The Saudi Arabia Paradox

The Saudi Arabia paradox started for me 17 years ago on September 11, 2001 when 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi and/or Saudi funded. This really hit home for me because dozens of my friends and colleagues were murdered by those heinous acts. I easily could’ve been one of the casualties.

I also have numerous issues with Saudi Arabia from their unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist to their oppression of women, LGBT and basic human rights. Not to mention their arrogance due to oil wealth, suppression of the media and failure to adequately influence the volatile region they live in.

That said, Saudi Arabia is not the only oppressive government out there. Obviously I have visited each of those countries as well, most multiple to many times. I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite but when it hits you personally it becomes different.

Plus, I hate oil money and its corruptive influence on global affairs and the environment. I used to work in the energy sector on Wall Street. The fact that we don’t have more electric cars, renewable energy and other things to lessen and eliminate our reliance on oil, especially Saudi oil, appalls me.

Oil companies, lobbyists and politicians are all to blame and not just in America-everywhere. Greed and corruption of people in power across the world needs to be stopped. So where does it start? That’s where and why the Saudi Arabia paradox began for me.

Over the last 15 years I’ve transited twice for short periods of time in Saudi Arabia. Once on purpose simply to say I was there and once just because it was the best flight option for me. However, I had never gone out and explored the country and I had absolutely zero desire to do so. It was the one country I really took a personal stand against in my own way.

At the end of last year, I was asked to participate in some consulting for a potential tourism initiative for the Kingdom (KSA). I was initially against it but I was curious, so I agreed to test the waters. In theory, I’d rather have a seat at the table so to speak, than not.

Through my contacts, I was able to get a letter of invitation from a Saudi company and all the proper paperwork to obtain a multiple entry business visa for a “scouting” trip. This is obtainable for basically anyone who has a business contact in the Kingdom willing to essentially vouch for you. If you go through a tour operator, they can help you if you have a business, as I do, or set you up with someone who does.

It’s a pain for sure because things have to be translated into Arabic, addressed properly to the proper embassy or consulate in your country, and you need to provide a bunch of silly information like religion, etc. However, it’s nothing too arduous and not that much more annoying than Pakistan’s visa if you have a sponsoring contact-at least in my experience.

Many people have asked and will ask about a Saudi tourism visa. It was supposed to be issued in April of this year and that’s yet to happen and honestly I’d be surprised if it happens anytime soon especially given the current political situation in KSA. I do think it will happen at some point in the next few years but that’s still a big if. However, the bottom line is Saudi Arabia is not ready for mass tourism.

Saudi Arabia lacks enough basic tourist activities, facilities and amenities to satisfy a western or even Asian clientele. With the religious cities of Mecca and Medina completely and basically off limits respectively, the interesting tourist places are few.

The hotels outside of Riyadh and Jeddah are sorely lacking. English is not spoken widely in Saudi Arabia and of course there are incredible cultural and religious differences. These are interesting to some but will surely turn many Western people off. Except for the novelty of actually visiting KSA, there isn’t really anything exciting drawing a visitor. It reminds me of Kuwait in a lot of ways.

While I think if tourist visas do start to be issued there will be an initial influx of tourists. However, I think they will be sorely disappointed and there will be very few repeat visitors. Honestly, unless it was for urgent business, I probably wouldn’t return.

Adventurous, cultural and country-counting travelers will be thrilled to visit. The masses will be turned off by poor facilities, a very third world way of doing things like service, education, driving, guides and transportation. We kept joking that we felt like we were in Africa because of the slow and poor levels of service that can really test your patience. You’d expect more from a country as rich as Saudi Arabia. But then you realize they’re not used to tourists.

Plus there’s no alcohol consumption in the Kingdom outside of the oil conclaves of expatriates. But regular people won’t be there. Most people I imagine would prefer the option to have a drink on their vacation. Come nighttime there is literally nothing to do in Saudi Arabia. It’s very boring.

After saying all that: my weeklong trip was interesting for lack of a better word. The night before my trip, the news of the disappearance and suspected murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, broke and it was the headline story for most major news outlets for the whole week. This was not pleasant for me.

I was receiving dozens of messages and comments a day from people from all over the world about what I was doing there and what it was like inside the country during this crisis. Major media outlets were asking me for comments from the inside.

