Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Oct 6th - 14th, 2023

This is my blog about a fascinating 9-day trip through Saudi Arabia, a country with an ancient history, that appears to be in the middle of a significant transformation. I arrived in the capital Riyadh, flying in from Kuwait City with Kuwait Airlines. The immigration formalities were fairly quick and easy. I only had to present a printout of my e-visa, which I had applied for online a few days before the trip. This alone is a remarkable development. Prior to 2019 it was not possible to visit Saudi Arabia as a tourist at all. Entry to the country was restricted to religious pilgrims, business travelers and expat workers. Since 2019 Saudi Arabia has been making a big push to open itself up to the world and turn the country into a major tourist destination. There are almost no restrictions on foreign visitors any more. Women can wear whatever they want, there is no requirement to wear a head scarf, like there still is in Iran. Foreign couples can share hotel rooms, without being married (which is not allowed for locals yet).

I was picked up by a driver at the airport, who drove me to my hotel, where I would meet our guide and the other people on the trip the next morning. I had booked a guided tour through TourRadar, which was run by an Emirati tour company. Our guide Samuel was Egyptian, but worked for the tour company in Dubai. There were only two other people on my tour - a couple from Portugal. We started our Riyadh tour a few miles outside of the city center at the ruins of Diriyah. Diriyah was founded in the 15th century, and reached great prominence as the capital of the first Saudi Kingdom, which began in 1727.

The city of Diriyah (and with it the First Saudi Kingdom) was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818, and subsequently abandoned. The site received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010 - one of only 7 world heritage sites in the country.

The Saudi government wants to turn this historic site into a major tourist attraction. There is currently a large restauration project under way to restore and rebuild the mud-brick ruins to their former glory, and many of the streets and buildings have already been beautifully reconstructed. In addition there is a huge tourist complex, including an amusement park and several large hotels being constructed right next to the historic city.

The old city used to be surrounded by large city walls and defended by a citadel at its highest point. In 1818 the Ottoman forces besieged the city for 6 months, before they were able to penetrate the formidable defenses.

There are a couple of interesting museums inside the complex, which provide a lot of information often using multi media and videos on large screens. This enormous tree, which looks more like a picture of blood vessels, is in fact the rather complicated family tree of the Saudi royal family.

The climate in Riyadh like most of the rest of the country is a hot dry desert climate. In October temperatures still reached above 30 degrees Celsius every day, but that is nothing compared to July and August, when temperatures can reach above 50.

The next stop on our city tour, was the 302 meter high Kingdom Centre. When it was completed in 2002 is was the highest building in the country, but it has since been overtaken by a number of newer constructions.

There is an observation deck inside the connecting bridge above the hole on top. It's not a place for people with a fear of heights, since the outward curved windows make it feel quite exposed, but the views are definitely worth it.

Riyadh is a huge and modern metropolis. The view from up here gives you a sense of the enormous size of this city. Since almost all of its 8.5 million residents live in low-rise housing, and since land is not in short supply here, the city stretches out far beyond the horizon in every direction.

Riyadh has grown rapidly starting as a small town in the 1940s to become a major metropolis, which continues to be one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world. Riyadh is the political, administrative, and financial center of the country. There seems to be an enormous building spree going on, with lots of ultra-modern skyscrapers rising up along the central axis. The government is clearly trying to turn Riyadh into another Dubai.

After a quick lunch in the shopping mall, we visited the huge and very impressive National Museum. We had a very good guided tour of the main exhibits, which range from prehistory, through the history of Arabian civilizations, covering the various pre-Islamic kingdoms, the Islamic and religious history of the country all the way to the modern era. The exhibit included many important artifacts from each of these periods. The National Museum is considered the main custodian of the Saudi national heritage and culture.

Built in 1865 the Masmak Fortress is the center of the historic part of Riyadh. The fort played an important part in the history of the Saudi Kingdom. In 1902 Ibn Saud returned from exile in Kuwait, and in a daring attack with only a handful of men, gained control of the fort from the then ruler Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Rasheed. This event has gained an almost mythical status in the history of Saudi Arabia. Over the next decades the Saudi rulers managed to unite all of the tribes in the country (through a combination of military victories and negotiations), and formed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, with Riyadh as its capital. Today, the fort is a museum telling the story of the Saudi Kingdom.

