Out of the desert shadows: Saudi Arabia is handing out tourist visas in a bid to change its image. The Mail was the first in the queue – for an enthralling Arabian adventure
- The Saudis are allowing the citizens of 49 countries to obtain instant tourist e-visas in a bid to boost tourism
- Under new rules unmarried Western couples can now share hotel rooms while on holiday in the country
- Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hopes by 2030 there will be 30 million of us visiting Saudi Arabi
Sunset on the Riyadh Sky Bridge — and it’s like nowhere I’ve ever been before. Its 65-metre span doesn’t arch over a river or a railway. Instead, below us, there is a thousand feet of desert air.
The bridge is inside the top floor of the Kingdom Tower, the dominant landmark in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Imagine a glossy, metallic-blue skyscraper with a huge V-shaped chunk taken out of the top floors. The bridge links the top bits of the ‘V’. Expats call it ‘the bottle opener’.
The sky’s the limit: The Saudis are allowing the citizens of 49 countries to obtain instant tourist e-visas in a bid to change its image. Pictured are hot air balloons in Al Ula
The Sky Bridge offers epic views of this sprawling Arabian desert megacity, a pinkish-tawny expanse of low-rise concrete buildings with three or four clusters of skyscrapers. There is also plenty of wasteland awaiting the next big architectural statement.
Another extraordinary thing about this scene, frankly, is me. I was sloshing through the Chilterns with the dog when news broke that, for the first time, the Saudis are to allow the citizens of 49 countries to obtain instant tourist e-visas.
I was first in line and, within two days, I was standing under a poster at Heathrow Airport showing a tropical beach surrounded by turquoise seas, with the strapline: ‘This is not The Maldives. This is Saudi.’
And the visas and ads are only the start. Crucially, the Saudis have announced that unmarried Western couples can share hotel rooms while on holiday in the country (though not, as yet, same-sex couples). Old Saudi hands can scarcely believe it.
Unexpected delights: A street in Jeddah’s Old Town. This reconstruction of the medieval sea port includes the Gate to Makkah (Mecca)
By 2030, there may be 30 million of us visiting Saudi. That is the target set by the 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or ‘MBS’, the controversial figure bringing about nothing short of a social and economic revolution in the country.
Back at the Sky Bridge, I take a lift down to my hotel, the Four Seasons, also in the Kingdom Tower. In my Birkenstocks and linen trousers, I stick out like a surfer dude at a Buckingham Palace garden party — not because I am Western, but because I am so obviously a tourist, perhaps the first proper one of this new era.
Come back in two, five or ten years and the lobby may be a sea of Hawaiian shirts and flip flops.
WHAT TO DO IN SAUDI ARABIA
Masmak Fort: Site of the daring raid that led to the Saudis recapturing Riyadh from the Ottomans.
The National Museum of Saudi Arabia: Impressive, un-gimmicky tour of Saudi Arabia from pre-Islamic times to modern day.
Edge of the World: Book a 4×4 guide to reach this epic, Lawrence of Arabia landscape two hours from Riyadh.
Mada’in Saleh: Saudi Arabia’s Petra; an ancient Nabatean city preserved by the desert air.
Old Town Jeddah: This reconstruction of the medieval sea port includes the Gate to Makkah (Mecca).
King Fahd’s Fountain, Jeddah: Jets of water reach 1,000ft high.
Umluj: The ‘Saudi Maldives’ on the Red Sea. Empty white beaches, coral reefs — and, unlike the Maldives, a mountain backdrop and archeological sites, too.
Neom: Describing itself as ‘the world’s most ambitious project’, this is a £312 billion city of the future on (and across) the Red Sea border with Jordan. We’re promised flying cars, dinosaur robots and a giant artificial moon.
The Four Seasons, jointly owned by a Saudi prince and Bill Gates, is gearing up to get a slice of those 30 million.
The Saudi hierarchy is certainly not understating how momentous this change is. ‘We are opening our economy. We are opening our society. Now we open our home and open our hearts to guests from around the world’ was how one bigwig put it at the glitzy event to announce the visa news.
