Opinion

Behind the big screen, it is more than movies

Behind the big screen, it is more than movies

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In one of the villages of the Tabuk region in northwestern Saudi Arabia, 14-year-old Omar seemed confident about an on-screen character he would portray in an international movie being filmed nearby.
The teenager, who had never acted or attended the shooting of a film or TV series, finally found his passion when the movie’s producers descended on his hometown. He coincidentally caught the eye of the director and his assistants, who discovered an ambitious and raring-to-go talent, which paved the way for him to act alongside A-list movie stars.
The film’s producers found in Tabuk and NEOM an ideal location to shoot, given the area’s rich landscape as well as the geographical, natural and cultural opulence on offer. It not only provided an opportunity for 650 Saudi artists to take part as background actors but opened the doors for many local technicians to participate in the international venture and rub shoulders with international moviemakers.
Saudis made up more than 20 percent of the permanent film crew, from start to finish. The movie gave a massive boost to the local economy, as benefits trickled down to more than 90 Saudi firms and 80 trainees, in addition to 80,000 nights being booked at local hotels in the Tabuk region and elsewhere during the shooting period.
All of this is just for a single movie — and many international producers are currently working hard to produce several future blockbusters in Jeddah, NEOM, AlUla, Riyadh and other Saudi locations. This means a flurry of big opportunities for a promising industry in a cinema-loving nation that offers breathtaking locales for shooting, a passionate and skilled local talent pool, a culture that welcomes guests from the depths of the heart, and a diversity that is rich and unique in its natural and artistic composition.
In another global Hollywood production, which is filming at 24 different locations in Jeddah and AlUla, more than 100 Saudi actors found an opportunity to appear in the movie as background actors, and locals accounted for 10 percent of the permanent film crew. Added to that, a Saudi company and a British firm registered in the Kingdom participated in the production activities for the movie. More than four international actors took part in the film’s shoot for months on end, during which time they visited various events.
These two movies together conducted more than 1,000 auditions, which helped to uncover promising local talent for the future.
All of these gains and strengths have been rediscovered through the progressive and developmental vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His vision allowed us to unearth finer details that were unknown to us until now, and with his continuing support and empowerment our culture and national identity will rise and propel our country to occupy its deserved position as a global leader across various sectors.
The tireless activity of the production teams, artists and creative professionals in the Kingdom’s various regions began to leave an all too evident footprint in the movie industry as soon as the ball started rolling on film production in our country.
However, there are also various sectors that function outside the spotlight that have benefited from the positive impact of these ventures. They include film production companies, film equipment suppliers, talent agencies, freelancers, tourist guides, hospitality entities, modern and heritage tourist sites, restaurants, entertainment activities, legal consultancies, financial and banking services, logistical and transportation services, and every other sector that has gained, financially or otherwise, during the shooting and production phases of these movies.

Cinematically, many directors prefer to shoot at Saudi locations thanks to their natural and cultural lure and urban splendor.