But there was zero chance I’d speak out against the Saudi government in their country. That would put myself, and my group, in danger. I try my best not to get involved in politics in general-although it’s harder and harder these days!

The truth is that if it weren’t for the Internet and people messaging me I would’ve had no idea it had happened. I don’t watch TV in the room. Plus, there was zero acknowledgment from any Saudis that I met. Our guides wouldn’t speak about it and to be honest I don’t know if they even knew it happened.

Saudi is a very boring but a very pleasant place in general if you can deal with the extreme heat. There’s no violent crime except for domestic issues or the government of course. But there’s an overarching feeling of fear when you’re in the Kingdom. You don’t openly criticize the Royal family or government.

As a visitor you don’t want to risk anything that may end with you in trouble. You’re a target and you know it. I kept my phone on VPN at all times to mask my location as I would in China to use certain websites. I didn’t directly answer any questions online about the crisis until after I left the country.

It’s a weird state of affairs in Saudi Arabia at the moment. Yes they started letting women drive and in one week, we saw exactly one woman driving (in Riyadh our first day of the trip) and we were looking. People act like Saudi Arabia should be given a Nobel Prize because they now allow women to drive. I beg to differ. If that’s their progressive best, then we’re all in trouble.

Women and families still have separate entrances and sitting areas just about everywhere in Saudi Arabia. Women are completely covered up except for their eyes at all times outside their own house. I’m aware it’s a religious thing but it’s odd to watch as women are openly swept aside. Obviously I’ve seen it in other Arab countries but it was more glaring in Saudi Arabia. As someone who vehemently believes in equal rights for all, this is sad.

The Saudi Arabia paradox is real and I’m still processing my visit and experience and honestly, I’m just glad to be out of there so I feel safe speaking freely-at least theoretically. Here’s a brief look at my trip.


Riyadh

Riyadh is a massive city of some 8-9 million people. It’s sprawling with no end in sight. Traffic is really bad and most of it is pretty unappealing. The exceptions are the main thoroughfare where most of the tall modern buildings are. Plus, a few historic sites including a UNESCO World Heritage Site called At-Turaif In ad-Dir’iyah that is still off limits for repairs although you can see it very close up.

At-Turaif In ad-Dir’iyah, The Saudi Arabia Paradox

The UNESCO World Heritage site of At-Turaif In ad-Dir’iyah

Riyadh is not pretty or quaint, it’s not fun, and it doesn’t really have anything that stands out. In 2 days there, I got absolutely zero feel for the pulse of the city. My favorite moment by far was standing on the SkyBridge atop Kingdom Tower to get a great view of the urban sprawl below stretching out to the desert.

The phenomenal view atop the SkyBridge in Kingdom Tower just before sunset, The Saudi Arabia Paradox

The phenomenal view atop the SkyBridge in Kingdom Tower just before sunset

Masamak Fort was the other thing I found somewhat interesting located right next to “Chop Chop Square”, nicknamed so because it’s where people were publicly executed in the past. It’s a nice fort to tour around but nothing life-changing.

The Saudi Arabia Paradox, Inside Masamak Fort in Riyadh

Inside Masamak Fort in Riyadh

We also got to check out the National Museum. I am not a museum person at all but the museum was well done and quite nice. The only part I really enjoyed of our tour was the area with large-scale models of Mecca and Medina knowing we weren’t able to visit these holy places aside from seeing the highway exit.

Large scale model of Mecca inside the National Museum in Riyadh

Large scale model of Mecca inside the National Museum in Riyadh

I see no real reason to ever go back to Riyadh. It just kind of is what it is and will only grow in size and air pollution I imagine.

The Kingdom Tower at dusk is the most recognizable building in Riyadh

The Kingdom Tower at dusk is the most recognizable building in Riyadh

Hail (Ha’il)

We took a 5am flight to Hail; which set the tone for a so-so visit, as everyone was exhausted. Hail doesn’t really have much for tourists. There’s the Fort of Iraif; which is OK. There’s an old palace that was closed, a museum full of random crap like old radios, a viewpoint atop a small mountain and a camel market 45 minutes away that featured about 7 camels.

