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Saudi Arabia: Breaking free from the stereotypes

“Khalid has just created a Twitter storm,” was not something that I expected to hear in Saudi Arabia. But then again there was much that I did not expect, there were many images contrary to my expectations of Saudi Arabia. From the lack of investment and shabbiness in the extremities to the colour of some of the houses, from fabulous funerary façades to one of the most topographically stunning regions that I have seen anywhere in the world. There was much that I was to learn and discover.

Saudi Arabia is a complex country. Peter Harrigan, our tour expert, described it as being “like an iceberg”. Perhaps an odd analogy for a desert nation but one that is so apposite given that there is so much more to the nation and country than meets the eye.

The stereotype of Saudi Arabia is of an arid sand desert in a cultural wilderness. Socially one of the many stereotypes endured by Saudis is that they are austere and lacking in humour. In the mountains of the Abha, a mountain range that separates the Arabian heartland from the coast, I saw colour and art very much as part of the tradition. In Al Ula, I remember the light-hearted birdsong under the picturesque and refreshingly cool roof of palm fronds overhead. How can I forget the ribald laughter of Abdul Mohammed. My overriding impression is one of hospitality and smiles.

Yet only a handful of tourists visit the country. Yes, millions visit Saudi every year either on the Haj or Umrah, minor pilgrimage, but non-religious tourists are scarce, indeed we did not see any other foreign tourists. What a rare pleasure and privilege.

In the west, Saudi Arabia is tainted by stereotypes which include oil wealth (‘The land of black gold’ for any Tintin fans), fundamentalism and terrorism. Yet the reality is that the average monthly salary is 6,000 Rials which equates to an annual salary of £16,000 which is about two-thirds of that in the UK. But then living costs are cheaper or at least petrol is – 25 US cents per litre. Whilst sounding incredibly cheap it has doubled since last year.

To many, the fear of travelling to Saudi might be terrorism but as with the world over you are far more likely to die in a road traffic accident. Saudi Arabia has dramatically improved its road safety but it still remains number 23 in the world for road fatalities which account for 5% of deaths (compared to 1% in the UK). There are nine million road traffic violations a year – all of them committed by men. This is due to the fact that women cannot drive – a huge problem in some areas, especially away from the cities, where it is beholden upon the eldest son to drive his mother and sisters around – something he might start doing as young as twelve in spite of the fact that the driving age is seventeen.

Undoubtedly there are constraints to travel in Saudi Arabia but they are not as restrictive as one would assume. Men simply have to cover their legs and arms and do not, as Khalid told us, have to wear the thoob (robe) and ghotrah (headdress) as a group of Japanese tourists insisted on doing. The Japanese in their robes elicited much laughter from the Saudis – it was unclear as to whether they were laughing with or at the Japanese – and frustration for Khalid, our guide, who was continually being asked to rearrange their headdresses.

Women have to wear the abaya (black gown) all the time but do not have to cover their heads unless entering a mosque. For their Saudi counterparts, it is considerably more limiting in that they must wear the burqah throughout and on the whole men and women are separated.

But it has not always been like this. Khalid remembers his youth and there being no separation of male and female except at weddings. With the attack of the mosque in Mecca in 1979 began a religious clampdown that Ali in Abha refers to as the ‘Square Mile’ and saw the religious police in the ascendancy with a much stricter observance of traditional and social norms with, for example, the closure of cinemas and the banning of birthday celebrations.

But times are changing and the influence of the religious police is waning. Khalid said that seeing a man and a woman eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant with us, a group of tourists, was a first for him. Surprisingly, women can divorce men but it is much harder for them to do so. A man can tell his wife but a woman cannot – she is seen to be too emotional and thus it is up the courts to decide. Divorce is on the increase.

But change is not straightforward, unravelling the layers is not a simple matter. After a week in New York, Ali, a liberal thinker, asked his wife Fatima how she felt being liberated from her burqah. “No one looks me in the eyes,” was her considered response. Saudi remains a complex country.

Notwithstanding such convolution, society is transforming and two things have led to this change in attitude. Firstly, the rise of al Qaeda and secondly the rise of the cult of Daish. Both, especially the latter, are a wake-up call to Saudis who are now trying to show that they do not subscribe to this madness. Times are a changing. A major driver of Saudi’s international acclaim is the King Abdullah Scholarship programme with 145,000 young Saudis studying in more than 30 countries. Over a third of those enjoying scholarships abroad are women. More than half of Saudi graduates are female and the number of women actively participating in the Saudi workplace is rising fast.

