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 from Belfast where it is unseasonably cold! The new location is a clue that this is sadly the last OurBigArabianAdventure blog…
“Success is loving life and daring to live it.”
We have had a fantastic (although at times challenging!) time for three and a half years living and working in Riyadh and getting to know a country and a region very far removed from our hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
I started the blog back in 2018 to share my experiences of settling into and living in Saudi Arabia and documenting all the adventures we had along the way – and this is unbelievably the 46th blog post!!
To mark the end of ‘Our Big Arabian Adventure’ I have edited a video montage of highlights which I hope you will enjoy :0)
My husband and I threw ourselves into our adventure and tried to experience as much as we could – and I hope the blog has reflected that. I really feel we can honestly say we did it all!
Thank you to everyone who has read, or shared the blog and to the many of you who have contacted me over the years with comments, thoughts or questions.
But now its time to climb aboard the magic carpet once again and see where it takes us for the next adventure!
Until next time,
PS – You can always stay up-to-date with what I’m up to on Insta: @anne.mcgrath248
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! We’ve had some very dusty days recently and one BIG sandstorm which engulfed Riyadh and lasted a whole day. The dust had the effect of a sepia filter, giving everywhere an orange tone and covering everywhere in a layer of dust and grime, and it smells, it’s horrible to think what we must have breathed in…
Anyway, part from the ‘excitement’ of the recent sandstorm I took part in the first ever Riyadh Marathon (not the full marathon but the 4K fun run) held on Saturday 5 March.
It was a big event attracting both local and international competitors. A group of women from our compound (the Wadi Runners) took up the challenge and began training from December for the 10K. (Unfortunately I suffered an ankle injury so had to revise my plans down to the 4k).
We went to the Marathon Village the day before to register and pick up our race packs. There was a great atmosphere with lots of stalls and challenges – (and mascots to have our photos taken with!) It definitely got us enthused and excited for the big event the following day.
The marathon placed a big emphasis on being inclusive for all ages, abilities etc and it attracted a large number of Saudi women to take part – a pretty big deal because until recently women were told exercise was un-modest, there was no P.E. even in schools and there were no public sporting events – and certainly no mixed public sporting events.
The dress code on the day was varied, some women wore abayas, some wore jogging abayas (a bit like a penguin onesie), and some wore long-sleeved lycra tops and leggings with baggy shorts and a baggy T-shirt over the top. With no official dress code our Wadi runners team chose to wear leggings and our own designed Wadi Runners pink and blue T-shirts which attracted a lot of attention – We were photographed, interviewed and filmed for TV and social media because we stood out in our brightly colored Ts!
There were some distinct Saudi touches to the event, Saudis aren’t given to public displays of emotion so the cheering crowds were little more subdued than usual, and when we crossed the finish line, along with water and bananas, there were dates, and date sweets on offer. There was also a stand giving competitors free plants which was a nice touch!
It was a really fun first Riyadh Marathon and hopefully the start of many more. I was delighted to take part in it, be a little bit part of the changing face of Saudi society.
I will certainly cherish my souvenir medal, certificate and T shirt! #Runderful #RiyadhMarathon
World Sights Park
My husband and I also recently visited a very quirky and little-known visitor attraction called the World Sights Park in Riyadh. I had never heard of it or seen any promotion about it, I just happened to catch sight of it one day as I drove past with my driver, so I looked it up on Google maps and discovered it was an actual bone fide visitor attraction, sited unobtrusively on the side of the major Eastern Ring Road.
It must have opened around 2010, but has the feel of a 1970s park forgotten in time! It can be found just south of Granada Mall. There is a small entrance fee (but as we were leaving it appeared the payment booth was closed and families were just walking).
It is open daily from 4pm and is definitely worth a visit for the novelty factor. It has model size recreations of some of the world’s most iconic buildings including the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Sydney Opera House, the Treasury at Petra, two Dutch windmills, eight of the world’s most famous mosques, landmark buildings of Riyadh (including the airport), the pyramids and the top of Mount Everest…
The models have, over time lost their former lustre and need a bit of maintenance. They are a bit crumbly and their paintwork needs touched up. Each one has an information board with descriptions in Arabic and English – some of the English translations are very funny and provide their own entertainment – and certainly haven’t been updated since it was opened.
