Hello, thanks for stopping by! My husband and I exchanged our life in Belfast for a desert adventure in Saudi Arabia in 2018. We were here for two years, had a break, and now we're back for Part 2!! This blog is to share the highlights from 'Our Big Arabian Adventure' – I hope you enjoy! #BelfasttoRiyadh
Hello and welcome to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! Riyadh is a city built in the middle of the Arabian desert, it is dusty, beige and HOT (especially in the summer!) But, undeterred by the harsh conditions, the authorities have decided to turn it into a living, breathing, blooming beautiful garden – and greenery is sprouting everywhere!
The Green Riyadh Project has been launched with the aim of making it one of the world’s top 100 most livable cities.
Not somewhere to do things by halves the project will see 75 million trees planted, the creation of 43 major parks with the biggest larger than Central Park, together with 3,300 smaller parks and gardens dotted around the city.
Massive landscaping is already being carried out with date palms are being planted along all major routes, and legislation has been introduced requiring all new buildings, including mosques, schools, public facilities, airports etc to incorporate planting schemes.
It is the largest afforestation project in the world, and will use treated wastewater for the new green spaces. It’s projected to reduce the temperature in the city by 1.5 to 2 degrees in the summer, making it more live-able and encouraging people outside to enjoy the new spaces and take exercise (part of another initiative to get Saudi’s active!).
There’s a huge road intersection not far from where we live, it’s a vast area, maybe the size of four football pitches. Until recently it was a real eyesore, piles of rubble strewn with empty plastic bags and bottles. There were some small stumpy trees but their branches were tangled with plastic bags, but it has been cleared and a huge earthmoving project is underway with stone walls and terraces being built ahead of new planting and lighting – and maybe even a water feature? Who knows, anything is possible!
Everywhere you go in Riyadh there are new metro lines being built overground and underground. Snaking all over the city the new metro system is planned to introduce a new connected public transport system.
Currently the car is king – Riyadh is built on an American grid system which favors the car, which together with low oil prices and an oppressive heat making being outside uncomfortable for any length of time for at least five months of the year, means people want door-to-door travel in an air conditioned car – so until recent times, public transport has not been a priority.
However, with a rapidly rising population, increasing traffic congestion and concerns around air pollution a new metro and interlinked bus network has been taking shape.
Work started on the Riyadh Metro in 2014. It will cover 176km, with 6 city-wide lines, 85 stations, plus a 1,900km interlinking bus network with 3,000 stops – and it’s all being constructed at the same time!!
Estimated to cost $24.4billion, it was due to open last year (2020), but has faced a number of delays including the pandemic. It’s getting closer though, and it’s now commonplace to see the odd little metro train trundling along the line nearest to us on a test run.
The extensive nature of the network and the fact it’s being built all at once has meant years of road diversions and closures across Riyadh. Generally there’s no prior warning when a road will be closed, which can lead to huge tailbacks and some very frustrated drivers and passengers – I watched once from our office window as cars backed up at a major road junction when one of the roads was closed without warning. A cacophony of horns erupted until one driver got out of his car and took it upon himself to start directing the traffic – (which he did really well!) Thankfully most of the road disruption is over now that the main infrastructure is in place.
It’s hoped the metro will cut down on some of the 10 million car journeys taken every day in Riyadh and reduce the 7-9,000 annual death toll…
And that’s a wrap for this short series of ‘What’s New in KSA’ blogs. They’ve been fun to write and reflect on how much things have changed in the three years since we arrived here.
It’s a rapidly changing city and nation – who knows how much it will have changed again in another three years’ time?
A few weeks ago my husband and I went out for something to eat to a plaza in Riyadh called River Walk which is in an area I don’t know that well.
River Walk is a two story glass and metal, very modern, gleaming complex with a landscaped water feature running down the middle of it (hence the river reference). Most of the units are coffee shops and it’s a pleasant place to go and walk around in the cooler evenings and enjoy a coffee and a snack.
The strange thing about River Walk is that it’s built in-between two enormous piles of excavated earth – probably 30 meters high, both stretching over a kilometer in length and half a kilometer wide. They are huge mounds of dense compact earth and rubble, surrounded by sheer sides. You can get an idea of the size from the photos!
My husband and I initially thought it was a hill they had carved around to build the nearby residential area, but actually on closer inspection we think it is a HUGE pile of excavated earth dug up during the construction of the buildings around. The layers we saw included builder’s rubble, with bits of old concrete blocks, scraps of metal etc, so it’s definitely not a natural feature.
