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A Glimpse of This Kingdom

Updated: Feb 19

The Uncovered Saudi Arabia In My Eyes

I had qualms about visiting a country whose certain laws and ideologies don't seem to align with what I perceive as just and fair. For me, it's a challenge of what I believe is responsible travel to places with poor ethical records especially on human rights and the environment.

Travel provides an opportunity to broaden my perspectives about the world. It is a privilege to experience and observe another culture and lives that are different from my own. In any case, there's no perfect world out there.

In 2017, Mohamed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and embarked on dramatic changes to modernize the country. He launched Saudi Vision 2030, a crusade to modernize the country. Its Ministry of Tourism campaign of "New Saudi Arabia" is a massive marketing endeavor, investing extensively in international tourism to reduce reliance on oil revenue.

In 2019, the country opened its doors to the world, issuing visas not just for official business and religious pilgrimages to Mecca but also for regular tourist visas. Last October 2023, I applied for a tourist visa, and in a day, it was approved.

Riyadh City
Riyadh City day and night. Photo credits to Canva.

We arrived in Riyadh close to midnight. The young immigration male officer was busier nibbling with his gadget on hand / iPhone but afterward, it went smoothly. We were picked up in a BMW car, saw the city past midnight hours, and paid the driver $100 or so for a 20-minute transfer.

This country has desert landscapes, turquoise waters, and archaeological treasures, and is steeped in culture and tradition- revolving around the religion of Islam fundamentally traditional and conservative. Riyadh, the capital, presents a captivating blend of the past and present, ancient, old, and historical, to new and modern. Disneyfied tourist sights next to crumbling and dilapidated structures (most likely reconstructed in the blink of an eye). Newly opened coffee shops and restaurants now line the main roads alongside luxurious shopping malls and skyscrapers. We tried the food chain KFC that's next to a mosque. Away from the city are factories and mud villages. We used their Uber version ride-sharing service (I would not recommend this at all, not yet) and saw luxurious cars speeding down by reckless driving next to rickety cars, most likely driven by hard-working migrant workers. Yes, this country is also home to people from around the world, 30% are non-Saudi citizens. They are hired to do domestic work, teaching jobs, in hospitals, and other roles that a Saudi human is still illiterate to tackle.

Market stalls of textiles and jewelry.
Deera Souq. Photo credits to Canva.

Yes, the country has changed and faster. The Prince has relaxed its restrictive laws; a significant shift in its enforcement. In big cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, women are outside- with uncovered hair, wearing jeans or open abayas (robes). I saw women driving in full niqabs, a veil that covers the face but leaves the eye area uncovered. Our hotel had two ladies as receptionists. We visited malls and these women were fully made up- lipstick on, makeup, and stylish hairdos. Restaurants are no longer required to keep separate entrances for men and women. One can attend festivals, movie theaters, and events without a male guardian.

Such rights and freedom mentioned above were unheard of and impossible until the change in 2017. Ultra-conservative laws, repressive rights, and unquestionably restrictive rules were enforced strictly by the mutawa, the religious police. One would be arrested and harshly punished for playing music, alcohol drinking, and reading 'subversive' books to mention some. Women faced harsher punishment if they showed 'more skin', being unveiled, yes uncovered. This notorious morality police elicited terror and death!

From France24 - 'Hit us with Sticks'

Since becoming Saudi Arabia's de facto leader in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to position himself as a champion of "moderate" Islam, even as his international reputation took a hit from the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

My visit was quick and limited. It's a safe country If you keep your guard up. What made my stay worthwhile was the company of the friendly Filipinos and dear friends. Perhaps it's safe to say that I was at the threshold of the country's new era and I am here to wait for what's going to unfold.

Join me for more travels in 2024 and 2025. Visit Guatemala, Philippines, Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, Portugal, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and more.

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