I had been waiting for years to figure out a way to reach Saudi Arabia on my quest to travel to every country of the world. Being one of the closest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia recently made a 180-degree shift of policy to open its doors in a bid to kick-start tourism in the country. Not only did they start issuing tourist visas for special events starting late 2018, but it also has plans to build a touristic city a little bit in the style of Qatar and Dubai in the middle of the desert, and is already starting to invite several countries to come since 2018. I took advantage of a recent event called Jeddah Seasons to finally being able to explore the Kingdom after years investigating all the possible ways to come. This marked my 193rd country visited out of the 196 in the world.
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A long due trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
I planned my trip about 3 days prior to travel since I managed to secure a Sharek Visa reserved for a handful of countries and recently available for Canadian too, who had been excluded following political tensions between the two nations. I didn’t want to miss my chance to be able to take advantage of this new opening, since no warm up in relations had been officially announced by neither authorities and as I have learnt from the past, it can take years to be able to come to a country after a missed opportunity (As was the case for Syria for example which I missed a chance to go 6 months prior to the civil war in 2011).
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I arrived in Jeddah for the very first edition of Jeddah Seasons, a new festival that will be hosted yearly and that lasts just over 1 month, intended to promote tourism and a “Festive Side” of Saudi Arabia. It is basically held in old Jeddah and on the Jeddah waterFront where several concerts and parades take place, all of which seemed to be composed mostly of foreign artists. There was a troop of about 50 Flamenco dancers from Spain which I had the chance to meet, as well as a “Rio de Janeiro” style parade with circus-like participants, very disorganized and mostly “same and usual” for most foreign attendees, but was somehow exciting for Saudis as they have not been able to see such type of artists in the past for having such restrictive laws. In Saudi Arabia, prior to the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, it was practically impossible to take part in festivities, even gathering. This is all a good step forward but still, heavy restrictions are still in place.
For example, It still isn’t officially possible nowadays for two person of the opposite sex that are not family related to be walking or sitting side by side. Singing for women is even still prohibited. In Jeddah though, these measures seem to be taken with a grain of salt these days, but are still sharply enforced around the country and especially in the Capital Riyadh. Some laws seemed to be going backwards though such as the dress code for example. Just a few weeks prior to visiting, people were now prohibited by law to wear shorts in public! Seems kind of harsh in a country where the thermometer can go well over 50 degrees in the summer.
Jeddah and the old town of Jeddah
The old town of Jeddah was for me the highlight of my trip to Saudi Arabia and had been specially polished for the Jeddah Seasons festival with colourful light shows and musical events. Having seen Jeddah only in its “best days” during a festival, it sure felt like a magical place. However, I cannot say how it looks outside these times, as prior to travel, I have read reports of Old Jeddah being an abandoned place where, still today, the muddy-faced of old traditional Arabic houses are falling apart and many are left in ruins. The balconies are a delight to marvel though and make for great picture opportunities. During the day, with the thermometer constantly over 40 degrees Celcius, streets were pretty empty as I discovered for myself on my first day. I still didn’t know that Saudis only go out at night and streets fill up from after the last prayer (around 9 pm) to around 1 am.
Other than the old town and the corniche at the waterfront, there is not much to do around the city as a tourist. Most people seemed to spend their time around the numerous malls and cafes around the city. Being so close to the holy mosque of Mecca just a few kilometres away and Medina a few kilometres further, it was a shame not being allowed to visit these two fascinating places, as they are restricted to Muslims only. I don’t know exactly why such restrictive measures are in place, since most holy sites around the world such as the Vatican and Buddhist temples are open to everyone, even to Muslims… but people say it would be too crowded if they permitted non-muslims. Who knows if this will change in the future, as there were rumours when I was there of expansions of the holy sites. There were even plans to destroy the newly built Abraj Al-Bait Towers which is right off of the Mosque, in order to expand Mecca. This is what you can do when you’re insanely rich from oil money I guess…
Visiting the Capital, Riyadh
Arriving in Riyadh is a totally different story. Jeddah is kind of used to be a hub for all nationalities that come to do their Pilgrimage at Mecca, so it is seen as international and more flexible. Riyadh is more of a Raw Saudi experience where traditions and local customs are fully observed. The dress code, for example, is strictly enforced and women must wear the Black Abaya at all times in public. The highlight to my visit in Riyadh was probably my visit to Masmak Fort, one of the only remnants of any piece of history remaining in the capital. Actually, the fort itself doesn’t represent much history as it is just about 150 years old and being so young shows just how much the country doesn’t have much history at all compared to other neighbouring countries like Syria and Iran, still having inhabited cities dating over 8000 years!
