruises seems buoyant, even if its bride has to wait a little longer to find her match.