Travel: Saudi - A quiet flowering of desert tourism

Yesterday the first group of Western tourists arrived in little- known Saudi Arabia. They are in for a rare treat
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The Independent Culture
In a remote, sunlit valley in the foothills of Saudi Arabia's Asir mountains, an old man approached me. His frail-looking body was wrapped in a colourful shawl, and a silver dagger glinted at his waist. In his wiry hand he gripped the muzzle of an antiquated rifle that stood by his side. Then with a grunt, he raised the rifle from the ground and swung it all the way over his head in an arc, holding it only by the last two inches of the barrel.

"Here," he motioned, "you try". His eyes twinkled behind dark rings of the black antimony powder that mountain men still wear in Arabia. I strained away but could only manage to lift the rifle to knee height. He was 70, he told me, and had grown strong by eating honey every day of his life, and now could I please take a photograph of him? This was truly amazing: in a land where you can sometimes be arrested for taking pictures in a public place, here was a Saudi asking me to use my camera. Saudi Arabia, a country closed to casual tourists and obsessed with public security, was clearly changing.

While religious tourism to Muslim shrines in Mecca and Medina has been running for centuries, the idea of Western tourists traipsing around this intensely conservative and traditional society is a novel one. Quite simply, Saudi Arabia has never issued tourist visas until now. Nationals of other Gulf countries can visit, as can bona fide Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as anyone who is invited in on business or has immediate relatives in the country. There are even 30,000 British expatriates living in Saudi, yet few of them venture far off the beaten track, put off by the need to speak Arabic, the nationwide ban on women drivers, and the tedious bureaucracy that is often involved.

Yet for those who do get to explore this vast and culturally rich land, the birthplace of a religion with more than 1 billion followers, the rewards are worth the effort. In the hidden hinterland of Arabia, Saudi culture has remained more intact than in any of the neighbouring Gulf states which have charged headlong towards the 21st century. In the oasis town of Najran, for example, tribal families still live in sandstone skyscrapers that date back for generations, where women have an entire storey to themselves in perfect privacy. Outside, in palm-shaded courtyards, men weave baskets from rushes while women sell Bedouin jewellery in the market, and visitors from the West are rare.

In fact, once you get past the dour face of Saudi officialdom, ordinary Saudis are among the most generous and hospitable people in the Middle East. Over thimble-sized cups of scalding cardamom coffee they will quiz you about your country, your family and your impressions of Saudi Arabia.

Those first impressions can be distinctly unnerving to anyone newly arrived from the West. Five times a day the call to prayer blasts out over the rooftops through crackling megaphones, and the streets empty within minutes, leaving you feeling as if you're the last person on earth. Religious police are on hand to ensure that every shop and cafe locks its doors during prayer time. Men must dine in separate sections of a restaurant from women unless they are related, in which case they need the documents to prove it. Draconian as this sounds, it's a practice widely accepted by most Saudis, who expect foreigners to adapt to their customs while they are in the country.

Since the oil boom of the Seventies, Saudi Arabia has become a multi- ethnic society with 6 million expatriates, mainly from Asia and Africa, making up a third of the population. To walk the twisting streets of the Red Sea port of Jeddah is like visiting every country that borders this coral-reefed waterway. Sudanese tribesmen, their heads bandaged in turbans of pure white cotton, amble past the spice market and pause to ask the day's prices. Yemeni craftsmen squat in backstreet workshops, their fingers working feverishly as they fashion the hubble-bubble shisha pipes for the cafes next door.

In a courtyard framed by latticed harem windows, an Ethiopian woman with a massive bundle on her head calls out to her friend. From a tiny window high up on a whitewashed wall a face appears, and answers her in the language of the Abyssinian hills. Just five minutes' walk away stands a glittering shopping-centre where Saudi women, veiled completely in black, drift past shirt-sleeved expatriates in their quest for gold jewellery.

Saudi Arabia's largely under-developed tourist attractions are spread far apart across this vast, oil-rich kingdom. In the north there are the spectacular 2,000-year-old Nabataean tombs at Madain Salah, with the rusting remains of the old Damascus-Hijaz railway nearby. In the south west there are the verdant slopes of the Asir mountains, rising to 10,000 feet before they cross the Yemeni border. It's a part of the kingdom only recently opened up to the outside world, where eagles soar above plunging valleys and where wild baboons squat among the rocks. Here it is still possible to come across tribesmen from the Bani Qahtani who wear flowers in their long, flowing hair and daggers in their belts.

Down on the Red Sea coast, money is being poured into building new luxury resorts. Mostly these are catering for holidaying Saudi families - with private villas and the odd yacht berth thrown in. But for scuba enthusiasts the Red Sea reefs are an underwater adventure playground where the strict Saudi ban on terrestrial pleasures such as alcohol and gambling is hardly relevant.

For the past few years the Saudis have watched with envy while some of their neighbours - Oman, the UAE and Jordan - have reaped millions of dollars from their growing tourist industries. Belatedly, they have decided to join the party, but on their terms. For Western tourists coming from Europe this means joining an escorted tour. In carefully couched diplomatic language, the Bales Worldwide brochure asks clients to "exercise a degree of patience", adding that hotel pools are off limits to women, who will sometimes have to dress in the black cloaks locally provided. Certainly, of all the countries in the Middle East Saudi Arabia remains among the most traditional, the most bizarre and often the hardest for Westerners to comprehend. But to be among the first Western tourists to visit is a rare privilege indeed.

Frank Gardner is the BBC's Gulf correspondent

Fact File

Safety: Saudi Arabia adjoins Yemen, but the Foreign Office advises only that "In view of the continuing tension in the region, British nationals travelling to Saudi Arabia should keep in touch with developments while there. We continue to monitor the situation, and the current advice will be updated if there are new developments... For further information contact the British Embassy in Riyadh... or the British Consulate General in Jedda...".

Getting there: Bales Tours (01306 876867) has a 10-day itinerary that includes the Asir mountains, Madain Saleh, Jeddah and the capital Riyadh. Prices start at pounds 1,998 per person. Alternatively, if you can get a Saudi businessman or government office to sponsor you by inviting you in, you can travel almost anywhere once you have a visa stamped by a Saudi embassy or consulate.

Getting around: If you are in the country under your own auspices then Saudi Arabian Airlines operates cheap (in economy class) and frequent flights to 24 domestic destinations. It's best to book in advance. In towns, try to use metred taxis, otherwise agree a price in advance. Be wary of driving a hire car unless you know exactly where you are going: if you have an accident and someone is injured you will automatically be arrested until the situation is resolved.

Getting informed: Lonely Planet's Travel Survival Kit for the Arab Gulf States is refreshingly void of both government propaganda and the misconceptions that often accompany Western writing on the country. For background data, the Saudi embassy in London maintains an Internet website at www.saudi.net.

What not to take: Alcohol, bibles and pornography. Taking in a video or a camera is not a problem but ask before filming people. Men photographing Saudi women is considered a major taboo, and wives have been divorced for having their picture published.

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