It is such a weird thing – and I can’t overstate the size of it on both sides of the newly built River Walk which makes the plaza look like a space ship that has landed on the moon! They’ve made a feature out of one of the enormous dirt piles by building a huge wide footpath around it, and another path through the middle of it all lit with pretty street lights…Definitely not something that would be an attraction or that would meet health and safety regulations elsewhere, but there were quite a few people out walking, and there were food trucks dotted around which leads me to think it is something of a go-to destination..
Looking it up on Google Maps the area doesn’t have a name – it’s just called ‘Off Road Area’. We did see a man offloading bikes from the back of his pick up which looked like they might be for hire, but I think they’re for riding around, rather than over the top!!
From reading the reviews on Google Maps people seem to like to go walking there, the reviews include: ‘Nice area to walk’, ‘A perfect place for walking and exercise’, ‘The walkway is very beautiful, spacious and elegant’… (not sure that’s quite how I would describe it!) so it is attracting people to go walking which is a positive!
I’m not really sure what to make of it, raises questions to me about public safety (would this be allowed anywhere else??) and it doesn’t seem like the natural setting for a glamorous, futuristic coffee plaza, but it’s interesting they’ve tried to make a feature out of it and to be fair, people seem to like it!
King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD)
A purpose-built financial district in Riyadh, rising high above the desert is nearing completion…It’s a huge area (1.6million square meters) with 59 purpose-built skyscrapers of different heights and designs which its intended will incorporate a mix of office, retail, dining options, residential, conference centers, theaters, a multiscreen cinema, a monorail, an elevated walkway and a central ground level landscaped walkway, all with fast access to the airport and the city centre by road and (soon-to-be) metro.
KAFD was announced in 2008 and phase one was scheduled to open in 2017 – however, it is such an ambitious project that even the first phase is still quite far from completion, as we discovered when we went for a walk around it recently.
A limited area of the urban wadi (a landscaped area that will link the entire site) is open to stroll around, and there was one cafe where we could grab a coffee, I know some offices are already open, and there are plans for others to move in very soon with fit-outs almost complete for offices from Saudi’s mega-projects and government departments. There are also almost daily announcements of international companies signaling their intent to headquarter in Riyadh, and there appears to be a push on to complete a range of cafe and dining options which will appeal to the soon-to-be office workers.
KAFD is a huge project that dominates the skyline in the north of the city – the size of some of the sky scrapers cannot be underestimated and they have all been designed to be architecturally striking.
The first phase is very nearly there, but I imagine it is still going to take some time before the whole area is the thriving, pulsating heartbeat it is planned to be… it’s a case of, watch this space!
And that’s it for this blog – short and sweet.
Hopefully some more adventuring in the next few weeks!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! Temperatures have cooled since mid September so it is much more pleasant :0).
I have been out and about a bit over the past while, so i thought I would just share some photos from those trips and make this blog more about the photos than text!
First up we went to Bahrain for a long weekend. We really enjoyed it – we flew, but many choose to drive as it’s just five hours from Riyadh and you cross the King Fahd causeway which is 15 miles long. We had to do Covid tests on arrival (because we flew in, not required for entry by the causeway) and for departure (at their stunning new airport), but that all proved easy enough.
First we stayed at the Sofitel Bahrain along the coast for a beachy time (the seafood platter at their tapas restaurant was amazing!) and then we transferred to the central Merchant House Hotel in Manama. We visited the Bab Al Bahrain souq and the Bahrain National Museum, which was v interesting giving the social and economic history of Bahrain from the Dilmun period (2000 BC) to the present day. We also had a browse around ultra-modern, The Avenues Mall.
There are lots of great hotels and restaurants to choose from in Manama, one we didn’t get to but was highly recommended is Clay (Japanese/Peruvian fusion) #nexttime!!
We really liked the vibe in Bahrain, it was easy going, very clean and the roads had marked lanes which traffic seemed to respect – which is a novelty coming from Riyadh lolz!
I also went with a friend to a Mexican/Saudi Arabian traditional dress exhibition at the Ahlam Studio Gallery in Riyadh which was sponsored by the Mexican Embassy as part of its National Day Celebrations in September (Saudi National Day is also in September). There are similarities between the traditional dress of the two countries, which are basically wide tunics decorated with intricate embroidery.