First to open in the initial phase will be heritage sites and huge projects such as the futuristic Neom city on the Red Sea.
You will need some help on the ground. I meet the Four Seasons’ guest experience manager Ahmed, who sets himself the tasks of a) getting you into places that you might not normally get into; and b) cheerfully discussing any rumours, legends and gossip you may have brought with you along with your factor-50 sunblock.
Ahmed introduces me to Saudi travel video blogger Yousef AlSudais. We talk over fresh juices in the lobby — no cold beers here, obviously. Come to think of it, if you’re planning a dry January, then a trip to Saudi might be just the job.
Yousef reminds me that Saudi is the 12th-largest country in the world. While most of its 830,000 square miles are inhospitable desert, there is surprising diversity, too.
‘We’ve got tropical islands, green mountains in the south and snow in the north,’ he says. Though he wouldn’t recommend Riyadh in summer, Yousef adds that even in August you can find variety and respite.
He recommends taking the country one region at a time. If I were more of a beach person, I’d be tempted by those ‘Maldives’ posters, even though Yousef says: ‘There’s no one there!’ The coastal city of Jeddah is relatively artier and relaxed. True, that’s a big ‘relatively’ in a country that, until now, strived to be the most conservative Islamic state on Earth.
But I choose Riyadh, which is the heart of the modern Saudi state — and the family that, uniquely in the world, gave its name to the country.
Under new rules unmarried Western couples can now share hotel rooms while on holiday in the country. Pictured is cosmopolitan Jeddah’s landscaped coastline
With a population of nearly seven million and covering 700 square miles, Riyadh is not one of those Middle Eastern cities where you can stroll around outdoor souks or rest outside cafes, smoking a hubbly bubbly.
Its grid system is modelled on American cities and designed around the car — I found myself comparing it to Houston or Phoenix.
Those baking-hot cities are not the loveliest places in the world, and neither is Riyadh. But it has some unforgettable sites.
WHAT NOT TO DO…
Dress: Women no longer need wear the black abaya, and Westerners need not cover their hair in most places. But dress modestly — no shorts and, for many women, the abaya is still the most practical garment.
The opposite sex: Strict segregation laws have been relaxed, but some places do still have segregated zones.
Prayers: You will hear the call to prayer five times a day. It’s polite to offer your guide or driver the chance to halt your tour for this.
Politics: Beware of openly criticising the monarchy.
Alcohol: Drinking is prohibited in Saudi Arabia so don’t take the risk.
Drugs: Zero tolerance — execution if you’re caught.
We have lunch at Najd Village, a traditional restaurant with cosy, carpeted rooms around a central courtyard. When Ahmed takes off his headdress, I realise something unusual about him: he’s Chinese. His Muslim family fled Mao and arrived in Riyadh via Cairo in 1957.
The Arabs and Chinese certainly have one thing in common: they are great over-orderers of food. Ahmed’s hospitality requires us to take away two shopping bags full of uneaten spicy rice and yoghurty lamb.
In the evening, we head to Diriyah, a ruined fort 20 minutes’ drive from Riyadh — rather longer if you have to wait, as we did, for the king and his cavalcade to pass through.
Diriyah’s adobe walls have been reinforced and sculpted. From a distance, it looks like some modernist villa in New Mexico. Within the walls is a warren of streets and museum exhibits, including a fascinating one about the story of the Arabian horse.
If Mecca and Medina are sacred to all Arabs, Diriyah is the heart and soul of the Saudis.
The Saudi clan emerged in Diriyah around 600 years ago. They used it as their base, as, inspired by the teachings of the early 18th-century religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, their emirate set about conquering and forming alliances with neighbours in the desert and far beyond.
Eventually, that first Saudi empire incurred the wrath of the mighty Ottoman empire. That’s why Diriyah’s fort is a ruin: in 1818, it was sacked by the Ottomans.
The Saudis waited for their chance. In 1902, with the Ottoman empire in decline, they mounted a daring dawn raid on Riyadh’s Masmak fort (another site well worth visiting).
