Key to The Kingdom

Saudi Arabia used to be a tough “get”: they were not much interested in foreign tourists so there were no tourist visas issued. The only legal entry was via a work visa or a business visa.  Those few successful travelers came in via pretextual business visas.


No more, under the progressive Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Sultan, or MBS as he is widely known, women can drive, movie theaters are allowed, and the country is wide open to tourism.  I have joined a couple of Greek gals who have a two week itinerary plotted out but are in need of a third for car rental, driving, and cost-sharing.


I fly to the capital, Ridayh and overnight before a connecting flight to our meet-up in Abha, 600 miles to the southeast, close to the border with Yemen.



Abha is in the Asir Mountains.  Saudis visit in the summer because the climate is cooler than that of the desert,  but receives few foreign visitors.  The sight of two Western women is enough for cars to stop in the road so the drivers (men) can jump out and take a picture.  The women want selfies with them as well.  Me?  I’m not so much a sensation 



The next day we hit the road.  The first stop is Al Sahab Mountain Park.  A drive to a mountainside lookout yields mostly fog and clouds.


We proceed to Sowdah National Park, which turns out to be closed entirely.  We are slightly discouraged, but the ubiquitous baboons aren’t.  They have figured out that hanging out at the roadside scenic viewpoints pays off in terms of food handouts from motorists.



A very winding and steep road brings us to the heritage village of Rijal Almah.  It’s a museum village that looks exactly like the ones people still inhabit in Yemen.



The interiors showcase the distinctive geometric design decor  of the region.



Back to Abha for the night.  The next day we set out on a road trip to Jazan on the Red Sea. We take the scenic route via the mountaintop village of Fayfa on a road called the most dangerous in Saudi Arabia.  As you expect in at rich country, the roads here are quite good.  They have also paved what were basically goat paths through the mountains — the resulting roads are very narrow, twisting, and steep.  Rarely can one (meaning “I”) exceed 10 mph or shift up from the lowest gears.  The scenery, though, is worth it.



Jazan doesn’t have much to offer.  There is an old Ottoman fort and a heritage tourist village (but no tourists).



In the morning, back to Abha this time via the desert highway. The trip takes only takes one-third the time of the mountain route.



We are back in time for Founder’s Day, a newly-declared national holiday.  As this is the first one, no one knows what to expect.  Everybody gets dressed up and converges on the area opposite the regional governate.  




After some distant speechifying then the venue opens to the public.  We queue up and finally make it inside only to discover that in all the event planning they forgot the actual entertainment.  Apart from a couple of photo displays and video screens, nothing is going on.  Yet more and more are clamoring to get in.  After I while I give up and head back to the hotel.  The streets are thronged with would-be merrymakers.  Unlike similar gatherings you may have seen, none of this is alcohol-fueled — the word may be derived from Arabic, but in this strict Muslim country alcohol is absolutely forbidden.



To avoid a ten-hour drive to Ridayh, I turn in the car and fly. Urban driving in the kingdom is both dangerous and frustrating.  First, everyone drive like maniacs.  Accidents abound.  Second, the main roads are divided highways without cross streets: if you want to turn left, you need to drive until you reach a u-turn and then backtrack.  To reach a destination a mile away you can easily put ten miles on the odometer.  And pedestrians have it even worse: without a car there is no way to get to the other side of the street.


Having picked up another rental car, we drive to Buridah.  Aside from being a convenient stopping point is is home to the world’s largest camel market.


It being a Friday, when everything is closed, there is no actual buying and selling activity taking place.  However the wares are on open display.


Camels may be "ships of the desert", but when it comes to bring one's purchases home it's all diesel-powered.



Buraydah is also home to Dates CIty — no, not the headquarters of, but the fruit of the desert palm.  Since dates are not kept in outdoor pens, there’s really nothing to see on a Friday.

On the way we stop at two more “heritage villages,” -- more like abandoned mud settlements. Prior to the influx of petrocash, this is how ordinary Saudis lived.

The first is Shaqra.



Another is Ushayqir.


There is a local museum with a hodgepodge of old stuff and junk.


The overnight stopover is Ha’il.  Not a lot here but in the center is Qishlah Fortress and on the edge of town is the hilltop Airif Fort.



On the third day out from Ridyadh we reach our goal.  Your seen pictures of Petra in Jordan — it was built by the Nabateans.  Their southern capital was Hegra at an oasis with the Arabic name Al Ula.

Apart from the archeological area there is Al Ula Old Town, largely abandoned and a tourist village.  Overlooking both and the surrounding date palm fields is an Ottoman-era citadel. The oasis has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and was a stop on the Hadj route to Mecca.



The surrounding sandstone formations are quite scenic.  The most famous is Elephant Rock.




Coinciding with our visit is Al Ula's hosting of “Desert X”, an international contemporary art exhibition of the droppings of talentless artists from many lands. Scads of money have been spent on temporary buildings and infrastructure in a desolate canyon a few miles from the town. A fleet of fancy buses takes you out there and scores of giant golf carts shuttle you around fifteen pointless installations where docents parrot some explanatory nonsense. Piles of sand, mylar pillows, paint-splashed rocks -- it's The Emporer's New Clothes on steroids. At the end of the show, it will all be razed. Somewhere the “international art community” is laughing up their collective sleeves at bamboozling the Saudis to bankroll this idiocy.




