Recently returned from Saudi Arabia - a few comments
Replies: 20 - Last Post: Jun 19, 2013 2:14 PM Last Post By: oilily
Dec 23, 2011 12:15 AM
Recently returned from Saudi Arabia - a few commentsI recently spent 3.5 weeks travelling through Saudi Arabia. Some comments on my visit:
I had a multi-entry business visa – this allows stays for up to 30 days per entry.
Cities visited (in order):
Riyadh, Najran, Abha, Taif, Jeddah, Hail, Al Ula, Dammam, Al Hasa
Method of travel:
Generally, by buses operated by SAPTCO. These are relatively well-maintained and inexpensive (reflecting the cheap price of petrol). The exceptions were:
(a) I flew from Jeddah to Hail (on my way to Al Ula). Although the LP guidebook suggests that one can take the bus from Jeddah to Al Ula, SAPTCO officials at the bus station in Jeddah were adamant that this was not possible for non-Muslims (due to the need to transit via Madinah).
(b) I flew from Hail to Dammam
(c) I took the train from Al Hasa to Riyadh
There are multiple checkpoints along every road, but my passport was checked only once.
I would not consider driving in Saudi Arabia as road-users drive at high-speed and incredibly aggressively (Saudi Arabia has the world’s highest per capita death toll on the roads).
(a) I found the Saudi people everywhere I went incredibly hospitable.
I am sure that part of it was curiosity at seeing a Westerner walking along the pavement (where it existed, or, frequently, on the road) as few Saudis do this. The people who stopped their cars to talk to me frequently insisted on driving me to my destination.
(b) Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is incredibly “dirty” – despite the best efforts of legions of sub-continent labourers to keep it clean – as everyone (Saudis and guest workers) just discards litter wherever they feel like it. Added to this, there is an unpleasant culture of “spitting”.
(c) Cities are designed for motor-transport not for pedestrians (albeit, outside of winter when I was there, walking is likely not particularly pleasant). Cities are sprawling, there are few footpaths and it is extremely difficult and hazardous for pedestrians to cross the road (frequently 4 lanes of traffic in each direction with a fence separating the vehicles moving in either direction).
(d) While this may be unjust, my observation is that there does not appear to be a great love of work amongst the Saudi populace. The country functions (to the extent that it does) on foreign labour. Saudis are often “ghost workers” – ie they are on the payroll but don’t turn up – or work irregularly or limited hours. One must keep this in mind when visiting tourist sites or museums as Saudis will control the keys and, thus, opening hours. The LP guidebook suggests lists “official” opening hours for museums/sites – but, outside Riyadh, the museums/sites, in my experience, do not keep such hours. Generally, museums/sites will open by 9.30am, but will close at the time of the midday prayer. In the afternoon, they will be open from 4pm until the time of the dusk prayer.
It should be said that I found all of Saudi Arabia’s museums to be excellent, with most exhibits in both English and Arabic. Most are in relatively obscure places, though.
(e) Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much interest in preserving the country’s cultural heritage. This is particularly striking in Jeddah’s old city - which is crumbling before your eyes. In other cities, you will only find the country’s architectural heritage in back streets where it is frequently broken and dilapidated and awaiting the bulldozer – so sad.
1. Al Ula and Madain Saleh
Madain Saleh is inspiring – although, I would note that there is currently a lot of road work going on at the site and this has the potential to significantly reduce its mystique (Part of the appeal of the site is the rugged desert environment that surrounds the rocks in which the tombs are set – if the rocks were surrounded by bitumen this would be a tragedy).
Al Ula is the gateway to Madain Saleh. It is a pleasant, small, date-palmed-fringed town with (a) a mud-brick old town that has miraculously managed to survive (the only example that I saw in Saudi Arabia) and (b) a few interesting nearby sites that pre-date Madain Saleh.
2. Jeddah old city
Despite the fact that all of the beautiful old houses are falling down, this remains a magical place to walk around. The souqs which dominate the old town are also interesting (although most of the buyers tend to be foreigners as Saudis tend to shun the place in favour of shopping malls).
3. The culture
The culture of Saudi Arabia is definitely unique and there is nowhere else in the world to experience anything vaguely like it.
Comparison with other countries in the region:
Oman – has better-preserved old towns and forts (and plenty of them), is cleaner and easier to get around (it’s safe to hire a car).
Yemen – Most towns in Yemen are infinitely more interesting than any I saw in Saudi Arabia (there is no comparison between Al Ula and Sana’a or Shibam, for example). The mountains and mountain villages in Yemen are also magic. In Saudi Arabia, you get the merest whiff of traditional mountain village architecture at somewhere like Rijal Alma’a (near Abha).
