The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has posed as representative for the Arab World for as long as can be recalled, and has been the microcosm of the many remarkable things the Middle East has been acknowledged for: wealth, oil, gas, desert, gold, souqs, Islam and kebab. On a personal and literary note, Saudi Arabia is famous as the setting for the 1001 Tales of Arabian Nights. Disneyland has so well romanticized and glamorized the Arabian Desert- the setting for Aladdin and Jasmine’s tale of love. To say the least, Saudi Arabia, named after Ibn Saud, is the largest country of the Arab World covering 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. The kingdom is also historical being the place of death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and the birthplace of Islam in the 7th Century.
The birthplace of another historical figure who falls on the identity of what is a “terrorist”, but to people of his homeland, a “devout” and “defender”, Saudi Arabia is Osama Bin Laden’s home. Since being born in Riyadh in 1957, he has become the most renowned Saudi international celebrity, his guts hated by most for his affiliation to the 9/11 catastrophe, but loved and lauded in the Middle East for his charity works and defence of Islam. To call Saudi Arabia oil-rich is simply scratching the surface of a great nation that is moving and shaking the world by controlling and monetizing oil as we know it.
Surely, conservativism has its pros and cons, but it renders more cons to women. That said, some holes in tradition are leaking sensibility. Women, until late 2009, were not allowed to drive (literally), and a year prior, the first all-girl Saudi rock band. What makes Saudi Arabia an absolutely amazing and charming place is their mostly untouched and untamed cultures that remains well-preserved due to its self-respect and resilience to western modernization. More so, ancient and modern landscapes that feature spectrums of unearthly colours, cool of the climate in the Arabian Peninsula, a new Arabian culinary tingle for a prism of new tastes, aroma of food cooking and things happening, these and more is Saudi.
Saudi Arabia (25 00 N, 45 00 E) is a 2,149,690 km2 large territory of the Arabian Peninsula – a kingdom more than one-fifths the size of the U.S. However, because of border wars, the precise area is unknown. The landmass of SA is mostly desolate sandy desert especially to the south, but is not entirely so. It also boasts of splendid forests in the south-western Asir region, coral systems on the rocky and sandy coasts along the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, as well as rugged mist-covered mountains like in Asir or Jabal al- Hejaz Range along the peninsula. The highest point, herein, is the Jabal Sawda’ with 3,133 metres of pure altitude.
The climate in the kingdom, is, by and large, harsh dry desert, but is also semi-arid with wonderful variations or extremes, shall I say. To the centre, extreme temperatures suffer the land with unbearable heat in the summer and freezing desert cold during winter. Along the south, east, and west coasts, the climate is hot and humid.
The landscape and climate entails less than 2% of the kingdom as arable land. And as most interior landscapes contain almost no life, the 29,207,277 Saudis, 5.6 million of which are resident foreigners, have settled along the east and west coasts, while a sizeable demographic live inland at the Buraydah and Hofuf oases. The Arabian Desert is stinking hot, hence, utterly uninhabitable, as is the Rub’ al-Khali.
Saudis are ethnically Arab, but the lot are of mixed ethnicities of Africans, Indians, Indonesians, Iranians and others that have settled thus here. Arabs are around 90%, while Afro-Asians are a meager 10%. Of the 5.6 million non-Saudis are populations of Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Indians, Indonesians, Pakistani and 100,000 westerners. ARABIC, thus is the national and official language of Saudi Arabia.
The birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia’s Arab population is 100% Muslim. Saudi Arabia has the earliest history of Islam, and in the current modern times, is the holy land and hope for every Islam as the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques”– in Medina, and in Mecca. Culture, values, and policies are all circumscribed within and predetermined by Islamic jurisprudence. Other religions are minorities such as Christianity and Buddhism, and practice of faith is almost absolutely prohibited. Freedom of Religion is fictitious in these conservative parts of the Arab World.
