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 Part II: Medina, Al Ula, Riyadh, Hofuf

– second part of my visit to Saudi Arabia in January/February 2020 –  

Medina

From Jeddah to Medina I hop on the high-speed train. The Haramain HSR links Mecca and Medina and started to operate in October 2018. A perfect way to quickly transport the millions of pilgrims between their two main destinations. Jeddah airport has a complete second terminal to handle the pious masses for the Hajj. Modernizing a country is often not hassle-free. The Spanish-built Talgo is so far only running at 200 km/h and not at the promised 320 km/h and in September 2019 Jeddah City station was destroyed by a fire, the roofing material used was flammable. The fire was as severe that a track bypassing the station had to be built before traffic could resume. To board the train, I have to head to Jeddah Airport Station. By the way, in true Saudi fashion, all stations have been built with a helipad so that all those, who want to make a publicity train ride can have easy access.

I bought the ticket online and there is a special counter to print out these tickets. Staff is plentiful and security is airport style. I make the mistake of not checking my big backpack. I am only allowed to keep my nail scissors as they have already taken the small kitchen knife that had been my travel companion since my visit to Uruguay in 2014. They literally operate under the premise of one for me, one for you. After you pass the security check, you have to wait until the “gate” opens. Suddenly, the English announcement declares that due to a bomb threat the building has to be evacuated. No one around me shows any signs of panic but everyone starts to head to the platform so I assume the announcement in Arabic said something different. Modernizing a country really is not hassle-free. The ride is a pleasure as we glide through the barren but beautiful landscape.

There had been some confusion if I can travel to Medina at all. During the visa application process, you are being told that non-Muslims are not allowed to visit Mecca and Medina. Sad but true. In the case of Mecca, which is not a particular big town this is easily avoidable. Medina is more difficult to avoid as it is a fairly big city and a transport hub. I write an e-mail to Saudi tourism asking for clarification. They reply that only the “prophet’s haram” is off limits. But where exactly is the prophet’s haram? I ask google and it shows only the immediate vicinity of the Prophet’s mosque. Nice, I decide that google is right.

The taxi driver speaks little English but gets his point across. “Muslim?” I shake my head and say “no”. “Good” is his answer and he smiles. As I enter my hotel room, the TV is on and showing the channel with a 24-hour view of the Kaaba in Mecca and the people moving around the Great Mosque. I quickly leave as I only have an afternoon in Medina. I wasn’t sure if my visit here was a wise idea, so I planned that I could claim being only on a short stopover. I head towards the mosque. The people of Mecca did not much like the weird theories a certain Muhammad was propagating so they chased him out of town. He settled in Medina, gained followers and eventually established the seeds of a world religion. Now known as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, [I am being polite today]), he preached in a small outdoor mosque next to his house. The current Prophet’s mosque has absolutely no resemblance to that setting but contains his tomb. It is the second most holy site of Islam; ten minarets rise 104 metres into the air and the mosque and its courtyard can hold up to 1 million people. An expansion is currently ongoing that is supposed to raise its capacity to two million people. It sits right in the middle of town, adjacent to a giant cemetery, lying close to the prophet promises early reincarnation. As we are in Saudi Arabia, an underground parking lot has been built below the mosque.

People are streaming towards the mosque and I follow. The minarets are beautiful and as I get closer, I realize that the courtyard is shaded by beautiful umbrella-like canopies. I reach the fence. I have my big camera, take pictures, my skin is fairer and my hair blonder than anyone around me but no one seems to care. I would love to just cross the gate (there is no security, no nothing) and I doubt that anything would have happened if I just would have. But I expect my hosts to respect me, so I have to respect them. I follow the fence and walk for several kilometres around the complex peaking inside at every gate. The mosque seems an utterly peaceful place with a great aura, everybody is clearly aware of its importance.

