Can Saudi Arabia be the new travel mecca for the world travelers?

When I tell people that one of the countries I really want to visit is Saudi Arabia, I see only raised eyebrows or shock-induced-badly-hidden drop of jaw. It only get's more challenging when someone actually asks me to explain further, because I don’t have an easy answer to explain why I am drawn to the region. Though Saudi Arabia is at the top, I am actually drawn to the entire middle eastern region, even though I’ve only been to Jordan and Dubai there. The food, culture, the ancient nomadic way of life (which so many of us aspire to a form of it even today, maybe as digital nomads in some cases), their languages - everything about the Arabian peninsula is intriguing for me.

makkah city photo saudi arabia travel guide
Makkah city in Saudi Arabia (Image: Pixabay)

It was while we were driving through the Wadi Rum desert that I was the closest geographically to Saudi Arabia, and it was during my time at Petra that I learnt about a similar (but smaller) place in Saudi as well - Madain Saleh Tomb. I was riveted and this article on BBC certainly convinced me that I had to visit this place once in my lifetime. But this is just one of the reasons which intrigue me about the country.

Of course, I haven’t been to Saudi but because of my interest in Arabia I have done quite a bit of research on the country. Let me share a few of things and a few insights about the kingdom.

History of Saudi Arabia

Well, to get a flavor the history of Saudi Arabia, let's go back in the past to about 4th to 6th century BC. This is the time the Nabateans, some of the earliest nomadic tribes who settled in northern Arabia, developed a area of influence primarily by providing safe passage to traders and taking a large toll for that. The historic city of Petra in Jordan was possibly the capital and Madain Saleh was also an important part of this loose empire. We must understand, though, that they were only one of the many nomadic tribes of Arabia.

Centuries later the region was back in prominence when Mohammad founded Islam, the second largest religion of the world today. He was born in Mecca and spent all his years preaching the faith in the peninsula. From that time onward, Mecca and Medina have been the cultural and spiritual center of the faith even though the region was often lost in obscurity.

kaaba quran koran saudi arabia travel guide photo
Kaaba (Image: Pixabay)

Fast forward to the 18th Century, and that's when the foundations of the present day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were laid. Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Al Saud dynasty, conquered the land and introduced Wahhabism, a strict puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Till the early 20th Century, however, it was the Ottomans who controlled most of the Arabian peninsula, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. With the collapse of the Ottomans in the first world war, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was finally formed in 1932.

However, it was the discovery of oil which completely changed the geo-politics of the region and made the entire world look up to and make alliances with Saudi Arabia. Even today, almost all the growth of the country is based on fast shrinking reserves of oil. However, with oil available only in limited quantity, the country has recently introduced Vision 2030 which aims to look beyond oil and diversify the economy too other areas, including tourism.

modern city saudi arabia travel guide photo
Modern city life in Saudi Arabia (Image: Pixabay)

Stories from people

When I started writing this article, I knew I can add soul to it only by talking to people who have actually been there and seen the country from close quarters. I invited my friend, Bilal Hassan from Karachi, Pakistan to share some insights about the desert country.

"The Saudi capital Riyadh is a fascinating place – it is like entering a constantly evolving museum where the contradictions and complexities of modern day Saudi Arabia are most evident. Most of the world tends to have a very skewed and uni-polar view of Saudi Arabia and the Saudis in general - most of these opinions revolve around these three words conservative, backward and petrodollar.

The first thing that hit me while being driven around the streets of Riyadh was how modern and developed the city was. The city has a decent skyline, the roads are wide almost like mini intercity highways and it is immaculately clean yet pretty desolate and devoid of any trees or vegetation. 

During my stay in the Kingdom I was invited to the first contemporary art fair in the capital – Art Riyadh being held at a local art gallery. The art fair wasn’t segregated along gender lines like most public spaces in the country. Surprisingly the majority of the artists were all female. Young savvy intellectual Saudi men and women were free to interact with another over here. As I was ambling along each particular art display I decided to have a little chat with each of the artists asking them about their particular art work and what it depicted. From identity crisis to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to mortality and everything in between the art fair covered a diverse plethora of topics. I was pleasantly surprised to come across this side of Saudi Arabia – I did not expect to visit an art gallery and come across passionate and talented local artists in the Kingdom."

Bilal is a Karachi based doctor and can be reached by email. He is also a really good photographer and you can see some of his work on Instagram too.

My friend Tawfik Mahman also spent 13 years in Saudi Arabia when in school has some interesting experiences to share.

