WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN VISITING SAUDI ARABIA: AN INSIDE LOOK
On my connecting flight from Istanbul to Riyadh, it was announced that no alcohol would be served. He reminded that the plane would land in the world’s most conservative Islamic state.
A country where cultural norms require Saudis to dress a certain way. They wear an abaya, a long black cloak over their clothes. They also wear a hijab, a black scarf to cover the hair and a black niqab to cover the face.
It is also a country where sharia has allowed the Mutawa, the religious police, to arrest a man and a woman simply because they were an unmarried couple drinking coffee together at Starbucks.
A country where a woman was not allowed to go to a restaurant where men sit. Instead, they had to go into a separate room to serve.
A country I would see fighter jets flying over after bombing Yemen. The war is known as the “Forgotten War“. I would remind you of the suffering that happens there.
HOW CAN I LIVE IN SAUDI ARABIA
For these reasons and more, Saudi Arabia probably won’t be on your list of “must-see” travel destinations. It wasn’t mine either. But life circumstances brought me there to become a teacher of English as a foreign language.
When I accepted a teaching position at Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, the largest women’s university in the world, worried friends asked me, “Aren’t you afraid to go there?” No, I wasn’t scared at all and in fact I was looking forward to the experience and the reward was great.
Four years later, I left with a new sense of adventure and lifelong memories. I have seen Saudi Arabia through the eyes of a foreigner, and I have experienced the country in the midst of change and seen landscapes that no one else has.
THE BEAUTY OF THE ARAB DESERT
The Arabian Desert is a beautiful place. Whether you walk on rocky compacted sand or enjoy the softness of the red sand, ideal for sandboarding or dune buggy riding outside the Riad.
About a two hour drive away you can visit “The Edge of the World”. This is a well-known stop in the desert for Saudis and foreigners alike. Although it is never busy. An unmarked road through the desert from the highway ends above an endless desert lined with massive stone pillars. Such pillars can easily be imagined far under the sea before the rift in the earth’s crust separated the Arabian Peninsula from Africa.
Farther east, in Dammam, the dunes rise high into the sky, where you can play in the world’s largest sandbox. The sand is soft and smooth, unlike much of the desert around Riyadh where the sand is often interwoven with stones and rocks. However, both are equally beautiful.
USE HOSPITALITY AND TRADITIONAL MARKETS
But there is more to Saudi Arabia than the desert and the beautiful faces of camels. It is a land of legendary hospitality. A place where people want to share their culture, food, history and conversation.
You will be treated to Bedouin hospitality, which traditionally begins with dates and small Arabic cups in a three-sided tent. Then a communal meal is served, where everyone sits on the floor on colorful rugs and shares rice and lap-roasted lamb.
A visit to the souq, a traditional market, is a must. You’ll find everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to shops full of trinkets. In addition, antique silver jewelry and handmade gold necklaces, earrings and bracelets.
Sure, merchants will “…offer you a special price today” on anything you want to buy (but without negotiating the gold price).
Chances are, you’ll come home with a handwoven rug whose colors are too good to leave behind. Or maybe a gold necklace or earrings that remind you of a shopkeeper who takes the time to offer you sweet mint tea and chat about jewelry design.
VISION 2030 ACTION FOR FORMAL CHANGE
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud opened Saudi Arabia to tourists in 2019 as part of his Vision 2030 program to lead his country into the 21st century. Probably also in the understanding that the supply of oil is dwindling and that tourism could provide much-needed income in the future.
Outdoor theaters now play all kinds of music, and men and women, married or single, can enjoy it together. Singers and performers such as Mariah Carey and Sean Paul recently took the stage together.
I remember one of my students raving about Korean culture and food and even teaching himself a few phrases about the language.
However, some artists, such as Nicki Minaj, have canceled their performances to protest the violation of the rights of women and the LGBTQ community in the Kingdom.
The claim was that the crown prince only allowed music concerts to improve the country’s image of him. These statements may be true, but change continues.
WOMEN LIVE MORE FREEDOM
Foreign women no longer have to wear abayas or cover their hair. Alcohol is still banned, although there is talk of allowing it in hotels frequented by foreigners.
Cinemas have opened and, perhaps more importantly, women have been allowed to drive since 2018, making work even more accessible for them.
Professions such as police officer and lawyer, which were previously only for men, are now open to women. They now make up about 52% of the university’s student population.
In the past, stoning was the punishment for adultery, but this practice no longer exists. Additionally, whiplash for so-called “moral crimes” rarely, if ever, occurs. Religious tolerance is on the rise and mutawa no longer roam the streets looking for Sharia violations.
There is a lot to enjoy and learn in Saudi Arabia. A culture festival of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries takes place every February outside Riyadh. Here, people like to tell visitors about their country and they want to know more about their country in return.
I have attended the festival twice and was invited to sit with Saudi women, one of whom gave me a bottle of water from Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Another gave me delicious cookies, ma’amoul, filled with dates, made in Qassim province, north of Riyadh.
MANY REASONS TO VISIT SAUDI ARABIA
It is unlikely that you have ever been to a beauty contest on a camel or have ever heard of and participated in the tradition of falconry. It’s also unlikely that you’ve slept in a Bedouin tent under the stars of the Empty Quarter.
Tai visited Abha, where tall mud houses were built on the mountain slopes and could only be accessed by ropes, keeping the Ottoman warriors at bay.
You’ve probably never walked the historic streets of Jeddah and seen ornate wooden windows designed to let in fresh air but protect women from prying eyes. I did not dive or snorkel in the Red Sea. But all this and more is available.
I still miss the kingdom, its hospitality, culture, hot sandy deserts. On a trip to Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, I came across this sign on the beach: “You may shake the sand off your shoes, but it will never leave your soul.” How true that saying has become for me.
LAST THOUGHTS FOR TODAY’S GUESTS IN SAUDI ARABIA
When I decided to take a teaching job in Saudi Arabia, friends asked me if I was afraid to go. Others have since told me that this is a country they would never visit, mainly due to the country’s human rights abuses, including the way women are treated, the death of a dissident Saudi journalist, and the general perception that the Middle East is a dangerous place. Place.
Instead I found a country that has opened up to the 21st century, where many restrictions have disappeared. I’ve never been afraid, even traveling alone; in fact, I felt welcome everywhere.
I am often asked about my time in the Kingdom if I should wear an abaya and cover my hair and the answer is “Yes”. At the time, all women had to wear the abaya and cover their hair with a scarf, but the niqab, the face covering required by the Saudis, was not necessary for foreign women.
Everything has changed since then. Foreign women are now allowed to go out without abayas, but are asked to dress modestly, with no tops, shorts or tights.