Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.
Saudi Arabia: Jeddah, Abha, Jizan
– First part of my visit to Saudi Arabia in January/February 2020 –
Passing through the metal detector, I enter the old village of Al Ula. There is not much old about this part of the village, the mosque is, but it has been carefully renovated. The other buildings along the newly-tarmacked street, are only styled as being old. Resembling a market, they contain small shops with clothes, souvenirs, snacks. A man demonstrates the old technique of stamping mud with his feet to produce the raw material to make and repair houses. I approach the small stage, a man in a black thobe, his head covered with a red and white keffiyeh sits on a small stage and gently plays an electrical oud.
I slowly take out my camera, giving him time to notice, I avoid pointing my camera on him and try to make eye contact. He gets the message and with a slight nod signals his approval. He smiles and I take a picture of an unfolding revolution. This, is the new Saudi Arabia. Only four years earlier, the man would have been arrested by the religious police for playing music in public. Now, he is sitting on a stage at a government-sponsored festival celebrating the beauty of Saudi Arabia and its culture. An attempt to stimulate tourism in the quest to diversify the Saudi economy.
But the old village of Al Ula also serves as a metaphor how this transformation is attempted. I am fed up with this shiny tourist version of a village, I’d like to head to the actual old village, an area of ruined houses as mud buildings quickly disintegrate if nothing is done for their upkeep. But all the ways in are blocked. One of the many uniformed helpers quickly approaches and tells me that he is sorry, I cannot go in, it’s closed. I point to the tower of the old fortress where I spot a few human beings. No, he doesn’t know how they got there. With more English language skills, I would certainly have received a more sophisticated answer. He seems happy though, to actually speak with a foreigner. No entry for me to the real old village. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, all decisions of importance are essentially taken by one man (and no, that is not the king) and he has decided that all you need is a shiny street with a few souvenir sellers. That is the future. Of what use is the old rubble in the back alleys anyway?
Saudi Arabia has long been one of the most difficult countries to get into. At any time, there were millions of foreigners in the kingdom but they all came with a purpose. Most of them were poor labourers from South Asia (mostly Pakistan, Bangladesh and India) doing all sorts of menial jobs. Being paid very little, they could still earn a lot more than in their home countries, giving them an incentive to stay far away from their homes and often their families. More skilled labourers working as clerks, administrators or other jobs with the need for certain qualifications came from South Asia as well or from the Philippines. Europeans and Americans came to work but only for highly-skilled positions many of them in the oil industry. There were also millions of pilgrims arriving each year to do the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that every Muslim is told to do once in his life, if he can afford to. Outside of Hajj season, pilgrims would come to do Umrah, essentially the same ritual visit to Islam’s holiest sites but only with thousands of others and not with millions.
What was impossible, was to get into Saudi Arabia as a tourist. A plain visit just to have a look without a purpose, without working, without doing a pilgrimage. Tourist visa just did not exist. If you came from a Muslim-majority country, you could sneak in on a Hajj or Umrah visa but those were only valid for the cities in question. If like me, you came from a country with a Christian majority you would have to prove that you really are a Muslim. Determined people have been doing acrobatics to get inside. People went as far as to establish fake companies to arrange fake business meetings. Transit visas were sometimes available but only with a good story that you really needed to cross KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). I once devised a plan to cycle to the Football World Cup in Qatar in 2022 in order to get one. That, obviously, was before someone closed the border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As I travelled to Bahrain, I was looking in awe at the SAPTCO (Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company) buses leaving for Damam and Riyadh. With my rental car, I drove onto the King Fahd Causeway to the small island where the border is located. To my disappointment, the watchtower was closed. I went up to the border fence anyway, to get at least a few glimpses.
In December 2013, visas were established for tourist groups but abolished in March 2014 again. Sometime in 2018 visas for tour groups started to be issued again. The tours were very expensive, I was once looking into one with a friend that would have cost 5200$ for ten days and that did not even include the flight. Later in 2018, the Sharek International Events Visa was introduced on short notice. Foreigners could buy tickets for rare selected events that would come with an automatic 14-day visa. The first of these events, and for a long time the only one, was the Formula E race in Riyadh. I learned about it after the race and instantly became an ardent follower of the series. My main interest was to learn as early as possible when the next race in Riyadh would take place.
In late September 2019, the hoped for change suddenly came. Citizens from 51 countries could apply for a 90-day eVisa (issued at the Saudi Digital Embassy) whenever they wanted. At roughly 110 € it was not cheap but otherwise quick and hassle-free. Suddenly, entry had become easy. Welcome to Saudi Arabia!
