UNWTO’s Basmah Al-Mayman is helping open up the Middle East to the world

With almost 19 years’ experience in the tourism industry, Basmah Al-Mayman is a pioneer in her field and the first Gulf Arab national to represent the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) at a regional level. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 October 2020
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UNWTO’s Basmah Al-Mayman is helping open up the Middle East to the world

  • Tourism will emerge stronger than ever from the pandemic slump, says UNWTO Middle East Director Basmah Al-Mayman
  • Investments worth $810 billion form part of ambitious plan to transform Saudi Arabia into a major leisure tourism destination

RIYADH: With almost 19 years’ experience in the tourism industry, Basmah Al-Mayman is a pioneer in her field. The first Gulf Arab national to represent the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) at a regional level looks to the sector’s future in the Middle East with optimism.

The UNWTO’s plan to open a regional office in Riyadh — the first outside its global headquarters in Spain — shows there is growing recognition of the MENA region’s potential in this lucrative sector, Al-Mayman told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

“Choosing Saudi Arabia for the regional office was a good decision — right beside the largest tourism projects in the world, which are coming up in Saudi Arabia,” she said, referring no doubt to AlUla, Diriyah, Qiddiya, Amaala, the Red Sea Project and NEOM smart city among other developments.

 

“This is definitely an indicator of how high Saudi Arabia’s profile has risen in the UNWTO, besides reflecting the development of tourism as part of the Kingdom’s economic diversification plan.

“Tourism’s presence in the Vision 2030 agenda and the economic transformation plans reflects the Kingdom’s growing presence in world tourism.”

Investments worth $810 billion are expected to transform Saudi Arabia over the next decade into one of the biggest leisure tourism markets in the world, with the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund and Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) leading the charge.




Basmah Al-Mayman with the Saudi ambassador to Spain in Madrid on Saudi National Day in 2019. (Supplied)

Religious visitation will also continue to attract millions of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia each year for the Hajj and Umrah — which together add an estimated $12 billion to the Kingdom’s GDP per year.

The sector’s potential was aptly demonstrated by a surge in domestic tourism during the summer months of 2020, when coronavirus measures caused a steep decline in foreign travel. Domestic travel increased 31 percent this year compared with the previous 12 months, and local flights had to be augmented to cope with the demand.

As a result, the Kingdom’s hidden gems, like the island-dotted Umluj coast, the southern mountains of Abha and the scenic province of Asir, known for its breathtaking scenery and its year-round cool climate, are now squarely back on the tourist map.




Basmah Al-Mayman with the UNWTO Secretary General during his last visit to Aseer. (Supplied)

From her base in the Spanish capital Madrid, where she has served as Middle East regional director since 2018, Al-Mayman has devoted her entire career to developing the tourism industry — long before Saudi Arabia began opening up to the world.

“Saudi tourism and I both started out together,” she said. “I was very young when I joined the Saudi Commission for Tourism (SCTH) when it first started. There wasn’t an official structure for the organization nor was there an industry.” Given that there were very few women in the Saudi tourism industry back then (“actually less than five”), Al-Mayman says she is pleased with the turn it has since taken.

During her time at the SCTH, where she served on the board of directors, Al-Mayman fought hard to get Saudi Arabia’s precious historical architecture, including the awe-inspiring ruins of AlUla and Diriyah, registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites. She recalled these early struggles during a recent meeting of the G20 tourism ministers.

 

“Having these sites on the G20 table, for me personally, made me realize how far we have come and what we have been through in this industry,” she said.

Al-Mayman embodies much of the spirit that is driving the social changes sweeping Saudi society, including the empowerment of women. She is especially grateful to her mother for supporting her education and helping her realize her full potential.

THENUMBER

$12 billion

Religious visitation’s contribution to KSA GDP per year.

“Ever since I was a child my mom encouraged me to read and she was — God bless her soul — a very good reader and she encouraged me to be my best,” she said. “I am the only daughter in the family, but I was not raised as a girl. I was raised the same way my brothers were.”

Alluding to the oft-quoted words of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Oct. 2018. — “The Middle East will be the new Europe” — Al-Mayman said: “This is a regional ambition. I am just quoting the leader behind it. It is true. We can see it happening. Even now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our region is less affected and vulnerable for many reasons.”

 

Al-Mayman’s success saw her ranked 13th in Forbes Middle East’s 2020 “power list” of 100 businesswomen who are at the top of their game. She was also the only woman included representing tourism in the Arab world. But, as she pointed out, strong women are nothing new in the region.

“If we are speaking of this land, which is today known as Saudi Arabia, in Makkah we have Sayidah Khadijah (the prophet’s wife), who had a major role in her society and local economy in Makkah,” she said.

“If we go to modern history, when the Kingdom started, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman, the founder’s sister, played a major role in national relations. She represented the founder in many situations, where she would receive international women’s delegations coming for Hajj or other reasons.