3 € buys me a ticket for the pilgrims’ circuit. The hop-on-hop-off bus stops at the Quba mosque (maybe the oldest surviving mosque in the world), the Khandaq mosque (site of an important battle in the early Islamic days), the Qiblatayn Mosque (where Muhammad received the command to change the Qiblah (direction of prayer) from Jerusalem to Mecca), and the beautifully located Sayed Al Shuhada mosque (site of another important battle). I enter all the mosques, and as others, do take pictures (with my phone though and not my camera). At the Masjid al-Qiblatayn, I wait for the prayer time to end before entering.

The only non-religious point of interest I visit, is Medina’s Hejaz Railway Station. Built by German engineers on behalf of the Ottoman Empire it opened in 1908 to ferry people, goods and especially pilgrims from Damascus to Medina. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the railway fell into disrepair but has long been of great interest to railway enthusiasts. Less than a year ago, I stood at an equally beautiful station at the other end of this line. Two years ago, I crossed those tracks in Jordan.

Darkness has long fallen as I return to the Prophet’s mosque. People are still streaming in and out, the mosque never sleeps. The umbrella-like canopies are just being retracted giving the courtyard a more open feeling. I’d really love to go inside.

I have some wonderful Pakistani food for dinner. Being in one of the rich Gulf countries is always also a meeting with the peoples of the subcontinent. They work at receptions, shops, run restaurants, speak English better than the locals and are often nice to have a chat with.

Al Ula

Waiting for the bus to Al Ula I meet Mohammed. He is in his early sixties, one of the few Saudis I see taking the bus and he seems intrigued about this foreigner visiting his country. His English is okay to communicate and we both take seats in the first row. He is on his way to his family farm near Al Ula. After some time, he asks the driver to stop at some supermarket. He comes back with water and a coke for me and a big bag of biscuits that he shares with everyone who wants some. He tells me about their old lifestyle, how they would live in a tent in the desert following their animals, how he would walk around the hills. Modern life seems rather boring in comparison. We start to talk about family. He has, he lowers his voice to tell me, two wives.  A man’s dream? I am not sure. “If you are invited to a wedding, do you go with both or which one do you take?” He doesn’t give me a direct answer but tells me that some go with both, sometimes the wives get along with each other but most times they do not. Then it seems better to just take one. I ask myself if I would really want to live in two households? The moment you consider marriage as something more than a sexual exercise that does not sound too enticing. But maybe I have to think differently, traditional Saudi family life does not exactly work in the ways I am thinking in. If you spend most of your time in your male social circle and only limited time with “your females”, your family is in many ways looser anyway. Mohammed invites me to visit his farm. I tell him I will.

Al Ula is an oasis in the north of Saudi Arabia with many beautiful rock formations. It is also the nearest town for Mada’in Saleh (Hegra). Everybody knows Petra in Jordan but the Nabateans left two sites to the interested public. Mada’in Saleh is usually considered the most important cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, it is currently closed. You need not despair though, as the government has decided to include it in the second season of the Winter at Tantora Festival running 5 days a week from mid-December to early March. The festival is a good example of how the new Saudi Arabia is supposed to look like. Modern, shiny, high tech and with a hint of the exclusive for some and really exclusive for others.

As King Salman acceded to the throne in 2015 at the age of eighty, Saudi-watchers soon concluded that the real force behind the throne was his son Mohammad bin Salman, usually abbreviated to MBS. At 30 years of age, he was lacking in experience but bursting with ambition. In the first post on my visit to Saudi Arabia we have already learned how he ruthlessly removed his rival Muhammad bin Nayef from being crown prince. It is beyond my knowledge why MBS seems to have total control over his father. Is the king basically mentally incapable to perform his duties and a mere marionette? Or does he think the brazen leadership his son shows, is what Saudi Arabia needs, sticking with him against all criticism? I do not know. It is also beyond my knowledge why MBS allegedly put his mother and two of his sisters under house arrest and hid this from his father. But let’s focus first on the positive deeds of Mohammad bin Salman, the ongoing transformation of Saudi Arabia.  