The Fort of Iraif in Hail, Hail, The Saudi Arabia Paradox

The Fort of Iraif in Hail

There were a few redeeming attributes to going to Hail. It’s a place I had never even heard of so I can say I’ve been to a random Saudi outpost and we had a nice tea, coffee and date stop outside of town in the mountains in a 300-year old teahouse. But you wouldn’t go to Hail to have tea.

Inside a 300 year old teahouse for coffee, tea and Arab staple, dates

Inside a 300 year old teahouse for coffee, tea and Arab staple, dates

Hail also has a UNESCO site nearby called the Rock Art of the Hail Region; which is essentially petroglyphs of people and animals carved into rocks. It’s kind of cool but I wouldn’t go all the way out to Hail to see them unless you’re a serious UNESCO site collector-I am not. It’s also worth noting that the 4th UNESCO site in Saudi Arabia called Madain Salih is closed until 2020 I was told.

UNESCO World Heritage site called the Rock Art of the Hail Region, Hail, UNESCO, The Saudi Arabia Paradox

UNESCO World Heritage site called the Rock Art of the Hail Region

Taif

Taif is pretty boring and there’s nothing really interesting to see. The only possible exception is the Shubra Palace but if you never see it, your life will be just fine.

The Shubra Palace in Taif, Taif, Saudi Arabia

The Shubra Palace in Taif

Taif is basically a basecamp to explore the Al Wahbah Crater 3 hours away. This is the singular best site I saw in Saudi Arabia. I really enjoyed the view around the crater and the hike down and back was awesome.

The Al Wahbah Crater, Saudi Arabia

The Al Wahbah Crater

The site and hike illustrates another example of how Saudi Arabia is not ready for tourism. First it’s 115-120 degrees with zero shade. The hike down is 250 meters and the trail is poorly cut rocks, very steep at times, has no fencing or guard rails, and could potentially be very dangerous.

Inside the Al Wahbah Crater

Inside the Al Wahbah Crater

We had 9 people, some advanced in age and there was nearly an issue with getting one of our group back up. Meanwhile, there are zero facilities, refreshments, medical anything or any chance of a rescue should something go awry.

Inside the Al Wahbah Crater

Inside the Al Wahbah Crater

For me I loved the hike but I’m a younger, experienced climber. But even then I could turn an ankle and then what? I’m 200 pounds, who’s going to carry me up? But older people should be strongly cautioned against it but there was nobody administering the site to do so. It worked out after a long process for my group but it was touch and go for a bit.

Jeddah

Jeddah is the jewel in Saudi Arabia’s crown. It’s a Red Sea port city that has a nice, relaxed vibe to it. It resembles a North African city like Algiers or Tangier-just flat. It’s significantly hotter and more humid than anywhere else I was in Saudi Arabia. You’d sweat just standing still outside.

Al Balad, the old city of Jeddah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Al Balad, the old city of Jeddah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The old city of Jeddah called Al Balad is fantastic. It’s a UNESCO site and somewhat well maintained with the maintained parts being spectacular to look at and walk through. I loved the architecture and this is a must on any visit to Jeddah.

The oldest mosque in Al Balad, it's over 500 years old

The oldest mosque in Al Balad, it’s over 500 years old

Further along Jeddah also boasts the world’s largest flagpole-yes that’s apparently a thing. Ironically, I was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan 2 months ago after the Russia World Cup and they have the second largest.

world's largest flagpole in Jeddah

world’s largest flagpole in Jeddah

Next up is the Corniche. All Arab cities on the water have a Corniche and Jeddah’s is very long and varied. There is the floating mosque which is very nice to see and very photogenic. Just down from there is the hotel zone where all the big international chains have outposts. But they’re all empty. Nobody is in them. It’s a very strange thing.

The floating mosque in Jeddah

The floating mosque in Jeddah

They’re essentially enormous beach resorts with reclaimed artificial beaches. But there are no tourists on the beaches and in general no Saudi’s use the beach anyway. It was a very strange thing. It was like South Beach and all the fancy hotels with an empty beach. Of course that led to discussions of why all the investment in the hotels with no occupancy. I still don’t have an answer to that.

