Long a place of mystery and intrigue for outsiders, Saudi Arabia is considered to be the birthplace of Islam, and it is at the centre of the twilight of the oil age, sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of light oil. Apart from able-bodied Muslims making the hajj, or the mandatory pilgrimage that they all must make once in their lifetime, few people that are non-Muslim or outside of the energy industry have visited this desert nation for touristic purposes.
A lot of it has to do with negative connotations that Western culture have applied to this country, with relation to its possible connection with Al-Qaeda, or its hostility towards those who identify as LGBT, its uber-conservative views concerning women, and so on.
These are all concerns, and things that need to be considered before a visit here, as not only are many Western social views (e.g. homosexuality, which is punishable by DEATH) and practices (drinking alcohol, women being certain places and doing certain things) frowned upon, but they are also illegal, and enforced by religious police.
Terrorism, while a concern here, is less of a danger these days than it was back in the 00’s. That said, practice caution wherever you go, and listen to what the locals and authorities tell you about your destination (i.e. this is not the place to go wandering into random neighbourhoods willy-nilly). And if you’re from Israel, or have entry/exit stamps from Israel in your passport, put down that Saudi travel brochure down right this second, as this automatically bars you from entering the Saudi Kingdom.
Once these important concerns have been addressed, it’s time to get excited, as this lightly traveled nation has many surprises waiting for the adventurous globetrotter. Religious sites relating to Islam abound here (though access to two of the holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, is barred for non-believers), ruins of a city pre-dating that religion lie in wait to be explored, and some of the best diving in the world, unbeknownst to the locals who generally don’t partake in the sport is available off the countries’ Red Sea coast.
The biggest attraction of all though, is a land ruled by an absolute monarch with an extremely conservative adaption of sharia law. You may not like or agree with it, but it makes for an atmosphere unlike any other in the world.
Currency: Saudi Riyal
What To Do
The most sought after cultural highlights of this nation are sadly banned from the eager eyes of non-Muslims … those that do not count Islam as their religion, head down the page several paragraphs, as even attempting to sneak in to Saudi Arabia’s two holiest cities will result in your detention with possible corporal punishment (lashes with a whip/rattan cane), and your subsequent deportation from the country.
If you are a Muslim, you are in for a treat, as the mosques and religious monuments of Mecca and Medina are not only the most venerated locations in all of Islam, but they also dazzle the eyes with their sublime beauty. Medina is ground zero for the annual Hajj, a pilgrimage that every able-bodied and able-financed Muslim must make during their lifetime.
Within Mecca, the sight that must be seen whether you are here inside or outside of the main pilgrimage season should be the Kaaba, an extremely sacred cuboid structure considered to be situated directly underneath heaven. It is contained within the Al-Masjid al-Haram, which is the most sacred mosque in the world as a result. Hajj pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times as one of the requirements of their pilgrimage here.
In Medina, the second mosque ever built, Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, contains the burial site of none other than the prophet Muhammad himself, making this the second holiest site in all of Islam. Not surprisingly, this mosque is the largest in the world by capacity, and its design, from the minarets to the tiles beneath your bare feet, is all dramatically stunning … bring your camera.
For those that are stuck on the outside of these religious cities like kids that got cut from their school’s soccer team, the next attraction will be one of the best places to go in Saudi Arabia insofar as historical significance.
Declared Saudi’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Madain Saleh is an ancient city that was in existence before Islam existed as a faith, and bears many similarities to Petra, a relatively short distance away in Jordan. Still in the early stages of development, access to the site is difficult, not eased by the fact that many locals refuse to enter the site due to its reference in the Qur’an as an unclean place.
In the capital city of Riyadh, the Masmak Fort is the biggest point of historical interest. It has been beautifully re-constructed in recent years, and its interior contains a museum that tells the tale of the reconquest of this desert castle and Riyadh from occupiers in 1902, as well educating visitors of the many ways Saudi society has advanced since the discovery of oil in the 1930’s.
Representing one of the biggest expanses of sand dune seas in the world, the Empty Quarter is a place of meditative silence. Despite the perception that this place is lifeless, nomadic herders still tread these powdery hills with their livestock to this day, and small rodents and insects such as scorpions still manage to eke out an existence in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, where less than 30 millimetres of rain falls per year, and summer temperatures soar above 50 degrees Celsius!
Needless to say, if you go out with a tour group, ensure that your provisions are enough to survive on if you get in trouble, and that your communications/GPS equipment is functioning properly for obvious reasons.
Finally, many expat groups in Saudi Arabia rave on and on about the high quality of the SCUBA diving available in the Red Sea off the coast of Jeddah, one of the largest coastal cities in the country.
Being very conservative, the locals haven’t had a reason to seek out this sport, but foreign workers have had pristine coral reefs in some of the clearest water in the world to ogle at for many years. If you are a dive fanatic, join them on a trip and you’ll quickly find out what all the commotion is about!
What To Eat
As stated in many of the other guides on countries in the Middle East, the cuisine throughout the region tends to be very similar from one nation to the next. Kabsa is the national dish here, which is virtually the same as Machbous, the favoured meal of many Qataris.
Likewise, many Saudis enjoy indulging in Shawarma, a kebab-like dish that is made by roasting meat on a spit for long periods of time, being served as is on a plate, or wrapped up in a flatbread with various vegetables.
Mandi, a dish that is popular in Yemen, but has also found a following here as well, is made by cooking lamb in a tandoor oven, then mixing it with rice and spices in a pot. It is a well-loved meal, especially in the winter when temperatures get close to freezing at night in the interior.