Art galleries are still very new in Saudi but they are popping up as the Kingdom opens itself up to the arts, and there is definitely a growing interest in a new wave of contemporary young artists. Gallery owner Ahlam Alshedoukhy trained as a doctor and is also a self-taught artist, she supports emerging artists and hosts regular exhibitions (Insta: ahlam_studio_gallery)
And finally, we took a day trip by train to Al Hasa (also known as Al Hofuf) which is in the Al- Ahsa Oasis in the Eastern Province (largest oasis in the world + LOTS of date palms). The train took about 2.5 hours from Riyadh and it was super fast and efficient. We visited the Al Qara caves which are a UNESCO world heritage site. They are a warren of passages and openings worn through huge limestone mountains. The visitor center is called The Land of Civilization and it has an unexpected (and slightly confusing!) exhibition on civilizations from around the world. We also had some lovely and enthusiastic local guides who welcomed us and gave us some background to the geography and history of the area (pictured above).
During the trip we also visited Al Amiriya School in the center of Al Hofuf which is one of the oldest public schools in Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1920s, and was visited by Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdulaziz in 1931. Built in the traditional Islamic style it is no longer a school but has been preserved as a historical building.
Also in the center of the town, but not open to the public is Ibrahim Palace, an ancient mud built fort. It was built as a defence because Al Hofuf was strategically important in the spice trade.
And finally, we rounded the day off with a visit to Qaisarriah Souq i Hofuf- a warren of tiny streets filled with shops selling all kinds of things including spices, abayas, perfumes and loofahs (it is afterall only an hour from the Arabian Gulf).
As we toured the tiny streets one shopkeeper spied my friend and I and bustled us into her perfume shop where she enthusiastically suggested we take part in a promotional video. We obliged of course and she directed and filmed us sampling her products and giving a five star review. As payment Lamya presented us with mini jars of scented oud and took a selfie with us!
We also met a Souq local character who was dressed up ahead of Saudi National Day and who was only too happy to have his photo taken with us!
And that rounds off our Big Arabian Adventures over the past month – hopefully more to follow soon!
This is Part 3 of the What’s New in KSA blog series charting the top ten changes introduced in the Kingdom since we arrived in the country (way) back in 2018!
Hot on the heels of abaya wearing, this post is focusing on the growth of tourism in the traditionally conservative Kingdom and the re-emergence of cinemas after being banned for 35 years.
Until 2019 it was impossible to come as a tourist to Saudi Arabia. Anyone from another country was either working here, or was related to someone working here. There was some internal tourism but it was limited too, Saudis mostly travelled out of the country for their breaks and holidays.
Then in September 2019 it was announced that tourist visas were being made available and people started to come! You can do a search on You Tube to see how many travel You Tubers all desperate to tick Saudi off their list immediately headed to Riyadh!
Official figures reveal over 350,000 tourist visas were issued in the last quarter of 2019. It has the attraction of being a largely unexplored country and intrepid travelers were keen to be one of the first to make their way here.
At the same time Saudi started to invest in areas such as AlUla, a UNESCO world heritage site with pre-Islamic carved tombs and a huge newly opened mirrored concert hall, Taif in the north also known as The City of Roses and Asir in the south with its unique culture and cooler climate. A beautifully shot film showing the diversity of the Kingdom was also released as part of a pro-active campaign to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination and show off its splendors.
In tangent a series of ‘Seasons’ were also introduced in cities and regions across KSA to promote internal tourism and attract visitors from across the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) region.
The Seasons focused on celebrating local culture, introducing new experiences and bringing international events to the Kingdom. They included a huge three night dance music festival MDLBEAST held in the desert just outside Riyadh featuring the world’s biggest house and techno DJs, sporting events including Formula-E, the World Boxing Heavyweight Championship, an equestrian festival and international tennis exhibition. Purpose-built villages of pop-up restaurants and theme parks appeared as if by magic overnight. (Hyde Park Winter Wonderland was recreated in central Riyadh in a matter of weeks).
There were art exhibitions, a season of Cirque du Soleil, light shows and firework displays – everywhere you looked something was happening!
The ‘Seasons’ were enthusiastically received. There had never been anything like it before, festivals and events on this scale had not happened. At the concerts young men and women were able to mix freely and dance in the open air – a massive societal change.
(Due to the pandemic The Seasons were cancelled in 2020, but they are due back with a bang in a few months’ time!)
