Lifting the veil on Saudi Arabia, as a country, is no easy task. Tourist visas do not exist for the individual traveller, only for itinerary specific, highly controlled, hermetically sealed and very expensive guided tours. A Saudi Arabian distrust of outsiders used to be the norm; fearing the outside world would disrupt the finely balanced kingdom, King Abdulaziz Bin Saud (The country’s modern founder) said in circa 1930: ”My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.” It seems this mentality still persists in terms of the difficulty in obtaining visas and permits to enter the Kingdom.
However, Saudi Arabia is only a must-visit for the most adventurous of travellers in the first instance. It is a highly conservative Islamic country, in which cultural norms are vastly different to those one encounters elsewhere, especially if coming from a Western-centric perspective. Equally, Saudi Arabia is a large country - the size of Western Europe, at 2.25 million square kilometres - composed mainly of desert and inhospitable terrain. The searing heat of summer can send temperatures across the Kingdom, racing upwards to fifty degrees centigrade; the winter offers little respite, as dust, sand and rainstorms subject the country to an intemperate climate.
It is a country that imposes restrictions on whom you can travel with in terms of members of the opposite sex. Equally, a key staple usually fuelling the independent traveller – namely, alcohol – will be totally absent in this dry, Muslim country. Ibiza it is most certainly not.
Therefore, with such a seemingly bleak and dull picture, why would someone choose to go to Saudi Arabia? The answer is simple: to answer the call of adventure and step out into the unknown.
Indeed, for all the initial drawbacks, Saudi Arabia offers a lot in terms of travel, mind broadening experiences and space for inner reflection on our own values. From a Westerner’s perspective it is an intensely alien environment, from the way people dress, act and interact with one another. Whilst in Saudi Arabia you know that you are in a world that few others will experience from within your own society and culture, meaning that you must seize an opportunity to become further acquainted with the country. This has the potential to make a stay in Saudi Arabia particularly rewarding.
Saudi Arabia, although largely a desert country, has quite a few different elements to it. In the South there are high mountains, much greenery and a generally cooler climate than in the torpid North. Bordering Yemen the region is very tribal in nature, with close knit communities that have been living and coexisting for millennia in the same area. Chief amongst the places to visit is the ancient city of Najran, once a major centre of trade on the Arabian Peninsula.
Further North, lies the capital of Saudi Arabia: Riyadh. Sprawling, with a high population density and traffic congested roads, this is not an easy place to love. Cold in winter time and stiflingly hot in summer, the capital sits in the middle of a largely featureless desert, from which emanate many a dense dust storm. On the other hand, the high density of population means that the city has a very international feeling owing to the large amount of foreign expatriates living and working in the capital. Riyadh is therefore home to many nationalities and as such caters to all of them. Consequently, an international flavour will be added to any stay here, but you will need a car, as the size of Riyadh makes walking almost impossible.
Four hours East of Riyadh lies the city of Al-Khobar. Situated in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, it is one of the most liberal and relaxed cities in the country. With a large corniche stretching ten miles, it is the perfect place to unwind and reflect with a view on the Persian Gulf. It also has a very international, lively and delicious restaurant scene, with international cuisine ranging from Indian, Filipino and Egyptian, to the usual Saudi fare. It is also ideally suited for a trip over to Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
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Yet, the most relaxed of cities in Saudi Arabia is the port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. It is a true melting pot of nationalities, cultures and people. Jeddah has, since time immemorial, always been an important port city; a center for trade, and the movement of people and goods. In Jeddah, women are less restricted and can enjoy more freedom of movement than elsewhere within the Kingdom, a testament to Jeddah’s liberality within the context of modern Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the coast on which Jeddah is situated is ideal for recreational diving. The Red Sea is home to some of the most amazing marine flora and fauna in the world, with reefs that are resplendent in the reflected colours of fish and coral.
Further up the Arabian Peninsula are the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For Muslims worldwide these are the places that shape, identify and confirm their belief in Islam. The annual pilgrimage to honour and reaffirm their faith – Hajj – is one every able bodied and financially-solvent Muslim must undertake once in their life. For Hajj the visa process is more straightforward but no less frustrating. It is not possible to simply walk into Saudi Arabia as a pilgrim, a visa is still required and allocation is based on quotas for each country, and on defined age brackets. It ensures a sustainable pilgrimage for all, rather than Mecca and Medina being filled beyond capacity.
Although expensive and time-consuming, a visit to the real desert of the Rub ‘al-Khali (The empty Quarter) of rolling sand dunes can be organised. The desert, which stretches for hundreds of miles in the direction of Oman and the Emirates, would be the ideal setting for a romantic night of star gazing and counting.
Equally, Saudi is full of ancient history. As an historical meeting place between East and West, the country was host to some of the greatest traders and nomadic merchants the world has ever known; people who carried wares to and from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, bridging the civilizations of the Occident and Orient. Petra’s sister city, Meidan al Saleh, is to be found in Saudi Arabia. Here lies a near identical copy of the sandstone grandeur of the most iconic of Middle Eastern ruins. However, owing to the relatively few numbers of tourists in Saudi Arabia, it is likely that the sight will be entirely deserted.
There are many reasons as to why Saudi Arabia should be visited. The desert, the cities and the people are so entirely different to those you would meet elsewhere as to make the journey worthwhile. It is a unique country in a region already hosting a plethora of different nations and cultures.
As tourist visas are so hard to come by for the independent traveller, the only feasible way to get in and explore the many fascinating aspects of this secret Kingdom is to get a job, and travel in the spare time. Interestingly, for a country so controlling of who it issues visas to, once inside the Kingdom, there are comparatively few restrictions and all expatriates are, essentially, free to go as and where they want within reason.
Once secured, this job, usually in the Kingdom’s substantially large English teaching sector, will also allow the financial possibility and time scope to range widely across Saudi Arabia, and the wider Gulf region.
Saudi Arabia is certainly one that is hard to get into, occasionally hard to navigate in but the rewards are many. The exposure to a new culture and a new people will provide much food for thought and reflection. Saudi Arabians, on the whole, are intensely warm, charming and gregarious people. They are hospitable and highly welcoming of foreigners. In essence, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is what you make of it. However, if you engage in a positive train of thought and open your mind to tolerance and not all-out criticism, it might be one of the most interesting, rich and eye-opening travel experiences that you will ever have.