Surprising, Unsettling, Surreal: Roaming Through Saudi Arabia - No Paywall | Karta

Surprising, Unsettling, Surreal: Roaming Through Saudi Arabia

News Jun 6, 2024

Traversing the southern reaches of Saudi Arabia’s Asir Province, just a few miles from the Yemeni border, in an unassuming town marked by a prominent sculpture of a rifle on a decorated plinth, I encountered Nawab Khan, who was in the process of rebuilding a palace out of mud.

Nawab Khan, crouched beside a window in the colorful interior of a mud-brick palace in Dhahran al-Janub, near the border with Yemen, in March.

At the time, he hadn’t begun his work for the day; instead, he was sitting on a rug by the roadside, beneath the palace's red-and-white windows, leaning over a pot of tea and a bowl of dates.

Two weeks earlier, in a different part of the country, a fellow traveler had mentioned the deteriorating buildings of Dhahran al-Janub, likening it to an open-air museum. Being in the vicinity, I decided to take a detour, and that's where I found Mr. Khan. He waved me over with curiosity and invited me to join him. Sensing my fascination with the unique towers, he stood up, fetched a large key ring, and began unlocking a series of padlocks. He then disappeared into a shadowy stairwell, and I followed.

The traditional village was a maze of structures in varying states of disrepair. This situation was the epitome of my mother's worst fears: Traveling alone, I’d followed a stranger into an unlit building in a remote area near a volatile border. Despite this, I trusted Mr. Khan’s enthusiasm as a genuine expression of pride, not a trap. Throughout Saudi Arabia, I’d seen numerous construction projects, from modest museums to luxurious resorts. These were the initial outcomes of an $800 billion investment in the tourism sector, a part of the larger Vision 2030 plan to transform the kingdom and reduce its reliance on oil.

However, I started seeing these projects differently: as the efforts of a country, long obscured to many, to be recognized and accepted. With the pandemic behind us and borders open, visitors like me were beginning to witness this evolving Saudi Arabia, much to the delight of builders like Mr. Khan.

Construction cranes looming over Jannat al-Baqi, a cemetery beside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city. (The green dome built above the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb is visible on the left.)

Few destinations are as complex for travelers as Saudi Arabia.

Historically linked with extremism, human rights issues, and women's oppression, the kingdom has recently made significant changes to reshape its society and global image.

The once-feared religious police have lost much of their power. Public concerts, previously banned, are now common. Women now have new rights, including the ability to drive and travel without a male guardian's permission, and are no longer required to wear floor-length robes or cover their hair in public.

These reforms are part of broader strategies to diversify the economy, elevate the kingdom's global status, and soften its image — a challenging task for a government with a history of severe actions against dissidents and human rights abuses.

The kingdom's capital, Riyadh, is at the heart of these changes. The Kingdom Centre, with its Sky Bridge observation gallery, stands as a symbol of this transformation.

Riyadh, the sprawling capital. The Kingdom Centre, with its Sky Bridge observation gallery (illuminated here in red), is the city’s landmark tower.

Central to these efforts, led by the 38-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a major push to attract international tourists. This shift marks a significant change for a country that, until 2019, only issued visas for religious purposes. By contrast, my tourist e-visa was approved online in minutes.

Saudi Arabia has already revitalized one of its premier destinations — Al-Ula, home to UNESCO-listed Nabatean tombs — transforming it from a neglected site to a lavish retreat offering guided tours, wellness festivals, design exhibitions, and hot air balloon rides. Other projects include luxury resorts on or near the Red Sea and the development of Diriyah, the birthplace of the first Saudi state, among others.

Overall, the country aims to attract 70 million international tourists annually by 2030, with tourism contributing 10 percent to its GDP. (In 2023, the country welcomed 27 million international tourists, with tourism contributing about 4 percent of GDP.)

To understand these projects and societal changes, I spent a month exploring the kingdom by car. Traveling alone, without a fixer, driver, or translator, I declined the government's offers of discounts and complimentary services.

Often, I felt I’d been given the keys to the kingdom. But there were moments when I encountered more complexities, like when a road sign forced me to exit the highway 15 miles from Mecca. “Obligatory for Non-Muslims,” it read, directing me off the main route.

A road sign forcing non-Muslim drivers to exit a highway some 15 miles from the center of the holy city of Mecca.

The sign highlighted the country's attempt to cater to two different types of travelers: luxury tourists and religious pilgrims, each with distinct and sometimes conflicting expectations. It’s uncertain whether the kingdom can satisfy both without upsetting either group.