The tourist industry is still in its infancy in Saudi Arabia, and the tourism infrastructure is very limited, but there are huge plans to attract millions of visitors every year with mega luxury projects currently under construction along the Red Sea, a huge sporting/entertainment/theme park project on the door-step of Riyadh, and there’s further investment going into jewel-in-the-crown AlUla to establish it as the go-to destination for those wanting a unique cultural and historical experience.
The age of tourism in KSA has only just begun…#VisitSaudi
A warm welcome back to cinemas
There were cinemas across Saudi Arabia until the early 1980s when they were closed after being regarded as un-Islamic. The first cinema re-opened in Riyadh after restrictions were lifted in April 2018 and movie theaters quickly became a booming business with international chains keen to get established. The aim is to have 350 cinemas across the country by 2030.
The new cinemas are of course state-of-the-art, offering the latest in the luxury movie theater experience, from surround sound, to super-sized recliners – and why not snack on a lobster roll served to your seat?(All at a luxury price of course!)
Saudis love the cinema as much as anywhere else, and before they reopened Saudi film buffs used to regularly drive to Bahrain or travel to the UAE to catch the latest releases, so it’s still a thrill for them to be able to watch the latest blockbuster in their own country.
The range of films on release here are censored and are largely limited to action movies, kids cartoons or Disney films.
We’ve only managed to get to the cinema once so far. We saw the Oscar winning film Parasite back in February 2020 – which we saw literally five days before all the cinemas were closed because of the pandemic (they’ve since reopened).
When we arrived to watch the movie (which was at 10am on a Saturday morning) there were only limited seats left so we chose two seats at the end of a row – I sat in the seat next to the aisle and my husband sat beside me with two empty seats next to him. A Saudi woman on her own came in just as the film was beginning and she very politely asked me to swap seats with my husband so she didn’t have to sit next to him… just a little reminder that although a lot of things are changing in Saudi some cultures and practices remain deeply ingrained.
And that brings us to the end of What’s New in KSA (Part 3) – the fourth and final in the series will follow next time!
This was going to be the second of a two-part blog series on changes in KSA over the past 3 years – but then I realized some of the topics were really worthy of a blog in their own right, so this is one is devoted to the traditional, long, loose fitting robe, otherwise known as the abaya.
To wear an abaya or not to wear an abaya? That is the question!
Abaya wearing is a HOT topic in KSA – to wear an abaya or not is one of the big water cooler topics.
Women have always worn abayas as a cultural garment in this part of the world. In the 1960s and 70s some started adopting western dress, but in the late 1970s a new law made it mandatory for women to wear an abaya in public places. From then the black abaya (robe), the niqab (face veil) and the hijab (hair covering), became commonplace and it is still what you will see the majority of Saudi women wearing when they are out and about.
The first big change that began to impact abaya wearing was a reduction in the powers in 2016 of the Mutawa, or the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the religious police.
Founded in 1976 the Mutawa ensured strict adherence to Islamic Law and had powers to make arrests if they thought morality or public decency were not being adhered to. They could shout at women publicly, or even flick them with their canes, if they thought their hair was not covered completely or their abaya was too short.
Then in 2019 in a landmark TV interview, the Crown Prince said women could choose whether they wore black robes or face coverings. Also in 2019, along with the introduction of tourist visas, a decency law was introduced which said female tourists were no longer required to wear abayas so long as they were dressed modestly.
Over the past year there has been a noticeable shift in the number of women, and especially younger women opting to wear colored abayas which they wear in the open style – blue, green and maroon are popular, but white, pink and yellow are also making an appearance. They are also ditching the niqab and sometimes even the hijab.
Modest dress however is still required when not wearing an abaya ie – high necklines and arms, legs (and backside!) should be covered – but it does mean you can wear jeans, a top and a long jacket to go to the mall or a midi dress with long sleeves for dinner.
When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia I mostly wore black abayas, one had some blue embroidery. Then I bought a light blue linen one and a navy one with a pink and white edging for work. Now I sometimes wear an abaya and sometimes I don’t … I recently bought two new ones – a green one with a bright blue lining and a navy one with puffy white sleeves and a patterned back (see photos above). I don’t mind wearing them because I think they look quite stylish and I love the colors – they’re also easy to throw on over basic leggings and a Tee and make me look a bit more put together when I’m running round the supermarket!
