- Alex Reynolds has been travelling the world full time for the past four years.
- In November, she took a three-week trip to Saudi Arabia, prompted by the newly available tourist visa and the relaxed restrictions on solo female travellers.
- Reynolds went everywhere, from the capital of Riyadh to the lesser populated Tabuk region neighbouring Jordan, and experienced firsthand the country’s evolving culture.
- While Reynolds said she would love to return, she advised that more casual travellers may find certain social norms difficult to adapt to.
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For me, a solo, female, non-Muslim traveller allergic to guided tours, Saudi Arabia was a non-option for years.
In recent decades, non-Muslims could enter only on business or transit visas.Muslim pilgrims could transit only through major cities to Mecca and Medina. Women had to be accompanied by male guardians.
Then everything changed in 2019.
Years-old rumours of tourist e-visas became reality for 49 nationalities. Travelling women no longer needed male guardians, and women could drive cars as of 2018. Suddenly, the idea of women travelling in Saudi Arabia went from laughable to very, very plausible. My time had come.
I was on the e-visa portal in a hot second and received my e-visa via WhatsApp 15 minutes later. No exaggeration.
In November, I began my three-week journey, both solo and with friends, through Saudi Arabia. Here’s what it was actually like.
Why did I want to travel to Saudi Arabia in the first place, and was it ethical?
I’m a 20-something American solo traveller and blogger passionate about travelling to countries most tourists overlook. Too many people form opinions about countries and their citizens based on exaggerated news; I prefer to come to my own conclusions.
There are ways to support people over governments. I travelled independently (not on a government-sponsored trip, like many others), stayed with locals and at local hotels, and spent my money at small businesses. Governments and people are separate entities – especially in a totalitarian monarchy like Saudi Arabia – and I don’t believe in holding an entire population accountable for the acts of a corrupt few.
Whether or not you agree, here’s a glimpse of what I saw.
My journey began in Riyadh, the capital, which felt lifeless and artificial.
Riyadh felt Floridian: wide boulevards with shiny skyscrapers and palm trees, malls and luxury shopping as primary entertainment, development concerned more with image than substance. Think historical ruins being demolished to be replaced by chic cafes with faux-historic feels.
The major difference is that in Florida you see people outside walking, cycling, and running. Riyadh is not for pedestrians – cars only. As I racked up Uber bills, I noted that streets were often devoid of life.
Riyadh was the perfect introduction to Saudi Arabia now: rapid change, and a lot of confusion.
In recent years, the Saudi government made many liberal changes to the law of the land. Public concerts and cinemas became legal. Unrelated men and women can now mix in public. Rules about abayas, the long (and traditionally black) robe previously required by law, were relaxed. Female tourists don’t have to wear abayas, and Saudi women can, in theory, wear coloured and/or open abayas so long as they’re dressed modestly underneath.
In practice, the changes were less clear. An example: Several festivals – including Riyadh Season and MDL Beast Fest – took place while I was in Saudi Arabia. They clearly were intended to present the country as liberal and tolerant to the international community. There were events and concerts all over Riyadh, including shows with Western women performing in form-fitting clothes and parties with well-known international influencers dancing seductively.
But at Riyadh Season, a young Saudi woman in a headscarf and face veil who was dancing was arrested. At MDL Beast Fest, dozens of local men and women were arrested, accused of wearing indecent clothing.
Outside of Riyadh was a different world.
Though Riyadh felt bland and confused, the area around Riyadh was far more interesting – if less polished.
The first time I drove out of the city with a CouchSurfing host – a traveller I met on the platform connecting travellers with locals who can host them in their home or show them around – and some friends, my eyes were glued to the window. Skyscrapers gave way to sand dunes. Small towns and abandoned mud villages replaced apartment complexes.
Some of the villages, such as Ushaiger and Shaqra, are being restored as “heritage villages” for tourists. Even there, it was common to see buildings consumed by time next to manicured mud facades.
It felt less contrived, more honest. This side of Saudi Arabia was more up my alley.
I rented a car with a friend and headed south from Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia is vast – road tripping is the best way to travel the country.
Driving in Saudi Arabia was relaxed at times, terrifying at others. Main roads were immaculate, perfect for cruising. But several Saudis drove at concerningly high speeds, with a healthy dose of drastic, last-minute manoeuvres. (They also didn’t seem to enjoy being overtaken by a woman – I was regularly playing leapfrog with fellow drivers.) Signs of car crashes were everywhere, and even the fanciest cars on the road were covered in dents and scratches.
