I’ve wanted to go to Saudi Arabia for years. Strict visa requirements always made it impossible for me to do so. Last September these restrictions were lifted and now a tourist visa for the country can be applied for and obtained online in about ten minutes. Saudi Arabia wants the world to know, they are open for business and in the process, hoping to improve their image.
My preconceived notions of Saudi Arabia were all smashed my first day in country. Upon arrival in the capital, Riyadh, my guide turned out to be a female. I didn’t even know women were allowed to be guides! In fact, it is only in the last couple years that this has been the case. My guide, Asma, was a modern Saudi woman. At 32 she had a masters degree in tourism and archeology, is divorced, has her drivers license, a shiny new car and wears white sneakers! She spoke excellent English, including slang, which she learned from watching American action adventure films. Her father was the progressive one always telling her she could do whatever she wanted, even working abroad, while her conservative mother was horrified at the idea. Her mother would always tell Asma to cover up more, to which Asma would respond “Inshallah” or God willing. Asma was part sassy and part intellectual. The new Saudi Arabia.
Things were not always this way in the country. In the past, women were discouraged from working, were expected to marry, usually very young and have lots of children. They were not allowed to drive and when in public, had to cover their head and face with a niqab, which only allowed others to see their eyes. Women were also required to obtain permission from their male guardian for activities such as getting a job, getting married or traveling internationally. Like much of the world, times are changing. After the current crown prince of Saudi Arabia, also the first deputy prime minister, Mohammad bin Salman took office in 2017 (he is also heir designate to the throne when his father passes) things have been progressing. Women are now allowed to drive, a historic move for this country. There are now tens of thousands of Saudi women traversing the roads. He also lifted many other restrictions on women including the head cover and the requirement to wear a black abaya, a loose, to the ground, flowing dress of sorts. The crown prince stated only that women, along with men should dress decently. The decision on what type of decent clothes they should wear remains for them to decide. In addition, women are now free to pursue any career they like. I thought this unbelievable compared to the Saudi Arabia I had always heard about. I had no idea the freedoms Saudi women now enjoy. They no longer are thought strange if they choose not to marry until later in life and generally have fewer children.
Asma took me around the capital for a few days seeing the National Museum, the Masmak Fort and a walk along a boardwalk at sunset to see the lights on a small lake. She also wanted to stop for coffee, lots of coffee. I was surprised to see names like Starbucks, Carribou Coffee, Dunkin Donuts and many other familiar brands.
I did have a chuckle when watching Asma try to parallel park. Although her driving skills were excellent, her ability to parallel park lacked. We normally ended up far, far from the curb. I almost offered to do it for her, but didn't want to embarrass her. Hey, she's only been driving for a year!
When asked about the Saudi oil money, she told me that much of it is used to improve life for Saudi citizens. All education is free, including university. Healthcare is also completely free.
At dusk we went to the top of the Kingdom Center, a 99 story skyscraper which has a lookout bridge near the top. As the sun went down on Riyadh, you realize how modern this city really is. Numerous skyscrapers lit up the night sky. It could have been New York or any other large, modern city anywhere in the world.
After a few days, I said goodbye to Asma and headed to the airport for my next stop. A two hour flight northwest, I landed late in the evening in Al Ula. It was a 45 minute ride to my tent camp. They claim the camp is surrounded on three sides by mountains in a very natural setting. Upon arrival, I personally would have called them very large boulders, not mountains. The area was pristine, however and in the absence of any large cities, the night sky was perfectly visible. At this point it was the early morning hours so I quickly checked in and headed to my tent. I was surprised to find the tent was more of a basic hotel room with attached bathroom. It also had a heater, which was great as it was freezing in the wee hours of the morning, in spite of the fact I was in the desert. I slept fast and was up early for my ride to the highlight of the area, the archaeological site of Mada'in Saleh.
Two thousand years ago Nabataeans ruled the area. Growing wealthy from being positioned on the lucrative incense, myrrh and spice trade route that passed through the Arabian Peninsula, they showed their wealth by building monuments. The most well-known is the Treasury in Petra, modern day Jordan, just northeast of where I was. The Nabataeans where highly skilled craftsmen in carving rock and there are over 100 monumental tombs around the area. The most impressive in modern day Saudi Arabia, is the Qasr al-Farid. Unlike the other tombs in the area, this one is completely isolated. It is about four-stories high and free standing. The rock it was carved out of, is massive. I was dwarfed by it's size. The Qasr al-Farid was never finished. Regardless, it is stunning. I spent all day wandering around the many tombs of the Mada'in Saleh. They remain a testimony to the greatness that this place once was.
After Al Ula I hopped on another plane to Jeddah, which resides on the Red Sea. I was met by another guide, an older gentleman who had retired from his first career, spending many years with Saudi Airlines in the marketing department. One of our first stops was the fish market, a favorite of mine to hit in any city. I wandered the stalls and loved to see the brightly coloured fish that had just been plucked out of the Red Sea. After, we found a very basic, local restaurant to try the local catch. I had the best fish soup of my life.
We also made a stop for some Arabic coffee and dates. The coffee was an unusual light brown/greenish color and had a delicious flavour with which I was unfamiliar. I found out the coffee was made with cardimum, thereby giving it a different flavour. I've never been a fan of dates, but realized, these were something completely different from what I've had in the past. These were fresh, plump and delicious. Some places also serve them with a peanut sauce for dipping.
I was able to wander around in the evenings on my own. Saudi Arabia is extremely safe, even for a single woman. No one would dare commit a crime as there are still incredibly harsh punishment for those that do.
Falconry has been practiced in the Gulf region for centuries. It is an important part of desert life and a popular sport. On my final day in the Kingdom, I wanted see one of these magnificent birds up close. My first thought upon seeing the beast was not only how huge he was close up, but also how intense his eyes were, they were solid, banana-yellow with a black iris. They didn't look real and in fact looked cartoon-like. When the owner asked if I wanted to have him perch on my arm, I happily agreed! They gave me something to cover my arm as his massive talons were clearly made for easily picking up pray on the go. Once on my arm, he flapped his wings a bit, but eventually settled down. He was truly a magnificent creature. Although birds are not my favorite of the animal kingdom, I could make an exception for this one.
My trip to Saudi Arabia did not disappoint. I've heard so much about this country for so long, and unfortunately, most of it was not good, especially for women. It was nice to get a first-hand look for myself at the immense progress that has recently developed.