MBS has told the country in fairly blunt terms that it has to change. Under the banner of “Vision 2030” the country would modernize, diversify its economy, become more like other countries with entertainment options, with tourism with more personal freedom. In 2016, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (e.g. the religious police) was told to perform its duties with “kindness and gentleness”. In the same regulation, it was relieved of the right to stop, chase or arrest people and even to ask them for their ID or to follow them. If they suspected illicit activity, they were told to call the real police and let them do their job. Basically overnight, the religious police were neutered. In 2017, women were allowed to access government services such as education and healthcare without the need for consent from a male guardian. In 2018, women were allowed to drive and they were allowed to enter stadiums. In January 2019, the Saudi supreme court issued a law requiring women to receive a text message from the court when officially divorced. That is progress, as before that, a man could just divorce his wife without even telling her. Later that year, women were granted the right to register a divorce or a marriage and to apply for official documents without permission. Travel restrictions were also loosened. In December 2019, restaurants could have guest rooms without the separation into bachelor and family sections. All this was accompanied by the appearance of concerts, be it Saudi singers or Western performers. Cinemas started to reopen. Saudis, with a majority of people being young, loved the changes. A student I hitchhiked with in Al Ula put it in nice words: “A few years ago, this place was dead. But now, it is full of life.” The religious establishment was baffled but kept quiet.

The Winter at Tantora festival combines access to Mada’in Saleh and a few other historical sights of lesser importance with nature experiences and special events like concerts, balloon rides or polo matches. The 2020 edition saw, amongst others, Lionel Richie and Enrique Iglesias perform. All is supposed to happen in an exclusive environment where style is an important factor. Checking out the website before leaving home, I had to conclude that the festival is not for me. Tickets for the concerts start at 200€, all else I could find were expensive packages where a two-day visit (including accommodation) would cost upwards of 1000 €. Fortunately, I dug a little bit deeper and in an internet forum someone had posted a direct link to buy tickets for Mada’in Saleh. At 21 € they were affordable. I also learned in the forum that just having a ticket is not enough. To get to the site, you are forced to use the festival bus and that ticket is 40€. Service is good though. I got to Al Ula two days later as planned and my ticket was changed without any problems by just sending an e-mail.

The festival area is still all sleepy as I arrive shortly after 8 in the morning. I have booked the first slot, speculating that there might be less people. Me and an Austrian guy are the only passengers on the bus. The visit starts at the Hejaz railway station of Mada’in Saleh. It had been one of the bigger stations, where steam engines could be serviced. An old fort gave a certain protection. All the buildings have been painstakingly renovated but many of them seem to be lacking a purpose. All looks just too perfect; it could be a theme park instead of the real thing. There are a lot more employees than visitors. Abdulrahman welcomes us with a broad smile. He shows us around, in the small picture gallery we are treated to excellent dates (and that peanut paste!) with Arabic coffee. As always, the coffee is sweet enough that even I can drink it. A Canadian has arrived on the second bus so we wait a few minutes for him to catch up.

I had also paid a visit to the Hejaz Railway Station in Al Ula. That station is a lot smaller, a ruin, surrounded by a fence but as usual, the fence has a hole on the backside. I entered and explored on my free will, poking into every room, checking out if the staircase will still hold my weight and taking photographs of the car wrecks from the twenties or thirties of the 20 century and the rusty wind generator from probably even earlier. I loved it. This railway station feels utterly different. In the Saudi version of tourism, you are not supposed to explore but to follow a path given to you by His Royal Highness. As I cross the tracks, I am being told not to do that. I would not have done any harm (there are no trains anyway) but you are just not supposed to cross there.

