Egyptian Official to Asharq Al-Awsat: Recovery of Saudi Tourism Reflects on Arab Region

Egyptian Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Ghada Shalaby (Photo: Adnan Mahdali)
Egyptian Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Ghada Shalaby (Photo: Adnan Mahdali)

Egyptian Official to Asharq Al-Awsat: Recovery of Saudi Tourism Reflects on Arab Region

Egyptian Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Ghada Shalaby (Photo: Adnan Mahdali)
Egyptian Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Ghada Shalaby (Photo: Adnan Mahdali)

Egyptian Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ghada Shalaby told Asharq Al-Awsat that Saudi Arabia’s recent achievements in the tourism sector benefit all countries of the Arab region.

Shalaby pointed to the importance of cooperation between Cairo and Riyadh to develop integrated tourism programs, underlining the need for Egyptian and Saudi companies to strengthen their relations in this sector.

The Egyptian official said that her country aims to attract 17.5 million tourists by the end of 2024, and 30 million tourists in 2028, given its great tourism potential and ability to provide distinguished service at a reasonable price.

Inter-Arab Tourism

The Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities pointed to the mutual cooperation between Riyadh and Cairo to develop intra-Arab tourism, with the aim to transform the Middle East region into a destination for international tourists.

Shalaby said that her country succeeded in attracting 15 million tourists during the past year, despite the geopolitical circumstances that affected the region and the world and the volume of tourism movement.

She highlighted the great interest that the Egyptian government attaches to this sector in terms of supporting, empowering and stimulating investment, revealing that tourism constituted between 11.5 and 15 percent of the domestic product in the past four years.

“There is a great understanding between the government sector in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, especially in the procedures provided to the Hajj and Umrah pilgrims and the established controls that are implemented through partners in the private sector, in addition to other mechanisms and controls that aim to attract tourists through specialized tourism companies,” Shalaby told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Umrah Plus Program

Commenting on the steps taken to promote the Umrah Plus program, Shalaby said that the new product comes to maximize the facilitations offered to some nationalities to obtain a visa to Egypt, in order to visit diverse Islamic monuments and holy places.

“At the same time, those who come to Egypt can go to perform Umrah after the end of their visit,” she said, noting that two companies have forged an agreement to work on this new product.

The deputy minister stated that Saudi Arabia is at the top of the countries that lead inbound tourism to Egypt, in addition to other states such as Germany, Russia and England, which find Cairo an important tourist destination.

Electronic visa

Shalaby touched on the many facilities provided by Egypt to tourists, including an electronic visa for 180 nationalities, at the cost of $25, to those wishing to avoid the queues in the arrivals halls, as well as a 5-year visa, which can be obtained through the Egyptian embassy and consulates in the Kingdom, at a value of $700.

She stressed the importance of partnership with Arab countries to develop intra-tourism, which she described as crucial in attracting tourists coming from distant countries.

“Tourists often talk about going to Europe, where they go to France and from there to Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. We, as Arab countries, aim to offer the same opportunity for tourists to come to the Middle East and go to Saudi Arabia and from there to the Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and the rest of the Arab countries,” she said.

The Egyptian Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities spoke about the distinguished investment initiatives and opportunities provided by the government, including deductions and loans to complete tourism projects in the Pyramids and Sphinx area, as well as the vicinity of the Grand Museum.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.