“Also, we have so many great women in the fields of education and medicine. Saudi women never stopped working, never stopped contributing to their society, and never stopped contributing to their economy. I am just wondering why some countries think the role of Saudi women only started now.”




Basmah Al-Mayman with the King of Spain during the last edition of FITUR in Madrid in January 2020. (Supplied)

As for the Middle East’s tourism industry, Al-Mayman is confident even better days lie ahead. “I am very optimistic about the region,” she said. “Many of its countries are moving forward in tourism, moving forward in creating more decent job opportunities for both men and women and for the youth in general.”

Saudi Arabia introduced its new e-visa program in Sept. 2019 to help attract foreign tourists, but was forced to suspend the service with the onset of the pandemic. It will resume issuing tourist visas as early as Jan. 2021, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, the Saudi tourism minister, told Bloomberg last month — maybe even sooner if a vaccine for COVID-19 is found.

Al-Mayman is convinced tourism will bounce back much faster from the blow of coronavirus in the Gulf than in European and other advanced economies. “We are taking this pandemic seriously,” she said. “Therefore, the damage and loss are lower compared to bigger regions because we have much smaller populations and most of the countries in the region also have strong economies.”

Al-Mayman believes it is the responsibility of these wealthier Gulf nations to contribute their skills and knowhow to promote international development. “I am very ambitious and want to see more Arabs and GCC officials have more leading positions within the UN specialized agencies. We are one world, and we serve and help each other,” she said.

“It’s not enough to be a financial contributor. We also have people with talents and good skills who can also help the other regions in this world to make the planet a better place.”

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Twitter: @NoorNugali


US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

The North Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2024
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US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

  • The White House said it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region

WASHINGTON: The United States expects an attack by Iran against Israel but one that would not be big enough to draw Washington into war, a US official said late on Thursday.
The White House said earlier Washington did not want conflict to spread in the Middle East and the US had told Iran it was not involved in an air strike against a top Iranian military commander in Damascus.
The White House added it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region.
Suspected Israeli warplanes bombed Iran’s embassy in Damascus on Monday in a strike for which Iran has vowed revenge and in which a top Iranian general and six other Iranian military officers were killed, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
Iranian sources told Reuters Tehran has signalled to Washington that it will respond to Israel’s attack on its Syrian embassy in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily, as Tehran presses demands including a Gaza truce.
The United States has been on high alert about possible retaliatory strikes from Iran and US envoys have been working to lower tensions.
Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s military assault on Hamas-governed Gaza has since killed over 33,000 according to the local health ministry, displaced nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, caused a humanitarian crisis and led to genocide allegations that Israeli denies.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, waging attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, while declaring support for its allies.

 


Russia, Germany and UK urge restraint as Iranian threat puts Middle East on edge

Updated 12 April 2024
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Russia, Germany and UK urge restraint as Iranian threat puts Middle East on edge

  • “Iran should instead work to de-escalate and prevent further attacks,” said Cameron
  • Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that Israel would respond directly to any attack by Iran

MOSCOW: Russia, Germany and Britain on Thursday urged countries in the Middle East to show restraint and Israel said it was preparing to “meet all its security needs” in a region on edge over an Iranian threat to strike Israel.

The German airline Lufthansa, one of only two Western carriers flying to Tehran, extended a suspension of its flights to the Iranian capital and Russia warned against travel to the Middle East.
Iran has vowed revenge for the April 1 airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus that killed a top Iranian general and six other Iranian military officers, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday Israel “must be punished and it shall be,” saying it was tantamount to an attack on Iranian soil.
The “imperative for Iran to punish this rogue regime” might have been avoided had the UN Security Council condemned the strike and brought the perpetrators to justice, Tehran’s mission to the United Nations said on Thursday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was keeping up its war in Gaza but making security preparations elsewhere.
“Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We are prepared to meet all of the security needs of the State of Israel, both defensively and offensively,” he said in comments released following a visit to an air force base.

A view of the consular annex of Iran's embassy in Damascus, Syria, that was demolished by an Israeli airstrike on April 1, 2024, killing at least 13 people, including two Iranian Revolutionary Guards generals and five personnel from the force. (AP)

Iran has signalled to Washington that it will respond to Israel’s attack in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily, Iranian sources said.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that Israel would respond directly to any attack by Iran, Gallant’s office said.
Conflict has spread across the Middle East since the eruption of the Gaza war, with Iran-backed groups declaring support for the Palestinians waging attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, while declaring support for its allies.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian to urge “maximum restraint” to avoid further escalation.
Russia’s foreign ministry told citizens they should not travel to the Middle East, especially to Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
“Right now it’s very important for everyone to maintain restraint so as not to lead to a complete destabilization of the situation in the region, which doesn’t exactly shine with stability and predictability,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing.