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud

Cinematically, many directors prefer to shoot at Saudi locations thanks to their natural and cultural lure and urban splendor. When you turn your gaze toward the north of the Kingdom you will be mesmerized by the archaeological details of Hegra city in AlUla, the Red Sands Mountains, Nazar Fort and Al-Shareef Market in Khaybar, the Georgios G. shipwreck in crystal-clear waters off Haql beach, Wadi Al-Disah in Tabuk, Wadi Tayyib Al-Ism in Magna, the Yellow Sands Mountains in Jeddah, and the Marid Castle and other historical monuments in Al-Jouf.
When you head east, you will wax lyrical about Al-Ahsa Oasis, the largest palm-tree oasis in the world, soak in the beauty of Qaisariah Traditional Souq in Al-Hofuf, Al-Koot Heritage Hotel in Ogair Ancient Port, the white sands of the eastern coast, and the majestic dunes of Al-Dahna and the Empty Quarter, the largest continuous area of sandy desert in the world.
In the west, you will be left speechless by the pristine beaches of the Red Sea coast, the historic towns of Jeddah, Duba, Al-Wajh and Yanbu.
Lovers of natural beauty will look forward to visiting the Kingdom’s south, where they will find some of the finest coffee beans in the world growing at Wadi Lajab and its hills in Jazan, the stunning mountains of Asir, with their authentic culture and villages, and the spectacular islands neighboring the mighty mountains, all of which will leave you in a trance of dreamy delight.
The Kingdom’s central regions serve an unprecedented feast to the unsuspecting eye. The plateaus of Qiddiyah, Jabal Al-Hamidh, and the golden desert sands will leave you in awe, as will the abundance of spaces and monuments in its cities and villages, and the exuberance of the culture and architecture.
All these natural elements serve as an irresistible draw for moviemakers worldwide.
In addition to the strength of the Saudi locations, the Saudi Film Commission announced in December the launch of a host of local and international incentives to attract Saudi and global filmmakers to shoot in the Kingdom, including rebates of up to 40 percent.
The large-scale support for moviemaking in Saudi Arabia by the crown prince began with accurate steps that came about after detailed research of the Saudi market, starting with the resumption of movie screening across the Kingdom after a decades-long ban. The launch of film festivals and competitions with big prize money, too, have enabled filmmakers and supported moviemaking. A dedicated government commission was also established to facilitate the film industry and adopt strategies to develop the sector.
However, it is crucial for Saudi talent to have practical opportunities to dabble in film production, gain much-needed experience and develop their skills.
I would also like to mention the results of various studies on the local market carried out by local and international experts, which reveal a huge demand that outstrips supply across many cultural sectors. The film industry is one of those sectors in dire need of specialized and qualified talent in a country replete with passionate and talented people who are just waiting for the right opportunity to shine.
We have a bright future ahead of us, and with the support of our wise leadership, coupled with the efficacy and passion of our people, we can invent the impossible.

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud is Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture and governor of the Royal Commission for AlUla. Twitter: @BadrFAlSaud

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

How reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia has proved a film-industry game-changer

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Stars of the film ‘Champions’ pose on the red carpet at the Red Sea International Film Festival. (Supplied)
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Prince Turki Al-Faisal attends the premiere of the Saudi remake of the Spanish box office hit ‘Campeones.’ (Supplied)
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Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature screened at the Saudi International Film Festival at Ithra in Dhahran last year. (Supplied)
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By  2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP photo)
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A Saudi woman takes a "selfie" photo next to a sign showing the logo of the Red Sea Film Festival at the entrance of old Jeddah on Dec. 8, 2021. (Red Sea Film Festival / AFP)
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Young ones count among the growing number of movie fans in the Kingdom. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Inside view of a packed cinema in Jeddah during the screening of the Champions. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 March 2022

How reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia has proved a film-industry game-changer

  • Ban on movie screening was lifted four years ago as part of reforms aimed at improving quality of life
  • The Kingdom has since become a major market for cinema chains and a potential hub of content creation

JEDDAH: When Saudi Arabia first announced it was lifting its 35-year ban on movie screening four years ago, few predicted the strides the Kingdom’s fledgling film industry would soon make.

Since April 18, 2018, Saudis have been free to visit local cinemas, a completely new experience for many.

“I watch a movie at least twice or three times a month and wouldn’t mind going more if not for my frequent travels,” Jawaher Abdullatif, a 35-year-old private sector worker from Riyadh, told Arab News.

“You’re transformed into the world of the film. It’s an amazing feeling and I love that I can finally do that in the comfort of a cinema nearby.” 

The change was announced in 2017 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to improve quality of life in the Kingdom through entertainment.

For older generations who remember the days before the ban, the return of movie theaters was a heartening moment. Mostafa Zain, a retired engineer from Jeddah, recalls being captivated by cinema as a boy.

“I was good friends with the Jamjoums who established the first cinemas in the city,” Zain told Arab News.

“Even after the ban, I would always find the time to go watch a movie as I frequented Cairo a few times a year in the 1980s and ‘90s, and later on to the US. We’d always find the time for a movie. Today, I can wake up and check the movie listings and I book my film in no time. I don’t need to fly anywhere to watch a movie anymore.”

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The General Commission for Audiovisual Media, one of the governing authorities established to regulate and operate cinemas in the Kingdom, estimates there will be 2,600 movie screens in Saudi Arabia by 2030, in an industry worth around $1.2 billion. 

More than 50 movie theaters, operating some 430 screens, have been established across the Kingdom, managed by Vox Cinemas, Muvi, Cinepolis, AMC, and Empire. “It takes less than five minutes to book a seat at a movie theater today,” Zain added.




