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Solo from Sydney to Saudi Arabia

Posted on 23-01-2023 , by: Catherine Devrye , in , 0 Comments

Having just returned from travelling solo to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, I witnessed first-hand a Kingdom that has little choice, in view of falling oil revenues, but to re-invent itself by becoming more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, economics and the environment.

As an author, I was admittedly somewhat nervous because the country, home to the Bin Laden family and much maligned in the media, has only been open a few months to tourism. But I wanted to see for myself and any anxiety soon morphed to amazement after landing in a modern airport with no queues and friendly customs officials.

Speaking of customs… I arrived dressed in black with a headscarf but found that was no longer required. However, I usually chose to wear it, surprised when women would spontaneously come up to me and say: ‘Welcome to our country and thank you for respecting our culture.’

I was an obvious curiosity and apart from golf in an expat compound, I only saw one other Westerner, male or female. To bust a few myths, I drove a car, drove a golf ball, swam, rode electric scooters and felt safer in Saudi than I do in Sydney, Paris or San Francisco; although traffic on 14 lane freeways was terrifying at times; which made me wonder if women, who could be fighter pilots, before they could only recently legally drive cars, might want to be careful what they wished for 😊

I only drove a car cautiously around a parking lot. Likewise, I only scratched the surface in Saudi and am in no position to comment on politics but as few women have visited to date, thought you may be interested in a few observations:

-Malls are an oasis and gathering spot in 55-degree summer heat although many don’t open til 4PM. Luckily I was there during pleasant winter temperatures of 24-32 degrees Celsius.

-Loved the logos on a couple of t-shirts:
‘Be the woman you look up to’ and ‘Appreciate what you have while you work for what you want’

-Polygamy is not uncommon and I met many men with multiple wives but the majority I spoke said: ‘I only have one wife. More is too expensive.’

-Cities of 7 million consist of cars, taxis and ubers with little public transport. Few walk on the streets and I liked their disability parking signs: Handicapped access-people of determination’

-Saudi was full of surprises. I met a fascinating Canadian professor who apparently consults with the Bin Laden family, that owns over 100 companies:

‘Osama’s brothers are kind and humble. Every family has a bad apple.’ Who knows? But who was I to disagree, as I know nothing apart from what I read in our media? We all have in-built cultural bias; and am currently writing to help dispel the notion that many Westerners still think all young Middle Eastern men are terrorists, following 9-11. They are not.

As I walked across the skybridge on the 99th floor between Riyadh’s own Twin Towers at Kingdom Centre, I gazed down from the high-rises in the direction of the Yemeni wooden homes in the old town of Diriyah and Deera Square. Also known as Judgement Square, where public executions once took place, I was not blind to human rights concerns; but personally only witnessed kindness from strangers during a music festival in the nearby souk that evening.

It is wise to abstain from judging another country. And, speaking of abstinence…no I didn’t drink alcohol but quenched my thirst and curiosity with multiple mint lime juices and Arab coffees.

When Saudi upset Argentina on the first day of the World Cup a few days before my visit, they declared a public holiday. I predict this country will kick more goals internationally, as their tourist sector gradually develops so other visitors may discover for themselves this ancient land and culture.