Myth Busting – Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia only opened to tourism in January 2020 for the first time ever and then was forced to close again due to Covid reopening in March 2022. For a destination that is so brand spanking new to tourism, wow, have they got it right! No plastic, female guides at all sites, a controlled way of experiencing all the incredible sites here so numbers are light on impact to these delicate areas, many of which are very young excavation sites. Clear paths that you must stay on, there is no possible way of climbing or disrespecting monuments like in Jordan and every site offers you fresh orange juice, water in a glass bottle and local fruit treats. You cannot visit sites independently, you cannot take your own private driver or guide to any of the sites – you must use the local experts who have incredible language skills and vast, detailed knowledge. Here are my myth busts from my travels here in November 2022 and attempts to assist in breaking stigmas surrounding travelling in Saudi Arabia – an absolute untouched paradise for those seeking something more rewarding.

Our female guide at UNESCO site, Dadan, AlUla
Our female guide at UNESCO site, Dadan, AlUla – Photo credit: Crooked Compass

The oasis city of Dedan was known as Lihyan and the capital of two old Arabian kingdoms in the 1st millennium BCE, close to the trade routes. Excavations revealed remains of large fortified cities. East of the city, you will find the famous Lion Tombs carved into the cliff of Jabal Dedan. A short ride took us to Jabal Ikmah, an open library of Aramaic, Dadanitic and Nabataean inscriptions in a beautiful desert landscape. We had female guides at both sites and a female driver at Jabal Ikmah. Two myths about Saudi broken right there.

Dining at Okto, AlUla
Dining at Okto, AlUla – Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Dining at Okto at the Edge of the World, we not only had an incredible subset viewing point, serving up incredible food. The myth buster here, is none of the staff wore traditional Saudi dress. Both males and females are dressed western – and in hoodies!

Elephant Rock, AlUla
Elephant Rock, AlUla – Photo credit: Crooked Compass

This is the monumental Jabal AlFil (Elephant Rock), AlUla’s most famous natural geological rock formation. Lit up in the evenings and surrounded by sunken lounges and hundreds of lanterns, gentle music pulses in the background. Virgin cocktails, ice cream or pastries are all available on site as you sit under the stars and soak in the magical atmosphere. Myth buster – couples travelling together are allowed to hold hands in public and dine together without males and females being separate.

Luxury accommodation at Habitas, AlUla
Luxury accommodation at Habitas, AlUla – Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Home for the next few nights. Myth busted – couples who are not married are allowed to stay in hotels together.

Mirrored marvel of Maraya, AlUla
Mirrored marvel of Maraya, AlUla – Photo credit: Crooked Compass

This is Maraya – the mirrored building! Home to a fine dining restaurant, theatre and art exhibitions.

Whilst I was travelling, I had a few people ask if I was covered head to toe whilst travelling in Saudi and if I am wearing a traditional abaya like I did in Yemen. The answer is no. During Covid, the king changed the regulations here in a bid to open up for more tourism. He removed the need for females to dress in traditional Saudi attire and to be completely covered. His view was whilst he hoped tourists would respect the culture here and dress conservatively and respectfully, he also advised he cannot force the Saudi dress culture on others. Since then, the dress code for females here (nationals not foreigners) has also changed. It is no longer mandatory for women to be covered head to toe – it is now their choice and I saw so many women removing either the face covering (niqab) or simply wearing western clothes under their flowing abaya. Conservative dress to the elbow and knee is all that is required for foreigners.
Tea and dates in the Riyadh souk
Tea and dates in the Riyadh souk – Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Myth busted – you can’t take photos of women or with women in Saudi Arabia.

Exploring the old souq in Riyadh, these ladies were enjoying Saudi coffee and dates whilst the souk was quiet and invited us to join them. They had never met Australians before. They wanted to show us their henna stained hands and share their local brew and have a chat and laugh – it was so much fun and so natural.
My thoughts on the small snapshot of Saudi Arabia I experienced are mixed. There is just so much money here I simply cannot get my head around it. This has its positives in terms of being able to build incredible architecture and infrastructure and opportunities for employment – especially now the nation has opened up and women can enjoy jobs like being a journalist. This money has allowed Saudi Arabia to be able to build the correct infrastructure from the start in terms of managing tourism, however, at times it was so sanitised and so controlled I thought I was back in North Korea. At one point because everything is just so perfect and seamless, I had those North Korean vibes and wondered if we are just being shown what they want us to see… but then in Riyadh, where it is an entire new city being built from almost nothing – it is beyond mind blowing and maybe this is a nation really wanting to progress and move forward. Think Dubai on steroids. There are many positive changes in Saudi Arabia and what many people forget, is that change does not happen instantly. It is a process and tourism plays a big part in this. I am also not oblivious to the fact that this is a country which still does have archaic practices and beliefs which many struggle with and disagree with and yes, there is still a long way to go but the rapid progress in such a short time shows what is possible and what is to come.
The one thing I felt lacked incredibly was culture. Apart from the lovely ladies in the souk, there was very little connection with the locals and raw, historical culture apart from the traditional dress left still worn by most – this is based on where I travelled to and I certainly did not travel extensively on this trip. Never once did I feel unsafe, stared at, harassed, uncomfortable or shocked with anything I saw. An incredibly stunning destination for the right type of traveller but so many question marks remain in my mind about what Saudi Arabia will be like in 5yrs and beyond…

Looking to explore Saudi Arabia? Check out our small group tours.