Al Ula – Saudi Arabia
I’m very defensive of Saudi Arabia and especially surrounding her move into tourism. I’ve been lucky to get out and see quite a bit of Saudi but I’ve been carrying a chip on my shoulder for two years since not being allowed to go wherever I want up in Al Ula in the northwest of the country. All the key sites were closed as it underwent development for tourism and many other areas of the country are now following suit. My concern has always been that the government will push for Dubai’esque or, God forbid, Cancun’esque resorts, allowing large, international corporate hotels and their accompanying sprawl to take over, but my latest trip to Al Ula has eased some of my fears. In two years little has changed and this is no bad thing. Vast amounts of cash has been invested in the main areas of interest with fancy places to drink coffee and eat good food springing up everywhere, but they are very much in keeping with the local surroundings. One of the most famous sites, Elephant Rock, has been ‘developed’ to the point it has an area where holes in the desert have been dug, cushions laid out and candles lit for when night arrives. No one visits to take a picture and leave again, instead they get comfy while drinking a coffee and watching the sunset. It’s simple and wonderfully Arabic, and there is no doubt people will be happy to pay for such an experience assuming it remains a crowd free and peaceful one. Ironically, I never made it to Elephant Rock!
I did finally make it to the country’s centrepiece though. Hegra aka Al-Hijr aka Mada’in Salih was Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, up there as a national symbol alongside Big Ben, The Eiffel Towel and Sydney Opera House, Hegra is an unmistakable icon. Containing over 100 tombs that were carved into the sandstone rock that rises up all over the place, these were created by the very same civilisation that created Petra in Jordan, just a little further up the road. The area also sat on a major trading route and the Turks even built a railway from Damascus to Mecca that passed right on by the ancient tombs, although it was never completed. Tourism is very much in it’s infancy but what is in place ticks all the boxes. The arrival centre is simple but smart and traditional Arabic coffee, bottles of cold water, dates and other yummy treats await your arrival. After a brief introduction in Arabic and English, a coach complete with commentary will deliver you to three or four of the main sites where a guide will add further info to the group when outside ogling at the intricate carvings. How this will work in July and August I have no idea for the middle of October was scorching even though it was a good 10oC lower than the summer. Nonetheless, I was bloody happy, and for anyone who wanted to step up the experience, there was a fleet of vintage Land Rover Defenders kitted out with comfy seats in the back should one wish not to be on a bus full of common folk. Of course I was visiting at a time when a world wide pandemic is keeping tourist numbers in check and the country is still reaching out to the wider tourist industry, and so of course Hegra is set to be much much busier. However, being in the middle of a huge desert affords plenty of space and no matter if you are in a group of 20 or 100, there will always be one dickhead that gets in the way of everyones photo opportunity.
As always, who we know in life makes a big difference and by some miracle my work mate had landed himself a girlfriend within Saudi Arabia. Even more remarkably he has held it together long enough for me to benefit from their relationship, for his very good lady happens to be doing all of the marketing for Al Ula tourism and not only is it thanks to the both of them that I was there for the weekend, but it is also the reason I found myself a few thousand feet in the air aboard a helicopter. I’ve been on a helicopter several times before but only for ten minutes which is never long enough to fully enjoy the wonderful experience it tends to be. On this occasion I was blessed with a luxurious 30 minutes, made all the better thanks to the last minute pee I had before boarding the chopper. I was desperate but there were no facilities. After convincing myself I could cope, I took my opportunity to run into the desert and ease the pressure behind an old concrete pillar, all thanks to a rather large man who was struggling to climb into the helicopter. Relieved, strapped in, headsets on, our excellent pilot took off and flew us around the local area, taking us over Elephant Rock, Hegra, Old Town and several ancient forts sat high up on rocky outcrops looking over the valley full of palm trees. The pilot even had the courtesy to fly by each site of interest twice so that people on either side could get a good look and some photos. One monument we saw from the air which we didn’t have time to see on the ground was a big shiny box. Maraya translates into ‘mirror’ and in this case, many thousands of mirrors for Maraya is the largest mirrored building in the world and is home to a brand new conference and entertainment venue in Al Ula. Sat in the middle of the desert and surrounded by rocky outcrops, the building reflects absolutely everything around it and gives the building an almost invisible appearance. From the ground I’ve only seen photos but some are incredible with the mirror effect creating simple but beautiful shots.
