Saudi Arabia is ‘the next Dubai for holidaymakers’

Tony Douglas, CEO of Riyadh Air - Neville Hopwood/Getty Images for Etihad
Tony Douglas, CEO of Riyadh Air - Neville Hopwood/Getty Images for Etihad

The British executive building one of the world’s biggest airlines for Saudi Arabia insists the country can be the “playground for everybody” despite its poor record on human rights.

Tony Douglas, the former Etihad Airways head and one of the Persian Gulf’s most senior business executives, says new carrier Riyadh Air “will be the story of the next 10 years” for the aviation sector.

In a week where the Gulf state sparked fresh allegations of “sportswashing” by taking control of the global body behind professional golf, Mr Douglas said that Saudi Arabia can replicate the success of Dubai’s economic and social liberalisation and become a tourist hotspot.

Mr Douglas was hired alongside Peter Bellew, a former top lieutenant of Michael O’Leary, to build multibillion-dollar Riyadh Air from scratch.

The carrier is a key part of a master plan drawn up by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to transform Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf’s centre of business, culture, and tourism. The move is seen by experts as an attempt by MBS to wrest control away from neighbouring states that have benefitted from economic and social liberalisation.

The airline will be based at a newly built airport in the Saudi capital. It will boast six runways and be able to accommodate up to 120 million travellers by 2030 – some 50pc more than even Heathrow boasted at its peak in 2019.

As well as a huge new airport and flag carrier, an estimated $4 trillion has been earmarked by the Saudi royals to be spent on a slew of destination attractions to draw visitors.

The most eye-catching of MBS’s economic and social plans – called Vision 2030 – is the construction of a new £400bn cross-border city state called Neom in the west of the country.

Visualisation of the 500-metre tall parallel structures, known collectively as The Line, in the heart of the Red Sea megacity NEOM - NEOM/AFP via Getty Images
Visualisation of the 500-metre tall parallel structures, known collectively as The Line, in the heart of the Red Sea megacity NEOM - NEOM/AFP via Getty Images

Social reforms are also planned and foreign observers say there are already signs that strict adherence to Islamic values are being curtailed.

However, although the role of women in society has changed in recent years, many human rights continue to be restricted. Homosexuality is still criminalised and can be punished with execution.

Washington-based non-profit Freedom House rated the autocratic country just eight out of 100 on its ranking of civil and political freedoms.

Nevertheless, Mr Douglas, who was also a former executive at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, urged people to judge the country for themselves.

“Twenty-five years ago, many people in the West had no concept of Dubai. Now look at Dubai. It’s the playground for everybody,” he said.

Insisting that Saudi Arabia is “welcoming” and “family orientated”, Mr Douglas urged Britons to “go, look, see, and then inform your own judgement” before making their minds up about the country.

He continued: “What I took for granted 50-plus years ago when I was a kid was personal safety. You didn’t have to think about it.”

Referencing his home in Saudi Arabia, he said: “Where I live, come and visit me; the door of my villa is open. You’ll walk in and think why is the door not locked? If you get in my car – which is not insignificant in value – in the drive, the doors open and the keys are in it.

“There’s no antisocial behaviour. There’s no crime.”

Mr Douglas claims that Saudi Arabia is the second most searched online destination so far this year.

“Going forward. This will probably be one of the biggest go to places,” he insisted.

Tony Douglas, former chief executive officer of Etihad Airways
Tony Douglas, former chief executive officer of Etihad Airways

Riyadh Air unveiled one of the biggest aircraft orders in history earlier this year with plans to spend £30bn on a fleet of 72 Boeing jets. More orders of planes could soon be announced.

Airlines around the world are struggling amid a shortage of new planes, spare parts and labour. However, the size of Riyadh Air’s order is expected to make them a priority.

The carrier will need planes soon: Mr Douglas wants the airline to be flying to more than 100 destinations within seven years.

He claimed there would be no problem in staffing up, despite well publicised issues at rival carriers. Just 12 weeks after MBS formally announced the new airline, 336,000 people have logged their interest in taking a job.

“From 146 nationalities,” Mr Douglas said. “[It includes] 48,000 pilots.”

MBS instructed Mr Douglas to deliver an airline with “obsessional attention to detail with guest experience”, he said, with “quality of service” a top priority.

He added: “And make sure it’s a digital native.”

Saudi Arabia has “the number one user per capita of Apple iOS, so it’s the most digitally literate population in the world”, he says, but refuses to elaborate further.

Riyah Air promises to unveil more about its approach at the Paris Air Show later this month.

The airline is a key part of MBS’s plans to diversify the Kingdom away from its reliance on oil revenues as the world shifts away from fossil fuels.

Saudi Arabia unveiled the latest part of its plans last week with the shock merger of the PGA Tour, Europe’s DP Tour, and the Kingdom-backed LIV Golf.

The new single body will be backed by Saudi’s $700bn sovereign wealth fund.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at Kansai airport in Izumisano city, Osaka - CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at Kansai airport in Izumisano city, Osaka - CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have joined or are about to join Saudi teams on lucrative contracts reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The country has already built tourist destinations on the Red Sea.

“There’s parts of it that make the Caribbean look a little bit shoddy,” Mr Douglas said. “You’ve got mountains, you’ve got deserts. You’ve got forests. You’ve got UNESCO sites.”

Outside observers say Riyadh Air’s ability to steal market share from local competitors Emirates and Qatar Airways will require Saudi Arabia to row back on its prohibition of alcohol, as the two neighbouring flag carriers have done.

The Wall Street Journal reported last September that a wine bar, cocktail bar, and a “champagne and desserts” selection will be on offer at a beach resort in Neom.

Consuming, brewing or selling alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. Those who fall foul of the ban can face heavy fines, imprisonment or up to 500 lashes.

Mr Douglas refused to be drawn as to whether Riyadh Air would follow suit and offer alcohol on board, however. 
“The legislation, whatever it is in the future, we’ll follow that,” he said.

The Briton’s comments came as global airlines executives assembled in Istanbul for the annual general meeting of the Iata, the influential trade body headed by former British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh.

The Telegraph revealed that BA was among a clutch of big UK businesses to fall victim to a Russia-linked cyber attack. BA was forced to write to its 34,000 employees warning that their data including national insurance numbers, bank account details, and addresses may have been compromised.

Mr Douglas said that Riyadh Air would avoid similar data breaches because the airline will not be saddled with out-of-date IT systems that would leave it vulnerable to a cyber attack.

He said: “Because we’re starting with a blank sheet of paper, we don’t have the legacy of 40 years worth of systems, 40 years worth of process which we’ll learn for good reason, but damn difficult to move away from.”

Despite the pressure riding on him to deliver for MBS, Mr Douglas seems undaunted.

For him, the proposition is simple: “You’ve got the world’s second-fastest growing economy. You’ve got the biggest country within the Arabian Peninsula, with the biggest population.

“The mission has got absolute clarity.”

Knowing what to do is one thing. Executing is quite another.

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