‘Potential for miscalculation’
British foreign minister David Cameron said on Thursday he had made clear to Amirabdollahian that Iran should not draw the Middle East into a wider conflict.
“I am deeply concerned about the potential for miscalculation leading to further violence,” Cameron said on X.

 

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Secretary of State Antony Blinken called counterparts including the Turkish, Chinese and Saudi foreign ministers “to make clear that escalation is not in anyone’s interest and that countries should urge Iran not to escalate.”
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Iran was threatening to launch a “significant attack in Israel,” and that he had told Netanyahu that “our commitment to Israel security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is iron-clad.”
The US expects an attack by Iran against Israel but one that would not be big enough to draw Washington into war, a US official said late on Thursday.
Iran is the third-largest oil producer in the OPEC group and oil prices stayed near six-month highs on Thursday.
Late on Wednesday, an Iranian news agency published an Arabic report on the X platform saying the air space over Tehran had been closed for military drills, but then removed the report and denied it had issued such news.
Lufthansa said it would probably not fly to Tehran before April 13. Austrian Airlines said it was still planning to fly on Thursday but was adjusting timings to avoid crew having to disembark for an overnight layover.
Iranian air space is also a key overflight route for Emirates’ and Qatar Airways’ flights to Europe and North America.
Emirates, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Aeroflot and Air Arabia, among the airlines that fly to Tehran, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

 


US tells staff in Israel not to travel outside cities amid Iran threat

The US embassy in Jerusalem. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 12 April 2024
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US tells staff in Israel not to travel outside cities amid Iran threat

  • Israel has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory
  • US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Iran was threatening to launch a “significant attack in Israel,” and that the US remained committed to its ally’s security

WASHINGTON: The United States said on Thursday it had restricted its employees in Israel and their family members from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva areas amid Iran’s threats to retaliate against its regional adversary.
Iran has vowed revenge for the April 1 airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
“Out of an abundance of caution, US government employees and their family members are restricted from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv (including Herzliya, Netanya, and Even Yehuda), Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva areas until further notice,” the US embassy said in a security alert on its website on Thursday. “US government personnel are authorized to transit between these three areas for personal travel.”
Washington has a policy of informing all American citizens via such warnings when it updates security measures for its personnel in a country.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Iran was threatening to launch a “significant attack in Israel,” and that the US remained committed to its ally’s security.
Asked about the security alert, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller noted that Iran had been making public threats toward Israel.
“We conduct ongoing assessments all the time about the situation on the ground,” Miller said at a press briefing. “I’m not going to speak to the specific assessments that led to us to restrict our employees’ and family members’ personal travel, but clearly we are monitoring the threat environment in the Middle East and specifically in Israel.”

 


More aid is supposed to be entering the Gaza Strip. Why isn’t it helping?

Updated 12 April 2024
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More aid is supposed to be entering the Gaza Strip. Why isn’t it helping?

  • While Israel says it has dramatically increased the number of aid trucks entering the territory, UN workers report only a slight uptick — possibly because they count trucks differently