It’s not just women who have to follow a dress code, it’s less strict for men but their legs and shoulders should be covered – sometimes men can wear shorts (so long as their knees are covered) but sometimes an over zealous security guard at a mall will refuse entry if they think there is too much knee on show! ;0)
Saudi men can wear western clothes, but most, and certainly always at work they wear the standard thobe (long white shirt) and shamag (red and white headdress).
And that’s a quick summary of my experience of wearing an abaya in Saudi Arabia in 2021! There’s been a definite shift and as a consequence it feels more relaxed when you go out and about.
That’s all for now – another blog will follow soon looking at tourism and the rebirth of movie-going in the Kingdom!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!
I’ve been back in Riyadh for just over a month and have been reflecting on how much has changed in the Kingdom since I left 10 months ago, and in the bigger picture, what has changed since we first arrived in the country way back in 2018!
I thought the changes might make an interesting couple of blogs, as the Kingdom has been, and continues to undergo, huge transformation both socially and economically.
The country has followed a conservative brand of Islam since 1979 and its constitution is based on Islamic law, but the Kingdom aims to transform itself into a dynamic, diversified nation over the next decade under a plan known as Saudi Vision 2030.
The tentacles of transformation reach into every aspect of life and the speed of change is almost dizzying…
(As a side note, this is not an official or definitive list – it’s just a compilation of my own observations and lived experience. It is also not a critique of what has changed or still needs to be changed – that is for others, this blog is just a light touch reflection of my personal experience of living in Saudi Arabia.)
So, with all that in mind I have compiled a list of the top 10 changes (in no particular order) which have I have noticed the most since I arrived in the Kingdom in 2018. The first five are listed below with another five to follow in the next blog!:
1. End of shop closures during prayer time
Just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of July it was announced that shops, restaurants banks etc no longer have to close during prayers. Until this announcement all commercial enterprises had to shut five times a day for 20 minutes during each prayer (although many closed for up to half an hour).
On a practical level it meant I always had to check my Al-Moazin app to see what time prayer was that day if I was planning on going to the supermarket or the mall – because arriving just as prayer was beginning would mean hanging around outside, or in the mall concourse until the shops reopened. And prayer times also change (marginally) on a daily basis, so that’s why you need to check and not rely on memory – but of course there were times when you forget which is very annoying, especially if you’re in a rush!!
The change is still new, and while some shops are now opening the majority are still closing – but luckily the bigger supermarkets have been quick to adopt it (to be fair they mostly allowed shoppers in during prayer time they just closed the tills – so you could always go in and fill up your trolley to be ready to pay as soon as they reopened).
It will probably take time for the majority of outlets to stay open – but it certainly makes life easier!
I once got chatting to a young Saudi woman I was sitting beside in a mall while we waited for the shops to reopen, and she pointed to all the Saudi families ambling around trying to entertain the kids until they could carry on with their shopping and said, ‘look at all these people, no one is going to pray, everyone just wants the shops to stay open,’ – so I imagine she is pleased the change has been introduced!
2. Music in restaurants/cafes/shops
For a long time in Saudi Arabia music was ‘haram’ ie forbidden as being anti-Islamic. Many things were, and still are ‘haram’ including, alcohol, pork, gambling, public displays of religious beliefs other than Islam etc.
When you’re used to a constant soundtrack of music in shops, cafes, restaurants etc the silence when there is none feels oppressive and the atmosphere sterile. The silence is very alien and takes some getting used to.
However, over recent years music has been creeping in. The more upmarket restaurants started playing it first (although it still gets turned off during prayer time) and now many fashion shops have introduced background music and even some of the malls.
Some people don’t miss it of course, I have one friend here (non Saudi) who celebrates the fact that one of the big local supermarkets doesn’t play a continuous loop of pop music, she says, ‘I think it’s great, I can think what I need to buy instead of being annoyed by loud, pumping music that is distracting and unnecessary!’
3. End of Singles and Family Sections
Ok so the photo to this one looks a bit weird – but it illustrates the last place where you will see the sign ‘Families Only’. This sign is above the entrance to a Victoria’s Secrets lingerie shop in a mall and what it actually means is, ‘no single men’.
Until December 2019 every restaurant/cafe had two sections – one for single men, or groups of single men and another for family groups, groups of single women. For decades it was the norm that men and women had to use separate entrances or sit behind partitions so that women were not visible to single men. As for smaller restaurants or cafes with no space for segregation, women were not allowed in.