Why was change coming to Saudi Arabia? Basically, because people are fed up and the old model is no longer sustainable. Saudi Arabia is a regional giant, with 20.8 million Saudi citizens (out of a population of 34.2 million) it dwarfs the other oil rich countries in the gulf, only 1.1 million Emiratis populate the UAE, Qatar has only 200,000 Qataris and Kuwait has only 1.3 million citizens. With a total GDP of 780 billion US$ (in a year with good oil prices) Saudi Arabia ranks on place number 18 in the world but divided by its population we end up with a GDP (nominal) of only 23,566 US$. That is place 35 in the world. Didn’t you think that Saudi Arabia was richer? The average Slovenian has more money in her/his pocket, the average Finn twice as much, the average Irishwoman three times as much and the average Luxembourger even more. Far ahead is the average Qatari who has an income approaching 1 million (according to my calculations, official statistics are useless as they divide Qatar’s GDP by the population and do not distinguish between Qatari citizens (less than 10%) and labourers who are often only paid a pittance.
Okay, I choose the numbers that are most favourable to my argument. If we look at GDP per person adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) Saudi Arabia’s shoots up to place 14 in the world (56,912), slightly ahead of Sweden or Germany. Prices are low in Saudiland, making a US$ spend there go further than elsewhere. And what applies to Qatar also applies to Saudi Arabia. Establishing GDP numbers in societies with a sizeable percentage of lowly-paid foreign labourers considerably skews the numbers. It is hard for me to calculate but Saudi Arabia’s GDP has to be revised upwards by an estimate of 20 or 30 percent bringing it close to the Top Ten in the world. Still, the exercise is kind of fruitless. The Saudi royal family compromises about 10,000 individuals and no one really knows how much money they get from the pie.
As I visited Kuwait in 2017, I made a Filipino friend who had been living in Saudi (always saying Saudi Arabia is too much of an effort) for many years. He was astonished that everything was in good order, compared to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait looked a lot richer. To me, Kuwait looked pretty normal and certainly less rich than Germany.
The Saudi economy is heavily reliant on the oil business, the oil price determines the GDP and the income of the government. The last years have not been good. In 2014, the government ran a budget deficit of 18 billion, in 2015 it reached 97 billion, in 2016 83 billion, in 2017 61 billion and in 2018 72 billion. Over 5 years, this is a deficit of 331 billion and thereby nearly half the GDP of some of those years. If Saudi Arabia keeps burning cash at this rate, it runs the risks of going bankrupt within a couple of years. And even in Saudi Arabia, the thought that the age of oil is coming to an end has set in.
Saudi Arabia had/has also just fallen out of the times. As told by my Filipino friend. “Saudis drive like crazy, 160 km/h, 180 km/h, far faster than allowed, and then they come home and sit in front of the TV because there is absolutely nothing else to do.” The people know that and they don’t like it.
How did it come that way? Saudi Arabia is named after the royal family, the Al Saud. They first rose to prominence in the mid-18th century as they struck an alliance with the religious leader of the Wahhabi movement that preached a strict puritanical form of Islam. That gave a religious bent to their expansion as they would spread the true form of Islam. They would not only conquer new territory for themselves but thereby perform a religious duty. At some point in the early 19th century, they controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia. Then they got crushed by the Ottoman Empire. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire, following its defeat in World War I, a new competition arose for who would rule the Arabian Peninsula. In 1932, (Abdulaziz) Ibn Saud emerged victorious and became the founding father and first ruler of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A poor place with some agriculture and some pilgrimage business. Oil was found some day later.
Ibn Saud is supposed to have had at least 22 wives and fathered 45 sons, no one counted the exact number of daughters (around 50). He had approximately a thousand grandchildren. His first son was born in 1900 and his last in 1952. After Ibn Saud’s death in 1953, his oldest son became his successor. After that the throne was passed on to other sons. The house of Saud is still ruled to this day by a son of the founder. But this tradition caused a problem, the kings tended to become ever older. Fahd became king in 1982 at the age of 61 and ruled until he was 84. Abdullah become king at the age of 81 and ruled until he was 91. As Salman became King in 2015, he was 80 years old. It became clear that it made no sense to keep passing on the throne to an ever-older sibling. A grandson of Ibn Saud, Muhammad bin Nayef (born 1959), was chosen as crown prince.