I expected sand dunes for days, but I found quite the opposite.
Many of us associate Saudi Arabia with sand dunes as far as the eye can see. Though those do exist in Saudi Arabia, there’s far more diversity to the desert. From sudden bursts of green palm trees among desert sands to rocky Martian mountain ranges, the scenery in Saudi was far less mind-numbing than I expected.
I threw all my expectations out the window when I reached the mountains of Jazan province.
Would you expect to see misty green mountains blanketed in clouds in Saudi Arabia? Yeah, me neither.
The Sarawat Mountains cut through several provinces along Saudi’s Red Sea coast. Steep switchbacks took us through villages scattered across mountaintops and around terraced hills of coffee, vegetables, and khat, a plant chewed by men in the region. Despite the stimulant’s illegal status, officials choose to overlook khat cultivation and consumption; it’s too ingrained in the local social culture.
The one thing I didn’t see much of? Women.
In most of Saudi Arabia – but particularly in the southern Jazan province – I rarely saw women outside. When I did, they were fully covered in hijabs and niqabs (face veils).
The lack of women in public made things difficult for me. Men and women are highly segregated in Saudi Arabia. Local men didn’t want to speak to me (and often ignored me completely when I spoke to them, especially when I travelled with white friends). I wanted to meet women, but I didn’t know where!
My luck didn’t improve. During more than three weeks in Saudi Arabia, I spoke with women a total of five times.
Travelling as a woman did require extra effort.
Restaurants were one challenge. Most restaurants in Saudi Arabia are divided by gender or for men only. Family sections in restaurants are usually divided into cubicles with walls or curtains to hide women from view. Cheap restaurants are usually only for “singles” – men.
I often had to look hard to find places where I could sit and eat. If I couldn’t find anything, I’d ask to sit in the men’s area. Sometimes people said yes; mostly they said no.
Clothes were another concern. Though foreign women are no longer required to wear an abaya (robe) by law, I was uncomfortable not wearing one. Outside of Jeddah and diplomatic areas of Riyadh, I did not see any women without abayas. Most women also wore hijabs and niqabs. In villages and towns, despite wearing a hijab, I still stood out because I didn’t fully cover my face.
As I moved north, Instagram guided me to historic Rijal Alma. Though it was pretty, it fell flat.
The soon-to-be Unesco-listed stone fortresses of Rijal Alma were once home to wealthy traders and fearsome fighters – but they felt more like an Instagrammable backdrop than a historic site. Visitors can enter only one or two of the buildings to see very modest museums. Most buildings are empty.
That’s not to say the site isn’t significant. Local villagers were commendably proactive about preserving the heritage of the area. People pooled family heirlooms for the museums and made efforts to restore the buildings. The government noticed and has since taken over.
Now the site embodies what I saw in many tourist destinations in Saudi Arabia: overdevelopment, a loss of atmosphere to Disney-fied luxury, and not much consideration of anything in the surrounding area.
Jeddah, the biggest city on the west coast, was another story. As Saudis say, “Jeddah ghair” — Jeddah is different.
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s most liberal city, is a major seaport and gate to the holy city of Mecca, so people from all over the world have passed through Jeddah for centuries.
Unlike in other places in the country, in Jeddah I saw plenty of people enjoying themselves outside. Young men and women mixing together. Families picnicking and playing on the corniche boardwalk. Women in colourful and/or open abayas riding bicycles along pedestrian walkways.
Jeddah was different, and I liked it.
Jeddah’s old city, Al Balad, had some of the most beautiful architecture in the country.
Tall mud and coral merchant houses loom over alley mazes in the Unesco-listed old city. Some of the “Roshan towers” are in dangerous states of disrepair – many have collapsed from neglect in recent years – but slowly they’re being repaired.
Whereas restoration efforts felt contrived in other parts of the country, in Jeddah the splendor of restored houses added to the atmosphere. It helped that the old city streets are abuzz at all times, with chatting shop owners, roaming street vendors, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and souqs catering to international pilgrims passing through.
There are miles of white coastlines with crystal-clear water and living corals around Jeddah. But no one swims.