We take another bus to get to the Nabatean tombs. Comfy seats, tables, water bottles. We visit the first sight; Abdulrahman gets out his smartphone and, on his screen, figures superimposed by virtual reality populate the carved niche. Nice gimmick. Mada’in Saleh is worth a visit but clearly secondary to Jordan’s Petra. Petra is bigger and Petra’s highlights superior. Visiting Petra is also a totally different experience. In Petra, you are free to wander the grounds as you please. Some areas are off limits but most is open. I basically spent two days there. In Mada’in Saleh we are on a clearly prepared path, take the bus from on site to the other and at every site there is a legion of helpers making sure that everything is going as planned. You are not allowed to enter any of the tombs. We enter one quickly, but make sure beforehand that no one is watching.

It also feels like a propaganda exercise, Abdulrahman tells us how glad he is to be able to work here. The girl I speak with at one of the tombs mirrors his words. She is so glad that the government gave her this opportunity. She studied computer science but is now back in her hometown, working as a seasonal aid at the festival. There are big plans. Mada’in Saleh will be closed over the summer and is supposed to reopen in October 2020 with several new museum. The guy I hitchhiked with, who credited Saudi Arabia’s reforms with bringing this place back to life, was sceptical. “There are many grandiose plans and I don’t see any activity for the museums” he said. The one existing museum, is currently closed.      

I had made another one-day car rental for my time in Al Ula. Things are spread out and always taking a careem would also be costly. A car gives me more options. For example, not to sleep in a hotel. Prices are high during the festival, starting at 100€ for a simple room, I have therefore decided to use my tent. I would drive somewhere nice, pitch my tent and sleep a night in the desert. It is just that with a small non-four-wheel drive you are limited to the roads and can’t go into the desert. I call Mohammed, whom I met on the bus and half an hour later I am warmly received at his farm. I ask him if I can pitch my tent for the night somewhere on his property. He says no need for a tent, there is enough space in the house. The farm has been run by his parents but by now is not commercially viable anymore. All the children have left long ago. His father is close to ninety and frail. They have a Pakistani helping their parents and being something like a family butler. Still, one of the five siblings always tries to be there to support the parents. That means more than two months of parents-time every year. He has heard about old-people’s homes in the West and he thinks they are a scandal. We sit around the fire, there are dates, there is freshly brewed Arabic coffee. There is Mohammed, his father, the brother currently helping the parents, a family friend and later another relative arrives. Communication is not always easy, only Mohammed speak English. At some point, his mother arrives but she hesitates to come in as she realizes my presence. “She is an old woman, no need to cover her face”, Mohammed says, but she still covers her face. The family obviously has some weight in the village, the mosque is right next to their house on their property. At prayer time, everybody is leaving. The brother’s wife is preparing the food, at some point there is a knock on the door, the Pakistani helper gets up, opens and receives a big plate with a giant portion of lamb kabsah. I catch a quick glance of her, she is wearing a tracksuit; no abaya, no veil, no face covering. She is home. Spending the evening alone or in the company of some female friends, I do not know. We sit and chat the whole evening. Thank you, Mohammed.

Between the lines, you should have read by now, that the transformation of Saudi Arabia is more top-down than bottom-up. The government shows the way and the population is supposed to be grateful. Or fearful. Mohammed was quick to offer me to stay at his home but then he paused for a second and asked if the government does allow it. I told him that I had read all the FAQs of the visa and everything and have not found anything against staying with local people. But I clearly understand that this is a government you do not want to cross.