Unfortunately, amidst all the ornate spots and vibrant activities, SA can be quite restricting. Did I mention, drinking is not allowed? Hence the purpose of the neighbouring fun sacks such as Bahrain, where things generally unallowed such as drinking and partying are for a short time made possible, for the non-Saudis at least. But the charm of Saudi can be experienced by taking this magnificent kingdom for what it is. With what hard work it can take just getting a visa, particularly when crossing the border, I’m pretty sure the traveller would commit to following the customs here. There are but 95,000 tourists that dare come here annually, the sort who had gotten over the hijacker scare it once was known for. Moderate tourism- it’s good like that.
Saudi Arabia offers a sheer multitude of landscapes and sceneries. Taking Saudi in best would be to stop and observe because there is so much beauty to behold beginning from the ancient city of the now-ultramodern Riyadh, the capital. And you’ll know you’re right here when you see 4.3 million people and the Mamlakah Tower with the tongue-shaped curtain of changing light colours from purple to blue etc. which really outlines an actual hole in the building. Also, to see here especially is the Masmak Fortress, a 19th century mud-brick structure, and after this, a trip to Riyadh’s novel recreational parks.
Speaking more of fascinating man-made structures, here in Saudi is the Cursed City of Tombs- Madain Saleh, the second city created by the Nabateans, brainchild and master-crafter of Petra in Jordan. This is incredibly amazing with how well-preserved it has been and how harder it would have been to make it both as a result of a much more solid rock material the Nabateans carved this out of. More of man-made attractions, the Kaaba and its million-capacity is the stuff of legends that some include Abraham and Ishmael as part of the story. Found in Mecca, the holy city of Islamic faith, as is Medina, these holy places strictly do not allow non-Muslims. There really is no way to visit this except if you convert….for a day? Now, off we go to the quintessence of all things Arab, the oasis. The oasis town of Hofuf in Al-Hasa is west of another main attraction here, the Jebel Qara (Qara Hill) and the Ghar Hashshab, which are both in one place, unless somebody made it up. But really, the oasis town is an attraction as such, and with the proximity of the hill and the ghar, also called Judas’ Cave by the Filipino community, it’s like hitting 3 Arabian birds with one stone. To the centre of Saudi is the largest sea of sand anywhere, and it’s basically just a matter of figuring out what to do in this universe-of-a-sandbox. Wash it all away after a day of playing in one of the precious coasts of the Aqaba or Persian Gulf that teems with marine life. Abha is a rather famous resort choice to the Saudis notably in the summer. (Off the beaten path destinations: Wahba Crater, the barren Rub Al-Khali and Tarut Island)
Regardless of the season or temperature, the traveller will get hungry, and Saudi Arabia is a land of people who loves to relax and socialize over a nice meal. The good thing with a spread of Arabian food in Saudi is that there is no such thing as an antipasto and main course. Eat whatever is on the spread, that’s how Saudi foodies go as I know. The good thing with Arabian or Middle Eastern cuisine is the traveller makes no risk stomach-wise. Bound to the firm Islamic dietary laws or halal, what they eat is pretty much standard- rice, bread, lamb, beef, fish, vegetables... Except for pork, Saudis eat almost anything. The traveller will definitely find all the Mediterranean and Levantine favourites, if any, like grilled meat, shawarma, falafel, hummus, and kibbeh.
Ramadan is not so horrible a time because sweets are consumed much more than on an average day. You got your baklawa, knafeh, and basbousa, but the qatayef…hmmm…made only for Ramadan. Fresh fruits are also available. Diverse world eats can be found here like Thai, Filipino, Japanese, Iranian, but why waste time, when you can eat those another time. Saudi Cuisine in Saudi is very rare. The aversion of alcohol by the Saudis is more common sense than religious. I mean, with the heat of the Arabian Sun, wouldn’t anyone desire to sit in one of the chic cafes and sip a mocha-frappa-latta whatever or a chocolate milkshake, than warm the body with alcohol. Unless drinking is a need, drive to Bahrain. It’s only 1.5 hours, and is a much better option than getting deported. Besides, diesel is cheap. At the same time, Arabians drink tea to calm those explosions of spices. Now it does make perfect sense!
Red seemingly is a predominant colour in Saudi from the orange-reddish tint of sand and hills, to that of the gypsum desert roses, the sunset, coral reefs, and the Red Sea, though red basically by name. This perhaps adds to the overall heat factor of Saudi Arabia…or perhaps I’m just delusional from the heat.
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