Editor's Blog

Saudi Arabia: a red line in the sand

There’s been a lot of talk about red lines recently; politicians warning adversaries not to cross them or suffer the consequences; politicians failing to act once those red lines have been crossed. Undoubtedly there’s a lot of posturing where the drawing of red lines is concerned, but it’s a procedure that, nevertheless, allows us to define our moral boundaries, signal the point at which acceptable becomes unacceptable, even if – ultimately - it amounts to little more than words.

Association leaders must consider where to draw the line when it comes to choosing an appropriate destination for their meetings. It’s an issue fraught with complexity and much will depend on the nature of the association itself and its mission statement: whether it sees itself chiefly as a defender or preserver of something or more a proselytiser, for example, a spreader of the word.

From my experience, associations are reluctant to rule out destinations too easily. Most see themselves as disseminators of knowledge and one of their chief roles to break down cultural barriers in the pursuit of spreading best practice. That’s not easily done if you always play it safe.

Still, everyone has a line they won’t cross, and I suspect, in the case of most association meeting planners, Saudi Arabia is several miles on the wrong side of that line. And yet next month, at the IMEX trade show, in Frankfurt, the country will launch an international campaign pitching itself as a destination for international conventions, meetings and exhibitions. No harm trying I suppose.

But it’s difficult to imagine female delegates from non-Muslim countries, and many Muslim-majority countries for that matter, going to the trouble of finding a male sponsor so they can attend a meeting in Saudi Arabia, or welcoming the prospect of being met by said sponsor at the airport. It’s difficult to imagine modern woman using separate entrances and sitting in separate rooms to their male colleagues. It’s difficult to imagine meetings coming to a halt for the observance of prayer. It’s difficult to imagine the reaction of delegates on a post-congress tour of Riyadh stumbling across a public beheading in Deera Square – or ‘Chop-Chop square’ as it is locally known. And it’s difficult, frankly, to imagine international delegates wanting to stay sober in such a place for 24 hours, let alone four or five days. 

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