Comments on the LP guidebook:
While the original 2004 standalone guidebook was a comprehensive work, the updated version that appears in regional guides appears to have been poorly/sloppily updated. I will not attempt to list all of the errors, but I will note the most egregious ones:
(a) Old Dir’aiyah is currently under restoration and has been so for a considerable period. While there is currently a visitor centre (not in Wadi Hanifah), the site itself cannot be accessed (without authorisation).
(b) The men/women/family opening hours for the National Museum are incorrect.
(c) As far as I was able to ascertain, camel races are only conducted in a few months of the year and not every Thursday.
(d) The camel market is in the Janadriyah district (in NE Riyadh – specifically, in the NW quadrant of the intersection of the Northern Ring Road and Highway 40).
(e) The guidebook fails to mention bus transport as a means of getting around any Saudi city. However, I found public/private buses to be the best way of getting around Riyadh and other cities. The cost is generally SR2. Just ask the driver where the bus is going, if it is unclear from the sign in the window. There is even buses to and from the airport (I saw the bus stand, but I am unsure of the frequency). In contrast, taking taxis is a nightmare. The LP suggests that they will use their meter – not any that I came across. In my experience, you always have to bargain before you get in and the driver’s starting price is always outrageous. Note that all taxis from the airport now charge SR85 – as that is the cost that you can book one of the “London taxis” at the airport for.
(a) Don’t miss the dagger souq, near the date souq. The location of the date souq relative to Najran Fort is incorrect in the LP map.
(a) The bus station is no longer in the location noted on the LP map and I believe that it has not been there for several years. It is now some way from the city centre.
(b) Ask at the tourism office about the best way to get to Rijal Alma’a.
(a) The Safari Hotel is a dive and infested with bed bugs. Avoid. Shame on you LP for recommending this place.
(a) All of the public museums in Jeddah are closed, as are all of the traditional houses in old Jeddah. The only museum that is open is the private Al-Tayibat City Museum for International Civilisation. This is open to individuals on Tuesdays (SR50 per person) – however, at other times you are allowed to walk around the exterior courtyards.
(b) Much of the corniche (and its sculptures) are presently closed off for redevelopment.
(a) There is a private heritage museum near the ‘Airif fort that is worth visiting (you look down on it from the fort). There is also a restaurant that serves traditional food in a traditional house in the city that is interesting.
(b) As the guidebook doesn’t include a map of the town, I would recommend the Farsi map of Hail (albeit a little out of date) which can be obtained from most Jarir bookstores or from Farsi themselves at their waterfront office in Jeddah.
(a) The lion tomb is not accessible and has not been accessible for many (many!) years. There is a partially-built visitors centre where you can peer at it from the second floor across the perimeter fence.
(b) Umm al Daraj is reasonably easy to find – follow the tyre marks in the sand or ask a friendly local.
(c) The bus station is nowhere near where it is marked on the map (and hasn’t been for many, many years) but is, in fact, 2 minute walk from the museum (which is correctly marked).
(a) The oil museum has been closed for the past 6 months.
(a) The main bus station is NW of the train station. There is a minor bus station in Hofuf but I’m unsure what buses would use it and, in any event, it’s on the wrong corner of the LP map.
(b) The Qaisariya souq is like a ghost town – the rent must be too high. One can no longer find any of the things that the guide book talks about.
Dec 23, 2011 3:38 AM
Dec 24, 2011 8:07 AM
Re: taxis. It's true that very few taxi drivers use meters, and that many taxis don't even have them. The key to getting a taxi ride for a reasonable rate is knowing the going rate in advance and simply handing over that amount at the end of your ride. This depends on local knowledge, of course, but once a local has clued you in to the proper price, taxis are a relatively easy way to get around if you don't own a car. If you don't know the rate, then there's a very good chance your driver will try to overcharge you.
Dec 25, 2011 4:53 AM
3Reflecting on the original post, I thought that I could add some additional detail:
(i) I stayed in the Ramad East Hotel in al Bathaa – recommended. I booked on Booking.com (SR215 per night)
(ii) al Bathaa is a good place to stay in terms of public (SAPTCO) and private buses. All of the SAPTCO buses going south pass along al Bathaa Street en route to the Aziziyah bus station (where they terminate). The buses wait a short while at the Aziziyah bus station before turning around and heading north on their route again.
(iii) If you want to buy dates, there is a large cluster of date merchants immediately prior to the Aziziyah bus station.
(iv) If you can’t work out from the sign on the front of the bus where the bus is going (SAPTCO), or from the tout yelling out the destination (private bus), just ask the driver.