The beaches and hotels along the Corniche in Jeddah

The beaches and hotels along the Corniche in Jeddah

Also, they have this whole promenade thing along this part of the Corniche with no restaurants or vendors anywhere. It’s absurdly hot and nowhere to buy even water, let alone have a cocktail. It would be nice to sit and have lunch overlooking the Red Sea. However, that isn’t an option in Jeddah, at least from what I saw and I walked miles of that area sweating profusely.

Jeddah Tower, under construction, will be the world's tallest building in 2020

Jeddah Tower, under construction, will be the world’s tallest building in 2020

The only other thing of note in Jeddah is they are currently constructing the future world’s tallest building called Jeddah Tower. It’s 40 floors done as we speak and scheduled for completion in 2020 they say. It’s very far from the city and is said to be the cornerstone of a new area of development in Jeddah. Who knows if it’ll become a tourist attraction or not? I guess it’ll depend if tourist visas start being issues or not.

There's even a Jeddah sign along the Corniche

There’s even a Jeddah sign along the Corniche


So that was basically my trip around Saudi, 7 days, 4 cities, not much sleep and a lot more questions than answers. I know a lot of this post is negative and that’s because I don’t have a positive opinion about Saudi Arabia in general. But I’ve tried to be fair in writing and I had an open mind when I was there. I’m also well aware of the cultural differences and that they don’t have to try to accommodate Westerners but I wanted to illustrate just how potentially off-putting it can be in KSA.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to Saudi Arabia but if I do, there’ll have to have been some changes. The Saudi Arabia paradox continues.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this really fascinating and honest article. It’s nice to see in this blogger era where everyone makes everything look much better than it actually is. Real talk is best in my humble opinion. I’ll cross Saudi Arabia off my list and glad you’re out safely.

  2. The murder of Khashoggi and the international apathy toward it disgusts me. America and the European Union need to sanction them and pressure the King to change the crown prince in charge. This was deliberate murder and an even worse cover up.

  3. The world is going to hell and there’s little we can do about it given the current regime in saudi and the USA

  4. It will be interesting to see the development of Saudi Arabia over the next 12 years as part of the Crown Prince\’s 2030 Vision: http://vision2030.gov.sa/en. Curious to know if your tour handlers discussed this long term plan much with your group and what your take on it was? From the sounds of it, I didn\’t get the impression that they did given you came home with more questions than answers after the trip.

  5. Sad state of affairs is right

  6. What a world we live in. Great post, thanks for sharing about a place most will never go.

  7. Agreed about the women driving cars thing. People act like they’re turning over a new leaf. They also talk about how women still need permission from their husband or male overseer.

  8. PEH

  9. Interesting and appreciate the honesty. Saudi Arabia remains at the bottom of my places to see list.

  10. Thanks for making Saudi Arabia real to me. I’ll never go there and didn’t have any clue what it looks like.

  11. I always try to separate politics and government versus history. Otherwise there would be few places to go. You could argue the US is on that list as well. Good post but I’d still go to Saudi Arabia if they issue tourist visas.

  12. This whole situation makes me sick to my stomach. Saudi should be ashamed of themselves and the Americans cannot let them off the hook.

  13. Sad you hear that you saw just one woman driving a car during your time there – slow progression indeed. What a shame – and the rest of the mess that’s going on right now…

  14. Lee, I am so glad you posted this. I have had the same struggle with KSA for years — since 2011. The fact that most of the highjackers were from KSA and our government and the UK still act like they are our friends makes me never want to visit and I want to go everywhere!!! The other thing is Mecca and Medina: I have a Muslim uncle from Iran and Muslim friends from Jordan, UAE, etc. I have asked them all why I can’t go there and they say, “it’s a holy site”….well, so is the Vatican. So is Bethlehem. But, if Christians told everyone those places were off limits to non-Christians, it would be WW3. I don’t get it. I am curious to see how all this develops with the new skyscraper and so on. Not sure it will be done on time if they are only at level 40 this late in 2018.

    • I honestly don’t understand it either but like the country in general they simply don’t want tourists to visit Saudi Arabia. I know they state otherwise but they don’t.

  15. Never been to Saudi Arabia. Thank you for sharing this honest article.

  16. Awesome blog! Thanks for sharing!

  17. Thanks for sharing this great piece of information with us.

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