"Some of the things anybody will agree upon are that they have one of the best roads in the world , there by they have the best cars of the world coming there as soon as they are launched. Since its a country with many regulations, sports (well football only), Cars and Food are their main entertainment. This is one country which doesn't have a movie theater and it doesn't even have a river.

As a country Saudi is super hot hence our school used to start really early and ended with lunch, and it's the same with offices too. The social life starts after sunset when the temperature goes down  and you can see families going to the park, spending time with families. There are also many super large shopping malls where kids cycle inside and do skating. There are a variety of food items from all the middle east cuisines that can be explored. During weekends you may find families and friends go out for dessert safari and camping. They put their tents, play football, do BBQ and spend the night in the desert.

One of the things I miss the most about Saudi is food, especially baqlawa, the shawarma, the Thimmees (the bread), Mulukhiyya (a Palestinian dish), Kabsa (almost the staple rice dish of KSA).

Also not many know about this, Saudis are really sweet people; if you get to know them well, they will shower you with love. Speaking with utmost respect is part of their culture, though they do take their time to open up."

Both Bilal and Tawfik are men and they are often a privileged lot, even if they are non-Arabs. I decided to also speak to a female friend, Komal Ali, who has been to the country and her stories are completely opposite to what the men experiences there.

"I visited Saudi Arabia in 2011 with my father. Our trip consisted of exploring Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina. It would be safe to say that of the more than dozen countries I have visited so far in my lifetime, Saudi Arabia is the only one I so passionately detest that I never want to set foot there again.

My first impression was awful. The immigration line at Jeddah airport kept growing exponentially, but the officers continued to casually stretch and chat, disregarding the visitors waiting in frustration. I later discovered in my interactions with public officials that they have a general lack of regard and empathy for the woes of the people, especially non-Arab.

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room: moral policing. Going into the country, I thought to myself that probably this aspect is over-hyped by the media. I was wrong. In my ten days there, I got hit by the moral police twice – once in the Kaaba in Mecca and once in a shopping mall. In the Kaaba, my headscarf slid up my neck without my realizing, and I was hit on my neck with a stick. At the shopping mall in Jeddah, my gown/abaya was not long enough to fully cover my ankle, and I was again hit by a stick to reprimand me for my “wrongdoing.”

During my trip, food was the only aspect that brought me joy and comfort. From the abundantly available irresistible shawarmas to the killer desi food – thanks to the immigrant labor class, meals were my most anticipated part every day. There was an underlying ordeal about that too, however – treatment of the labor class running those small food businesses; their inability to own property, and consequently their dependence on Saudi nationals. This is a vicious circle that allows the Saudi nationals to willfully exploit the immigrant class.

Visiting Saudi Arabia was an overwhelming experience in the worst possible way. The investment in state of art infrastructure cannot compensate for the authoritarian and dismissive regime, and the overpowering racist and sexist cultural landscape. That will have to go before Saudi Arabia is pitched as a travel destination."

Politics and human rights

Human rights in Saudi Arabia are intended to be based on the Hanbali Islamic religious laws under absolute rule of the Saudi royal family. The strict regime ruling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is consistently ranking among the "worst of the worst" in Freedom House's annual survey of political and civil rights. (ref)

We can talk a lot about human rights issues, and the country certainly has had a dismal record in human rights and freedom in general. The infamous 'Chop Chop Square' is located right in the heart of Riyadh and public executions take place even today.

However, I am an optimist and believe in looking forward to future with hope. What happened in the past can’t be undone, and the only way forward is to look at a potentially positive future.

Recently King Salman announced that the ban on women driving cars will be lifted soon, a moved welcomed by many seen as the beginning of a more moderate state.

His son, crown Prince Mohammad also echoed his father’s views:

"We are returning to what we were before - a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe," he said.

"We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness," he added.

Does it mean all is already well? Clearly, no, but there is reason to be more hopeful for future. Maybe in a few years from now Saudi Arabia will be a beacon to show the way forward for the entire region, not just for business, but also respect for human rights. Admittedly, many other countries in the Arabian peninsula are already far ahead, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi in UAE, and also neighboring countries like Jordan.

Places to see in Saudi Arabia

This might seem to be a rather quick transition from human rights to tourism, but as I say I am looking at a brighter and hopeful future, and to me travel can actually pave the way for such a world. Since, I have absolutely no experience of travelling in the country, I am sharing only a little bit of information about places to see in Saudi Arabia and it's all based on internet research and conversations with people.