By  2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP photo)

Saudi Arabia’s first cinemas appeared in the Eastern Province in the 1930s, established by Westerner oil workers. 

By the 1960s and ‘70s, cinemas had sprung up in major cities across the country. Films were screened in football clubs, backyards, courtyards and hotels. 

But in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of the 1979 terrorist attack on Makkah’s Grand Mosque, religious conservatism began to gain traction in the Kingdom, discouraging public entertainment including cinema-going. 

To get around the ban, many Saudis would regularly visit Bahrain or the UAE.




The opening of theaters in the Kingdom has been widely welcomed by the Saudis, who used to flock to Bahrain or Dubai to for entertainment. (Photo Courtesy: Red Sea Film Festival)

Nahar Al-Hamrani, a producer and managing director of AlMaha Films in Jeddah, would fly two-and-a-half-hours to Dubai to catch a film. 

“Sometimes I’d only go to watch a film, grab a bite to eat, and head back home again,” he told Arab News.

“As soon as cinemas opened in Saudi Arabia, everything changed. Even the experience changed. It’s fun, convenient, and, for some odd reason, there’s just something different about going to the cinemas here. It’s right in our backyard. 

“For many of us who traveled abroad during summer holidays, we’d have to wait for months just so we can go and experience the full movie experience. Now, it’s simply through a click on our screen and not part of our travel plans anymore.”

For a time, Western movies appeared on television via MBC2 or via direct satellite networks such as Orbit, which later merged with Showtime to become the Orbit Showtime Network. 

Most Saudis could only access Western movies on smuggled VHS. When DVDs appeared, they would watch blurry knock-offs bought from street-hawkers or from behind the counter at local stores.




Hollywood actor John Travolta attending a special event organized by the Kingdom's General Authority for Entertainment in Riyadh in 2017. (AFP)

Speaking at a special event at Riyadh’s Apex Convention Center in December 2017, organized by the General Authority for Entertainment to mark the lifting of the ban, Hollywood actor John Travolta hailed the historic move.

“I think it’s an important moment and history, because it’s my understanding that this is the only country in the world that doesn’t have cinema and the idea that it is now happening again after 35 years, I feel like I am part of a celebration of freedom that is connected to a beautiful thing in humanity, so that’s a good thing,” Travolta said.

Cinema giants have begun pouring into the country. 

Owned and operated by Majid Al-Futtaim Cinemas, VOX Cinemas is the cinema arm of Emirati retail and leisure giant Majid Al-Futtaim and one of the fastest growing in the region, operating 149 cinema screens in Saudi Arabia alone.  

Mohamed Al-Hashemi, country head of Majid Al-Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment, Cinemas and Lifestyle in Saudi Arabia, said: “Since the beginning, we have differentiated ourselves from our competitors with our holistic approach. 

“VOX Cinemas is a leisure and entertainment concept that seamlessly integrates state-of-the-art cinema, interactive attractions such as bowling and arcade games and signature food and beverage concepts into one enriched experience.”




Young ones count among the growing number of movie fans in the Kingdom. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Cinema’s return to Saudi Arabia has reinvigorated the domestic industry and inspired new festivals to showcase and celebrate it.

The industry saw theatrical box office market growth worth $238 million in 2021 — more than double the previous year’s takings of $122 million, dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year was capped off by the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, which saw the big names of Arab cinema, Hollywood, and Bollywood grace the red carpet at Jeddah’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Balad.




Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature screened at the Saudi International Film Festival at Ithra in Dhahran last year. (Supplied)

There, on three big screens erected by VOX Cinemas, some 30,000 film fans enjoyed 138 films originating from 67 countries, including 48 Arab premieres and 27 Saudi films.

“Cinemas and content production offer enormous potential for economic growth,” said Al-Hashemi of Majid Al-Futtaim. “We recently announced ambitious plans to bring 25 local movies to the big screen in the next five years.

“Our goal to boost regional film production reiterates our commitment to realize the goals of Vision 2030 and is aligned with the Film Commission’s strategy to establish the Kingdom as a world-class film hub.” 

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On coffee, world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia's Khawlani bean

Updated 30 September 2022

On coffee, world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia's Khawlani bean

  • Arab News launched atest deep dive, “A cup of Gahwa: The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee”
  • Interactive feature celebrates Year of Saudi Coffee ahead of International Coffee Day this Saturday

LONDON: Arab News launched its latest deep dive, “A cup of Gahwa: The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee,” celebrating the Year of Saudi Coffee ahead of International Coffee Day this Saturday.