As ready as Mohammad bin Salman has been to bring needed change to Saudi Arabia, as ready has he been to quash dissent and bring unwanted change. The Kingdom had always pursued a careful foreign policy but now it was suddenly brash. Just two months after becoming Minister of Defence in 2015 MBS launched his first war. An intervention in the Yemeni civil war, meant to counter Iranian influence. Victory was supposed to take a few weeks and a massive aerial campaign. After running out of military targets, (US-made) precision bombs started to fall on factories, hospitals or ports. Everything that made the population suffer, and hopefully give up, seemed like fair game. Millions of Yemenis are lacking food, hundreds of thousands have died but I doubt the prince cares. Five years later, the war is still ongoing. Next came a spat with Qatar. Tiny Qatar has always pursued a bit of an independent foreign policy. Qatar has normal relations with Iran (they share a massive gas field) and contacts to many groups deemed untouchable by others (like Hamas, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood). Handy for governments that at some point want to get in discreet touches with these organizations. Qatar also funds Al Jazeera, which is a thorn in many a repressive gulf countries foot. In some ways it is even a justified grievance as Al Jazeera criticises every Arab government except Qatar itself (which is better than most but also not without fault). The Saudi accusations were heavy, Qatar was sponsoring terrorism. Saudi Arabia closed the border, making the peninsula of Qatar effectively an island. Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt joined the boycott (Kuwait and Oman resisted) forcing Qatar Airways to fly absurd routes as even the airspace was closed. Qatar was presented with 13 demands that would have effectively made it a vasal state. Qatar had seen it coming and wisely is home to the largest US army base in the region. Turkish troops were also quickly sent to Qatar to forestall the implementation of any weird ideas. Borders within the Gulf Cooperation Council had always been easy to cross and there were a lot of connections. But if Saudi Arabia is in a conflict, it goes to all ends. Qataris in Saudi Arabia were expelled and Saudis in Qatar were told in clear terms to get home quickly with total disregard for the personal hardship this might cause. Three years later, this crisis is still unresolved. Unrelated to that, Canada dared to criticise Saudi Arabia; the response was to cancel thousands of scholarships for Saudi students in Canada. Does that hurt Canada? A little bit. Does that hurt the Saudi students whose studies were interrupted? A lot. Does the crown prince care? No, he rather sends malware from his personal phone to the phone of Jeff Bezos, the boss of Amazon and the owner of the Washington Post.

The next story is rather funny in comparison. The prime minister of Lebanon was invited to Saudi Arabia but instead of going on the promised trip into the desert he was detached from his security detail, his phone was taken and he was treated as a prisoner. In a televised statement Saad Hariri declared his resignation and told a few bad things about Iran. No one in Lebanon bought it. The Lebanese president told foreign ambassadors that the prime minister had been kidnapped. After nearly three weeks, MBS realized that the game was up and Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon where he took back his resignation. A senior American official called it the dumbest thing he’d ever seen.” What was the crown prince thinking? Probably, that he could do whatever he wants.

Within Saudi Arabia things tightened as well. Women received the right to drive, but some women, who had been campaigning for that right for years, were arrested around that time and charged with long prison sentences. The message was clear, be happy with what you got and don’t have any further ideas that I do not like. On the 24th of October, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh hosted the announcement for the planned, city of Neom. 500 billion $ are supposed to be invested into the city of the future. After that, the hotel declined new bookings and cancelled existing ones. On the 4th of November it became a luxury prison. Hundreds of people, many of them members of the royal family and the political and business elite, were rounded up. They were interrogated, could not contact anyone and were usually confronted with a settlement confessing their guilt and signing over some of their assets to the state. Some signed right away, some held out a bit longer, one died. Some of the people involved were undoubtedly corrupt but all in all it seems to have been an attempt to break the last resistance against the new power behind the throne. The time of consensus-based governance within the royal family is over. By the way, where did the head of the anti-corruption committee, MBS himself, get his money from? Did he earn the 550 million $ for his superyacht (Serene) by his own hard work? What about the 450 million $ for Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi? It was also an own goal. It was obvious that the process was not driven by the rule of law but by the rule of force. Investors, who had been courted to invest huge sums in Saudi Arabia’s gleaming future were spooked. If the wealthiest man of Saudi Arabia could be thrown into a hotel suite and relieved of plenty of cash, how safe was their investment?   

The message, that the new ruler was no one to fool around with, was clearly received. Ben Hubbard, the author of a biography of MBS reports that his contacts, who previously communicated quite openly, would suddenly send self-deleting messages with ever shorter time-spans (some with only 30 seconds). Some would break off all contact. Saudi Dissidents abroad were contacted, send malware or tried to convince to come home, to help build a new Saudi Arabia. One of those contacted was the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Long an establishment figure, he had at first hailed the reform attempts under the new king. But he soon started to demand slightly more than MBS was willing to give. He was side-lined, and in the end reluctantly went into exile in the United States. There, he grew more outspoken.

