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Israel expects religious tourism to Saudi holy cities

Israeli Muslims could visit Saudi holy sites Unsplash/Ibrahim Uz
Israeli Muslims could visit Saudi holy sites as relations improve, believes tourism minister Haim Katz
  • Haim Katz attended event in Riyadh
  • 2m Israeli Muslims ‘will come to Mecca’
  • Saudi Arabia receives 16m annual visitors

Israel sees religious tourism among its Muslim population as a major benefit of a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, Israeli minister of tourism Haim Katz said in Riyadh this week. 

“Twenty percent of Israel is Muslim, two million, and they will come to Mecca easily,” Katz told AGBI on September 27 at a gala dinner in Riyadh’s historical Diriya district organised by the UN’s World Tourism Organization. “It’s important, a benefit.” 

Katz arrived in Riyadh on September 26 in the first public visit by a member of the Israeli government to the kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest sites, attending a UN-organised World Tourism Day event. 

He was granted an e-visa by the Saudi government, which opened the country to international tourism in 2019, fuelling speculation that a formal peace deal between the countries will come soon. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week told US network Fox that the kingdom was getting closer to a deal with Israel but he also said Saudi Arabia wanted the US to commit to a defence pact. 

Iran and Saudi Arabia exchanged ambassadors this year after a China-mediated rapprochement. 

“We need patience, slowly but surely – it’s an amazing beginning,” Katz said.

An aide added: “It’s only the beginning, we need to clear the political atmosphere but once the door is open it will be a lot from both sides.” 

US officials said this week that Israel has gained entry into the coveted US Visa Waiver Program, allowing Israelis to travel to the United States for 90 days without having to go through the time-consuming visa application process – an apparent US incentive for Israel to disregard its own reservations about a Saudi peace deal. 

Around 20 percent of Israel’s population are Palestinians – sometimes termed “Israeli Arabs” – and most of them are Muslim.

Most of the population in the Israel-controlled Palestinian territories are also Muslim, creating a religious tourism synergy with Saudi Arabia, where visits are still mainly for religious purposes. 

Saudi Arabia says it is now receiving nearly 16 million individual visitors a year but hopes to increase the number as a major part of efforts to expand its non-oil GDP by 2030. 

As Katz spoke he was greeted by a series of ambassadors coming to congratulate him on his visit.

“We wish to see more and more Israelis coming to Saudi,” Suhel Ajaz Khan, India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said, after Katz complained that India has not given Israelis easy e-visa access yet. 

Attendees later were served a six-course meal by British chef Jason Atherton at the open-air event, which aimed to showcase Saudi Arabia’s new openness.

It included operatic performances, dancing papier-mâché doves, and a string quartet that played Western pop hits.