Though diving is somewhat popular in Saudi Arabia, most beaches are neglected. Rules about modest dress are one deterrent, and concerns about the immodesty of swimming are another. People come to the beach to picnic, and that’s about it.
Drive a bit, and it’s possible to have an entire beach to yourself (well, yourself and the coast guards). Local women told me you could even get away with wearing swimwear when no one is around. Not that I’d ever test that myself. Cough cough.
Beaches weren’t the only empty places in the country.
Saudi Arabia felt eerily apocalyptic at times. Sprawling parks and playgrounds were devoid of playing children. Streets were empty of people, despite the cars and houses. Abandoned villages were everywhere, as though there used to be a thriving society and then everyone simply … vanished.
Saudi Arabia’s most famous historic site was … closed?!
Despite being by far the best-known and -promoted tourist attractions in the country, the Nabatean tombs at Madain Saleh and the Al Ula area were closed to tourists so they could be “prepared for tourism.” (Ironic, eh?)
The tombs are not open to the public until October. Only those with tickets to a luxury festival were allowed access to the tombs – just one of many instances showing Saudi Arabia’s desire to attract luxury tourists, not budget tourists like myself.
But I found an alternative in the northern Tabuk region: the Nabatean tombs at Madyan.
In an oasis town called Al Bad – believed to be where Moses lived after fleeing Egypt – this small collection of Nabatean tombs is known by few and free to enter. Far more ideal than paying for a flashy luxury festival (in this backpacker’s opinion).
The entire Tabuk region was a treat, really.
Remote in every sense, the Tabuk region bordering Jordan was my favourite in all of Saudi Arabia. Surreal rock formations blossomed from otherwise empty desert sands, craggy mountains pushed right up against turquoise Red Sea waters, and roads were devoid of cars and speed cameras. Very important.
Wadi Al Disah is the crown jewel of Tabuk. A trickling stream runs between towering pillars of red stone, nourishing tall grasses, and leafy palms. Visitors can camp anywhere and everywhere in the valley. Wadi Al Disah stretches for miles, ending at a historic village with yet more Nabatean ruins, aptly named Al Disah.
On the long drive back to Riyadh, coffee stops were a must. Some were more atmospheric than others.
While my friend and I were stopping in Jubbah to see some ancient petroglyphs, a man sitting in a courtyard saw us driving past. Noticing my friend’s fair hair, he shouted hello and insisted we stop by.
Turned out he was the owner of a traditional coffee house where men (and me?) could sit and chat over Arabic coffee, tea, dates, and fresh fruits. His father started the business several decades ago, and he took up the responsibility after his father passed away. It’s no mean feat – the place is open 24/7!
I wanted to do something epic on my last day in Saudi Arabia. What’s more epic than the Edge of the World?
No, I’m no flat-earther, but I did visit the Edge of the World, a dramatic line of cliffs two hours from Riyadh. And not an easy two hours – half of the journey is wretched off-road track.
I went with a local male couch-surfer to watch the sunset and camp out, Saudi style. Years ago it would have been illegal for us to do so – unless we got married first – but these days it’s allowed.
Or is it? Though unmarried men and women can mingle, my friend still had to be secretive. His conservative family would be furious if they knew he’d spent the evening alone with a girl in the middle of nowhere!
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Saudi Arabia. But I’m not so sure about it as a tourist destination right now.
Saudi Arabia is full of confusing contradictions and tricky restrictions. I would love to return, but that doesn’t mean I’d recommend it to everyone.
Tourists have to be careful in all kinds of ways. Playing music during the call to prayer is a $US250-plus offence. Speaking critically of the royal family or their ideas is dangerous. Atheism is considered an extremist idea.
Though I doubt any foreign tourist would be executed for non-religion during this tourism push – fair-skinned foreigners from developed countries enjoy a privileged position in Saudi Arabia – these rules are representative of the intensely restrictive nature of the country.
Combine the conservatism with the many tourist sights that are either poorly overdeveloped or under-maintained, a serious plastic-waste problem in natural places, and landscapes that, though beautiful, can be found in more tourist-friendly neighbouring countries, and you can see why I’d hesitate to recommend Saudi Arabia to the casual holidaygoer.
However, if you’re interested in visiting a country few tourists have been to, or want to learn firsthand some of the nuances of the unique and complex Saudi culture, I think you’ll find what you’re looking for.
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