Saudi Arabia: The Sandy Kingdom

January 29, 2010 by

Middle East & Africa, Suggested Itineraries

When thinking of a new travel destination, the world is rife with places to go. The search for sun, sea, sand, some good food and nice people are pretty much necessities for everyone. Yet there is one country that has all of the above in some of the greatest quantities and yet remains off any travel website or tourist agency window.

Lifting the veil

Saudi Arabia rarely tops the list of those ‘must see’ places unless you are Muslim and wanting to undertake pilgrimage to one of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. Currently no non-Gulf Cooporation Council (GCC) passport holder can even enter the Kingdom without a sponsor, and even then if you are female this task may not be enough to be granted access.

The insription on the office of the Mutawa

The insription on the office of the Mutawa

In stark contrast, however, the Kingdom was one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations of 2007 and is set to continue this growth with the creation of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiques. This tourism however is almost wholely made up of pilgrims. Alongside this visas are slowly becoming more available to specialised tour operators for those wanting to glimpse the desert Kingdom.

To many, especially those from the USA, the almost ‘closed door’ politics of the Saudi tourism board isn’t much to get bothered about as the Kingdom still holds a negative image thanks to its most infamous son (that would be Osama bin Laden) coupled with allegations of human-rights abuses and the ongoing repression of women (by denying them the right to drive or vote).

The Saudis’ charitable side

There is, however, a whole other side the to kingdom. For example if you Google ‘Saudi’ and ‘Charity’ in the same search you will be inundated with articles depicting a one sided, biased opinion. Spend a little time, dig a little deeper and skip the first 50 web pages you will find out that the kingdom and its citizens are some of the most generous and charitable people in the world.

Saudi Arabia is, per capita, the largest donor of foreign aid on the planet and has over 500 charitable organisations. Many have benefited from this generosity, from America to Africa, but few know from whence this financial compassion has come. If a poll were taken in post-Katrina New Orleans, asking who was the biggest financial donor to aid their plight, you can be assured that the last country on their lips would be their true knight in shining armour, Saudi Arabia.

Alongside this benevolent side there is a great deal to see and do in The Land of the Two Holy Mosques, should you be fortunate enough to be allowed entry.

Things to see & do in Saudi Arabia

“My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access.” That’s a quote from King Abdul Aziz bin Saud. So it’s hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia still remains ‘off the beaten’ track for many foreigners.

The Kingdom tower in central Riyadh

The Kingdom tower in central Riyadh

However the current King, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques (as he likes to be called), is seen by many as a reformer (for some too radical and for others not radical enough). Slowly but surely he is opening up the Kingdom to the world and if given the chance to visit it would not just be Lawrence of Arabia who would recommend it.

As the largest country in the Gulf, there is much to see and do. Bordering Yemen, the southwestern highlands of Asir with its temperate climate and lush forrests is seen to be one of the most lenient of the regions. Hejaz, the proud landlord of the two holiest of sites in Islam, Mecca and Media, lies in the western region.

It is here on the coast of the Red Sea that the nations second city of Jeddah is to be found, which rivals the capital Riyadh for trade and commerce in a middle eastern version of Madrid vs Barcelona. Most conservative of all is the region of Nejed, the centre of which lies the capital Riyadh with a skyline dominated by the world famous Kingdom Tower.

Next to this lies the Eastern Province dominated by the ominously named Empty Quarter which, as the name suggests, is quite desolate being home to the largest mass of sand on earth. This province is also the centre of Saudis’ wealth, oil. Finally there is the aptly named Northern region bordering Iraq and Jordan, with the Saudi version of Petra, Madain Saleh a city carved out of the rock face of a cliff (which is on UNESCO’s things to include on the World Heritage list).

Entering Rehab, ahem, Riyadh

Saudi Arabia is a dry country, not only in terms of its searing summer time heat (Riyadh can reach a painful 55°C / 131°F in the shade), but also with relation to alcohol. Unlike other GCC countries where alcohol is permitted in varying degrees, Saudi has a total no alcohol policy. Although like anything, where there is a will there is a way and in certain expat compounds you can always find someone to teach you how to make bourbon or ‘2 week wine’.

