Northwest of Riyadh, the Najd plateau is hemmed in by the Hejaz Mountains to the west, with sand deserts surrounding the other three sides. Crossing the plateau, the drive between Riyadh and Madain Saleh is, for the most part, a trip along a long, lonely stretch of road. Fortunately, close to the midpoint is one of Saudi Arabia's more intriguing sites: Jubba.
Al-Soudah, or ‘the black one’, so named for the black clouds that so often surround it, is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Located close to the summit of the Kingdom’s highest peak, Jebel Soudah (2910m), about 22km west of Abha, this is the place to come for precipitous cliffs, deep valleys and mountain-tops disappearing behind the clouds.
Dhahran is the home of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and the base of Aramco, the granddaddy of Saudi oil companies. Much of Dhahran is like an exclusive club: a small and self-contained American city, which consists of the Aramco compound, shops, residential areas and the University of Petroleum & Minerals.
Jizan is known as the ‘fruit basket’ of Saudi Arabia for the variety and abundance of its agricultural produce. The fair ladies of Jizan are considered to be great cooks, tidy housekeepers and skilful in the use of perfumes and fragrances – so are much admired by Saudi men! If you’re invited to an inhabitant’s house, expect a fabulous feast.
The run-down provincial capital, Dammam, is the longest settled and largest town of the Dhahran–Dammam–Khobar group, but it nonetheless has the feeling of a town whose time has passed. The town is home to enormous populations of immigrant Asians – in the centre it can be hard to imagine that you’re in Saudi Arabia at all.
Al-Khobar (Khobar) is both the newest and the most attractive of the three cities that make up Greater Dhahran. With its long corniche along the waterfront, it is the most pedestrian-friendly, relaxed and liberal city in the Eastern Province. It also boasts some of the finest restaurants in Saudi Arabia.
In the country's extreme northwest, Haql is the only coastal village in Saudi Arabia from which the coastlines of Jordan, Israel and Egypt can be seen. Offshore from the crescent-shaped Bi’r Al Mazhi Beach is a ship sunk in 1975 that attracts adventurous divers. Nearby is Al Sultaniyyah Beach on the Aqaba Gulf, directly opposite Egypt and perfect for swimmers.
An Nu’man Island
An Nu’man Island is a mountain slope rising from the sea. What could be better than hiking a mountainous island surrounded by crystal blue-green water? Think Tom Hanks in Cast Away but a bit closer to the mainland. The island is 198km southwest of Tabuk via Rte 80 on Rte 5.