The long-form, interactive feature delves into the culture and heritage of Saudi coffee as it explores the home of Jazan’s green gold — the Khawlani bean.

Arab News partnered with Jabaliyah, the first coffee brand to originate exclusively in the Kingdom, on the deep dive and a limited edition coffee box.

“As Arab News celebrates the Year of Saudi Coffee, it’s our pleasure to partner with Jabaliyah, a speciality Saudi coffee company. Always supporting talented local business, Jabaliyah has produced delightful smooth Saudi coffee, which we are proud to partner with,” Arab News Assistant Editor-in-Chief Noor Nugali said.

Reporters traveled to Jabaliyah’s headquarters in Jazan to speak to the company’s co-founder and learn how the Khawlani bean goes from the tree to the brew.

“Arab News has been a key supporter of local authentic innovation and local startups from the get-go. We have been privileged at Jabaliyah to have had this support from them since the early days of our launch three years ago, and they continue to celebrate our endeavor as a true local content venture,” Ali Al-Sheneamer, co-founder of Jabaliyah, said.

For centuries, coffee has played a central role in the social life of Saudis. It is nothing less than a national symbol of identity, hospitality and generosity, and the focus of gatherings formal and informal, from the tents of the Bedouin of old in the deserts of Najd, to the stylish new cafes in the Kingdom’s cities.

But what some might not appreciate, even as 2022 is celebrated in the Kingdom as the Year of Saudi Coffee, is that when it comes to the planet’s most popular drink, the whole world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia — the Khawlani bean.

Today, coffee is most closely associated with countries such as Brazil and Colombia.

But the potential of the coffee tree, which grows wild only in Ethiopia, was first recognized and developed by Arabs, as far back as the 14th century.

As William Ukers, editor of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal in New York, wrote in “All About Coffee,” his exhaustive 1922 study: “The Arabians must be given the credit for discovering and promoting the use of the beverage, and also for promoting the propagation of the plant, even if they found it in Abyssinia (Ethiopia).”

Hundreds of years ago, discovering that the plant Coffea arabica thrived in the climate of the lush mountains of the land that would become Saudi Arabia, they brought it across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.

There, they successfully cultivated it on terraces cut into the flanks of the Sarawat Mountains, perfecting the art of roasting and brewing the seeds of its fruit to make the drink the world would come to know and love.

Not for nothing is the Khawlani coffee bean known in Saudi Arabia as “the green gold of Jazan.”

The bean, and the knowledge and practices related to cultivating it, occupies such a central role in the heritage and traditional social rituals of Saudi Arabia that it is now being considered for inclusion on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

According to the document submitted to UNESCO by the Ministry of Culture, the Khawlani bean is named for Khawlan bin Amir, a common ancestor of the coffee-growing tribes that live in the mountains of Jazan province

“During the harvest season,” the document says, “farmers break the monotony of the work by singing poem verses. One person sings and the group repeats after to create a harmonic rhythm as they pick coffee beans.

“Men and women both roast then grind the beans used to prepare coffee.”

Importantly, the skills are handed down from generation to generation: “Families encourage youngsters to work in the lands, starting with minor tasks, until they develop the skills and know-how needed to cultivate coffee trees and the processing of the coffee beans.”

Coffee, adds the UNESCO document, “is a symbol of generosity in Saudi Arabia,” and the tribes of Khawlani personify this “through their dedication and their passion for this practice.”


Riyadh forum to focus on science, philosophy

Updated 30 September 2022

Riyadh forum to focus on science, philosophy

RIYADH: Space diplomacy, climate change and environmental issues will be among far-reaching topics to be discussed at a major philosophy and science conference in the Saudi capital.

The event is being organized by the Kingdom’s Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission and will take place from Dec. 1-3 at King Fahd National Library in Riyadh.

Philosophers, scientists and artists will take part in the forum, which is being held under the theme “Knowledge and Exploration: Space, Time and Humanity.”

The three-day conference will include lectures, panel discussions, seminars and workshops on a range of issues affecting the future of the planet.

Mohamed Hassan Alwan, CEO of the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, said: “Last year’s ground-breaking conference succeeded in putting Saudi Arabia on the global philosophical map, and established the Kingdom as a regional center for philosophical dialogue.”