On the 2nd of October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi went to an appointment at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. He was supposed to receive documents for his planned marriage. His fiancée was waiting outside. Instead of the promised document, he found a team of 15 Saudi intelligence agents.  He was murdered and his body dismembered with a bone saw. A body double put on his clothes and left the consulate by the back entrance. While the operation was ongoing, one of the agents called the office of the crown prince. As Khashoggi’s fiancée sounded the alarm, the Saudi’s pointed to footage of the body double leaving the consulate, while claiming not to know anything else. Too bad, that the Turkish intelligence service knows its trade and had microphones installed in the embassy and the truth slowly seeped out.

Khashoggi’s death achieved what 100,000+ dead Yemenis did not. The world paid attention and was shocked. A morally unfit leader had been exposed. But then realpolitik gained the upper hand, the morally unfit US president said he didn’t care and Saudi Arabia was just too important to put real pressure on. Still, the picture of MBS is tainted.

Riyadh

Another city made for cars. One bus line per million of inhabitants (7 for 7,6 million). A metro is under construction. The hotel has an elevator and a locked staircase. No other escape routes. I visit the National Museum and the Sky Bridge at the Kingdom Centre. To get up to 300 metres takes a bit of time. The elevator operator is from Bangladesh. He is sitting on a chair inside the elevator the whole day, going up and down. He has been in Saudi Arabia for six years. I ask him if he likes it here. He looks at me in total disbelief. “No.” As I make my way down, he is gone and I have to push the button myself. I love to belief that my question prompted him to finally make the change in his life, that he was always been pondering.

On my way to Masmak Fort, I come across some narrow streets with crumbling buildings. The fort has been renovated and turned into a museum. The square next to it is the place for public executions. Right in the middle is a gutter, so that the blood can drain. I search for bloodstains but find none. In the last years, the number of executions, performed by beheading, has been rising. In a given year 150+ people are executed. Before coming to the square, I had asked myself how I would react if something would be happening today. Not a normal thought.

Usually, a visit to Diriyah, the nearby original home of the Saudi royal family, would be part of a stay in Riyadh. This World Heritage Site is closed though, currently undergoing renovation.  

Hofuf

My last stop in Saudi Arabia is the town of Hofuf in the Al-Ahsa Oasis. I want to walk from the train to the bus station. About 1,5 kilometres. It proves to be impossible, the only bridge crossing the railway tracks is a highway, no sidewalk no nothing. Jamal Khashoggi had asked in one of his columns for “a sidewalk to walk on”. I need to take a careem. Hofuf offers a market, some old buildings, a fort and the nearby Jawatha Mosque, one of the oldest surviving mosques in the world. I am surprised to find a massive parking lot but that is not for the mosque but for the amusement park next door. I am not allowed in, it’s families only.

Time to leave. My seat neighbour on the bus to Dubai is Indian. He has been working in Saudi Arabia for more than 15 years, now running his own advertising company. He is happy about the reforms introduced in the last years. Still, as his family has moved back to India, he has decamped to Bahrain. Working in Damam, he crosses the King Fahd Causeway every time he needs to go to work. His passport is full of stamps and he is going to Dubai to get a new one. “You know, in the evening, when I want to, I can just go to a bar.” Freedom tastes good.

Saudi Arabia is a country as interesting as few others. I wish the country luck to successfully master its modernization. I wish it a ruler with wisdom. I will come again to see what has changed. A week after leaving, I received an e-mail from Saudi tourism: “Dear Visitor, Thank you for your recent visit to Saudi Arabia. We are eager to know your impressions in order to enhance visitor experience. Please click on the link below to complete the survey. The survey will take approximately 12 minutes of your time.”