I experienced this once when my husband and I went to a small restaurant one evening – there was only one room for dining and when we went to order we were told they would not serve me, but we could have the order as takeaway – we sat down to wait for the food to be prepared when a Saudi man came in, he started to talking to us and asked why we were not dining – we explained we had been told it was not a families section and I could not eat there, he was surprised and remonstrated with the guy behind the till, who obviously explained it was against the law, and then in a completely unexpected turn of events the Saudi guy insisted on paying for our food!
A friend once commented to me that the single men’s section was one of the bleakest places of all to sit…
Thankfully Family Sections is now practically obsolete and seating areas in most restaurants and cafes are mixed.
However, across Saudi Arabia Government-run schools and most public universities remain segregated, as are most Saudi weddings and workplaces have women-only offices.
4. Dialling down the call to prayer
On June 1 this year the Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister announced new restrictions on the volume of loudspeakers used at mosques – while this might not seem like that big of a deal there are eight mosques within a 10/15 minute walk from our compound (maybe more, but those are the ones I’ve counted) and six times a day, starting at around 4.00am the call to prayer is relayed by loudspeaker from each mosque – and it can be VERY LOUD!!
When we lived in our previous apartment we could hear it in triplicate as each imam has his own style and delivery and at times it felt like they were really competing with each other. Sometimes it would also be much louder than others, but since we have moved to our new place which is more central within the compound, we rarely hear it anyway – but when we do it is notably with less volume.
The reason given to restrict the volume and only allow loudspeakers to be used up to a third of their maximum volume, as well as limiting the broadcast to the call to prayer rather than the full sermon, was that it could be so loud it was disturbing babies, children and the elderly, and as the authorities pointed out, the call to prayer should not cause harm…
5. Ending of the guardianship system
Much has been written and continues to be debated about the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia which gave husbands, fathers and other male relatives the authority to make critical decisions about women, and severely limited what people in other countries generally accept as their civil liberties and human rights.
The first move towards dismantling the guardianship system began in 2018 when a ban on women driving was lifted.
This was followed in August 2019 when a royal decree was issued stating that women over 21 in the Kingdom no longer needed permission from their male guardian to apply for a passport or to travel – this was a huge step forward. Since then many more of the guardianship restrictions have been removed, most recently last month women were legally allowed to live alone and choose where they wanted to live.
However, elements of the guardianship system still exist, women still need permission to marry or divorce, and there are also many cultural ad social restrictions on women which can limit their options in making their own life choices. But the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia is on a march. There is a huge push from the government to bring Saudi women into the work place and to promote them, enhanced by laws outlawing workplace discrimination based on gender.
And with new opportunities open to them, Saudi women are excelling in every field, from finance to science and sport, and entrepreneurship, to the arts and academia.
Two excellent films I would highly recommend which portray women in Saudi Arabia are Wadjda (2012) and The Perfect Candidate (2019) both by Saudi’s first female film-maker Haiffa al Mansour – events may have outdated them but they are beautifully filmed and show women in Saudi Arabia through a different lense.
And that’s all for this blog – part two of changes in KSA will follow soon!
I hope you found it interesting, for me it’s fascinating to live in a country going through such huge transition.
Hello and greetings from Riyadh – it’s good to be back in KSA and dusting off the blog after its unexpected and lengthy hiatus! It’s been a journey to get back since my husband and I left on a repatriation flight in September 2020, all because of the global pandemic and different restrictions etc. But now I’ve swapped an Irish summer for the intense heat of the Arabian desert and am very happy to be back reunited with my husband and starting Our Big Arabian Adventure, Part 2!!
It’s been interesting to experience a pandemic in two countries and I might write a longer blog post about the differences, but by far the most notable difference and the one with the biggest impact has been border closures. Saudi closed its borders back in March 2020. It began reopening last autumn, but started closing them again in January 2021.
It temporarily suspended flights from 22 countries in February including the UK and Ireland. Those flights were reinstated in May, which meant as soon as I had my second vaccination and all the relevant paperwork I was able to travel!
Travelling was much smoother than I expected. The airports were very quiet and both flights were at about 50% capacity. Walking through the endless rows of empty departure gates was a little eerie at Heathrow, but overall it felt very calm.
Flying back into Riyadh at around midnight I was able to pick out landmarks familiar to me as we circled overhead before landing – our local area, the nearest mall – which is something you can really only do when you’ve lived somewhere and it gave me a real feeling of homecoming.
