Saudi Arabia, steeped in mystery and nearly buried in sand, is known as much for its black-clad, censured women and harsh social conventions as it is for its vast, seemingly endless reserves of oil. Black gold has been the catalyst behind the transformation of this desert bloom, once one of the poorest countries in the world, reliant on hajj money, to the economic powerhouse it is today. While the country has turned one eye to the future in terms of economic and industrial development, it has been accused of keeping the other eye firmly on the past. Much of Saudi life and culture has remained unchanged since the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the lives of women in the Kingdom. Women are subjugated to rules that make it illegal to drive or leave the country without permission from the male heads of their households. That said, Saudi women are gaining strides in the world of education and - to a small extent - the workforce, and were recently given the right to vote. Other facets of Saudi society, too, are ruled by a strict interpretation of Sharia, so those heading there would be wise to become very familiar with the nuances of Islamic law. And before getting any lofty ideas about checking out the sites of Mecca or Medina, travellers should keep in mind that unless they bow to their maker five times a day, the two holiest sites in Islam are off limits. Such stringent and austere measures shouldn't be enough to keep travellers away; those who are willing to accept the laws of the country won't be disappointed: from the bustling metropolis of Jeddah to the Empty Quarter, the Kingdom offers up a number of treats that, so far, haven't been distorted by - or for - scores of foreign travellers. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
Traditionally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been one of the more difficult places in the world to visit. Though the government in recent years has begun issuing travel visas, they are few and far between and remain difficult to come by. As a result, a traveller’s glimpse into a journey across the Kingdom is rare for many. Living here made it easy for me to seize the day, as it were, and take a road trip across this country of many myths. My journey began where I live, in the Al Nafl district of the capital Riyadh, which is a modern city that is fairly new and grows steadily day by day.
The three women finished their coffee, extinguished their cigarettes, flipped their veils over their faces and set off to continue shopping. I continued to savour my cardamom infused coffee and pondered the complexities of tobacco and traditional face coverings.
The food court where I sat, an air-conditioned refuge from the sauna of the souk, is located at the top of the Mahmal: a seven-storey high shopping mall built in the eighties. Unlike the concrete wasteland of Jeddah’s suburban modern malls, the Mahmal – housing an eclectic mix of: perfumers, fabric merchants, home ware stores and international clothing concessions - is situated in the heart of the balad, or old town. Due to its location the ground floor serves as a thoroughfare for the shoppers on their way to and from the traditional souk.
The souk throngs with pilgrims buying last minute gifts and souvenirs before departing to their home countries. As she has done for centuries, Jeddah still sees pilgrims arrive by ship – Richard Burton docked here in the 1850s disguised as an Indian Muslim intent on making the pilgrimage to Makkah – although these days the majority of the millions who visit the Kingdom annually do so by aeroplane. From February to the end of August 2011 five million people arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage which can be made at any time of the year apart from Hajj season) and a further three million arrived for the Hajj at the beginning of November.