Just don’t ever let the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or less formally the Mutawa, who patrol the streets with loudspeakers and GMC cars, catch you. In fact, whilst on the subject of the Mutawa don’t let them catch you doing anything other than breathing and if you are male hide all jewelry or you will be accused of acting like a woman.

Another culture shock is the segregation of men and women – and foreigners are by no means exempt. A woman may never be in the company of a man unless part of their close family circle or in a business environment. If you visit one of the many coffee shops that replace bars as the place to socialise, they are always split into two separate venues, one for men and one for families and women. Be sure never to go into the wrong one or else, again, you will face the wrath of the Matawa.

To get around this many young Saudi men invite their sisters along with them when they go to the local Starbucks as a ‘ticket’ into the family section in order to be able to look at girls. It is only here that woman can relax a little and litterally let their hair down, but their black abayas must stay cloaking them.

A different world

There are many things about Saudi Arabia that are constant reminders that you are in a different world. Visitors to the Kingdom are ofter regaled with tales of beheadings, amputations and beatings for violations of the law, practices which can be seen at chop chop square in Riyadh should that tickle your sadistic fancy, but in truth these punishments are usually reserved for bigger criminals. If you respect the law, which are the laws of islam, and show respect to the culture and people, you will find Saudis are in general extremely welcoming and friendly.

Despite all the restrictions, Saudi Arabia has a great many attractions to make it worth a visit should the opportunity arise. The deserts are perfect places for excursions either for a bit of Dune Bashing on quad bikes or 4×4’s or just for an evening stroll and picnic with many other Saudi familys. Around Jeddah on the Red Sea you can find some of the worlds best spots for scuba diving and numerous dive operators are available for tourists. You can go trecking in the highlands of Asir province where the mountains reach a towering 3000m and is home to various forms of wildlife such as baboons and wildcats. In stark contrast explore the expanse of the Empty Quarter where virtually no life exists above molecular level.

Dune bashing

Due to the history of Saudi Arabia and its melee of cultural influences, the food on offer is a wonderful mix of Egyptian, Indian, Lebanese, Yemmeni and Bedouin. With this in mind and the fact that eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in the Kingdom it is no surprise that eating is taken very seriously to which obesity statistics can testify.

Rent quads from local Bedouins for some dune bashing

Rent quads from local Bedouins for some dune bashing

But it it not just Middle Eastern food, one may be surpised to learn that on every corner of the big cities you can find McDonalds, Wendys, Hardees, Pizza Hut and every other fast food chain to come out of the States. In fact driving down King Fahad road in Riyadh, if you turn a blind eye to the all the men in white thobes and women in black abayas, taking in all the fast food shops, European clothes retailers, American cars one could be in any world city.

All in all for those who don’t fall into the club 18-30 category the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a wonderful tourist destination should you be priviledged enough to be allowed entry.

It is also inevitable that as the world becomes ever smaller The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud will continue to modernise and open the doors ever further. As soon as it does I recommend you visit.

-Chris Courth

4 Responses to “Saudi Arabia: The Sandy Kingdom”

  1. tstchrm1 Says:

    I really enjoyed your post

  2. cosmina Says:

    I had two “encounters” with the Muslim population: one in Tunisia and the second one in Turkey, Istanbul. They were different, the Istanbul people being more open to foreigners then the Tunisians. However I did not like the way they look at women and how threatened they feel when a woman displays her education and knowledge. They are surprised to see women managing their own money and make decisions by themselves 🙂
    Because of the bad taste this left me, it will pass a long time until I decide to visit a Muslim country again!

  3. Brian Says:

    Great story man, and I can vouch for it considering that I was there to live through it all with you. I love the photo of the dune bashing…thanks for including it!

  4. Asiya Hussain Says:

    Reply to some peoples comments on visiting a muslim country. Well let me tell you its not only a muslim country that you will get men looking at women anywhere that happens where I was born and raised too. I mean in the UK!!!!!
    Any man would stare at a woman especially if she is not covered. Overall the people in muslim countries are much friendly and kind than the people in western countries and I should know!!!!