Saudi: The unbinding of a nation
Follow our Head of Private Adventures as he experiences the inaugural path of discovery in Saudi Arabia.
Words by Dave Lorch
“We’ve been giving hate a chance…” By the time Jay Kay of Jamiroquai got to singing these words last week at the Winter Tantora festival, he was in full swing and the crowd was following suit. The assembled company who were there to witness a reasonably edgy performer for Saudi Arabia, had evolved by then, from the serious-looking and immaculately Thawb-ed men of a certain age to the face of a markedly more contemporary generation. The traditional dress brigade had vanished: leaving in its place jeans and t-shirts which had filled the front rows of the Maryah mirror cube theatre. All in the space of about four hip-swinging space-jazz numbers from the veteran funkers.
The pace of change in Saudi Arabia recently is giddying with locals embracing never-before-seen levels of freedom. Local women, in particular, are being relieved of the burden that was the draconian laws regarding dress, driving, observance, overseas travel and seem to be rushing headfirst into a new era with gusto. The once-feared religious police have been all-but stripped of their medieval powers, as the country looks to successful neighbours to help mould a path for change. Initiatives from the Saudi government such as the King Khalid Foundation have helped. However, the driving force behind the most recent changes is down to the 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or “MBS” as he’s affectionately known locally.
Visas have only just been issued to tourists visiting the Kingdom for reasons other than Islamic pilgrimage, either to Mecca or Medina since September last year. What’s more, In the three months since, the country has played host to Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title fight in a 15,000 seater stadium built from scratch. As well as a WWE female wrestling event, the first-ever public performance by a Saudi ballerina, major football matches (a national obsession) and a year-round regional culture and arts festival. Tourism finds itself dipping a tentative toe into the water of an industry that currently only accounts for 6% of national GDP (vs 87% from oil), change in the country is well underway. Its epicenter being in the stunning desert region and UNESCO-protected Al Ula area.
Vistas of gnarled sandstone edifices, that have quietly succumbed to being sculpted over time, dotting the pristine empty desert landscapes at every turn. Guides are entrepreneurial, mostly female, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and passionate about sharing their knowledge. Appetite for exploration and discovery across the vast swathes of the desert is hatching and before long on my visit I find myself plotting out routes with local guide Bandar. Utilising a combination of camels, vintage Land Rovers, and epic Can-Am dune buggies. Ending our days sleeping under the stars in Bedouin encampments along our journey: suddenly it seems possible to make for a modern-day recreation of Thesiger’s iconic journeys in the region.
The Saudi Ministry of Culture has committed to effectively managing the number of visitors to iconic sites such as the 131 rock tombs at Hegra. – truly a rival for the Nabateans’ other masterpiece located in Petra. Experience this all first hand and dive into Saudi Arabia like never before. Contact a member of our team to discover how we can help you plan further email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Video courtesy of Matt Porteous and Studio M.