Social media is a huge force for change. Witness the “twitter storm” caused by our guide Khalid. He and other Saudis were constantly filming us, continually posting. Khalid took a photo of a young calligrapher at work and immediately posted it in on Facebook. We are being videoed throughout especially as one of the group signs the visitors’ book, intrigued by her writing and the Latin script.

Modernity, religion, conservatism and tradition all come together in the air in a fascinating source of social conflict. OK things have moved on since the first flights from Riyadh to San’aa when the passengers would leave their slippers at the top of the steps before entering the plane. Still today, there are prayers for the traveller at take-off, women don’t like sitting next to men and vice versa, there are anecdotes of men taking the coffee from female flight attendants – it is the man’s place and prerogative to pour coffee – and of course the airborne prayer area on international flights at the back of the aircraft. Segregation on the ground but not in the air.

Such are the intricacies that exist in Saudi Arabia. The layers of complexity are perhaps best illustrated in the complications of the insurance industry. Insurance is haram, namely that it is forbidden as it is seen as a form of gambling in that it is betting against fate, against the will of god. There exists a ‘welfare system’ within the tribes into which individuals and families pay into. At the same time, the government has recently been trying to encourage individuals to buy insurance from insurance companies. Parallel systems, more layers.

The Western press oversimplifies this beguiling country, paints it as one. Yet Arabia is made up of fiefdoms. Dynastic families emerged out of tribal families. The unification of Arabia contradicts with the feuding fiefdoms. The families are still all powerful.

Above all, Saudi Arabia is a huge country. Mention the Arab world and people think of Dubai but the mental map we have of Dubai is out of all proportion with its size. It is a city state of several hundred thousand Emiratis. Meanwhile the sprawl and shambles of Jeddah is host to four and half million and the glittering capital, Riyadh, to eight million. Between the two cities they account for a third of the population of Saudi Arabia, a country that is 2.1 million square kilometres, almost ten times the size of the UK.

To dispel another label, Saudi Arabia is not all desert, nor has it been. Rock art of hippos suggests a much wetter climate which is known as Green Arabia and disappeared in a remarkable example of climate change.

That is not all the rock art reveals. It is a library of Palaeolithic civilisation to the modern day as we discovered clambering over the rocks of Jubbah. Lady Anne Blunt, the granddaughter of Byron, described Jubbah as “one of the most curious places in the world, and to my mind one of the most beautiful.” This was in no small part due to the “simple designs” that she found carved or pecked into the rock. Simple they might be but they show so much from the domestication of camel to the use of dogs in hunting. Fascinating depictions of gazelle, antelope, dogs, camels, human figures hunting and a lion.

In the region of Jubbah are some 10,000 petroglyphs but they do not get a mention in the 1998 Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, indeed its map of prehistoric art shows the whole of the Arabian Peninsula as a blank. That is the problem with so much in Saudi Arabia – little is known of it in the country let alone outside. Like many things, this is beginning to change – in 2015 it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site – and hopefully Saudi will soon be recognised as one of the four richest areas for rock art, along with Australia, India and South Africa.

If anything, Saudi Arabia should be known for Al Ula. You have no doubt heard of Monument Valley in the USA and Wadi Rum in Jordan, hopefully of Siwa oasis in Egypt and possibly Ennedi in Chad. I am not sure you will have heard of Al Ula but you need to take note of this name and travel to one of the most spectacular desert landscapes. As a topographical feature it stands tall, timeless, captivating and enthralling.

Al Ula means the ‘uprising’ and describes the gigantic sandstone towers and monoliths that turn the eye in every direction. Worn and weathered, punctuated with pockmarks, they are a myriad of shapes and sizes.  Giant statues that have shades of a natural Colossus of Memnon, pyramids, cones, knuckles, digits, towers and even an elephant.

It is in this impressive backdrop, the black lava on the top of the sandstone plateau like a thin layer of chocolate icing on a cake, the green of the palm oasis, that a number of tombs can be found in the face of the sandstone mountains. The earliest tombs we explored were at Al Khuraiba, which means the lions tombs and used to describe the Lihyanic tombs dating from the 4th to the 2nd century BC. The tombs adorned by lions designate royalty. The only remains are these end-of-life structures. There would have been markets, there would have been signs of life. These are most certainly buried under the palm groves, which no doubt hide remarkable treasures. Only 1% of Saudi archaeology is known or has been worked on.