My journey began in Jeddah, where, after exploring its historic district, I rented a car and drove eight hours north to Al-Ula, a benchmark for the new tourism initiatives.

My top priority during my five-day stay in Al-Ula was visiting Hegra.

Like Petra in Jordan, Hegra was built by the Nabateans 2,000 years ago. The site features over 100 tombs carved from rock, their entrances adorned with elaborate designs. The most impressive, standing about 70 feet tall, is the tomb known as the Lonely Castle.

In the past, visitors could freely explore the area, but now the site is more controlled. I boarded an air-conditioned tour bus, stopping at four locations, including the Lonely Castle. Even in the late afternoon, the heat was intense. I admired the detailed facade before quickly rejoining my group as they boarded the bus.

Tourists braved the searing midday sun to explore the installations at Desert X AlUla, a vast open-air collection of contemporary artworks scattered among steep-walled canyons.

A few miles north of Hegra, I joined an Italian graduate student and his mother on a drive through the Sharaan Nature Reserve. The scenery was breathtaking: narrow canyons opening into vast desert plains, enclosed by towering cliffs. Our guide stopped occasionally to show us petroglyphs and fields of wildflowers.

Gabriele Morelli, the graduate student, had first visited Al-Ula a few years ago and described it as a place with cheap accommodations and relaxed rules, a stark contrast to its current state. Many locals and foreigners quietly lamented the extent of high-end development and the erosion of affordability.

I experienced Al-Ula's exclusivity at a Lauryn Hill concert in an event space called Maraya. The surreal setting, with reflective structures and chic attendees, epitomized the kingdom's ambitious tourism projects.

Saudi Arabia’s most iconic ancient landmark is the unfinished tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza, called Qasr al-Farid — loosely translated as the Lonely Castle.

After Al-Ula, I visited the Red Sea project, a massive endeavor to create luxury resorts. I boarded a yacht to a remote island, where I was chauffeured around a lavish resort built on sustainability principles. Despite the opulence, there was an ironic contrast between the resort's environmental claims and its extravagant construction.

An infinity pool built in a narrow canyon at Banyan Tree, a luxury hotel within the exclusive Ashar Valley. Between October and March, even the hotel’s smallest villas cost well over $1,000 per night.

The resort was nearly empty, save for staff and influencers, highlighting the challenge of attracting visitors. Influencers have documented their experiences, presenting Saudi Arabia as a welcoming destination, though this portrayal can be misleading.

An over-water “coral” villa. The price for the least expensive villas can run as high as $1,440 per night, not including taxes and fees or a $900 transportation charge.

Speech in Saudi Arabia is heavily restricted, and dissent is not tolerated. Travelers must be cautious about social media commentary, as even past comments could lead to arrest. The government has made no indication that it plans to reconsider its prohibition of alcohol, despite predictions from resort staff.

Female travelers may also face challenges, as advancements in women's rights are unevenly distributed across the kingdom. In big cities and tourist centers, women enjoy more freedoms, but in remote areas, traditional norms still prevail.

My journey took me to various parts of the country, where I encountered both the old and new Saudi Arabia. In Sakaka, I visited the Rajajil Columns, an archaeological site compared to Stonehenge. Despite a tall fence, visitors were freely exploring the site, reflecting a mix of official and informal access.

The central canopies at the Six Senses Southern Dunes.

In Medina, I was detained by a guard outside the Prophet’s Mosque, reminding me of the strict rules non-Muslim tourists must follow.

Throughout my trip, I felt safe and welcomed by locals, though I grappled with how to portray a place with such contrasting experiences: the warmth of its people versus the severity of its government.

A traditional market in the Eastern Province city of Nairyah.

In Riyadh, a young man warned me about the risks of speaking openly. The memory of Jamal Khashoggi, the columnist who was killed for his criticisms, loomed large.

Traveling to Saudi Arabia presents a dilemma: it challenges preconceptions and offers rich experiences but also raises ethical questions. The warmth of locals like the vendor who served me honey contrasts sharply with the authoritarian government's actions.

On my way to Wadi al-Disah, I met a group of young men who eagerly posed for a photograph. The next day, they recognized me on the highway, a reminder of the unexpected connections made during my journey.

Three young men cruising along a highway near Jordan.

In the end, my trip through Saudi Arabia was a tapestry of complex, sometimes contradictory experiences, reflecting a nation in the midst of profound transformation.

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Oliver Hughes

Oliver has over 15 years of experience in travel journalism. He focuses on European travel, providing expert reviews of vacation rentals and cultural experiences across Europe.