Top 5 things to see as a tourist in Saudi Arabia

Nina Arif is a freelance journalist with an MSc in International Politics. She has produced for the BBC, Al Jazeera, and writes for various online publications. Nina is currently based in Saudi Arabia. You can follow her on Twitter @nina_arif


 

With Saudi Arabia finally opening its doors to the world by allowing visas for tourists, Nina Arif lists the Top 5 things the country has to offer the intrepid traveller.

After spending six years living and experiencing life in Saudi Arabia, I’ve whittled down the most spectacular places I think you must see while you’re there.

The following five are guaranteed to momentarily take your mind off bone saws, authoritarianism and the war in Yemen.

Please note that I haven’t included Saudi Arabia’s most obvious attractions for Muslims – the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and other religious sites – because they have been well covered elsewhere.

5. THE WORLD’S BIGGEST CAMEL BEAUTY CONTEST

Camels are taken seriously here – so seriously that an entire month (between December and January) is dedicated to assessing their aesthetic qualities. Herders and buyers from across the Gulf region descend upon the Dhana desert, northeast of Riyadh, to trade in camels, with some of the animals fetching prices of above one hundred million riyals!

In case you’re wondering what makes a camel beautiful – it’s things like the length of the eyelashes, smoothness of the fur, fullness of the lips and how the camel struts its stuff… I mean, walks.

It’s also good to know that while equal opportunities may not be enjoyed by all humans in the Kingdom, the camels need not worry, as there are several different categories of beauty depending on their colours. These include dark black, red, brown, beige and white.

Fun Fact: Last year, twelve camels were disqualified from the contest after receiving botox injections to improve their pout!

4. VALLEY OF THE JINN

It’s not the most outstanding natural beauty site in Saudi, but I’ve included it for its “weirdness” factor.

Valley of the Jinn (“Wadi Al-Jinn”) – also known as Wadi Al-Baida, is a picturesque valley northwest of Madinah. It has developed a reputation for being rather mysterious, with locals reportedly hearing voices in the night!

While you probably won’t hear the voices, you are guaranteed to experience other strange forces – namely your car moving uphill when put into neutral gear. Similarly, people who’ve tried pouring water onto the ground, say it moves uphill instead of downhill.

Unfortunately for those of us who prefer the “jinn” explanation, the phenomenon is attributed to the magnetic force in the surrounding mountains.

3. THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

This place literally took my breath away… as I sat on the edge of a 300-meter-high cliff overlooking a stunning view of the valley below.

The Edge of the World is a unique rock-framed “window” with views of the surrounding plain. It’s located in the Acacia Valley 180km northeast of Riyadh and, as with many places in Saudi, you’ll need a 4×4 to get there.

This is a great place for hiking and picnics. I went there twice and would happily visit again as I never tire of the view! I would recommend being there in time for sunset.

2. ABHA

This mountainous region is located in the southwest of Saudi Arabia and falls within the Asir province which is the coolest and wettest part of the country. I spent the past year living in this region and I’ve included it in my list of top 5 places to see for a few reasons.

The natural beauty here is vast and diverse, with lush greenery and rugged mountains – home to wildlife including baboons and an array of bird species. One of my fondest memories was spotting a magnificent golden eagle perched on a mountain top through thick fog, as I made the journey down. It’s certainly not what you’d expect from a desert country.

Another reason I love this region is its proximity to Yemen – something which makes Abha a great place to experience Yemeni-influenced culture. You’ll see some beautiful architecture while wondering around the mountain houses and you’ll be mad to leave here without trying the traditional Yemeni breakfast!

1. MADA’IN SALEH

Mada’in Saleh may not be as well-known as Petra (in modern-day Jordan) but it’s the same ancient civilisation – the Nabateans who were behind this archaeological site. Located in the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, Mada’in Saleh was once the Nabateans’ second-largest city and played a vital role in their mysterious empire.

Mada’in Saleh (translating as “city of the Prophet Saleh”) also has Islamic significance. The Quran makes reference to its inhabitants – the Thamud people – who were destroyed as punishment for their idolatry. And so the site was for long considered by Saudis as a cursed place which people did not visit.

While I’m not entirely sure about the curse, it was certainly an eerie experience wondering around some of the impressively carved-out tombs in the rocks and seeing many oddly shaped mountains in the area. I remember commenting to a friend that I could see faces in them!

In all its mystery, Mada’in Saleh is a magnificent site to behold, as well as a chance to revisit a past civilisation. It’s all of these factors which make this UNESCO proclaimed “World Heritage Site” my favourite place to visit in Saudi Arabia.

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