(i) I stayed at the Najran Hotel. This has undergone a renovation since the last time the LP checked and now charges SR200 (for a palatial room).
(ii) There are no buses in Najran – you need to flag down a private car. Certain private cars act like share taxis. The fare from Faisaleyeh to Aba Las’ud is SR2 – but some drivers expect you to pay more as a foreigner. Alternatively, as a foreigner, you’re likely to find some friendly Saudi takes an interest in you and will happily drive you wherever you want to go just for the opportunity to have a chat.
(iii) As I was leaving the hotel (I stayed there 2 nights) to go to the bus station, 3 Saudi guys were waiting in the foyer. They asked me where I was going. I told them that I was going to the bus station and showed them my ticket. They offered to take me there. Accustomed as I was, by this time, to being offered lifts by random friendly Saudis, I took them up on their offer. As I was chatting to them in the car, they explained that they “were like the FBI”. They hung around at the bus station until the bus left and then I saw them at the police checkpoint leading out of town (they must have driven ahead of the bus). The previous day, as I had walked around Najran, I hadn’t seen any police, so I don’t think that the security situation in the area was bad (albeit Najran is close to the Yemeni border). I put the situation down to curiosity about the foreigner who had made his way into town … but I’d be interested in other thoughts.
(i) I was interested to observe that Khamis Mushayt and Abha have become a single, sprawling conurbation.
(ii) The SAPTCO bus station in Khamis Mushayt is the main one in the region whereas the one in Abha is just a small office. You may have to wait around a while in Khamis Mushayt for your bus to continue on to Abha.
(iii) Rijal Alma’a. This partially reconstructed mountain village doesn’t really compare to any of the mountain villages that you might find in Yemen (eg Manakha or Kakaban), but is likely all that is left in Saudi Arabia of this ilk. Rijal Alma’a lies in a valley NW of Abha. There are two routes to get there. The longer route sees you leave Abha to the SW and follow a series valley floors. The shorter route sees you leave Abha to the NW to As-Soudah. From As-Soudah, you plunge down a switchback to the valley floor and thence to Rijal Alma’a. The latter route is lined with monkeys.
(i) Getting to the bus station (not marked on the LP map). There is major intersection just north of the Shubra Palace. At the intersection, turn right. Continue straight until you reach the roundabout which marks the road’s end. Turn left. The bus station is about 500m along the road on the right hand side.
(i) I stayed at the Al-Hayet Palace Hotel in old Jeddah (SR180 per night) – recommended.
(ii) Buses from old Jeddah to anywhere else in the city congregate at Bab Makkah.
(iii) There is no tourist office in old Jeddah. The site marked as a tourist office on the LP map is, in fact, the location of the personnel supervising the restoration of certain old houses in old Jeddah.
(i) There is an airport in Al Ula. However, currently, there are only two flights to/from the airport every week. These flights are to/from Riyadh and occur on Saturday and Monday.
(ii) There are only 2 hotels in Al Ula – ie the LP author has not just selected the “best” hotels for the guide. The Arac Hotel is a little bit out of town and thus, if you do not have your own transport, the only option is the Madain Saleh Hotel. This hotel is overpriced (SR270 per night), but, at least, the staff are attentive. The hotel can organise your permit to enter the Madain Saleh archaeological area (SR100).
(iii) There are only 3 official guides for Madain Saleh (and Al Ula) (guides are authorised by the government). The Madain Saleh Hotel put me in contact with Mr Saied. Mr Saied had a good command of English and was knowledgeable about Madain Saleh (a good thing for a guide!) and Al Ula. He was happy to clamber up to high points of rocks to point things out to me. Mr Saied drove me around for the day in his car. The cost was SR900.
(i) The regional museum is difficult to find. It is “behind” the main post office, but difficult to identify as it is housed in a residential house. I would recommend adopting the strategy that I did and asking for assistance in the post office. A friendly Saudi drove me to the museum in his car (albeit it was only a short walk away).
(i) In the original post, I wrote that the “oil museum” was closed. To be precise the “Aramco Exhibit” in Dhahran is currently closed for renovations – re-opening date unknown. (Annoying as this was the only reason that I went to Dammam).
(i) As far as I understand the situation, Al Hasa is a conurbation of several cities/oases, one of which is Al Hofuf.
(ii) The date farms in Al Hofuf lack the charm of those I have encountered elsewhere - in particular, in Oman, but also in Egypt.
(iii) The springs, which were traditionally the underpinning of the oases, also lack any charm – now largely concrete structures strewn with litter.
