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Published: November 20th 2019
Now that Saudi Arabia has opened up and embraced tourism, I feel that I can post some of my experiences I have had there in the past year while working on various projects. Our company has a large presence there and since it is so big, we often need to help out from our Dubai (regional) office. I am currently helping to train the geologists and engineers while we put a new structure in place. Additionally, we had a few consulting projects that require geologists like me, who have a background in geohazards.
When people think of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general, they think "Desert" - sand, no vegetation, barren... Yes, you do get a lot (LOT) of that, but there are also mountains, wadis, coasts, islands... So, two of the locations that we worked near I discuss below because not only did I think they were lovely, I felt they were amongst the most lovely places I've seen in the Middle East overall.
When I first got my visa early last year, I was a bit nervous - me, a single woman, going to Saudi Arabia for the first time, and to the middle of
nowhere!!! I had a couple of female friends who had lived and/or worked there and they had fond memories. My HR Manager came with me to buy an abaya and sheila, which I expensed. Fortunately I was traveling with three of my coworkers and meeting another there, all four of which I knew very well. When really, I had nothing to worry about. The flight on Saudia airlines was very nice and the customs agents super friendly. Al-Ula
Al-Ula is located in the mountains in the northwestern part of the country. This meant our flight options were somewhat limited as I believe the airport was only open 2-3 times a week. We met our consultant at the Riyadh airport on our layover and all flew together to the small Al-Ula airport. I laughed when we got off the plane and onto a shuttle as I could see the terminal directly in front of us. I commented, at what the time I thought was wryly, oh is the bus going to just do a U-turn? Yes, it did. We picked up our bags and met our driver who was to take us to our accommodation.
We happened to
arrive at the same time as Al-Ula's inaugural annual Winter at Tantora Festival, which takes place in the old ruins area in the main part of town and features musical acts, including Bocelli (who played after we had left). Due to the festival and that at the time, Saudi was still not open to tourism, accommodations were very limited. Fortunately, we had found a villa to the north of town to accommodate all 5 of us. The guys shared the two regular bedrooms and I had the master bedroom on the opposite end of the villa to myself. We had a large shared kitchen and common room with low benches and pillows around a central low table. We did not want fast food, but it was not easy to find a place. Our driver finally took us to a spot after our first day of field work, a small restaurant off the main street where you ordered from the counter. I think typically you did not take away, but because I was there, we felt more comfortable to eat at home. Let me just say, that was the most delicious eggplant dish I have ever had in my life and
the hummus was also amazing. So, we went there every night except once.
The next day, we met with our client and split into two groups to do our work. My team started out going up to the lookout point which looks over the entire Al-Ula valley and even has a café with nice tables scattered throughout the area. It was a bit hazy, but I was so pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful the valley was - the geology of yellow and red sandstone overlaid with volcanics, the green valley, the blue sky... This was a great intro to Saudi. Also, the client told me I did not have to wear my abaya - I wound up wearing it while I was in town or the airport (just to avoid stares), but while working in the field, I wore my regular field clothes.
We were there for one week, basically touring the entire Al-Ula region and besides the incredible geology, there are significant historical and archaeological finds. Madain Saleh (which was actually closed to us during our visit sadly) is considered the second city to Petra, also built by the Nabateans. There are other ruins for the
Dadanites, including tombs carved into the hillsides and foundations for former homes built about 800 or more years ago, which were abandoned in the 20th century for higher ground. One of my unexpected favorites was seeing the old rail alignment (Hijaz Railway) that was originally constructed in the early 20th century and was intended to go all the way from Damascus to Mecca, but only made it as far as Medina before the outbreak of World War I ceased construction and then later abandonment. Umlujj
One of the things that sort of gets to me here is that there are so many beautiful parks, that are almost all free. However, I rarely, if ever, even see them used (see Salalah blog from 2014). So, when I do see nice parks, I just expect them to be empty. As we were driving from Yanbu airport to the coastal city of Umlujj, I noted a bunch of playgrounds, picnic areas, and parks that looked so welcoming and thought what a disappointment that nobody uses them. Wait - those are cars parked there! And people eating at the picnic tables! And kids playing! People playing cricket! And women, many women, in
We think this is remnant of pyroclastic flow eroded by water in this deep wadi
full cover walking along the corniche!!! Every single woman I saw was fully covered in abaya and sheila, but they were everywhere. Walking, shopping, DRIVING. It was fun.
I won't go into the hotel situation (thought the restaurant was delicious!), though I'll say it was fine. For a few days, no issues really. It was definitely geared towards workers though. Daily we drove to the mountains about an hour northeast of Umlujj. Again the mountains were very interesting, though not the amazing, colorful geology we saw in Al Ula. The Red Sea area has been called the Maldives of the Middle East and when I see pictures from some of my coworkers, I get insanely jealous. Clear, turquoise waters. Corals everywhere. Beaches. Definitely a place worth visiting. Dammam and Riyadh
I have only been to these two cities for inside work - meetings and trainings. They are the larger ones in the countries, so the accommodations are easier to come by. The drivers I have had have always been nice and professional, practicing their English with me. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen much outside an office.
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