Overall the park has something of a charm from a time gone by.The gardens are nicely landscaped, and with the inclusion of so many Riyadh historic buildings, plus the mosques, it has a distinctly Saudi flavor. There is also a coffee shop, so you could easily put in an hour, or bring a picnic – and there’s lots of opportunity for comedy photos!
We visited just after it opened at 4.30pm so it was still light, but it might be worth visiting when it’s dark and the models are illuminated (their state of their disrepair might not be so obvious!).
There were some families walking around and taking it all in when we visited and I imagine when it opened it was probably quite a popular attraction especially given the context of Saudi Arabia back then, but today it feels a bit like a relic from the past, and given all the new developments and the emphasis on family entertainment with the big shiny Riyadh Season these days, I would strongly suggest going to see it before the developers move in and this little gem is ‘redeveloped’ like the former Al Hokair Land theme park across the road which is no more…
And that’s it for this blog – I hope you enjoyed the quick whirl around the World Sights Park and the insight from the Riyadh Marathon
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! We’ve had some dust storms recently which signifies the seasons are changing and temperatures are starting to rise again.
Another indication that the cooler days are being replaced by warmer ones is the annual blooming of wild irises in the desert.
I recently went on a trip with Haya Tours (Insta: @hayatour) to see these delicate but hardy little flowers in a valley north of Riyadh near the town of Tumayr. They bloom in specific locations for a couple of weeks in February every year.
If there has been a lot of rainfall over the winter months they will much more plentiful, but this year as there has been hardly any rain there wasn’t exactly a lush green and purple carpet, but once you started looking they were there, a flash of vibrant color standing out heroically against the barren desert landscape.
I went with my good friend Ingrid and the trip was led by Salwa, the Saudi lady who owns and runs Haya Tours – and we had lot of fun:
After our walk admiring the irises we were treated to a Saudi picnic lunch with tea (chai), coffee (qahwa), chicken shawarma and falafel sandwiches, dates, Saudi biscuits, nuts and fruits:
And surprised by the arrival of a herd of camels:
On the way to the iris valley we passed through the town of Tumayr which had some interesting art installations on the approach… first we were greeted by an impressive representation of the crossed Saudi swords, then four huge fruit bowls on plinths surrounding one larger plinth holding the platter of a headless camel – apparently representing hospitality we were told – and finally an enormous statue of a rifle, which our guide told us was there to represent safety for all who live or visit the town…
And then it was time to wave goodbye to the iris fields of Tumayr and a day of contrasts, from tiny purple flowers to giant art representations of swords, guns and a headless camel (!)…Saudi is always full of surprises!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! So this month, as it is the month to celebrate love I thought I would take a look at matters of the heart in Saudi Arabia.
It’s difficult to know exactly what the local dating scene is like. Officially there is no ‘dating scene’ marriages are arranged and there are very limited opportunities for unrelated boys and girls to meet, never mind go on a date or be alone.
While the religious police were still in force (until 2016) only a married couple could go out in each other’s company – if they were unrelated they risked at the very least being publicly berated, struck with a stick, or at worst jailed. One Saudi guy told me he was lashed after he was seen waving at a girl he knew in a mall when he was a teenager. The religious police asked him how he knew the girl and he said she was his cousin, they asked her the same and she said he was her brother – so they deduced they were being lied to and used their canes…
Until recently there was also nowhere for potential or unmarried couples to meet because life was completely segregated, from school, to the workplace, to family parties, weddings etc there was no inter-mingling of the sexes, and until 2017 there were no cinemas, no concerts, women largely didn’t work (or if they did they were in separate offices and still in many places are), and cafes and restaurants had segregated seating areas (and of course there are no nightclubs or bars!).
