Saudi Arabia remains one of the more mysterious countries on earth. A major producer of oil, an important market for US exports, and site of the two holiest sites in Islam, it is vitally important to millions of people. Yet because it does not issue tourist visas it is largely unknown to westerners. We were fascinated by the opportunity to visit.
We began the saga by flying to Jeddah via Frankfurt. Arriving at Jeddah in the evening we knew we were not in Kansas any more or for that matter anywhere else that we had previously visited. Ever. Let’s start with the airport; why does a country that does not issue tourist visas at all have a huge airport (15 square kilometers) with about a dozen terminals? For the Hajj, of course. In 2015 just under 1,400,000 non-Saudis made the Hajj, Umrah, or other pilgrimage. That is a lot of folk; over 80,000 on a single day. (Disney World does over 50,000 a day – you get the scale.)
Once we sorted out which immigration line to get in (the family one as we were neither diplomats nor both males), and passed our retinal and fingerprint scans, and shown our visas, which had been obtained with great difficulty, we were officially admitted and met our friend, Mary to begin our visit. It became clear that this would be an interesting experience as Denise would be wearing an abayat whenever she left Mary’s housing compound, which was reserved for foreigners and so more relaxed. This seemed odd at first but, amazingly, seemed quite normal after a day or so.
Mary is a wonderful tour guide. When we served together in Bolivia she saved Fred’s bacon at a major conference in Santa Cruz and followed up with a visit to the famous Jesuit Missions nearby. She is, not surprisingly, also very, very good at her (impossible) job in Jeddah, and like all good diplomats, knows everybody. And, like all modern Consular officers, she lives on her cell phone, even when taking leave to show guests around.
After breakfast with a Marine colleague who was in Jeddah to inspect the Marine Security Guard Detachment, we set out on the first day to visit the city of Taif, about two hours from Jeddah. Taif is up in the mountains and is known for its cool and even rainy climate (!) and the cultivation of roses. In fact it was raining when we arrived, which we were not expecting! First we went to the Alkamal Rosewater and Rose Products factory where we saw the process of distilling rosewater from the locally produced rose petals. We were made most welcome, covered with rose petals, and enjoyed Arab hospitality with local coffee. (Starbucks fans be warned, Saudi coffee is not what you expect – it is so lightly roasted that it is closer to a yellow color. Definitely an acquired taste for those of us rasied on Turkish coffee.)
We tried to invite our host for lunch but he overruled us and we were honored to receive an invitation to lunch with the Alkamal family at their house. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of different fish and shrimp with two kinds of pilaf. Lunch included the complete family including teenagers and college students and Fred was a source of great interest to them. They thought his attempts at Arabic were hilarious. (He declined, however, to let them record him on their iPhones!) Lunch was followed by a traditional honeyed dessert with noodles and coffee, taken on the patio amidst much conversation. After lunch we visited the Festival of Roses before returning to Jeddah.
On our second day, we tried to visit the Tayebat Museum in Jeddah. It was unfortunately closed for renovation but we were able to view some of the traditional architecture from the outside.
Then we went abayat shopping in the Al Shatie market where Denise bought one for everyday use and one more formal one.
Great fun! This was followed by lunch at Bab El Yemen (Gate of Yemen) where Denise finally got to try the fabled Yemeni fish that Fred had enjoyed both in Djibouti and in Yemen. We also discovered the wonderful lemon and mint drinks, which we enjoyed and found immensely refreshing for the next few days. (Think of a non-alcoholic Mojito.)
Later in the afternoon we went to visit El Balad, the old section of Jeddah, which is an amazing warren of streets and old houses, often in bad repair.
Our guide, Samir, is a former local employee of the Consulate General and is now conservator of El Balad was in charge of this. We visited the Beit Shorbatly a most interesting house and museum.
WE also visited the Al Shafi Mosque, a 700 year old building with a 1400 year old minaret. Fred and our guide were able to enter and take pictures but Mary and Denise stayed at the door as they were not in the women’s section.
Finally, we visited the Beit Naseef, a house where the first King of Saudi Arabia gave audiences. Now it is in the process of being renovated. We went to the roof, via the staircases made wide and high enough for loaded camels to climb to the upper floor, to watch the sunset and to hear the evening call to prayers from the six or so mosques nearby. We drank tea and after a snack of foule (a bean soup) with bread, we did indeed hear the simultaneous calls to prayer at sunset. It was very moving.
On our third day, we took a drive out of town again trying to find an old Ottoman fort outside Jeddah. This proved difficult so we returned to Jeddah and enjoyed a visit to the Corniche or road along the water, giving us the opportunity to take photos of the floating mosque and the huge fountain nearby, as the sun set.
The final highlight of our stay was a boat ride to show us some of the views from the bay. It felt a little odd to wear both an abayat and lifejacket but we enjoyed it!
Then it was our last day and we were off to the airport for our flight to Amman, Jordan on Royal Jordanian Airlines. We had no local money but found that we could buy a snack and a drink using dollars. As a foreigner in the airport Denise felt very conspicuous and, working on the premise of “when in Rome”, wore her headscarf until we boarded our plane.
Conclusions? Any discussion of Saudi Arabia quickly turns contentious, all the more so because it is a large and surprisingly varied country. We’ll just note:
— Wonderfully welcoming people. Arab hospitality is world famous and we had the impression that many people were especially eager to display it in a country that receives few visitors other than pilgrims. We were fortunate enough to be invited into a private home, but we noticed it on the street as well.
— Amazing scenery ranging from the mountains of Taif to the old and modern cities of Jeddah. There is a lot to see. The stereotypical image of Jeddah is that of steaming heat. Sitting on the Red Sea, Jeddah is warm and humid, but so then is Miami. And Jeddah’s old city shows that it has been a major trading center for a thousand years and in that thousand years, the local folk have built to beat the heat and capitalize on the cool sea breezes.