The second conference “will bring together leading philosophers, educational institutions and others to debate the important issues of our time, and help stimulate intercultural, international and interdisciplinary dialogue,” he said.

Speakers for the event will be announced nearer the date of the conference.


Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told

Updated 28 September 2022

Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told

  • Kingdom’s key role in regional publishing outlined on conference final day

RIYADH: The second edition of the International Publishers Conference held in Riyadh ended on Wednesday with sessions focusing on the growing demand for audiobooks, the impact of technology and data services, and the search for ways to innovate and renew education.

The event, which was organized by the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, introduced a session themed “Stages of the Global Book Publishing Industry.”

Abdul Karim Al-Aqeel, president of the Saudi Publishing Association, told the session that the Kingdom plays an important role in the growth of the regional publishing business.

Saudi Arabia “has 300 publishing houses, 1,000 individual writers, and reading is popular among 31 percent of the population,” he said.

The two-day conference was attended by Secretary-General of the Indonesian Publishers Association, Mohammed Radwan. 

The event held eight interactive sessions and five workshops to discuss key aspects of the book and publishing industry, review future prospects and read current market trends.

Mohammed Zatara, founder of Wajeez for Audiobooks, said that the format helped to expand public knowledge “because an audiobook can be accessed any time and any place, whether one is going to work or working out at the gym.”

Sebastian Bond, head of the Middle East and Northern Africa at Storytel, said improving the audiobook business requires collaboration between traditional publishers and their audio counterparts to ensure enriching and enlightening content.

Ibraheem Al-Sinan, head of editorial at Raff Publishing, told Arab News that the standard of authorship is “extremely high in the domains of creative books, as well as professional and educational books.” 

Ibraheem Al Sinan, head of editorial at Raff Publishing. (Supplied)

However, he believes that “this trend does not exist in the market due to the difficulty of publishing houses to absorb it and because readers are not attracted by the new authors.”

Al-Sinan said that authors have become part of the so-called content industry, particularly in the film-writing, series and marketing content sectors, “because of high financial return” in these fields.

Publishing has expanded recently with the inclusion of audiobooks and electronic books, “because of the society’s interest in new audio media such as podcasts,” he added.

Audiobooks are recognized as the fastest-growing and most acceptable format, but “are still not as popular as paper books,” Al-Sinan said.

Mohammed Alsalem, a member of the Arab Publishers Association, believes that the presence of “podcasts” as a content channel has had an impact on the widespread and acceptance of audiobooks. 

Mohammed Alsalem, a member of the Arab Publishers Association. (Supplied)

Alsalem predicted a bright future for publishing in the region, particularly in translation and better reader access via traditional and digital channels, indicating “A promising future for publication.”

Mohammed Kandil, CEO and founder of Dar Molhimon Publishing and Distribution, said that artificial intelligence is “inevitably coming,” and that it will help publishers to upgrade their profession and professional development. 

Mohammed Kandil, CEO and founder of Dar Molhimon Publishing and Distribution. (Supplied)

He believes that while audiobooks are now expensive to produce, “one day they will be the basic material on which the writer relies.”

Mesfer Alsubaie, general director of the Arabic Literature Center for Publishing and Distribution, said that the publishing future is thriving locally and regionally because of local and international book fairs, which have helped considerably in the evolution of the publishing sector. 

Mesfer Alsubaie, general director of the Arabic Literature Center for Publishing and Distribution. (Supplied)

Salih Al-Hammad, founder of Rashm House for Publishing and Distribution, said that although audiobooks are having a growing impact, “paper books have kept their shine and quality.”

He said: “When we talk about audiobooks today, we talk about a few categories of readers associated with the concept of a detained reader, any reader who is in a hospital, on a train, or on an airplane. Book authorship has gone through phases, and books will remain and won’t disappear, just like radios remained when TVs were invented.”

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British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia

Updated 30 September 2022

British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia

  • Explorer’s 1,300 km journey a century ago led to lifelong friendship with Ibn Saud, Kingdom’s first ruler
  • The expedition was launched by the UK’s Princess Anne, and the team includes Philby’s granddaughter

LONDON: An Arabian desert expedition aims to retrace the steps of a famous journey by a British explorer who served as an adviser to the first ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The planned 1,300-km Heart of Arabia coast-to-coast trek across the peninsula was launched by Anne, Princess Royal of the UK, on Wednesday. It was her first public engagement since the death this month of her mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

The expedition will honor the undertaking and achievement of adventurer, Arabist and intelligence officer Harry St. John Philby, who traveled from the Gulf coast village of Al-Uqair to Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, on a mission in support of Ibn Saud, the Kingdom’s first ruler.