Thence southwards to Medina, home of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH, as one MUST append).  The city is open to visitors; what is haram (forbidden to infidels) is the Prophet’s Mosque, where he lived, governed his followers, and is buried.  It is the second largest mosque in the world with a capacity of one and a half million worshippers.


The hotel lobby displays a continuous feed from the Mosque. Luckily, we have met a Saudi friend from Ridyadh who invites us to join him for afternoon prayers.  (Devout Muslims pray five times a day.)  In an attempt to blend in, I don a shalwar kameez that I brought from Pakistan and join the throngs streaming in. Most the attendees are pilgrims from various Muslim countries.  I try to look inconspicous as thousand of worshippers stand, kneel, and bow in unison




We then join the queue for a “Prophet Visit”, consisting of filing by Muhammed’s tomb. The line is kept moving to prevent anyone (i.e. Shiites) from stopping to pray — the Sunnis are quite adamant against praying to a man.  On the other side of the tomb is the Noble Rawdah, a small courtyard where Muhammad used to pray.



Across from the mosque is the high-tech, interactive, newly-opened and thoroughly boring International Exhibition and Museum of the Life of the Prophet and Islamic Civilization, featuring the dullest 3-D movie I’ve even seen.  The most entertaining part is the tour guide's constant but friendly exhortations addressed to his “brothers and sisters”to maintain strict sexual segregation and not intermingle.

Afterward my new friend takes me shopping where I get kitted out properly.


This costume serves me well for the ultimate destination, the holy and haram city of Mecca.  Because Mecca and Medina are so often referred to in a single phrase, I had the notion that they are twin cities, but in actuality they are 250 miles apart.  Outside of the annual hadj, a pilgrimage to Mecca is called an umrah for which we have pre-registered.and obtained timed electronic permits.


We approach from the north, pasings three checkpoints, two of which are unmanned and at the third they are monitoring the truck lane. (The penalty for infidels is a fine, immediate deportation, a a lifetime ban from the country.) Apart from luck, our unchallenged entry is probably due to the fact that resident foreigners don’t dare it, there are very few western tourists in the whole country,  and no tour company will bring non-Muslims.  Some other adventurous travelers have done this before us; should a lot more try I think the game will be over

Mecca has numerous holy sites, but the big enchilada is the Grand Mosque containing the Kaaba — the cubical shrine covered in black cloth to which Muslims the world over face when they pray.  Depending who you want to believe, it was built in pre-Islamic times, by Abraham, or even Adam. The surrounding structure has been expanding many times, currently has a capacity of four million (!!!!) worshippers and is being expanded again.  Overlooking it is the world largest clock tower, containing practically an entire city containing a multi-level shopping mall and several hotels.


We enter the Mosque, which seems to go on forever.  Pilgrims from all over are praying and studying inside and out.  At the entrance to the Kaaba, I am turned back — even though I have an entry permit  it turns out that men must been attired in ihram, which is nothing but two unsewn pieces of white cloth.  (Women only need abide by the regular dress code.). I had examined photographs prior of men dressed “ordinary”, but I later learn that those pictures were taken during the hadj when ihram is not required..  So, no Kaaba for me.


Instead, I take a premium Kaaba-view hotel room in the Clock Tower, from which I am able to observe the faithful performing the ritual seven perambulations of the shrine.



Kaaba or no, I am severely pleased with myself for having made it to and into Mecca, an experience which I am sure I will never be able to repeat.

The next day I leave for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city and the main gateway to Mecca.   Driving out on the 12 lane highway, I see  inbound cars backed up at what appears to be a serious checkpoint; road signs direct non-Muslims to exit and bypass the city.  So, coming in from Medina proved to be quite fortuitous.


Forty miles from Mecca, Jeddah is an ancient city on the Red Sea. Significant since the 7th century it has a partially preserved and partially restored old town featuring distinctive architecture.



The modern city of 5 million is mostly glass and steel. I am not much for shopping centers and amusement parks, so two days here is plenty.



Again eschewing a 600 mile drive across the desert, I turn in the car and fly back to Riyadh.  The capital of the kingdom is an ugly, dusty, sandblasted, charmless, very modern city of seven million.  On its outskirts is, Diriyah, the traditional seat of the house of Saud, which currenyly being redeveloped into a major tourist and entertainment center.  Unfortunately, during this process it is completely closed to visitors.


Unless you like skyscrapers and shopping malls, there are only two places worth visiting in Riyadh.  The first is Masmak Fortress where, in 1902 Abdulaziz  a/k/a ibn Saud and a small band of loyalists captured the fort. 

He went on the conquer and unify most of the rest of Arabia, modestly naming it after himself.  In 1932 he declared the establishment of the Kingdom.  Oil was discovered in 1938, and the rest is history.

The interior of the fort  is mostly devoted to the glorification of the 1902 event and the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty.  He was succeeded by six of his 45 sons, including the current king.


Afterwards we stop for a coffee in front of the headquarters of The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Dubbed by Western wags as “Chop-Chop Square”,

until recently this was the venue for public beheadings; these days the image-conscience Saudis conduct their executions indoors without prior announcement. 


The other venue worth of a visit is the National Museum.  The best parts are from the pre-Islamic civilizations, with the rest mostly on the theme of the Kings' role as, to use one of their official titles, Custodians Of The Two Holy Mosques.



That’s it.  Two weeks in country.  I’ve seen a lot but not all.  Maybe next time.

Trip date: February, March 2022