JERUSALEM: Under heavy US pressure, Israel has promised to ramp up aid to Gaza dramatically, saying last week it would open another cargo crossing and surge more trucks than ever before into the besieged enclave.
But days later, there are few signs of those promises materializing and international officials say starvation is widespread in hard-hit northern Gaza.
Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said this week she accepted “credible” reports that famine is now occurring in the area and urged Israel to take further steps to expedite humanitarian aid shipments.
Power’s remarks echoed those of US President Joe Biden, who said on Wednesday that Israeli efforts to increase aid were “not enough.”
While Israel says it has dramatically increased the number of aid trucks entering the territory, UN workers report only a slight uptick — possibly because they count trucks differently.
Here’s what we know about the aid entering Gaza, and why discrepancies in reporting persist:
HOW MUCH AID IS ENTERING GAZA?
Israel says that since Sunday it has transported an average of 400 trucks a day into Gaza and that aid is now piling up on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, one of two major crossings into the territory.
But Juliette Touma, communications director for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said that while aid workers have noticed a slight increase in the amount of aid entering Gaza, it’s nothing close to the surge Israel is claiming.
On Monday, UNRWA says 223 trucks of aid passed. On Tuesday, that number hit 246. On Wednesday, it was down to 141.
Meanwhile, only trickles of aid are reaching northern Gaza.
WHAT HAS ISRAEL PROMISED?
After Biden said last week that future American support for the war in Gaza depends on Israel doing more to protect civilians and aid workers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a series of steps. Biden spoke out after an Israeli airstrike killed seven aid workers delivering food to the strip.
Netanyahu pledged to immediately re-open Israel’s Erez crossing into northern Gaza — a pedestrian crossing destroyed by Hamas militants when they stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7. Netanyahu also said he would allow Israel’s port in Ashdod to process aid shipments and increase Jordanian aid packages through another land crossing.
But Israeli officials this week dropped the plan to open Erez. Instead, they say a new crossing will be built, though it is unclear when it will open. The Ashdod port, meanwhile, is not yet accepting aid shipments and Gaza aid groups report no significant increase in trucks received at their warehouses.
Before the latest Israel-Hamas war, some 500 trucks carrying food, fuel and other supplies entered Gaza daily. That was supplemented by fish and produce farmed within the territory.
Even that was barely enough in a crowded territory whose economy has been battered by a 17-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. The blockade, meant to keep Hamas from arming, restricted the flow of goods in and out of Gaza and contributed to widespread poverty and unemployment.
Scott Anderson, the acting director of UNRWA in Gaza, said the low levels of aid since the war started have compounded an existing, pre-war nutrition deficit in the territory.
“You have to remember, this was not a nutrition-rich environment before the war. The resilience was not there,” said Anderson.
WHY IS THERE A DISCREPANCY BETWEEN THE UN AND ISRAEL’S NUMBERS?
Israel and the UN count trucks arriving in Gaza differently.
Israel counts every truck it inspects and allows to pass into Gaza, according to Shimon Freedman, a spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli defense body in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs.
At the Kerem Shalom crossing, once the trucks pass into Gaza, the pallets of aid they are carrying are deposited in a 1-kilometer-long (a half-mile) zone for Palestinian drivers to pick up.
UNRWA only counts the trucks, driven by a Palestinian contractor, returning from that zone, Anderson said.
He also said that sometimes the trucks arriving from Israel are not fully loaded. Palestinian drivers on the Gaza side of the crossing load their trucks fully before passing through the gate — something that could further account for truck count differences.
WHAT IS SLOWING AID TRANSFER?
Getting from Israeli inspection, through the corridor and past the gate into Gaza takes time — and is made more arduous by the way Israel uses the Kerem Shalom crossing, Anderson said.
Since the war began, Israel has kept the crossing partially closed, Anderson said. Palestinian drivers must also wait for the incoming trucks to be unloaded — further narrowing the window of time allowed for pickup.
Aid inspected by Israel sometimes sits overnight, awaiting pickup. The UN says it stops all operations at 4:30 p.m. for safety purposes due to a breakdown in public order and airstrikes at night. UNRWA says they used to use local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah. Israel says armed Hamas militants have tried to siphon off aid.
COGAT denied allegations that they restrict the crossing’s hours or limit movement of trucks to pick up aid and blamed the UN for the backup, saying the agency does not have enough workers to move aid to warehouses for timely distribution.
WHAT HAPPENS MOVING FORWARD?
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday night that increasing aid efforts is a top priority.
“We plan to flood Gaza with aid and we are expecting to reach 500 trucks per day,” said Gallant. He did not specify a time frame for reaching that goal.
But even if Israel meets its goal, slowdowns at the crossings and convoy safety concerns may continue to hamper distribution. The UN has called for a return to prewar procedures — with additional terminals open and a significant amount of commercial goods, in addition to humanitarian aid, able to pass through.
“Gaza has become very quickly dependent on relief handouts,” Touma said. “The market has been forced to shut. This is not sustainable.”


No Security Council ‘consensus’ on Palestinian UN membership

Updated 12 April 2024
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No Security Council ‘consensus’ on Palestinian UN membership

UNITED NATIONS, United States: Members of the UN Security Council failed to reach a consensus Thursday on a bid by Palestinians for full UN membership, meaning the longshot effort is now likely headed for a more formal council vote.
The Palestinians, who have had observer status at the world body since 2012, have lobbied for years to gain full membership, which would amount to recognition of Palestinian statehood.
Any request to become a UN member state must first pass through the Security Council — where Israel’s ally the United States wields a veto — and then be endorsed by the General Assembly.
In light of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, Palestinians revived a 2011 UN membership application last week, prompting the Security Council to launch a formal review process. This included the ad hoc committee that failed to reach consensus Thursday and was composed of the council’s member states.
During its closed-door meeting “there was no consensus,” said Maltese Ambassador Vanessa Frazier, who holds the council’s rotating presidency for April.
However, two-thirds of the members were in favor of full membership, she said, without specifying which countries.
While the ad hoc committee can only move forward by consensus — loosely speaking, when everyone is in agreement — any Security Council member may now put forth a resolution for vote on the matter.
According to diplomatic sources, a vote could be held April 18, brought forth by Algeria which represents Arab nations on the Council.
Even if the matter were to receive the necessary nine of 15 votes, observers predict a veto from the United States.
Washington maintains the United Nations is not the place for hashing out Palestinian statehood, which it stresses should be the result of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“All we ask for is to take our rightful place among the community of nations,” Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour told reporters earlier this week.
The Gaza war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack against Israel left 1,170 people dead, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,545 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.