In close proximity to the fort is the Clock Tower Square, which is euphemistically referred to by the locals as the Chop Chop Square. Because it is this square, where on some Fridays during year, the public beheadings and public chopping off of thieves' hands take place. And yes, these are public and still carried out by sword. A stark reminder that, while Saudi Arabia is making a strong effort to liberalize and open itself up to the world, in other ways it hasn't quite left the middle ages yet.

There was a very lively bazaar and auction going on nearby.

They sold a wide range of wonderfully weird and old stuff, from rotary phones, to antique kitchen utensils and old weapons.

Ha'il and Jubbah
We left Riyadh the next morning on the brand new highspeed train that took us towards the north-west and the city of Ha’il, located in the center of the Arabian peninsula. The trip took about 5 hours through a mostly flat desert landscape. Ha'il is a city of 600,000 people in a region that is famous for agriculture, growing fruits, dates and grains. But the city is also known as the home of many of the country's famous poets and writers. Before checking into to our hotel we visited the beautifully restored red A’Arif Fort.

We had nice views from the top of the fort over the whole city, which is completely surrounded by mountains.

A curious feature of this region are the roundabout sculptures. Every roundabout has some large sculpture in the center. They range from giant tea pot and big water buckets to various art installations.

The main reason, however, to visit Ha'il, is to see the extraordinary prehistoric rock art of the region, which has been given UNESCO world heritage status in 2015. The next morning we drove a bit outside the city to visit the two main sites near Jubbah. The landscape is dominated by sandstone mountains, that have been carved into bizarre shapes by the wind.

The climate in this region once was very different from the dry desert conditions of today. Specifically in the period from the 10th to the 6th millennium BC, the Arabian peninsula was much wetter and greener, and the flora and fauna here would have been similar to today's East African savannahs. There used to be an ancient lake in this region, and archeological excavations have revealed several human settlements from the Middle Paleolithic along the former lake shore. The sandstone mountains are covered in ancient rock carvings, some as old as 12,000 years. Many of these drawings show oryx, buffalo, ostriches, lions and cheetahs, which would have been roaming this landscape around that time, but have all disappeared after desertification began in the 6th millennium BC.

These extraordinary carvings of hunters armed with bows and a cheetah on the left and a buffalo on the right are at least 10,000 years old.

Many of rock faces are covered in carvings from very different periods, often found on top of each other. You can easily tell the different ages by the level of erosion of the carved rock. These carvings of several camels and an ibex are around 3,000 years old and include early forms of Arabic writing.

This image showing a carriage with wheels is likely from the Byzantine era, while the much older carving on the right seems to show a boxing match between to men and a woman cheering them on.

Leaving Jubbah, we had about a two hour drive south through a beautiful desert landscape to Al'Ula.

Al'Ula and Hegra
We arrived in the late afternoon at one of the most extraordinary resorts I have ever stayed at. As part of the effort to make tourism a significant part of the economy, Saudi Arabia has been investing a lot of money into building beautiful resorts and hotels, and the amazing Shaden Resort is a great example of it. Located in the middle of the desert nestled into a canyon, the very luxurious resort is completely surrounded by vertical rock walls.

At night they illuminate the rock faces surrounding the resort, which gives it an otherworldly feel.

Sightseeing tours in this region are exclusively organized by the government and conducted by local guides. We drove to the central bus station, where we transferred into a large tourist bus, before being taken to our first stop, the ancient town of Dedan. This was the principal city of the first major civilization in this region. The Kingdom of Dedan, also known as the Kingdom of Lihyan, ruled over large parts of the northwestern Arabian peninsula during the first millennium BC. However the precise timelines of the Dedanite civilization have not yet been established with certainty. Archeologists have uncovered hundreds of tombs in this area, most of which were cut high up into the steep rock face.

The most famous of the tombs are the two lion tombs, which are flanked by carved images of lions.

Major archaeological excavations are still underway in Dedan, so we could not get very close to the site. Many of the key discoveries, such as several monumental statues, are presently on loan to a museum in Paris. However, there are plans to construct a dedicated museum here to showcase these remarkable artifacts, close to their original discovery sites.

Our next stop was the Old City of Al'Ula. In the early Islamic period Al'Ula was an important stop along the pilgrimage route to Mecca. The old town, which is also currently undergoing major restauration, is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, wedged between two to three storey mud brick houses. There is a steep rock promontory in the center, with a fortress on top.

You can climb to the top of the fortress for a great view of the maze of mud brick houses seemingly built on top of each other.

