Introducing Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia. The world’s last great forbidden kingdom, and an emblem of everything most inexplicable to the West: the Middle East, Islam, oil and terrorism. For centuries the country was considered closed to outsiders, penetrable only to the bravest and the boldest, such as Richard Burton, TE Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger, who risked life and limb to get there. Today it continues to exist only in the realms of the imagination for most people, who still relish the sensational stories surrounding it. And yet, ever so tentatively, the country is beginning to permit travellers past its portals. For those willing to ‘risk’ the realm, there may well be a surprise or two, like Madain Saleh & the North. Called Saudi Arabia’s Petra, Madain Saleh numbers among the most magical and monumental sites of the Middle East. Or it would if more people knew about it.
The Empty Quarter, the largest sea of sand on the planet, is home to dunes the size of ships. The Arabian oryx, one of the most beautiful animals on earth, also lives there. In the far south lies Najran, an ancient caravan stop, where mud-brick forts rise out of the palm plantations and oases. On the coast, liberal, libertine Jeddah – or so it’s seen by the Kingdom’s more conservative kinsmen – is home to sensation-full souqs and lovely coral houses, once the abode of its moneyed merchants. Off its shores lie Saudi’s Red Sea riches – reefs that rank among the least spoilt and most spectacular in the world.
Most memorable for many, however, is the traditional Bedouin hospitality that, like the sand of the Empty Quarter, seems to go on and on forever.