I do know that with things easing young Saudis do meet at mixed parties or through the workplace. One Saudi girl told me she had a boyfriend who she’d met at a party with friends and they would go out for meals or to the races, so things are changing…
Like everywhere else dating apps are very popular, Tinder, Bumble etc. It’s a safe way for Saudi girls and boys to talk to each other, even if it doesn’t lead to meeting up. A single friend I had here (expat) joined Tinder when he first arrived. He said he was quite nervous at first because he didn’t know what the social norms were. What he found was that Saudi women generally didn’t have a profile photo but were curious to chat, but after initial contact, or when he suggested meeting up, they would just simply melt away/ghost him. He said the few Saudi women he did end up meeting for a coffee had some experience of living and traveling abroad and were more confident/daring about meeting an expat guy. He also said Muslim women of other nationalities (although living in Riyadh) were more likely to meet up or keep chatting longer than Saudi women.
He said being single in KSA there is a thriving ex-pat dating scene with plenty of opportunity to meet people at parties on compounds which happen almost every weekend, once you tap into those networks. And some expats have even found lasting love – with one expat couple who met by chance on an internal flight when they were both single and started dating eventually getting married and even chose to stay on in Riyadh to raise their young family.
Meanwhile, for Saudis, apart from traditionally arranged marriages, (and marriage ceremonies are also separate for men and women – usually even separate venues, but that’s for another blog!), polygamous marriages are also legally recognized in Saudi. In accordance with Sharia law a man can marry up to four wives provided he treats them all equally and shares his wealth equally. (It’s the ‘equally’ part that can put people off! ;0) ).
There is also something called a misyar marriage which has been legal since 1996. This is essentially a time-limited marriage lasting between 14-60 days with no dowry paid and no financial obligations. Misyar marriages are usually done in secret and are seen as a hybrid between marriage and single-hood. They are used by people who want a ‘no-strings attached’ marriage, men who want another relationship aside from their wife but don’t want to have the responsibilities of a full-blown polygamous relationship, or have a wife opposed to being in a polygamous marriage, men who enter into a short-term arrangement while they are abroad, women who want to avoid traditional marriages, women who don’t want an ex-husband to know they are in a new relationship or unmarried couples seeking religious cover for sexual relationships forbidden outside wedlock.
So, while it might appear at first that finding love could be a tricky path to negotiate in KSA, like everywhere else in the world, love always finds a way ;0)
And that’s a quick look at romance in Saudi Arabia, 2022!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun, albeit with much cooler temperatures – it recently fell to zero degrees overnight which is practically unheard of in the city. There was also snow in the north of the country, and social media was flooded with pictures of camels walking through a desert scene covered in snow…
Anyway, I realized I had some photos from a couple of different outings I went on in December which I hadn’t yet shared, so I thought I would compile them into a bonus mini-blog!
First up, I took a trip to a farmer’s market which was held weekly in an area known as the DQ (Diplomatic Quarter) every Saturday during November and December. The Farmer’s Market was first introduced in 2019 and this was its first time back since the pandemic. It was more than double the size it had been two years’ ago with a whole range of stalls including a Christmas stall (unthinkable even two years ago) and a stall selling organic Turkeys (including turkey eggs!), together with lots of food stalls, stalls selling dates and pickles, organic beauty, children’s clothes, designer abayas, plants etc… And it proved very popular drawing big crowds every weekend:
There is also a burgeoning art scene in Riyadh and I was invited along by a friend to Misk Art Week to view an exhibition entitled ‘Under Construction’ with a large range of inspiring interpretations and installations from both local and international artists:
Misk Art Institute is a non-profit cultural organization established to support local artists and provide them with the opportunity to showcase their work alongside other international artists. One of my favorite pieces was by Kuwaiti architect Mishari AlNajjar (Insta: @mjalnajjar) who recreated a representation of the traditional textile quarter in Kuwait City using materials bought in the local shops:
And keeping on the art theme, my husband and I visited the Diriyah Biennale Foundation in Jax, a newly formed art and cultural district in Diriyah, housed in converted warehouses to support local artists. As well a vast exhibition space there are also cafes, restaurants, a gift shop and a cinema as well as an ongoing program of workshops and talks. The exhibition of international artists is open daily until March and entry is free:
And finally, a Saudi friend of mine hosted a small lunch party at her house where she provided traditional Arabic foods including kabsa, jareesh and kanfeh:
It was a really enjoyable afternoon with a lovely mix of ladies and it was extra special to enjoy Arabic foods as a guest in a Saudi house.