The Heart of Arabia journey will set off in November, a century after Philby’s crossing. It is led by veteran British explorer Mark Evans and the team, which will travel by foot and on camels, includes Philby’s Saudi granddaughter, Reem.

After reaching Riyadh they will travel west on the final stage to Jeddah, which is likely to present the greatest challenge because of harsh winds and rough terrain, including sand and loose rock.

Philby was sent to Arabia during the First World War to assist T. E. Lawrence as part of the British efforts to foment an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, which at the time stretched across the Red Sea side of the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Yemen.

His journey led to groundbreaking cartographic and natural discoveries, and resulted in significant changes to the political landscape of the Middle East.

Philby, who would later reside in Riyadh, developed a close relationship with Ibn Saud, who at the time was a significant tribal leader. Philby adopted local dress and customs, and converted to Islam, which helped him play a key role in the events that led to the Arab Revolt and the creation of Saudi Arabia.

Evans said of Philby: “He is considered by many as one of the greatest early explorers of Arabia. He not only set out across uncharted land but took time to record everything he saw.”

Reem Philby said that she is drawn to “the stillness and constant movement of the desert at the same time.”

She added: “Just observing how nature controls everything in harmony and how we are the ones that have to adapt, makes one very humble.”

Princess Anne said: “How did people live in the environment that he crossed? What was different about it? And actually, what’s perhaps even more important in modern terms, is to understand how much has changed compared to what existed before.”

The Arabian landscape has long attracted interested intrepid Britons, including explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger, who commended the tribes he encountered during his crossing of the Kingdom’s Empty Quarter for their loyalty and generosity.
 

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Hajj, Umrah e-services app undergoes update, name change

Updated 28 September 2022

Hajj, Umrah e-services app undergoes update, name change

MAKKAH: Hajj and Umrah government officials have alerted pilgrims around the world about an important update and name change to a key services and permits app for the Two Holy Mosques.

Launching the newly named Nusuk app, an update on the Eatmarna platform, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said visitors and worshippers would be able to access a range of e-services including applying for a visa and booking hotels and flights.

Hajj and Umrah services adviser, Ahmed Saleh Halabi, told Arab News: “During the past few years, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has been keen to switch to the e-government system to add ease to the experience of pilgrims and visitors. As such, their experience will be forever remembered as an enriched religious journey.”

He pointed out that the portal allowed users to select from a list of service packages.

“The program will provide the pilgrims with a cultural and religious journey, while reflecting the bright and civilized side of the Kingdom in the Two Holy Mosques,” he added.

The platform has been designed to provide services and information to help worshippers perform rituals with ease and is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 objectives to improve service offerings and the quality of religious experience.

Ahmed Bajaiffer, an investor in Umrah companies, said: “Nusuk is the representation of the strong will of the Kingdom’s leaders and their loyalty toward Muslims, citizens, and residents.”

Nusuk has been launched in cooperation with the Saudi Tourism Authority and is linked to the services provided by the Kingdom’s official tourism website, Visit Saudi Arabia.

Head of the World Hajj and Umrah Convention, Mohsin Tutla, told Arab News: “What Nusuk has developed resonates with the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation’s vision toward enhancing the pilgrim’s experience.

“When traveling to a foreign country, visitors may often feel anxiety or even fear; for many, Arabic is not their first language, and trying to make sense of the cultural practices of a new country at times can be difficult.”

Via the nusuk.sa platform, Hajj and Umrah performers can receive visit or Umrah visas with the option to buy a service package and pay electronically.

“The launch of this service sends a strong message with it: We are listening, we are caring, and we will provide the solutions to continually enrich your experience, and we do it with passion, as the Kingdom sees serving pilgrims as a privilege and obligation,” Tutla added.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, more than 21.5 million Umrah and Hajj performers had registered with the Eatmarna app since its launch, and it has issued 6.4 million permits to visit and pray at Al-Rawdah Al-Sharifah at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.