If the internationally respected Muhammad bin Nayef had ever any hope of becoming king, he obviously did not correctly calculate the ruthlessness of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. That young man, born in 1985 and colloquially known as MBS, is the oldest son of King Salman’s third wife. His father apparently saw qualities in him that led him to install a man of 30 years as the second in line to the throne. In 2017, at that time 31 years old, he became crown prince. To make Muhammad bin Nayef accept his removal from the line of succession he was held against his will, his phones were taken and he was pressured. At the end of the night, he gave up. For public consumption, he was forced to have a video recorded where the young instigator of his ouster kisses his hand in a deferential gesture and tells him: “We will never dispense with your instructions and advice.” From there, Muhammad bin Nayef was put under house arrest and his bank accounts were frozen. In March 2020, a month after I had left, he was finally arrested and charged with treason.
In the development of Saudi Arabia into a society totally out of step with the modern world, 1979 proved to be a turning point. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Shiite rival on the other side of the Persian Gulf, brought a strict adherence to Islam back into the mainstream. In November of that year, militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site of Islam in a major embarrassment for the house of Saud, who considered themselves the guardians of exactly these holy sites. The militants called the Saudi kingdom corrupt and un-Islamic. They were thrown out of the mosque after 10 days and those who survived executed. But they had set Saudi Arabia to change its course. To prevent the line of attack of being un-Islamic, the kingdom began to enforce a much stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms. The Ulama, a council of Islamic Scholars, was given a greater role in government. The religious police were unleashed and that was the day, when Saudi Arabia’s few existing cinemas were closed.
In 1979, Saudi Arabia was on par with the other countries in the region, more modern even as some. Deeply traditional but slowly accepting influences from the modern world. The other countries remained on that trajectory but Saudi Arabia slid backwards, tried to achieve a technical modernization without a modernization of society. As King Salman acceded to the throne in 2015, he ruled over a country where women had to wear an abaya, cinemas were deemed un-Islamic and playing music in public would immediately attract the interest of the religious police. Saudi singers would perform in other Arab countries to audiences mostly flown in from Saudi Arabia. Women were not allowed to drive (a major problem in car-based Saudi Arabia), nor were they allowed to vote (the 2015 municipal elections were the first they could vote in, elections on the national level do not exist anyway). The guardianship system meant, that for most decisions in life (education, health decisions, working, leaving the country) women had to get the permission of a male relative (which could even be her son). Offices, restaurants, service centres were separated into sections for men and for families. The religious police, officially the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, had 3,500-4,000 officers on the streets and they were assisted by thousands of volunteers. They patrolled public places, with volunteers focusing on enforcing strict rules of wearing a hijab, segregation between the sexes, and daily prayer attendance. Officers were authorized to pursue, detain and interrogate suspected violators. Public floggings and beheadings were on the menu for offenders. Sometimes their actions were just cruel, in one often mentioned example 15 girls died in a fire in a school as the religious police prevented the girls from getting out and firemen from getting in. Their reasoning: the girls were not properly dressed.
A short flashback in time, in 1979 Saudi Arabia was not that much out of this world. Germany allowed women to work without their husbands’ consent in 1977 only and Australia abolished the requirement that women needed their husbands’ authorization to get a passport in 1983. Legal equality of the sexes is not as old as we often assume. But 35 years on, Saudi Arabia had become a total outlier. There was criticism, in 2009, even the head of the religious police in Mecca declared that Islam actually had no problem with the mixing of sexes, he was kicked out of his job a few hours later. The religious establishment lost one battle in 2011, as the education flagship King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was established without gender segregation but usually, they got their way. No one should call the house of al Saud un-Islamic.
As I arrive to Saudi Arabia in January 2020, things are different. The country has a few religiously based peculiarities but the power of the religious establishment had been broken. I have not knowingly seen a single member of the religious police during my stay. Anyway, they had long lost their ability to investigate and to arrest.
Why are some men dressed with only two big towels? One draped around the waist and the other one slung over the shoulder. They wear easy sandals or flip-flops. All of them head to the gate I am heading to as well, the gate for the flight to Jeddah. On the plane, the passenger next to me asks a stewardess if they will announce before we cross the Ihram. She understands as little as I do but comes back a minute later with a reassuring “yes, we do”. I ask my neighbour what this is all about.