The most iconic and most visited site in the country are Mecca and Medina, and the two cities absolutely dwarf any other place when it comes to visitors. However, all visitors come to these cities as religious pilgrims and not as tourists. These are holy sites for Muslims only and any entry for non-Muslims is absolutely forbidden, and that's unlikely to change. Though I would love to visit these places, I know it won't be possible anytime in foreseeable future. Having said that, Saudi Arabia is a huge country and though, mostly desolate and desert in most parts, there are some very interesting places to see there nevertheless.

Let's start with something that's as mysterious in theory as it looks - the newly discovered 'gates', about 400 of them, in Saudi Arabia.

The stone structures, nicknamed "gates" due to their resemblance of field gates from satellite images, are clustered around the volcanic region of Harrat Khaybar, Saudi Arabia. As of now, researchers have more questions than answers regarding what these structures were used for, who built them, how old are they, and their meaning. (ref)

gates saudi arabia travel guide photo
"Gates" of Saudi Arabia

As I mentioned earlier, I have also been fascinated with the Silent City, Madain Saleh. But there is much much more to see in the country - from archaeological sites like the two mentioned above to National Parks, like Thumamah National Park, and other places in the wild like, Red Sand Dune, Wadi Deesa, Wa'abah Crater, Meteor Well Alkarj and The Hidden Canyon.

Madain Saleh saudi arabia travel guide photo
Madain Saleh (Image: Wikipedia)

If you are interested in architecture, there is something interesting there too like the Ibrahim Palace (castle) and Tarout Castle. Saudi is also home to some bustling business cities which are full of some really interesting modern architecture too.

Tourist visa to Saudi Arabia

Well for any visit to the country, the first essential requirement is a visa, and this is where it gets challenging. Till we can have a border-less world, hopefully someday in future, this will be the only way to enter a country legally. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have tourist visas at all, neither does it promote tourism in anyway. There were discussions in 2013 and then again in 2014, but the plans were soon scrapped.

If you are Indian, you can visit the county as a Muslim pilgrim to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina on a Hajj visa or to meet family members. Alternatively, you can visit on business purposes. Bilal, whose story I shared above, visited the country multiple times because his family is now based there.

Here are the categories of all visa types that the Consulate offers:

- Adding-Newborn-to-Saudi-Residence-Card
- Business Visa
- Commercial Visa
- Diplomatic and Official Visa
- Employment Visa
- Escort Visa
- Extension of Exit/Re-Entry Visa
- Family Visit Visa
- Government Visit Visa
- Hajj Visa
- Personal Visit Visa
- Residence Visa
- Student Visa
- Supplemental Journalist Visa Application
- Umrah Visa
- Work Visit Visa

In 2016 Crown prince Mohammed announced plans to give tourist visas as part of Vision 2030. When the tourist visas for the country open up, I will be one of the first ones to apply for it.

So what does it all mean?

Well, to me it means that Saudi is opening up to the world in many new ways and this can only mean good things for everyone - its own citizens as well as others in the world. Centuries ago it was a country open to traders and travelers from across the world, and I hope with the opening up of the country, it becomes accessible to curious travelers like me and many others. That part of the world has been the cradle for the development of various cultures and it would be great to see a return of cultural vibrancy too it.

Amen.

Comments

  1. This place really fascinates me Sidd. Interesting because I got a taste of the region when visiting Qatar recently. Lots to do and see here and I feel the place is slowly becoming more tolerate, which is a good thing too.

    Ryan

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  2. Wow, this is really nice article Sid, do visit KSA, explore the region, the food and the culture. Will be looking forward to the Sid The Bedouin article.

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  3. The place is really fascinating but it is sad that there is no province of tourist visa in Saudi Arabia which means the country does not promote tourism .

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  4. Komal Ali's statement about being hit twice with a stick by moral police stems from her own whimsical imagination and most probably prejudice to the peaceful "Hayaat Al Amr bil Maarouf" which is an institution that aims at reducing immoral public behaviour through friendly admonishing, such as shops failing to close during prayer times.

    I have been living in Saudi Arabia for 8 years now. I lived in Jeddah, Madina, Arar and I live in Taif now. I go quite often to Makkah since it's only 40 odd miles from Taif. I have very often come across the moral police and seen them operate in malls and market places. I have never, ever, seen them agress peopke physically or speak to them in a bad way.

    I'm afraid Komal's statement is just a hateful lie!

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  5. What a thoughtful and wonderfully crafted article. Looking forward to read more stories from you.

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  6. Thank you for your sharing. Thanks to this article I can learn more things. Expand your knowledge and abilities. Actually the article is very practical. Thank you!
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