Shark Wrangling in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia | Morocco | Dubai |
For my November travels I had planned to visit friends in Asia and the South Pacific and maybe do a bit of sea kayaking but the region was slow in opening so an alternative was needed.
Morocco fit the bill – warm-ish with mountains to climb, kite-surfing, affordable and easy to get to from Europe. I always love the Middle East North Africa region – gorgeous Islamic architecture, bustling souks/markets, winding narrow lanes, beautiful riad hotels (all rooms around a courtyard) and good food. In my couple of days in Marrakech I focused on art and culture – visiting contemporary art museums, photography museums and attending an intimate classical gnaoua music concert in a wonderful old property housing the museum of music. The Yves Saint Laurent Gardens were worthwhile with an interesting Berber museum and the hundreds of night food stalls in the main Jemaa el-Fnaa square was a lot of fun.
Then it was off to the Atlas Mountains to climb Mt Toubkal – at 4,167m the highest mountain in North Africa and one of the 10 highest in Africa. There was no snow and it was a very straightforward two-day hike with great views from the summit – making it an easy, enjoyable mountain trip. Trading mountains for beach I headed to the coastal town of Essaouira for more kitesurfing. This is considerably more difficult for me than mountain climbing but it was good to keep the momentum going after Greece. I also relished the ability to stay in one place for a week and catch up on some personal administration and finalize the rest of my travels.
After a quick stop over in Dubai to celebrate my friend Gaye’s birthday (great brunch Gaye!), I was on a plane to Saudi Arabia. I would guess that Saudi takes the title for the “country in the world that is going through the greatest cultural change in the shortest amount of time”. In 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), then 32 years old, was named Crown Prince and effectively began running the country. He has since introduced significant reforms including allowing women to drive, removing the need for women to wear the abaya (full body black covering), allowing men and women to mix in public, removing the religious police, opening cinemas and opening up mixed gender cultural and sporting events – Mariah Carey was the first female performer and the first Formula One event was being held the weekend after I left. Importantly, significant changes have also been made to the male guardianship system and Saudi women are now allowed to work, live alone, apply for passports and travel freely – all without male approval.
Intent on diversifying the economy away from oil with his Vision 2030, MBS has also opened the country to non-Muslim tourism and it is as simple as applying for an e-visa online and getting approval within 15 minutes. There are huge plans for tourism and infrastructure development with giant giga-projects in the works including a technology/industrial city the size of Belgium (NEOM) that involves a futuristic city called The Green Line and enormous resort development on the Red Sea. Truly fascinating and it will be interesting to see what actually eventuates. MBS is not without controversy – directly linked to the murder of journalist Khashoggi and infamous for repression of speech against the government – but he is adored by the young population (the majority).
One of the main attractions being promoted for tourism is Al Ula in the north of Saudi – a spectacular region of red rock formations (think Utah/Arizona) that includes Hegra – a site of burial tombs from the Nabataean Kingdom (1st century BC to 1st Century AD) carved into the red rock. The Nabataeans were the same people that built Petra in Jordan and, while Hegra is not as impressive as Petra, it is still a stunning area and a worthwhile visit. Interestingly, most of our guides were young Saudi women who had been sent to the US to study English and then return to Saudi as tour guides. The area is also being developed as a cultural highlight with the largest mirrored building in the world, world-class concerts (e.g. Andrea Bocelli), desert art exhibitions, celebrity chef restaurants and more.
On my way back to modern Jeddah, I took a detour via Madinah (Medina) – the second holiest city in Islam. Non-Muslims are forbidden from visiting Mecca (the holiest site) but I had been in contact with non-Muslims who had been to Medina and advised it was open (although it is strictly forbidden to enter the Prophet’s Mosque where Mohamed is buried). Medina is actually full of international visitors (Muslim) who come to do umrah – an Islamic pilgrimage done at any time of the year and the mosque is completely surrounded by hundreds of hotels that cater specifically for this.
Randomly I had booked a Hilton as I had points that needed using. Not long after my arrival at the hotel, I was asked if I was Muslim and responded with an honest “no” whereupon I was told that I was not able to stay there as non-Muslims were not allowed to stay in the vicinity. Yes – I was thrown out of a Hilton! I retreated to a much cheaper hotel around the corner which checked me in with no problems and no questions. However, feeling guilty that I may have inadvertently done something disrespectful, I laid low for the rest of my stay. However, nobody outside the Hilton batted an eyelid at me – although it is very difficult to differentiate when you are fully covered in the abaya!
With the reforms put in place by MBS, my travels in Saudi – even as a solo female – were relatively easy. In both Al Ula and modern Jeddah, abaya was not necessary (just long trousers and shirt) and, for the most part, people took no notice of me. Although bus rides involved separate male and female sections and, at my relatively international hotel in Jeddah, I was forbidden from swimming in the pool – men only! Instead I wandered along the corniche for sunset, visted the old town and fish market and had dinner with friend of a friend Scott (thanks the intro ApM).
Changing pace, I joined a liveaboard dive trip for the next week. Relatively untouched, the Saudi part of the Red Sea has stunning and unusual corals and beautiful marine life. Our boat was full of crazy Italians who like to dive deep for the sharks and so I often found myself at 50m underwater surrounded by circling sharks (including the relatively aggressive silky sharks who we scared away with a spare oxygen tank!). Manta rays, dolphins, deserted islands owned by the birds and turtles and more made for a special trip. The rhythm on a dive boat is very relaxing……dive, breakfast, relax, dive, lunch, relax, dive, relax, dinner, sleep – with sometimes a night dive thrown in as well. With no cell phone signal, it is a great way to disconnect from the world and appreciate the simple things in life. The crazy Italians made things very fun and it was a great week.
Back in Dubai it was time to celebrate Amanda’s birthday, get in some kayaking on The Palm, relax at Gaye and Luke’s pool, eat Afghans (a biscuit/cookie cooked by Luke – thanks!), drink bubbles and visit Expo. Of course, Dubai never does anything by halves and Expo is magnificent with 192 countries represented – I can’t even begin to describe it but it was a full day well spent. Check out some of the pics. Many thanks for a great time Gaye and Luke!
Stay tuned for news from my last stop on my journey – Australia. And trust me – you will all be hearing a lot more about Saudi Arabia in the future!!!