In part this is due to religious restrictions. Pre-Islamic civilisations have been frowned upon. Statues and even depictions of animals have been frowned upon. Religious police ordered fishmongers to take fish off their shop signs. Road signs warning of camels showed a camel separate from its head. Statues that have been unearthed are in the National Museum but they are not on display so as not to upset religious sensibilities. But times are changing. Young Saudi students from university are now excavating here.

The Lihyanites were superseded by the Nabataeans, who, originally nomadic, tent-dwelling Arab pastoralists and traders, began to settle more than 2,300 years ago. Over the following eight centuries – the first four as an autonomous kingdom and the latter under Roman rule – Nabataean settlements and their trading routes flourished.

Of the historic Nabataean centres, the largest is their capital Beqem, now known as Petra in Jordan. There more than 600 tombs, paved streets, temples, markets, theatre and hydraulic installations have made it one of the best-known historic monuments in the Middle East. Such was its status that after imperial Rome annexed Nabataea in 106, the Romans accorded Petra the honorific title of metropolis.

Archaeologists have determined the maximum extent of the Nabataean kingdom largely through finds of distinctive pottery at 2,000 sites. At its zenith, Nabataea extended from what is now southern Jordan, Syria and he Negev and south into north-western Arabia. It was from Hegra, the kingdom’s southernmost settlement, emporium and entrepot that long-distance camel caravans set out for the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula in search of aromatics, spices and other rare commodities, some of which came from India and even China.

It was a predominantly land-based trade – although increasing evidence is surfacing of the sea-faring trade of the Nabateans – due to the prevailing winds north of Jeddah. Their caravans ranged from southern Arabia to Mesopotamia. Modern transport – we took two plane flights and a three-hundred-kilometre road journey from the edge of southern Arabia to Al Ula to achieve half the distance they would have travelled – diminishes the scale of such processions. Their caravans would extend from 1,000 to 3,000 camels – the ancient equivalent of the oil tanker – each carrying 250kg of frankincense which was more valuable than gold. They had great wealth.

The manifestation of this wealth today is seen in their tombs. They were master carvers of funerary facades of the afterlife. They borrowed from the Persians (petals) and the Greeks. They were wonderful borrowers of style. Renowned as carvers of iconic rock-cut necropolises, they have been regarded only passingly, if at all, as builders. The quarries of Hegra are evidence that the Nabataeans were capable of more.

They also tantalisingly suggest there is more. There is no evidence of spoil heaps from these quarries which leads archaeologists to believe that the stone was used for buildings.  The answers lie unseen and underground, buried beneath layers of sediment borne over centuries by wind and water.

The jewel in the Arabian – more precisely Nabataean – crown is Mada’in Saleh, which literally means the ruins of (the prophet) Saleh. This prosaic description belies the beauty of the site that drew early explorers such as Charles Doughty who became the first westerner to visit the site in modern times, recording his observations in Travels in Arabia Deserta.

Mada’in Saleh holds 94 tombs with decorated facades, 35 plain funerary chambers and more than 1,000 non-monumental graves and other stone-lined tombs. Unlike Petra, where only one tomb has a dated inscription, one third of the monumental tomb facades at Mada’in Saleh have them and all range from AD 1 to AD 75. However, a new inscription found at Hegra dates the site to AD 175, at least a century longer than previously thought.

In the late afternoon sun, Mada’in Saleh glows from golden yellow to a dusky pink to a warm orange and in the final minutes of light a burnt straw. The edges of the tombs carefully proportioned cornices contrast with the rough, eroded surface of the sandstone from which it was hewn.

What is most remarkable is that in this crowded world, we had the site all to ourselves. As the sun slipped behind the Hajez mountains the clouds were tinged with pink and the sky a range of blue from the shyness of azure to the darkness of indigo. Silence reigned.

All of these remains and sites reveal that Saudi Arabia was not a closed peninsula: it was intricately connected to the rest of the ancient world.

This remains the crucial point today. Young Saudis are hyper-connected through social media. The country’s mobile penetration rates are astonishing. A higher proportion of Saudis use Twitter and YouTube than almost any other nation on earth. Saudi’s majority young generation are shaping its future and show that Saudi is vitally connected.