Riyadh airport was also very quiet when we landed and the queues were short. I had to show my negative PCR test result and then on through passport control and baggage reclaim. The only stumbling block was when they asked to see my boarding pass at passport control (they always ask for it here which I had forgotten) and I had a moment of furiously rummaging around in my bag to find it wondering had I left it on the plane, but luckily I found it and all was good!
It was still a relief to get through arrivals and emerge into the stifling heat of a Saudi night and be reunited with my husband after almost 6 months.
So here I am, back in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and looking forward to whatever ‘Our Big Arabian Adventure Part 2’ brings!!
Hello, and greetings from Belfast where it is (unexpectedly) another day of sun!! We are basking in an Indian summer and making the most of the late summer sunshine.
So, as you can probably surmise we have left Riyadh for a while. We recently flew out on a repatriation flight and I thought I would document our experience. There are still repatriation flights going, even though commercial flights are (hopefully!) due to start opening up again soon over Saudi airspace.
For those who don’t know, a repatriation flight is a one way flight out of a country to your home country. Saudi stopped all domestic and international flights on March 22 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the only way for people to get home has been on a series of repatriation flights. They are flown by a reduced number of airlines and are announced a couple of weeks in advance. Initially you had to register and book through your embassy, but now there are so many flights going you just book directly with the operator.
We didn’t have to take a Covid-19 test before we travelled, but we did have to fill in an exit form for Saudi and a passenger locator form for track and trace in the UK before flying.
Riyadh International airport was very quiet when we arrived and we were surprised that our temperature wasn’t taken even though every mall, supermarket and restaurant now checks your temperature as a matter of course …
The only flights were repatriation ones:
There were only a couple of flights going so thankfully there was basically no queuing for check-in, and after passing through security we got ourselves a coffee while we waited.
To pass the time I also had a browse around Duty Free – which has dramatically increased its range of goods and which was also having a huge sale – maybe trying to sell leftover stock from when the commercial flights were suspended, before it goes out of date!
Camel milk chocolate anyone?
We travelled on a Saudia flight – and there was no shortage of planes to choose from…
Boarding was by row. The flight was seven hours to Heathrow and we wore our masks throughout the journey. On arrival on the plane we were each given a comfort pack which included a disposable mask, a pack of tissues and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. There wasn’t the usual on-board meal service, instead we were given a paper bag snack pack with a sandwich, a bottle of OJ and a bottle of water. More water and extra sandwiches were also on offer. (The sandwiches were not the best!! Top tip, bring your own snacks!!)
On arrival at Heathrow we disembarked again by row which was much more organised and dignified than the usual mad scramble! The airport was busy, but not nearly as busy as it usually is. About half the shops and restaurants in Terminal 2 were closed and of course everyone was wearing their masks.
No one asked for our passenger locator form although the website had said we had to show either a printed version or a completed version on our phone to gain entry. Again, we didn’t have our temperatures taken and there were no announcements or information about the need to quarantine. No one even asked us where we had come from…
We grabbed a quick bite to eat in a terminal restaurant. It had socially distanced procedures, the staff were all wearing masks, the menu was online, there was sanitiser available and we were time-limited in our seats. It was our first experience of the impact of Covid-19 in the UK – but it was good to be back!
Then it was time to board the next flight to Belfast:
Again we wore our masks throughout and there was no service. The evening plane was full which was a surprise, but again it was boarding and disembarking by row which helped with social distancing.
And then, before we knew it. we were seeing the lights around Belfast Lough, landing at George Best, Belfast City Airport and off to start our 14 days of quarantine!
So, we made it back. It was a very different travel experience from before the outbreak of Covid-19. The new measures offer some reassurance but overall the journey was something to be endured. It was good when it was over.
The lack of checking or advice on entering the UK was surprising, but we’re just glad to be home in Belfast for a while.
So while we’re here the blog will take a little break, but we hope to resume Our Big Arabian Adventure in the New Year and then the blog will resume!
Hello and welcome to another day of sun in Riyadh!
Following on with the theme of getting out and about again post the lockdown restrictions, I recently joined some friends to watch the sunset over the desert.
So far, during our time in the Kingdom I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the desert’s iconic red sand dunes – those mystical, other-worldly landscapes which have inspired many tales of Arabian derring-do and romantic heroes.
Prior to our outing the only desert I had seen was rough and stony, dotted with scraggy bushes and stumpy trees, not the sweeping red mounds of majestic sand Lawrence of Arabia would have travelled over by camel!!
