Traditionally associated with oil and holy Islamic sites, Saudi Arabia is a country with a murky past full of shady dealings and internal power fighting. The watershed moment came in 1975. At that time, the USA was for decades providing Israel with military & financial support during the Israel-Arab conflicts. In protest, in 1973, OPEC led by Saudi Arabia halted oil exports to the United States and other Israeli allies. The oil embargo quadrupled the price of oil in six months and infllation shot up. Two years later, the Saudi King was assassinated by his nephew who had been living in the US with his American girlfriend. Whoever influenced the nephew to carry out the murderous act is still a mystery, but it certainly resulted in a remarkable shift in the Saudi position vis a vis the US. In 1979, the US and Saudi Arabia negotiated an agreement to use US dollars for oil contracts, which meant the Saudis selling oil for dollars and not riyals. The dollars would then be recycled back to the US through contracts & investments with US companies. These companies were to improve Saudi infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia has pretty much been off the tourist trail (intentionally). Oil & Muslim pilgrims made it so rich that it didn't need any tourism income. Until 2019, visas were only really granted to expatriate workers, people visiting on business, and Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina. There was no such thing as a tourism visa. Since 2019, the kingdom opened up its doors to international tourists with a new easy loose visa regime. This is all supposedly part of the kingdom's push for economic reform, in order to decrease its dependence on oil and an attempt to rebrand itself.
While traditionally associated with desert and holy Islamic sites, Saudi Arabia also has 5 UNESCO Heritage Sites, outstanding natural beauty with Red Sea coastline and mountains up to 3,200m high and hospitable people. The country is huge, in fact it is the largest country in the world without a river. The country has a diverse history, visible in archaeological and historical places that stem from its strategic location on the trading routes from Yemen and Iraq to the Levant and of course the pilgrim routes that have been running to Mecca and Medina for centuries.
I started in Jeddah then flight to Abha ➜ self drive to Najran then Jizan ➜ ferry to Farasan Islands ➜ ferry back to Jizan ➜ flight to Jeddah ➜ self drive to Wahba crater then Medina ➜ self drive to Al Ula ➜ flight to Riyadh ➜ self drive to the Red Dunes and Camels festival➜ Riyadh.
Public transport is extremely limited, so without a car you will have to rely on Careem or Uber to get around in the major cities. Riyadh has a metro under construction.
Jeddah was established as both a major port for Indian Ocean trade routes, and the entry point for Muslim pilgrims who arrived by sea on their way to the religious city of Mecca. Jeddah is a fascinating city with World Heritage architecture, bustling souqs, laid-back coastline and diverse cuisine.
Abha ➜ Najran ➜ Jazan
At an altitude of 2200m, the climate in Abha is quite different to the rest of the country, and frequent rainfall makes the surrounding lands fertile. The region surrounding Abha is dotted with centuries old mud and stone houses with striking white decorations. Some houses are over 300 years old and still occupied. The highlight is by far Rijal AlMaa, also known as the Gingerbread Village, due to the shape and color of the houses.
Jazan, also spelled Jizan, Gizan or Gazan, is an uninspiring port city.
The town of Najran is the southern terminus of highways from Mecca and Riyadh. Najran was often the subject of controversy between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. An extremely fertile agricultural area, the oasis produces great dates.
The Farasan Islands are a small group of coral islands approximately 40 km off the coast of Jizan in the Red Sea. A top attraction on the island is Al Qassar Village. This little village hosts the largest palm oasis in Farasan, as it was once an ancient summer resort. Stones and mud structures dominate the area giving a taste of the sand colored world residents would have once known. Another sight is Al-Najdi Mosque, constructed by one of the biggest pearl merchants on the island. And finally the Mangrove Forests. This location is situated in the main Farasan island which boasts breathtaking sea views and mangrove forests, with waterways cutting through them. Apparently in Farasan, the gazelles drink from the sea.