And that brings us to the end of this (perhaps not-so-mini) mini-blog!
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of the (free) events that have been going on around Riyadh.
Hello, happy New Year and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! I hope everyone had a good Christmas (if you were celebrating). We spent the holidays in Abu Dhabi where it was very chill and the weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold, but cool enough for a cardy/jacket in the evenings!
I thought for the first blog of 2022 I would share some photos from our trip and recommendations on where we stayed, ate, visited etc…
First of all a quick introduction to the city – Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – not Dubai! It is the home of the UAE government and the UAE President. Built on a series of islands along the Persian Gulf it relied on fishing and pearling until oil reserves were discovered in 1959. It is now the sixth biggest producer of oil in the world and has the world’s fifth largest sovereign wealth fund. It has grown at dizzying speed. In 1971, the year the UAE was created, Abu Dhabi had a population of 71,000, today it is home to 1.5 million people. It’s oldest building is the Qasr Al Hosn Fort which was built as a watchtower to control the coastal areas in 1761.
Today Abu Dhabi is a thriving modern city with gleaming skyscrapers and five lane motorways. It is also one of the safest cities in the world. It is best known for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its two theme parks – Ferrari World and Warner Bros World.
We have been to Abu Dhabi a couple of times before so we didn’t do all the touristy things this time – it was more about relaxing and chilling out.
However, we did visit the Emirates Palace Hotel – a five star luxury hotel built at a cost of $3billion and opened in 2005. We visited it before, so we forewent the eyewatering $15 camel-cino coffee (!) – this time we went to see the Christmas tree which was pretty impressive!
The building is a mix of Islamic architecture and the color was inspired by the different shades of sand found in the Arabian desert.
We also went to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque which is the eighth biggest mosque in the world. It has 82 domes, 1000 columns and 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers.
The entrance is designed like the Louvre in Paris, where upon arrival tourists descend below ground on an escalator under a large glass dome. Downstairs is a mini-mall with coffee shops, a pharmacy, gift shops etc… There is also a long line of tourists being checked to ensure they are dressed appropriately ie trousers for men, no bare arms, legs or hair for women. If you are not deemed modestly dressed enough you can purchase either sleeves for your arms (like single tights you roll up each arm) or a complete covering (in nasty nylon) which comes with a handy hood to keep your hair covered. You are then linked to the mosque by an underground walkway. Tours are free.
Having visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi a number of times before (and highly recommend!) we visited the smaller Etihad Modern Art Gallery this time. It’s a small quirky gallery showing modern art by local and international artists, plus a creative cafe and gift shop which has a Thai beach bar vibe. We were lucky because when we visited the artist Noura Ali-Ramahi who is currently exhibiting a solo exhibition entitled ‘Nostalgia, a pandemic and finally losing my mind’ was giving a guided tour to some of her friends and invited us to join.
The art gallery is a very different to the big glitz and glamour of the rest of Abu Dhabi, but this little gem is worth seeking out for an alternative and perhaps more authentic experience.
Another highlight was cycling the Corniche. It’s a large, landscaped promenade along the sweeping bay and makes for a fun couple of hours if you stop off for a cool drink and a Coldstone ice cream along the way!
And to wrap up our stay we welcomed in the New Year with an amazing firework display over the Emirates Palace Hotel (Photo credit: Stephen McGrath).
We really enjoyed our Christmas and New Year in Abu Dhabi. It was very chill. Everyone we met was very friendly and helpful and the weather at that time of year is perfect – I would definitely recommend it as an alternative to Dubai if you are thinking of visiting the Middle East.
Happy New Year everyone- Stay safe out there!
Until next time, Abu Dhabi-doooo!!
We stayed at: The Edition, Al Bateen Marina and the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Corniche.
