Standing at the heavy gates of a mud fortress against the twists and scallops of one of the most exotic skylines in the world. Walking outside of a carpeted tent into the desert’s dome of stars. Watching a half block being entirely wrapped in tin foil as part of Jeddah’s annual art festival.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — four times the size of France —
At least for now. But that promises to change in the near future.
Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (and the king’s son), in an interview, announced that the government “has approved discontinuing the suspension this year.”
Until now, the Kingdom has pressed a campaign to persuade those who leave for places like Dubai and London to spend their vacations (and their money) at home. An estimated 6 million to 7 million Saudis spend their holidays overseas each year. It should be added that of the more than 8 million Islamic pilgrims, some take the time to explore.
An additional explanation for the ban was the lack of infrastructure — hotels, roads, tour operators — to accommodate an influx of tourists. “That work has now been completed,” said the prince. Although some might argue the finer points.
Lifting the travel ban is an integral part of the country’s Vision 2030, diversifying the economy in the face of over-reliance on oil reserves. As with all liberal change, ultraconservatives, who live by a strict interpretation of Islam, view foreign tourism as a threat to cultural and political traditions.
The paradox, of course, lies in the Internet bazaar that reaches the smallest desert village, carrying instantaneous world news, entertainment, and myriad social apps. Saudi Arabia has the largest per capita use of smartphones on the planet.
Reforms that seem obvious to Westerners, such as allowing women to drive, come slowly in this absolute monarchy.
As one woman, a textile artist, put it when asked about the prospect for reforms: “It’s like a glass of water with a layer of mud at the bottom. Each time you add another level of fresh water, the glass becomes clearer.”
It was under the auspices of Prince Sultan that a dozen of us were permitted a 10-day visit at the end of January. We had no particular bent other than to explore where other foreign travelers could not (excepting ex-patriots living and working in the Kingdom).
Travel notes: all women must wear the abaya, a dark ankle length robe, and cover their heads in public places; wearing shorts is an affront; alcohol is prohibited; the punishment regarding drugs ranges from public flogging to beheading. Pretty simple.
Our journey began in Riyadh, whose population has almost quadrupled since 1990 to 8 million.
Sadly, much of the city’s old section has disappeared beneath the dramatic rise of new office and apartment buildings. No surprise that Riyadh boasts a number of opulent malls filled with global brands like Gucci and Tiffany. Fuddruckers and Dunkin’ Donuts have also arrived. Another modern urban metric is traffic. The country at large is crisscrossed with impressive roads.
The city’s most stunning skyscraper is its signature 99-story Kingdom Centre with a cutout top, known as the “bottle opener.” Its sky-bridge walkway offers a total view of the city. Most visitors arrive just before sunset to watch the gradual lighting of the city, with all manner of neon hues. (Across the country, the tallest skyscraper in the world — more than a kilometer high — is slowly rising in Jeddah.)
Because most foreign visitors have a spare understanding of the Arabian peninsula — its geography, its history, and culture —
The museum, with its sweeping curves and abrupt angles, is part of a large park including a mosque, a palace, shady palm groves, plazas, and a stream that meanders through.
The most significant historic site is the Masmak fortress, which stands alone, blocked by four conical towers, with massive 14-foot tall doors containing a fascinating small door just big enough for one person at a time, to prevent opening the doors in case of an attack.
A stone’s throw from the fort, and within the absent walls of the old city, sits the Al-Zal souk — the most visited antique and artisan market in Riyadh. Its narrow passages are crammed with carpets, painted doors, coffee pots, swords, vintage rifles, and, of course, gold. The oddest, and most ubiquitous, commodities were chips of oud, the most sought-after scent, burnt over hot coals.
From Riyadh we flew to Al Baha, where we boarded a bus for a 15-mile hairpin descent through 25 tunnels to the village of Dhi Ain, a 400-year-old stone village stacked up a quartz mountainside. It is one of the best examples of the country’s efforts at historic restoration. Ducking through doorways, the dark rooms are cut by sun rays through spare windows. Stairs and walkways lead a couple of hundred feet to the topmost structures, where across ubiquitous date palm groves rise sharp gray escarpments.