Afterwards we visited a fascinating site in the nearby mountains, called Jabal Ikmah. This seems to have been a sacred place, where the Dedanites as well as travelers passing through, carved records of their journeys into the rock faces.

The rock walls on either side of this narrow valley are covered in ancient texts. The earliest inscriptions are from the 9th and 10th century BC.

The Al'Ula oasis has been inhabited by humans for more than 7,000 years. The wide and green valley is surrounded by an otherworldly desert landscape of bizarrely shaped mountains and sandstone towers sculpted by the elements.

In the evening we visited the most iconic of these sandstone towers, the famous elephant rock.

They had dug out these round holes from the sand and put in very comfortable sofas. This would have been the perfect spot to sit and enjoy the scenery and the sunset with a nice cocktail, but this is Saudi Arabia, and the strict ban on alcohol remains in place even for tourists. So instead of a sundowner we enjoyed the sunset with tea and juice.

The next morning after checking out from the hotel, we transferred to an official tourist bus again and were driven to Hegra (also known as Madain Saleh). This was the absolute highlight of my trip. The almost 100 monumental tombs of Hegra where carved out of sandstone monoliths some time between 100 BC and 100 AD by the Nabateans.

At the beginning of the 1st century BC, the Nabatean people came from Petra in Jordan and settled near Dedan. Hegra soon evolved into the second largest city in the Nabatean Kingdom. Using the same techniques and similar styles as in Petra, the settlers started to carve huge and elaborate tombs out of the sandstone in the desert. Hegra was the first site in Saudi Arabia to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.

The tombs are spread out over a large area, and come in different sizes and with different levels of ornamentation, presumably based on the importance of the person they were built for. This one, known as the Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza, is the largest and most elaborate of them all.

The Nabataean Kingdom with its capital in Petra began in the 3rd century BC and thrived for almost 400 years, until it was defeated by and incorporated into the Roman Empire in 106 AD.

Many of the capitals above the entrance doors have intricately carved figures and animals.

Hegra alone would have made the trip to Saudi Arabia worthwile. It has a place among the greatest monuments to see in this world.

We arrived in Medina in the evening and started our sightseeing in the city the next morning. It felt like a real privilege to be able to enter this city at all. This would not have been possible only 5 years earlier. As the second most holiest city in Islam, the entire city used to be closed to non-Muslims until 2019. (Mecca remains strictly forbidden for non-Muslims to enter).

The center and main site in Medina is the Prophet's Mosque. This is the second most holiest shrine in the religion of Islam (after the Kaaba in Mecca), and it is said that one prayer in this Mosque is worth as much as a thousand prayers anywhere else. Therefore it is, and has been for centuries, one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for muslims. This city of 1.5 million people receives an estimated 100 million pilgrims from around the world every year.

Since its beginning in 622 AD, the Prophet's Mosque has been expanded continuously to cater for increasing numbers of pilgrims. The latest and largest expansion happened in the 1970s, when the Saudi government decided to tear down significant parts of the old city to extend the mosque to its current enormous size. To call this mosque large would be a slight understatement. It is in fact a gigantic complex, that almost defies belief. The Prophet's Mosque is estimated to provide space for a truly mindboggling, wait for it ... 1.8 million worshippers at the same time.

The prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina from Mecca in the year 622 AD, and then spent the last 10 years of his life here. His tomb, topped by a beautiful green dome, together with the tombs of the early Islamic leaders Abu Bakr and Umar, is the center piece of the Prophet's Mosque. The year of the prophet's arrival in Medina is also the beginning of the Arabic calendar. We were allowed to walk around the Mosque and take some pictures of the minarets and the court yards, but non-Muslims are not allowed to go inside. These huge umbrellas were installed in 2011, to shade the pilgrims praying in the courtyard from the sun. Apparently each of the umbrellas cost 1 million Dollars, and there are 250 of them.

We visited a nearby museum dedicated entirely to the history of the mosque, where we learned about its beginnings as a small palm-leaf covered hut, built by Muhammad himself. Over the centuries the mosque was rebuilt and extended numerous times in different styles and by different rulers, up to its vast size today.

There are a number of smaller mosques near the Prophet's Mosque, but otherwise the entire area around the mosque consists of hundreds of huge hotels to house the millions of pilgrims visiting Medina.

We visited a number of other places in the city connected to the Prophet. This is the Masjid Sayyid al-Shuhada Mosque near Mount Uhud, which was the site of an important battle won by Muhammad's Islamic forces against several Jewish and polytheistic tribes.