We ate at: The Eclipse Bar, Four Seasons Hotel (sushi and cocktails) – perfect for a sundowner LPM at the Galleria Mall (French/Mediterranean) Buddah Beach Bar, St Regis, Saadiyat Island for a Japanese themed Christmas Day brunch Alba at The Edition is excellent for casual dining and has a daily happy hour 5-8pm Beirut Villa in Marina Mall does excellent Lebanese food at very reasonable prices (I recommend the falafel wrap and beetroot hummus!)
I would also suggest a visit to Marsa Al Bateen Marina for a stroll with a wide selection of cafes and restaurants to choose from – the Coffee Club does a delicious iced raspberry and coffee drink – and of course you could pop into the Alba at The Edition for a shared charcutiere board and a drink if it’s during Happy Hour!
Travel info: In these pandemic times there are lots of Covid procedure requirements (like everywhere else) Our experience of traveling to Abu Dhabi included: a pre-travel PCR test, an on-arrival PCR test (queueing can take a long time, followed by even longer queues for border control). We also had to do a day 6 test and a pre-departure test for re-entry into Saudi and download the Al Hosn app.
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun – although the mornings are much fresher and the evenings cooler, with daytime temperatures only reaching 22 degrees…#literallyfreezing lolz!
This will be the last blog of 2021 and it’s a bumper photo edition from a recent camping trip and a day spent with some supermodel camels at the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.
Our camping trip was to an area called Sa’ad about two hours east of Riyadh in some beautiful red sand dunes. We had a fabulous time, saw the sunset and the full moon rise – and it even rained a little bit overnight. It was quite something to be woken up by raindrops hitting the canvas in the desert.
Many thanks to the Riyadh Rovers and our friends Freddie and Stephen for bringing us a along and sharing their adventure with us :0)
I also recently spent a day at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival – the world’s largest camel festival! Camels are big business here with prizes worth $40million. They are judged on their looks ie their proportions, markings, size of the hump, condition of their coat etc. There has been some well publicized controversy this year about camels being disqualified for receiving botox to make their lips bigger – but there was no mention of that the day we went.
The festival runs for a month and a half every year a couple of hours north of Riyadh, covering an area of 32sq Kms. 33,000 camels take part in the annual cultural, economic, sports and entertainment festival where they are judged on their looks in different categories. There are some race days, just not on the day we were there.
The main area has a show ground with stands and a VIP area. Adjacent is a pop up village offering a laundry, bank, butchers, grocery store, hardware shop etc providing services for all the people who are part of the festival and camp there along with the camels for the duration. There’s also a large area offering desert tents for rent by visitors, and of course spread out are the camel camps, with herds who travelled from all over the Middle East to take part.
The day we went was competition day for herds of black camels. A herd is up to 80 camels, all female + calves and one male. They are judged on how they look as a herd and they are paraded up and down in front of a panel of judges headed by one white camel who is ornately adorned. There were 10 herds, so 800 black camels in total, on show – and they were amazing to see. The camels really are like supermodels and they are treated as VIPs with crowds in the stands singing to welcome them.
The Saudis running the event were incredibly welcoming. They really wanted us to have a good time and nothing was too much to help us get our photos and make sure we had a good day. We were hosted in the VIP area and offered qahwa and dates on arrival. We were also given special access to the camels who take part in the opening and closing caravan parade:
Then we spent some time wandering along the Al_Dahna Street Souk where Bedouins have a roadside camp selling food, qahwa (Arabic coffee), chai (tea), freshly made bread and anything and everything you could need for your camel or camping…
It was a really fabulous day. I went with Haya Tours (you can find them on Instagram) run by the indefatigable Salwa – a one woman powerhouse. People at the festival were so friendly and helpful and other Saudi visitors couldn’t believe this group of tourists in their midst – they were very keen to photograph and film us with car loads slowing down so they could shout ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia’. The Saudi women weren’t keen to be photographed, but they also wanted to wave and say hello.
And that brings us to the end for another year of Our Big Arabian Adventure. It’s been eventful!
Festive greetings to you all and wishes for a healthy, safe and better 2022, and I’ll see you back here in January,
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!
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.