What do you think of when you think about Saudi Arabia? What do you think of when you think of the men here or Saudi women? Coverage in the media tends to be almost entirely political and there is still relatively little about the country itself and its people.
I have just spent my first week in the country and was surprised by Saudi. I didn’t have full formed preconceptions, Rather, they lay at the back of my mind creating unconscious bias. Before I left for the trip, I didn’t know how it would go and how people would react to me. Here is what I found.
Surprised by the Saudi welcome
I arrived at the airport at the ungodly hour of 2.30 in the morning. I was wearing a long kimono over trousers and a Tshirt and a headscarf. Many foreign women had their heads bare and some of the foreign men were in shorts. At immigration I plunged straight in with my Arabic and smiles broke out like rainbows after a shower. I was warmly welcomed and little jokes were exchanged. This friendliness and humour was my universal experience. From the man who insisted on giving me four sets of prayer beads in the suq, to the most senior officials, I was treated with courtesy and kindness. Every single man I met, shook my hand. I didn’t expect that.
There is a lot of sand and there are some very beautiful skyscrapers but there is also a rich heritage and a very interesting modern culture emerging. I only had two days in Riyadh and I had to cram in the sights. I saw the Masmak fort, and learnt about the battle for unification of the country. I went to the edge of the world where you can gaze out from the highest clifftops over the wadis. I ate kabsa in an old clay-built house and checked out vintage vinyl records at a live auction.
Then I flew north to AlUla, the site of Nabataean ruins to rival Petra. I unleashed my inner archaeologist. I clambered over boulders to find rock carvings and ancient inscriptions and ducked through small doors into massive family tombs. Game reserves, gorge walking, an ancient old town, art exhibits in the desert… I could have stayed for months.
Another thing I did not expect was that so many Saudi women were out and about and working alongside the men. Two of my guides were actually women. One was wearing a full face covering (niqab), the other just wore a headscarf. They were both highly articulate and knowledgeable, very proud of their country and culture and excellent at their jobs. One brought her husband along to look after her baby girl as we explored, the other was a divorcee and moving on determinedly with her life.
Travel, for me, is all about experiencing new places and learning about them for yourself. My first visit to Saudi was surprising in all the best ways and my short trip has whetted my appetite to explore more.
If you’d like to hear more about my visit, check out the podcasts.
There are lots of pictures on my Instagram – particularly of spectacular AlUla.
And if you liked Surprised by Saudi, please consider buying a book and if you could leave a review, that would be great.