Al Ula is ancient but its old mud town was still inhabited up to the 1970s. Now it’s empty with locals moving into the modern part of town and the old down left to decay out in the searing heat, wind and occasional downpour. These kinds of towns can be found all over Saudi Arabia and they are fantastic places to explore, especially if you can get to them before the tourism ministry get there. On one hand getting to go where you want in such places provides the most adventure, but in reality very few people will do this with much care which will inevitably lead to irreparable damage. What will happen to the Old Town in Al Ula remains to be seen but right now most is sealed off, and one street has been restored and provides a wonderful place to shop for traditional ‘stuff’ and sit outside to tuck into local food and drink. If you’re desperate for a taste of the West, a Dunkin’ Donuts is sneakily hidden in one of the old mud buildings. In honesty, so far they have done a remarkable job at modernising the town while maintaining its ancient appearance. A tour guide will take you off the main street and down into the maize of streets and houses before dropping you at the top of a rocky outcrop that offers splendid views over the whole of Old Town and down the valley in either direction. If the Saudis can build a giant mirrored box and the Chinese can drop a building over the Terracotta Warriors, I would suggest a large perspex box might benefit part of the Old Town that won’t be redeveloped in order to maintain its remaining integrity for as long as possible. For me at least, a good chunk of it needs to be preserved as it is and not all redeveloped. And so it was, sat on comfy chairs, under the Arabian night sky, I was nothing other than impressed by what I had seen. A week could easily be spent here, long before factoring in time by a swimming pool. Hiking routes are endless, there’s off-roading, balloon flights, classic plane flights, star gazing tours, ancient tombs, buildings and rock art everywhere. You may not be able to have a beer, but Saudi hospitality will make sure you have a damn good cup of tea or coffee somewhere spectacular, and most likely with an equally spectacular sunset.
It’s time the world started to move on from the traditional Saudi Arabia seen only through its torrid past, born out of various complications, and start to see the country and its positive changes that anyone who bothers to open their mind and visit will obviously see. If people want to judge a country then do so on a level playing field and not in a house full of Chinese goods with a cheap holiday to Egypt booked; both of these countries keep their executioners busy and suppress human rights, and I would say far more so than Saudi Arabia. Dubai was virtually built on slave labour. Only this week I heard a comedian on a news quiz lambast Saudi Arabia for not allowing women to drive. The law changed three years ago! Women drive in Saudi Arabia, women work everywhere and you will see that from the moment you land, move on. One of the biggest changes to happen was the curtailment of powers given to The Mutawa, or religious police back in 2016 just before I rocked up. It was The Mutawa famed for being complete pricks as they went about forcing their religious beliefs on the general public, and particularly women. This simply isn’t the case any more. There is of course much more to do, but the country is moving at an incredible pace and even I worry that what makes this country incredible and unique will be eroded all too quickly. A country built on religion and family, contrary to belief the average Saudi doesn’t want riches, but they do want to spend time with their large families every Friday. I stepped into this country five and a half years ago and I was pleasantly surprised from the get-go. Yeah it’s a little crazy but there is no safer country to be in. One of the benefits of a religious society and a strict rule of law means that there is little concern about being robbed, beaten up or, worse. Women are free in the UK but look at the debate currently raging now. No one would dare harass a woman in Saudi Arabia these days. Every country has it’s problems, some worse than others, but the question is, is that country improving? It is also my turn to move on, and I will be leaving this beautiful country in a few weeks time, happy to have called it home for over five years, having met great local people and travelled to some of the most spectacular sites on the planet. The way I see it, it has been a privilege to be here as the country attempts transition, and I hope it can achieve equality and some degree of democracy while maintaining everything that is great about its culture and history. I will be sad to leave without a re-entry visa, but I will most definitely return, it’s simply too beautiful not to.