(iv) There is a large amount of roadwork underway in Al Hofuf (as seems to be the case in many cities in Saudi Arabia). As a consequence, many of the roads on the LP map are not-functional.
(i) I am a vegetarian (lacto ovo). I found tracking down vegetarian food very straightforward in Saudi Arabia. In particular, there are many Indian/Pakistani restaurants that will all serve subzi (mixed vegetables) and dahl, with tandoor bread. In Dammam and Al Hofuf, I found several southern Indian restaurants serving idli, uttapam, dosa and thali. Of course, as a snack, felafel sandwiches are ubiquitous. If you’re fortunate, it is also possible to track down a restaurant which serves fuul - it will also serve dips such as motabal/hummous, as well as olives/pickled mixed vegetables. There is one such restaurant opposite the Al-Baia hotel in old Jeddah. In Al Hofuf, I stumbled on a restaurant serving the Egyptian staple, koushary.
(ii) Despite eating lots of salad, I didn’t encounter any stomach problems. It is possible that my daily consumption of laban helped.
Dec 26, 2011 1:31 AM
Given its proximity to the porous Yemeni border and the fact that al-Qaeda is extremely active in Yemen, it'd be very strange if there were not a large Ministry of the Interior (i.e. "Saudi FBI") presence in the town. There's no way to know for sure, of course, but is it plausible? Yes, it's very plausible. The MOI is extremely powerful, and is one of the few parts of the Saudi government that could be described as "effective." I imagine they monitor comings and goings in Najran closely.
Mar 10, 2012 10:56 AM
5Good notes! As to the Interior Ministry presence, Khamis has a large airbase nearby with Western servicemen and support staff who rotate in and out. Also, after the murder of the French tourists in 2007, security forces/police forces in the western areas are under no illusion what will happen to them if another such accident befalls a westerner. That is why my friends all find it hard to drive down the Hijaz railway. Once they are spotted by a police/security officer they get an escort and never get to leave the tarmac.
Mar 25, 2012 3:53 PM
May 21, 2012 2:34 PM
7Can I just say thanks for taking the time to write down these details...
I have also observed many of the same things regarding the Saudi mentality (curious / friendly/ relaxed/ lazy) ... It is a much more relaxed country than outside media would suggest.
For those moving around... I have heard that the train service between Riyadh and Dammam is pretty good... especially in upper class. If I take this I shall report on it.
Also NAS Air offers some excellent internal fares which may also be worth considering.
I will hopefully visit Gizan soon... did you or any others visit this city? I have heard it is excellent snorkling etc.
May 21, 2012 2:36 PM
May 22, 2012 3:18 AM
May 23, 2012 10:40 AM
I should have been more clear - towards RUH from centre.
If for example a bus runs to somewhere near the airport this would also be appreciated. I believe it would likely be easy to hitch into the centre from the airport.
If you have knowledge it would also be useful to confirm whether there are airport buses running to the centre from DMM and JED
I have a weeks holiday at Eid and plan to visit Gizan and Abha. Is this recommended? I'm based in RUH and have heard these are some of the nicest low-key places to visit in kSA.
Thanks in advance.
May 24, 2012 12:12 AM
11I don't know about Riyadh, but in Al Khobar / Dammam SAPTCO does operate a bus to the airport. I've never taken it and know no one who has--like every Western expat I know, I either drive to the airport or take a taxi (which are actually cheap compared to the US or Europe) depending on the length of the trip I'm taking--but I know that it exists. I'd make inquiries at your nearest SAPTCO station...and count on leaving for the airport hours earlier than you would otherwise.
May 24, 2012 3:21 AM
May 24, 2012 10:19 AM
Zash... thanks for this. I had heard about Dammam. I might ask my company if I can hitch a lift if they are heading there.
How easy a visa is to get depends on your determination to see and experience the kingdom. In my case it was very great as I have always been curious about it and it represents the untouchable. So... it took me 4 months and £250.00 to get my entry visa...
In as much as I took a cheap TEFL (Teaching English course) for 3 months. Applied for teaching posts in Riyadh - got a position and within a month had been issued my residence visa. No fuss with the process either... even though I had visited Israel only a year ago. A minimum contract time is 3 months (mine is 12 mnths) and it is a fascinating place to visit. Not thrilling in all the typical senses but still I am glad about my decision.
So... strange as it seems you can either get a job here or convert to Islam and do Hajj. Even with Hajj they are very strictly limited to where they can visit. No person is allowed to come without a purpose. But you are very free once in the kingdom.
So... how much do you want to see Saudi? !
May 27, 2012 2:27 AM
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