Out of the desert shadows: Saudi Arabia is handing out tourist visas in a bid to change its image. The Mail was the first in the queue – for an enthralling Arabian adventure
- The Saudis are allowing the citizens of 49 countries to obtain instant tourist e-visas in a bid to boost tourism
- Under new rules unmarried Western couples can now share hotel rooms while on holiday in the country
- Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hopes by 2030 there will be 30 million of us visiting Saudi Arabia
Sunset on the Riyadh Sky Bridge — and it’s like nowhere I’ve ever been before. Its 65-metre span doesn’t arch over a river or a railway. Instead, below us, there is a thousand feet of desert air.
The bridge is inside the top floor of the Kingdom Tower, the dominant landmark in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Imagine a glossy, metallic-blue skyscraper with a huge V-shaped chunk taken out of the top floors. The bridge links the top bits of the ‘V’. Expats call it ‘the bottle opener’
The Sky Bridge offers epic views of this sprawling Arabian desert megacity, a pinkish-tawny expanse of low-rise concrete buildings with three or four clusters of skyscrapers. There is also plenty of wasteland awaiting the next big architectural statement.
Another extraordinary thing about this scene, frankly, is me. I was sloshing through the Chilterns with the dog when news broke that, for the first time, the Saudis are to allow the citizens of 49 countries to obtain instant tourist e-visas.
I was first in line and, within two days, I was standing under a poster at Heathrow Airport showing a tropical beach surrounded by turquoise seas, with the strapline: ‘This is not The Maldives. This is Saudi.’
And the visas and ads are only the start. Crucially, the Saudis have announced that unmarried Western couples can share hotel rooms while on holiday in the country (though not, as yet, same-sex couples). Old Saudi hands can scarcely believe it.
By 2030, there may be 30 million of us visiting Saudi. That is the target set by the 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or ‘MBS’, the controversial figure bringing about nothing short of a social and economic revolution in the country.
Back at the Sky Bridge, I take a lift down to my hotel, the Four Seasons, also in the Kingdom Tower. In my Birkenstocks and linen trousers, I stick out like a surfer dude at a Buckingham Palace garden party — not because I am Western, but because I am so obviously a tourist, perhaps the first proper one of this new era.
Come back in two, five or ten years and the lobby may be a sea of Hawaiian shirts and flip flops.
The Four Seasons, jointly owned by a Saudi prince and Bill Gates, is gearing up to get a slice of those 30 million.
The Saudi hierarchy is certainly not understating how momentous this change is. ‘We are opening our economy. We are opening our society. Now we open our home and open our hearts to guests from around the world’ was how one bigwig put it at the glitzy event to announce the visa news.
First to open in the initial phase will be heritage sites and huge projects such as the futuristic Neom city on the Red Sea.
You will need some help on the ground. I meet the Four Seasons’ guest experience manager Ahmed, who sets himself the tasks of a) getting you into places that you might not normally get into; and b) cheerfully discussing any rumours, legends and gossip you may have brought with you along with your factor-50 sunblock.
Ahmed introduces me to Saudi travel video blogger Yousef AlSudais. We talk over fresh juices in the lobby — no cold beers here, obviously. Come to think of it, if you’re planning a dry January, then a trip to Saudi might be just the job.
Yousef reminds me that Saudi is the 12th-largest country in the world. While most of its 830,000 square miles are inhospitable desert, there is surprising diversity, too.
‘We’ve got tropical islands, green mountains in the south and snow in the north,’ he says. Though he wouldn’t recommend Riyadh in summer, Yousef adds that even in August you can find variety and respite.
He recommends taking the country one region at a time. If I were more of a beach person, I’d be tempted by those ‘Maldives’ posters, even though Yousef says: ‘There’s no one there!’ The coastal city of Jeddah is relatively artier and relaxed. True, that’s a big ‘relatively’ in a country that, until now, strived to be the most conservative Islamic state on Earth.
But I choose Riyadh, which is the heart of the modern Saudi state — and the family that, uniquely in the world, gave its name to the country.
With a population of nearly seven million and covering 700 square miles, Riyadh is not one of those Middle Eastern cities where you can stroll around outdoor souks or rest outside cafes, smoking a hubbly bubbly.
Its grid system is modelled on American cities and designed around the car — I found myself comparing it to Houston or Phoenix.
Those baking-hot cities are not the loveliest places in the world, and neither is Riyadh. But it has some unforgettable sites.
We have lunch at Najd Village, a traditional restaurant with cosy, carpeted rooms around a central courtyard. When Ahmed takes off his headdress, I realise something unusual about him: he’s Chinese. His Muslim family fled Mao and arrived in Riyadh via Cairo in 1957.
The Arabs and Chinese certainly have one thing in common: they are great over-orderers of food. Ahmed’s hospitality requires us to take away two shopping bags full of uneaten spicy rice and yoghurty lamb.
In the evening, we head to Diriyah, a ruined fort 20 minutes’ drive from Riyadh — rather longer if you have to wait, as we did, for the king and his cavalcade to pass through.
Diriyah’s adobe walls have been reinforced and sculpted. From a distance, it looks like some modernist villa in New Mexico. Within the walls is a warren of streets and museum exhibits, including a fascinating one about the story of the Arabian horse.
If Mecca and Medina are sacred to all Arabs, Diriyah is the heart and soul of the Saudis.
The Saudi clan emerged in Diriyah around 600 years ago. They used it as their base, as, inspired by the teachings of the early 18th-century religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, their emirate set about conquering and forming alliances with neighbours in the desert and far beyond.
Eventually, that first Saudi empire incurred the wrath of the mighty Ottoman empire. That’s why Diriyah’s fort is a ruin: in 1818, it was sacked by the Ottomans.
The Saudis waited for their chance. In 1902, with the Ottoman empire in decline, they mounted a daring dawn raid on Riyadh’s Masmak fort (another site well worth visiting).
The second Saudi empire arose in triumph. In 1932, after the turmoil of World War I, and with oil riches just around the corner, King Abdulaziz announced the creation of the third state, and modern Saudi Arabia came into being.