Doing a pilgrimage, you need to be in the sacred state of Ihram. This does not allow any clothes with knots nor stitched items. Around the holy city of Mecca are certain boundaries that you are only allowed to cross in the state of Ihram if you want to have a successful Hajj or Umrah. My neighbour is a travel agent from London, who wants to do an Umrah himself and wants to check out how things are working with the new visa for his mostly elderly customers. He will be picked up at the airport by his cousin, and although we arrive after midnight, they will head straight to Mecca about an hour away. He will perform the rituals, circle the Kaaba and in the early hours of the morning they will move on to Medina. He hasn’t put on his Ihram clothes yet as he finds them inconvenient. As the announcement comes that we will cross the Ihram border in half an hour, he hurries to the toilet to get changed. I profit from his hospitality as his cousin takes me to my hotel on their way to Mecca.
Jeddah is known as Saudi Arabia’s most cosmopolitan city. Traders and pilgrims have frequented this gateway to the Hejaz region for centuries. A city of four million, it has exactly six bus lines. That is progress, as only two years ago, there were none, one of the reforms under the current king. The old town of Al Balad has narrow lanes, beautiful multi-storey houses but many of those are in obvious disrepair, some are ruins. Stray cats live in them. Beautiful woodwork all around, doors, window blinds and balconies. A few houses have been renovated; it seems that the value of these houses has been recognized. One has been turned into a cultural centre; another is a museum. There is no English signage indicating the museum, individual tourists are still rare. As I enter, I am warmly received and set on my path to explore the house. Each storey contains a series of rooms, the window blinds allow the flow of air but let very little light in. There are plenty of opportunities to lounge on a divan. The zig-zagging main street of Al Balad is full of people. Sellers of sweets, toys, clothes or fruits juggle for your attention. Most of the other streets are rather empty.
Saudi Arabia is the most car-oriented society I have ever come into contact with. Its cities have been planned accordingly. Even other Gulf countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain or the UAE are no comparison. Petrol is/was always cheap (the price was recently raised to 40 Cent per litre, I heard a few complaints about that), the money for a car is usually there and most of the year it is stifling hot. The speed limit in town is up to 90 km/h (and not observed by all drivers) and some of the roads are in fact highways with four or five lanes in each direction. I take one of the buses, you can make them stop wherever you want, but after I do, I wonder how I will be able to cross this road. And I am usually very relaxed about crossing traffic. I keep walking, I like to walk as a way to explore but, in many areas, there is not even a sidewalk. This fixation on getting around by car, combined with the lack of public transport, makes it even more glaring that, until recently, women were barred from driving. Not such a problem for princesses who can rely on drivers (and apparently it is not much of a problem if a Saudi woman, even alone, was riding in a car with a driver from let’s say Pakistan). They also could use an UBER or a Careem (a Muslim world UBER alternative now owned by UBER) to get to where they wanted but costs for that, I am noticing myself, are piling up.
I buy a SIM card. The office is separated into two parts, a bigger one for men and a smaller one for women. They have separate entrances. But the entrance for women is blocked, now everybody can use the section for the men. I enter a fast-food restaurant. Food is still being served but no orders are taken at the moment. The screen above the counter shows “Closed for prayer time.” Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day and in Saudi Arabia businesses are supposed to close for these prayers. In the old days, the religious police would control and would actually send people to the mosque if they did not go on their own. Nowadays, businesses still close which usually means that the doors are closed, the curtains drawn but inside you can go about your business, keep on shopping or finish your meal. Around dinner-time it can be annoying as two prayer times are relatively close. You have to use your time window to get some food.
The private Al Tayibat City Museum for International Civilization is interesting but totally overloaded with artifacts of all kind from mosque keys to a poster of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. A guide is compulsory and I am being shown around by a very friendly and chatty young lady. She is 25 and still not married, she has refused one possible groom and her father accepted her decision. “I like it more as in your country, where you look for yourself and live together before you marry.”
Another attraction of Jeddah is the Corniche. A collection of small parks, rocky beaches or just concrete, it stretches for more than 30 kilometres along the coast. Easily accessible by a major street and equipped with plenty of parking spaces it is one way for Saudi families to spend their time.
The South: Around Abha and Jizan
Planning my trip, I greatly underestimated the distances and the time it takes to get from A to B. Because of that, I end up spending four out of twelve nights on buses. Whereas public transport within cities is very limited or non-existent the Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company operates a network of overland buses to all major towns. At the bus station, I am directed to the back entrance of the bus. A rope prevents me from accessing the front rows, they are empty but reserved for women. All the passengers seem to be migrant workers and not Saudis.
