Saudi Arabian Sojourn

David Stanley in Saudi Arabia

David Stanley in Saudi Arabia

I recently spent two weeks touring Saudi Arabia, a country I’ve wanted to visit for some time. Saudi Arabia has an enigmatic reputation and the negativity was initially confirmed when I was fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival at Riyadh International Airport. Fortunately, reality quickly overrode first impressions and I found the Saudi people friendly and helpful without a trace of animosity.

Four of us – two Australian ladies, an American lawyer, and I – toured Saudi Arabia for two weeks on a trip organized by Caravan-Serai Tours of Seattle, Washington. Highlights were the National Museum in Riyadh, the Nabatean ruins of Madain Saleh, and the old city of Jeddah. Non-Muslims are not allowed to visit the Mosque of The Prophet in Medina or the Kaba in Mecca, which limits tourism development in Saudi Arabia somewhat, a situation which I’m sure bothers the imams not a whistle.

An interesting fact I picked up from our local guide is that a Saudi’s first loyalty is to his tribe, then his country, and lastly his king. The extravagant palaces of the distended royal family are viewed with irony by ordinary Saudis but free education, free health care, no taxes, and various other perks ensure there’s no unrest in the land. The underpaid labour of Indian and Pakistani contract workers keeps the cost of living low. No one is rocking the boat.

All women in Saudi Arabia must dress in a medieval black robe called an abaya although foreign females are no longer required to cover their faces or hair. Yet almost all Saudi women see the world through narrow eye slits. That’s not to say that Saudi Arabia isn’t changing. American chain stores and minivans are everywhere and most Saudis are connected to the world by cell phone and the internet. I found people quite willing to discuss their country’s situation.

On our last day in Saudi Arabia our group had the good fortune to bump into the Vice-President of the Jeddah City Council who shared a few facts about his country. Since 2005 male Saudi citizens have elected half the members of the country’s municipal councils, a significant first step toward democracy. Yet all officials at the provincial and national levels are still appointed by the king and many Saudis I spoke to would like to have their country’s Consultative Council elected and its powers increased. The reality is that not a lot is likely to change in the short term.

Was it worth spending US$7,018 excluding airfare for two weeks in The Kingdom? For me, yes. Saudi Arabia was my 207th country, one of the last stops on my quest to visit every country in the world before I die. Would I recommend it to other travelers? Probably not. Yemen is far more colourful and less expensive. Bahrain, Dubai, and Oman are also easier to visit with much more to offer non-Muslims. It should be noted here that contrary to popular belief, virtually all of the Arabian Peninsula countries are perfectly safe to visit. And Emirates Airlines is the way to go.

I really enjoyed reading your trip summary. This may be as close as I get to Saudi Arabia. Your overview contains some insightful observations that give me a more complete sense of life in The Kingdom.

John says:

Your trip seems wonderful. It was great reading it. I also had planned to visit Saudi Arabia few years before but due to some reason, I missed the chance. Now, let’s see when I will be there.

T. R. Airth says:

Thank You for your generous insight into S.A. Viewing culturally predespositioned human females viewing me through a slit would not entice me to want to experience it first hand in the flesh. You have sparked my imagination to sufficiency. You seem to be a restless soul, by trying to visit all the countries of the world. I would have thought by 206 countries visited that your soul would understand countries like S.A. and you would rather want to try and improve the human condition by spending you money on organizations that are dedicated to improving the human condition. However, visiting and writing about countries does help the human condition. Thank you again. Are you going to follow through? I believe in planting seeds in the ground. Do you?

Faithful to the End
TR Airth