From the top of the huge sand dune the “Dancing Ladies” didn’t look that big. The two sandstone towers, whipped and striated by the wind over centuries into fantastical shapes, rose from the valley floor in front of us, but our lofty perch made them look modest. As our guides drove the Toyota Land Cruisers carefully down the dune, we waded after them, descending into a forest of sandstone.
Ten minutes later, sheltering from the sun at the base of the Dancing Ladies, we changed our minds. As our guides served us cardamom-flavoured coffee, we peered up at the giant towers and the cliffs surrounding us, dwarfed by their dizzying height of more than 100m.
Yet our off-road driving tour through the extraordinary landscape of northern Saudi Arabia wasn’t even the highlight of our week’s visit to this secretive, semi-closed country.
We had started our trip in the modern capital, Riyadh, with a small group of journalists and academics. Most visitors to Saudi Arabia are the five million Muslims who make the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. But the Saudi Government, keen to create jobs in tourism, is now tentatively opening up the country to others, and British travel companies are responding.
In November a British tour operator, The Traveller, offered the first group cultural tour to the country for seven years. British Airways, which stopped flying there in 2005, will resume flights to Riyadh and Jeddah in March, and bmi has doubled the frequency on its long-established route to Riyadh.
At the offices of the Supreme Commission for Tourism in Riyadh, Abdullah al-Jehani, a senior marketing official, admitted: “Saudi Arabia has been a closed country to the outside world. People know about Saudi Arabia what they see on TV – violence and problems with the regime. But we now have a 20-year tourism programme and soon we should be issuing tourist visas.”
It’s true that the news from Saudi is often unpalatable. In February 2007 four French tourists were killed near Madain Saleh, the ancient site of stone-carved tombs in northern Saudi Arabia that was to be the key stop on our itinerary. And the BBC’s Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner, was shot and seriously injured, and Simon Cumbers, his cameraman colleague, killed in Riyadh in 2004.
Before my trip, I had asked Gardner if he thought Saudi Arabia to be ready for tourism. “It’s a really interesting country,” he said, sounding remarkably free of bitterness. “It’s surprisingly diverse, and Saudis, once they meet you, are very hospitable.
The flip side is that there is an ongoing terrorist threat. But the threat is nothing like it was in 2003-04.”
Back in Riyadh, we were keen to start exploring. First stop was Dir’aiyah, the 18th-century capital of the Saud family (the rulers who give the country its name). The old mud and straw walls of this crumbling oasis town form a stark contrast to Riyadh’s landmark skyscrapers, only half-an-hour’s drive away, and it was a reminder that, for all the steel and smoked glass down the road, Saudi Arabians still see themselves as a desert people at heart.
The next day we flew south to Abha, centre of the mountainous Asir district bordering Yemen, where Saudis go in summer to escape the desert heat. The highlights here were a vertigo-inducing cable-car ride down a mountain, and an afternoon at Rijal Alma’a, a restored 300-year-old village of tall, narrow houses built into the mountainside for maximum protection in this warlike area.
In this cool region I was for once glad of my abaya – the long, black gown that all women must wear in public, along with a hijab (headscarf). In Riyadh’s 35C heat this was akin to walking around in your own personal sauna. Local men usually wear cool, white robes known as thobes; it seems that the abaya’s stifling black is intended to discourage women from leaving home.
Women visitors must accept that wearing an abaya is an important part of showing respect in Saudi culture. More practically, not to wear one will open you to abuse on the streets. I certainly felt more at ease when covered up, though I was frustrated by the many restrictions: women are not allowed to drive, use internet cafés or go into many restaurants.
It was frustrating not being able to head off and explore on my own. But I felt able to throw off my abaya when we finally reached Madain Saleh because there were no other visitors to see us. And what a place it is! It’s extraordinary to think that within six hours’ flight of the UK is a site as awe-inspiring as Petra, Leptis Magna or Ephesus, yet it is barely visited, even by Saudis.
Madain Saleh was built between 100BC and AD100 by the Nabataeans, soon after they built Petra, in Jordan, and it formed a key stop on the trade route between Petra and Mecca. Nothing is left of the city itself, but more than 130 tombs remain.
We started exploring in the Khuraymat area, where dozens of tombs are cut into the sandstone rockface, their exteriors borrowing architectural elements from the Assyrians, Egyptians and Romans. Inside each is a chamber with carved niches in which to bury the bodies of the family that owned the tomb.
After a snatched lunch back at our hotel, the Arac, in nearby al-Ula, we returned to explore the Qasr al-Bint tombs, climbing metal ladders to those cut high into the rock. Finally, as the sun disappeared, we visited the enormous, free-standing tomb of Qasr al-Farid. It glowed pinkly as we made our white-robed guide, Mazin al-Juwaid, pose for pictures in front of it.
At the end of our week I asked my fellow party member Sir Alan Munro what he made of it. Sir Alan was British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1993 and has visited regularly since. “I have come away very encouraged at the new openness and confidence there is here,” he said. “For tourists there are still niggling issues such as the attitude to women, but the sort of people likely to come here, for cultural trips, are probably not going to mind that.”
Our group – and the two other tour groups we met, from Japan and Australia – had a permanent police escort. Al-Juwaid joked that the crime rate was so low that the police had time on their hands but, given the shooting of the French tourists, it certainly made us feel secure.
On our final night, in the port city of Jeddah, we sat around smoking fragrant, apple-tobacco sheesha pipes after supper at the popular al-Nakhil restaurant on the Corniche. A cool breeze blew in off the Red Sea and we reflected that our seafood spread had been so delicious that we had forgotten about the alcohol ban. Saudi Arabia is a fascinating destination, hugely worth visiting, but as I looked around at my fellow abaya-clad diners I realised that it’s a country you must visit very much on its own terms.
NEED TO KNOW
Saudi Arabian Airlines (020-7798 9898, www.saudiairlines.com) has return fares from London to Riyadh from £275.50. British Airways (0844 4930787, www.ba.com) is resuming flights from Heathrow to Riyadh and Jeddah after a four-year break, with fares from £394.20 return. bmi (0870 6070555, www. flybmi.com) flies from Heathrow to Riyadh six times a week, with connections to Jeddah three times a week. Fares to Riyadh from £347.50; to Jeddah from £307.50.
Cultural tours specialist The Traveller (020-7436 9343, www.the-traveller.co.uk). Its next tour runs November 7-19 and costs £4,635 including flights and full board (single supplement, £395).
Obtaining a tourist visa is tricky (though The Traveller, above, organises them for its customers). Groups of four travellers or more can obtain a tourist visa through one of the licensed tour operators in Saudi Arabia.
We used Jeddah-based Sadd al-Samallaghi (00 966 2 668 5054, www.samallaghi.com). Contact Ahmed Ali Mostafa at firstname.lastname@example.org. Women under 30 must travel with either their husband, father or brother. A week’s tour, excluding international flights, costs approx £1,750pp based on four travelling together.