It is understandable though, as only recent technology such as the ability to build wells in the desert could have permitted humans to live in such an inhospitable terrain like the desert with absolutely no freshwater rivers. However, Masmak fort holds a lot of value for Saudis as it was here that the recapture of Riyadh, led by Ibn Saud, occurred on 14 January 1902 … One of my other favourite experience in Riyadh was to eat in a traditional Saudi restaurant called Najd Village. Built in a traditional Saudi fashion, with mud walls and traditional Arabic artefacts all around the restaurant, they serve Saudi dishes such as the delish Hashi Kabsa, being rice over Camel Meat. The meat was surprisingly soft and tender, and eating in this beautiful setup should be a must for anyone visiting Riyadh. I ended up insisting to go a second time on my last day to have a chance to sample it once again.
My Experience in Saudi Arabia
In had a positive experience in Saudi Arabia in General, as I had the chance to meet many locals and expats through a travel community (Couchsurfing) who offered to guide me around Jeddah and Riyadh as well as to introduce me to other members and activities around the city. The community is very active in Saudi Arabia as it is such a prohibitive country (no bars allowed, no gatherings allowed) that the travel community serves as a network to meet other expats that are working in the country. I met mostly foreigners, mainly Egyptians and Philipinos, being the predominant nationalities who work in Saudi Arabia, as well as a few other nationalities and a handful of Saudis. I feel very fortunate that I met them as they all took the extra mile to show me as much as possible of the country in the short week that I had planned. Have they not been there, I can imagine a very different experience, probably negative as it is very hard to get around Saudi Cities! A car is essential to have as Jeddah and Riyadh are spread over 50 kilometres in length or more and with these high temperatures, I quickly figured that walking outside during daytime was not possible…
There are also so many laws to respect that without the help of someone with knowledge of them, I would have certainly run into trouble! For example, there are strict rules about how families and singles are separated everywhere. Women have their own section and even lines in most shops and restaurants, and it is strictly forbidden for males not with their family to enter these sections. Many restaurants are completely reserved for women and families, and even an entire Starbucks which was entirely reserved for women and families. There was also one of the biggest shopping malls in Riyadh next to my hotel where I intended to go (in the Kingdom Tower, the tallest tower of the country) where singles are not even allowed to go in! Other subtle details such as looking in the eyes of women can also get a tourist jailed… I also heard reports of friends that the hierarchical system makes that Saudis have priority on anybody in the country, with foreigners coming second in terms of rights… These kind of laws are certainly very hard for me to follow and spending more than a week would weight in on my ability to enjoy my time freely in Saudi Arabia.
Is it morally acceptable to Travel to Saudi Arabia with all the bad press?
There has been a lot of bad press around Saudi Arabia’s practices in terms of human rights and international bullying practices… Being Canadian, I certainly read my share of bad press as my country had severe clashes with the kingdom denouncing the jailing of several bloggers last year, which resulted in Saudi Arabia to recall their ambassador as well as “punish” Canada by bringing back home over 10000 Saudi Students and close all ties with the country. It was highly seen as exaggerated by many countries and mostly a move to show the world how it will react to international pressure if they want to mess around with them… It was not the first time a foreign country accused the Saudi government of human rights abuse, as Sweden has done in 2015 and Germany as well by banning Arms sales to the kingdom, but they never received the same attacks from the Saudis as with Canada. Whenever I mentioned my nationality to Saudis during my visit, everybody in Saudi Arabia knew very well about the tensions, and I heard several times a little “ohhh” and “really…”, as if we were in the same basket as Saudis enemies such as Iran… This is an isolated case but not the only one, as Saudi Arabia has repeatedly abused its powers in the last years, such as in the Kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister in 2017, the jailing of over 50 royal family members and princes in the kingdom, The bloody war in Yemen which resulted in one of the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history, the funding of jihadist in the Syrian Civil war, as well as in the Kashoggi assassination in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Should travellers have a moral responsibility in supporting this behaviour by accepting to travel to Saudi Arabia?
Personally, I decided to go as I am an observer and I travel to all the countries of the world regardless of political and religious practices. As a travel blogger and world adventurer, I am a spectator to the world, and I believe I have the duty to report on my findings and to compare them between each other to form a general opinion without taking sides. I chose not to express my political views on this blog and stay neutral as much as possible, in the optic to focus my articles on the theme of travel, culture and adventure. However, I believe one should question the morality of supporting a country such as Saudi Arabia, and their actions in the past 5 years must be taken seriously. If Saudi Arabia wants to attract international tourism, it will have to clean up its act and behave in a way that is acceptable and with respect to basic human rights. They will need to understand that there is a way to behave with countries around the world in nowadays societies and that bullying is not an option. Europe has accomplished a long way since barbarism of medieval times and ordered killings on foreign soil are definitely not acceptable anymore. Travellers should keep that in mind and educate themselves on the current situation and decide for themselves if Saudi Arabia’s behaviour is in accordance with their personal values and beliefs. As for me, I will see how the situation evolves in the future to decide if I go again. One thing is sure, Saudi Arabia is determined in attracting foreigners by spending big money in organizing Important international events, concerts and shows. So don’t be surprised if you end up in the kingdom in the next few years to see your favourite band perform, or your football team perform!
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