Following was a banquet, where small communal plates, prepared by the village’s women, never seemed to end. Margoog, a dish of bread, meat, and tomatoes, and jereesh, a kind of porridge and groats — two Saudi staples — were surrounded by another 15 plates, ranging from stuffed eggplants to spitted lamb. As one of some 30 diners along the table arose, another, usually male staff in a traditional white thobe and red and white headdress, took the chair. Most food was eaten by hand, scooped onto a flat bread.
A two-hour drive away lay the Red Sea port of Al Lith and a night aboard a scuba diving yacht. Not red at all, the waters were a clear green. The women shucked their abayas as we spent the day snorkeling and diving above schools of parrot fish, followed by a shore dinner of grilled grouper.
Jeddah, by contrast to Riyadh’s conservative traditions, celebrates a cosmopolitan intersection of all peoples of the Middle East. As a major port, it has been a trading center going back to times before Alexander the Great. Today the Red Sea draws seaside tourism and development. Its Corniche runs for miles along the sea and widens at the city’s center into spreading park and sculpture gardens, where dark clad women picnic under a piece by Henry Moore.
The coral stone wall around the city’s ancient center disappeared seven decades ago. Of the four original gates, only one (reconstructed) remains, leading into Al Balad with its labyrinth of narrow streets winding past mosques, eateries, and a myriad of pretty tacky clothing shops. Worth the visit are the “tower houses,” four- or five-story buildings fronted by elaborately carved wooden balconies jutting over the streets.
Sadly, the state’s efforts to preserve these buildings with public and private funds are, at best, moving at a creep. Meanwhile, many of the coral block houses are falling into ruin. Many of the inhabitants and shopkeepers are now non-Saudis. As much as officials say they would like to quicken and broaden exploration and preservation of historic areas, like this ancient souk, the force over the last two generations for modernization remains formidable.
We climbed to the open rooftop of the historic Naseef House as the sun was setting. Loudspeakers around the city called the faithful to evening prayer. The arrhythmic calls of the imams echoed as, below us in the street, rows of men knelt — and somewhat removed, appeared rows of women in sync. No one misunderstands the influence of the holiest cities of Mecca and Medina hold on this ultramodern, “liberal” metropolis.
Two days later we drove into the desert for two nights at an eco-
encampment, where we slept in tents. Well, not the kind of tents pitched on an army bivouac. These were typical rural quarters protected on the outside with goat hair sidings and inside encased with bright persian carpets. With, of course, a modern bath. And a key.
The night sky in the desert is one of the world’s great marvels. Not only are the planets much brighter, the entire firmament hangs much lower. The Big Dipper seemed studded in neon.
Another natural wonder of Saudi Arabia is its rock formations, seen from our every sojourn. Together they eclipsed all of Arizona —
Undoubtedly, the most heralded of the Kingdom’s 4,000 archeological sites is Mada’in Saleh, its first UNESCO World Heritage Site. After Jordan’s Petra was conquered by the Romans, the Nabateans moved their capital 300 miles south along the peninsula’s spice trade route from Damascus to Mecca.
Golden sandstone outcroppings rising from the desert floor provide for architectural facades that closely resemble Petra. While less grandiose than Petra’s unfinished Treasury, the array of more than 100 carved entrances is equally impressive. Most entrances are flanked by columns supporting a pediment. Many have cornices with crowsteps leading upward. Inscriptions and epitaphs inside the shallow tombs have given experts some explanation of the Nabatean world, but much is left to be uncovered.
Notably, unlike Petra, that day very few tourists were exploring the site, which requires special permission to enter. No camel rides, no postcards, no baseball hats. Just sand, cliffs, silence — and the spectacular tombs.
Clear is the Saudi intention to open to the world its sparsely-visited archeological and sacred sites, and to protect them against the commercial detritus that frequently collects around them. The fascination is the fact that excavation is in its early phase. And the excitement is defined by traveling hours across empty desert to suddenly arrive at a rock face covered with etchings of camels and side-by-side glyphs from other epochs.
This was our last stop before pressing north into Jordan.
Obviously, much has changed since the last foreigner was granted a tourist visa. Since the ban was imposed, the Saudis have appropriated $1.3 billion toward making the country more accommodating for tourism. The first to enter will find one of the very least-traveled countries in the world and a stunning look at the rapid evolution from the ancient to the very modern — from Bedouin shepherds tending desert flocks to the erection of dazzling skylines.
Let’s hope Prince Sultan’s prediction comes true that the gates to the Kingdom will open later this year.