My friends and I set off late afternoon and drove around two hours due east of Riyadh towards the city of Dammam. It’s a very busy road with bumper to bumper trucks traveling both ways transporting goods between Riyadh and the Gulf city port. Two hours is about half way to Dammam and it’s also around here that the red sand dunes begin. The road was built through them and they had to be flatten the dunes on either side to prevent them creeping back and reclaiming the highway. I would imagine after a sandstorm parts of the road would probably still completely disappear under sand.
Anyway, after about two hours of driving we doubled back and pulled in off the highway. Driving over sand dunes is a skill. The car tyres have to be deflated, as reduced pressure provides more traction and disperses the weight of the vehicle preventing sinking.
The golden rules for driving over sand dunes are: drive straight up or down, keep momentum going and don’t stop on an incline.
Thankfully we had an experienced driver and I wasn’t in the hot seat!!
We drove just a couple of kilometres in from the highway and arrived just ahead of the sunset. The golden light illuminated the dunes, making the red sand glow with warmth, while in contrast the side away from the sun cast long dark shadows.
The view was stunning. The sand is powder soft and the dunes are molded by the shifting winds. There is nothing but sand, no other form of life to be seen, serene in their stillness and beauty.
We had a picnic as we enjoyed the view then grabbed some photos and packed up as the last lingering light was fading – we didn’t want to have to make our way back to the highway across the dunes in the dark!
We pulled out of the dunes to the side of the road just as the sun, in a blazing firey ball dipped below the horizon. We increased the tyre pressure and pulled back out into the crazy traffic racing back to Riyadh on Saturday night. First, but hopefully not last, visit to the desert done!
Hello and greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!
With lockdown restrictions easing in Saudi Arabia we have been venturing out a little more in recent days. Saudi has moved from a strict 24 hour lockdown at the outset of the pandemic response, through various different stages, to the point where there are currently no restrictions on movement within the Kingdom.
Daily life is pretty much back to normal. Schools however will not reopen for the start of term in September. The Ministry of Education has announced that online learning will continue for the first seven weeks of the new term, when the situation will be reviewed.
Saudi’s borders also remain closed. There are still no commercial flights in or out of the country. There are repatriation flights (one way) to the US and Europe and there are some chartered flights bringing staff back who work on the mega construction projects. Naturally there is a lot of speculation about when flights will resume, but there has been no official announcement and so we wait…
So, after 6 months of living and working from home in the compound, punctuated only by weekly mall/supermarket visits, we (my husband and myself) decided it was time to expand our horizons…
We joined a tour organized by a local company (Insta: @hayatour) to the town of Al Midhnab in Al-Qassim Province (about 350km north west of Riyadh) for a day of sight-seeing, finishing off with a trip to the local date market – and we travelled by train!
The train service is still quite limited in KSA, but a northern line from Riyadh to Hail opened a couple of years ago. It is an extremely modern, efficient service. We live very close to Thumamah railway station in Riyadh, but we didn’t even know it was there until we decided to take this trip. On arrival it resembles a mini airport – we even had to show our passports to check in.
On board the sleek new trains there is generous seating and the carriages are immaculately clean. We were greeted on arrival with a cup of Arabic coffee and a date (the traditional Saudi welcome), followed by a breakfast box:
The train took 2.5 hours to reach Al-Qassim traveling through the desert. We saw istrahas (semi-permanent tented camps in the desert where people go to relax, hang out with friends and get back to basics), and the odd herd of camels.
When we arrived at Al-Qassim station we were met and driven by coach to Al-Midhnab (about 1 hour away). It is a rural town whose economy is traditionally based on date farming.
First stop was the heritage village which has been beautifully preserved as an example of traditional living:
From there we went to a private garden and aviary followed by a visit to the town’s very impressive new cultural/convention centre.
We finished the day off with a visit to the town’s famous date market. The region is renowned for its red sukkari dates (sukkari means sugary in Arabic). The annual date harvest begins in late August and the dates are brought straight from the farms to be sold wholesale at the market. Auctioneers sample the dates and set the price.
People ravel from all over Saudi Arabia for these dates because they are so prized for their taste and sweetness. The market is held in purpose built structure with plenty of cooling fans on the go!
After the date market, loaded up with boxes of dates, we headed back to the station to catch the train back to Riyadh.
It was a really interesting day out and a great way to experience a little more of this vast Kingdom.