Abha is a hilly city with a giant flagpole in the middle, a Boeing 747 standing on a hill, an interesting cultural centre and a few crumbling old neighbourhoods. I am more interested in the countryside around Abha but to get there I need a car. I walk, again along a big road without a sidewalk to the rental office. They have cars but they cannot give it to a foreigner, but the airport office can. The manager speaks little English but we come to an understanding. “Can I at least give the car back here?” Yes, I can. I take a Careem to the airport. They can give me a car but the price is higher than advertised on the internet. I check out some other companies. One doesn’t accept foreigners, the other would need a Saudi credit card so I am back with Al Wefaq. The guy who does the paperwork is Egyptian, the guy who takes me to the car is Nepali. Soon thereafter, I am on the road.
I look at the “hanging” village of Al Habala from the distance (it is closed in winter), explore the narrow streets in the village of Al Yanfa with its fortress-like houses. The village seems deserted but one soul notices my presence and welcomes me warmly. The road slowly climbs the gentle slopes of Mount Souda, Saudi Arabia’s highest mountain. On the other side, the descent is dramatic. The landscape quickly falls more than 1500 metres, the road is in parts incredibly steep. You can only plan a road that steep, if you do not have to calculate with snow. The village of Rija Alma is one of the showcases of Saudi tourism. Formerly an important trading stop on the route to Yemen, its stone houses up to seven storeys high have been beautifully restored. It kind of looks too shiny, but if you walk a little bit further, you find the same kind of houses unrestored and some crumbling to pieces.
In the evening, I head to a nearby restaurant recommended by the hotel. Omar, the manager is from Yemen and has not been home for several years. Too dangerous. I order some Kabsah chicken and soon a big portion arrives. With it comes some yoghurt that I did not order. “You have to try it”, it is very good. He is right, I am not a big fan of the chicken but the yoghurt makes it better. After that, I get some grilled vegetables and some kebabs, I didn’t order anything of that. Omar comes over again, he notices my discomfort, “you don’t have to pay anything of that” he tells me. I never really feared that, I quickly realized that I was just shown great hospitality. I thank him and try to tell him that I cannot eat that much food. He promises not to send more. As I leave, he refuses all payment from me. After trying three times, I relent.
I move on from Abha to Jizan by bus. Abha’s bus station is just a small office on a busy road. The bus will pass on the other side of the road where it just stops along the sidewalk. This is where I arrived. The bus is late. I ask if I should already cross the road. “No,” I am being told, “you will go by car”. Okay. By now the bus has arrived, thrown out a few passengers and left again. It turns out we are only two passengers, a talkative Filipino guy and me. The driver is from Indonesia. As I just settle into the thought of going to Jizan by car we reach the city limits and there the bus is waiting. The whole car episode was just so that we did not have to cross the road. I can’t believe it.
For me, Jizan is just a gateway town to the Farasan Islands. I cannot find any information about the ferry timetable on the internet. I know the ferry is free so I do not worry too much about getting a ticket. Anyway, I arrive to Jizan after nightfall so there are not many options to take care of that question. The receptionist at the hotel is a local (usually it is a migrant worker from the Indian subcontinent) and speaks next to no English. Like most Saudi cities, Jizan is spread out and there is no other way than taxis or careems (UBER alternative) to get around. Taking a careem is by far the better option. It is cheaper and in case the driver does not speak any English you have already indicated where you want to go. I hate getting up early, so I leave the hotel around 6:30 AM to get to the port. That turns out to be too late, as I get a master class in Saudi bureaucracy. The ferry is free but you still need a ticket and you cannot get that ticket where the ferry leaves. I have the good luck to have a careem driver who speaks very good English and tries to help me, but as I get to the ticket office around 7:05 AM they tell me it is no longer possible to get tickets for the 7:30 AM ferry. I could go in late afternoon. But then, there would be no way to get back that day.
What is there to do in Jizan? My driver is a bit helpless. “You can go to Rashid Mall”, but besides that, there is not much. He has graduated from university with an engineering degree but now he drives for careem, no jobs in his field, he tells me. The economy is not good. I consult my map and look for alternative plans. There seems to be a fortress on the hill but it is all fenced off, looks like an army installation, probably unwise to linger around for too long. I stumble upon a small area which houses twisted and destroyed by an earthquake. Some people are still living there although it rather looks like a slum. A small boy appears and soon thereafter his mother, dressed in an abaya and with a niqab covering her face. She is hissing at me. I assume that she doesn’t like me around these derelict houses but instead she only wants to show me a better place to take pictures. I stumble upon the Fish Market. The next hours are spend in a nearby park just relaxing, killing time, sleeping, reading. On my way back, I finally visit Rashid Mall which is, well, a mall.