The Seven Mosques is a complex of six mosques (the seventh was demolished some time ago) also located at the site of a decisive battle won by Muhammad.

We left Medina in the early afternoon for the 4 hour drive to our last destination, the port city of Jeddah. Jeddah is the commercial center and the second largest city of the country with a population of 4.5 million. Located on the Red Sea the city is being transformed into a major sea side tourist spot, with huge hotels and apartment buildings being constructed along the beach front.

As a trading port far way from the country's politcal center, Jeddah has always been the most cosmopolitan and liberal city in the country. This was very noticeable in how particularly the women dress here. In the countryside, probably 95% of all women still wear the full burka and have their faces completely covered with only their eyes showing. In Riyadh that proportion is probably not more than 40% and most women these days show their faces, but still wear the long black dresses and cover their hair. In Jeddah you hardly see any woman with her face covered and you even see some local women wearing jeans and t-shirts on the streets.

Along the sea shore we also visited the floating mosque, a white single domed building resting on stilts over the water. You have beautiful views of the Red Sea from the courtyard.

This is Jeddah Tower, which originally was designed to be 1 mile high. It was started in 2013, but construction was halted in 2018 and only resumed again last month. After realizing that the soil is not firm enough to hold the weight of a mile high tower, they've redesigned it to a more "modest" height of just over 1,000 meters, which when completed will make it the highest structure ever built, beating the Burj Khalifa in Dubai by 200 meters.

In the afternoon we visited one of the weirdest museum ever. The Abdul Raouf Khalil Museum is spread out over several floors across a number of connected buildings. It is the private collection of one man, who spent his whole life collecting pretty much anything you could think of, and has turned his collection into a museum of the history and culture of Jeddah, ranging from ancient artifacts, art, documents, rebuilt rural dwellings and tents, to modern toys and industrial products.

After lunch and a bit of rest to avoid the worst heat of the day, we went on a walking tour of Old Jeddah, the historic center of the city. No record exists about when the city was founded, but it has been an important trading center and Red Sea port since at least the 7th century. The architecture of old Jeddah is very distinct. The mostly 19th century houses are quite tall, most are 4 to 5 storeys high, and they have large windows covered by beautiful wooden frames and balconies. These served a dual purpose of shielding the inside from the sun, while creating a cooling airflow through the building. Most of the wooden window covers are intricately carved and either painted in green or brown.

Jeddah has always been the gateway to Mecca. Back when pilgrims mostly arrived by boat, they entered the city gate from the seaside, and exited through the eastern gate on the way to Mecca, which was a two day trip by camel (today it is a 1 hour drive by bus). "Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Mecca" has been inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2015.

We ended the day at the coastal road, where we were hoping to see King Fahd's Fountain, which is supposedly the highest fountain in the world. It usually gets turned on around 5:00 pm every afternoon, unless the winds are too strong, which seems to have been the case on that day. We waited for a while without seeing any fountain, but we still enjoyed the beautiful coastal road watching the evening sun over the Red Sea.

We finished our trip with a nice dinner at the hotel that night, and I left the next morning on a direct flight to Dubai. This was a really fascinating trip to a country that I would not even have been allowed to visit only a few years earlier. Overall I was really impressed by Saudi Arabia, which has a lot to offer, ranging from neolithic rock art, to the amazing ancient tombs of Dedan and Hegra, to beautiful mosques, stunning desert landscapes and ultra modern cities. The country is in the midst of a major transformation to open itself up to the world. Everyone has heard about the fact that women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but that is only a very small part of the profound changes that are happening here. Prior to 2019, women were not even allowed to leave their houses without a male guardian by their side, and they had to be covered head to toe with only their eyes showing. There are now essentially no restrictions on women in public. In Jeddah you see young local women wearing jeans and t-shirts. When talking with my local guides, I often got the impression that they are still a bit shell-shocked about the speed of liberalization and opening that is happening. This is nothing short of a revolution, but a revolution from the top. There is a palpable sense of change and excitement among most of the people here. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that the Saudi government remains a brutal dictatorship run by a single family, with no freedom of press or respect for human rights and prisons full of political dissidents. But seeing the opening and changes in this country, giving the people here a sudden taste of freedom, it makes you wonder how long it will take before they demand more political freedoms and participation too. I think what is happening in Saudi Arabia will be one of the most fascinating geopolitical developments to watch over the next few years.

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