Mecca (or Makkah) is the holiest of Muslim cities. Muhammad PBUH, the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca, and it is toward this religious centre that Muslims turn five times daily in prayer (called the qiblah). All devout and able Muslims attempt a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Because it is sacred, only Muslims are allowed to enter the city. But there were no checkpoints and many non-Muslims have been able to enter unrestricted all the way to the Kaaba. The Kaaba is a small shrine considered by Muslims everywhere to be the most sacred spot on Earth. Located in the eastern corner of the Kaaba is the Black Stone. According to tradition, this stone was given to Adam on his expulsion from paradise in order to obtain forgiveness of his sins. Legend has it that the stone was originally white but has become black by absorbing the sins of the countless thousands of pilgrims who have kissed and touched it. Every Muslim who makes the pilgrimage is required to walk around the Kaaba seven times.
Medina is the second holiest city in Islam, after Mecca. It's also known by the names of Al-Madinah, Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah ("The Luminous City") or Madinat Rasul Allah ("City of the Messenger of God"). Medina is celebrated as the place from which Prophet Muhammad established the Muslim community (ummah) after his departure from Mecca and is where his body is entombed. A pilgrimage is made to his tomb in the city's chief mosque. A nice daytrip from Madinah is the Wahba crater, a vast hollow volcanic crater with an opaque lake at its heart.
Al-Ula is the gateway to Mada'in Saleh ("Cities of Saleh"), the second largest city of the Nabateans, a group of people who settled across ancient Arabia and the Jordan Valley until their empire was annexed by the Romans 2000 years ago. Al Ula is set in a maze of gorgeous towering red cliffs. In the center, relics of the 800 years old town remain. Among the ruins are a vast necropolis with 130 tombs, small pre-Islamic altars, and some adobe houses - structures made from earth - in what used to be the city's living quarters. The highlight is Hegra (created by Nabatean empire some 2000 years ago, same one that founded Petra in Jordan) and Dadan (another ancient civilization). Mada'in Saleh / Hegra are actually mentioned in the Holy Quran. The scripture places settlement of the area by the Thamudi people during the days of Saleh, between those of Noah and Moses. According to the Islamic text, the Thamudis, who carved out homes in the mountains, were punished by Allah for their practice of idol worship, being struck by an earthquake and lightning blasts. Thus, the site has earned a reputation as a cursed place — an image which the national government is attempting to overcome as it seeks to develop Mada'in Saleh for its potential for tourism. UNESCO rubber stamped Mada'in Saleh as Saudi Arabia's first World Heritage Site, chosen for its well-preserved remains, especially the 131 rock-cut monumental tombs, with their elaborately ornamented façades.
Riyadh is a vibrant concurrence of the old and the new – contemporary high-rise towers shadow over buildings exuding old world charm. Modern Riyadh is is all about grand shopping malls and large skyscrapers situated on the grand King Fahd Road. The Kingdom Center is the largest (the building with a gap at the top like a bottle opener). People can visit the observation desk at the top for impressive views over the city. Riyadh is also the most liberal of all Saudi cities. Some cool daytrips from Riyadh include the Red sand dunes and Edge of the World.
Riyadh ➜ Ushaiqer
Hidden in an oasis dotted region 200km northwest of Riyadh, Ushaiger provides a glimpse of a slow-paced Saudi society of old. Bedouins first settled here 1,500 years ago and Ushaiger quickly became a popular stopping point for pilgrims crossing to Makkah, thanks to its springs and low-brimmed olive and palm groves. But far from being a dusty, deserted museum piece, Ushaiger still has a small community of residents, making use of its schools, shops and mosques. Encased in thick walls, Ushaiger is a labyrinth of winding alleyways, shaded pathways and timber-framed walkways, crossing between hundreds of mud houses. The village is bisected by groves of palm trees, and includes a cluster of beautifully renovated houses. These offer a stunning example of Najdi architecture, with its distinctive triangular windows and roofs, and ornately carved wooden doors. Some still bear the names of the families who lived there.
There are other historical towns such as Rughabah, Al Qasab and Hlewa dotted on the way to Ushaiqer, where you can wander through the narrow streets and covered lanes that remain exactly as they have been for hundreds of years. You can even enter some of the empty houses and climb the stairs to look out over the surrounding oasis and farmlands. The drive to Ushaiger also passes by a stretch of the desert where you can wander around the desolate dunes.
The bond between Saudis and their camels is strong. That bond is celebrated in the yearly King Abdulaziz Camel Festival. Prized camels attend camel races, beauty pageants and shows. Some camels can even sell for more than $1 million and are treated like royalty.