The second Saudi empire arose in triumph. In 1932, after the turmoil of World War I, and with oil riches just around the corner, King Abdulaziz announced the creation of the third state, and modern Saudi Arabia came into being.
High ride: Cable cars in the breathtaking Abha mountains
That story is told in spectacular fashion at Diriyah. As night falls, I am ushered to a small grandstand to watch the dun-coloured wall turn fluorescent green, pink and orange. Under a crescent moon (a real one), stirring Arabic music begins and flames creep up the walls. They become palm trees, then morph into street scenes, battles and festivals.
The 3D light show, with the fort as the screen, is thrilling — but I am the only one watching. The presentation ends with an image of the Crown Prince projected on to the highest tower, next to and slightly behind his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. MBS: heir, reformer and, you suspect, scriptwriter.
You may have seen him on a smaller screen lately, stating that he takes ‘full responsibility as a leader’ for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but denying that he personally ordered the killing.
Adventure: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hopes by 2030 there will be 30 million of us visiting Saudi Arabi. ‘Dune-bashing’ in the desert (above) is one of the draws for tourists
Yet, within Saudi, he represents hope and progress for a country where around half the population is under 25. The Crown Prince is no Prince Charles, searching for a role until his turn comes. The tourism revolution, the building of the futuristic Neom city on the Red Sea, the fact that women can now drive, attend university and act with far more freedom — that’s MBS.
It is 40 years since Muslim extremists seized the Mecca mosque and tried to overthrow the House of Saud. The latter’s response: executions, then a concerted campaign to be more socially conservative than their most conservative opponents.
Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son have called time on that era.
The island of Umluj in the new advertising campaign
After the film, I am joined by a Diriyah guide, Malak. She is in her early 20s and recently graduated after studying English translation. The revolution in tourism promises her a long career. Those words would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. I’m a Westerner alone with a Saudi woman. She has been to university. She is planning a career.
Malak looks elegant in her fitted waistcoat and tailored abaya. She is also wearing a full hijab — the veil. Does she mind if I ask why? Not at all. It’s because she prefers to do so.
Everyone I meet is keen (overkeen?) that I realise how dress is a matter of personal choice.
Later, we look in at Mono, a trendy art gallery in the Al Mutamarat district. The manager has a floor-length cotton tunic open to show her Western-style jacket and trousers. She says she has never worn a headscarf.
Then there is Noora, training at hotel school in Switzerland. She accompanies us on a desert trip the next day. She has close-cropped hair, tattoos and wears grey jogging pants.
She tells me it will be many years before Saudis find her choices acceptable. But at least her shins are safe from the Muttawa, the feared religious police who would patrol the streets with big sticks, looking for signs of Western dress.
The desert trip begins at 5am. We take a Cadillac 4×4 through the scrubby landscape. A falcon swoops over the thorn bushes. By the side of the dirt track, a small herd of camels gaze at us with curiosity. Eventually, the car pulls up before a gap in the low hills. Just as well.
Over the brow, there is a drop of around 200ft. Beyond it is mile after mile of desert.
It’s a cliché that the desert is like the sea. But how else do you describe this flat, seemingly limitless expanse, the dry, snaking riverbeds making wavelike patterns far into the 900,000 square miles of arid wilderness?
Saudi is the 12th-largest country in the world and the falcon is its national bird. While most of its 830,000 square miles are inhospitable desert, there is surprising diversity, too
A vertiginous path leads to a rocky outcrop. I pick my way to the farthest point, cursing my trainers better suited to a shopping mall. Then I check the map on my phone. I can now say I’ve been to the Edge Of The World.
I had expected this harsh, yet sublime, desert wilderness, but not the welcoming warmth of the Saudi people. A journey here won’t be for everyone. There are rules, which I’d sum up as ‘dress modestly and be respectful’.
As we shake hands at the airport, Ahmed asks what I have enjoyed most about the trip. Just being here, I tell him.
BA (ba.com) flies from London to Riyadh from £641 return. Doubles at the Four Seasons Riyadh (fourseasons.com) cost from £299. Ahmed Yaqoub, the hotel experience manager, can organise excursions. For more information, visit saudi.com.
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