Saudi Arabia blocks Israelis from attending UN event
(Bloomberg) – A group of Israeli Muslims invited to a United Nations tourism event to honor their picturesque mountain village were unexpectedly prevented from attending by host Saudi Arabia, a sign that Israel’s hopes of warming ties are simmering to Riyadh might be premature.
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The Israeli village of Kfar Kama in the Galilee region was among 32 places voted the best rural tourism destinations of the year by the UN. The winners were selected for their cultural and natural assets, as well as their commitment to economic, social and environmental sustainability.
The UN World Tourism Organization had invited both the villagers and Israeli officials, along with those from 22 countries, to the Saudi village of AlUla for the two-day event that begins on Sunday. But the Israelis were never issued visas, according to people familiar with the matter. This is despite a UN appeal for equal treatment between member states and the Saudis, who are spending billions to become a major player in the tourism industry.
Since Israel established diplomatic ties with a number of Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia has taken steps in that direction, allowing Israeli planes to fly over its territory. The Kingdom has issued visas to Israelis for religious or approved business purposes, but on infrequent visits, Israelis often travel with second passports, such as those from Europe or the US.
But after November’s election of the most right-wing Israeli government in history, tensions have flared inside Israel and in the occupied West Bank, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year. Last Friday, China announced it had brokered a resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a blow to Israel’s diplomatic agenda.
When they had not received visas by early March, the Israeli delegation became concerned. The State Department sent a letter to the UN World Tourism Organization insisting the listings should be issued. Last Monday, the UN asked the Saudi Ministry of Tourism to issue the visas.
“In the spirit of ensuring equal rights for all members of the organization, UNWTO, as a UN specialized agency, seeks the kind assistance of the Ministry of Tourism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to facilitate the issuance of visas for the Israeli delegation,” said Zurab Pololikashvili, who Secretary-General of the UN WTO, wrote to the Saudi Ministry of Tourism, according to a letter verified by Bloomberg.
The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Tourism and the UN WTO did not respond to requests for comment.
“Israel calls on the United Nations World Tourism Organization and United Nations agencies to uphold the United Nations Guiding Principles, including non-discrimination, to ensure countries can participate in the organization’s meetings,” Israel’s Tourism Ministry said in an e-mail. Mail sent explanation . “In this case, the United Nations World Tourism Organization did not meet those standards and we regret that.”
Kfar Kama was built by Circassian immigrants from the northwestern Caucasus region in the late 18th century, although archaeological history in the region dates back centuries earlier. The city has remained ethnically Circassian ever since. Many of the 3,500 residents are Muslims and speak Circassian as their first language. Like some Bedouins, they serve in the Israeli army.
The Saudi kingdom, long closed to casual visitors, began issuing tourist visas in 2019 as part of a long-term mission to diversify the country’s economy away from oil. It is targeting 100 million tourists per year by 2030, an ambitious target that would put it on par with the best global travel destinations. It now develops outposts for luxury resorts, builds cities around its historic sites, and hosts or sponsors major tourism industry events.
(Updates with Israel Ministry of Tourism official response in ninth paragraph.)
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