You are currently viewing Saudi Arabia (KSA) – Part I

Saudi Arabia (KSA) – Part I

(this is a full map of our Saudi trip.   The post just got too big so we split in two – this post goes to ping number 4 only)

January 7, 2024

Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is a country in Southwest Asia. It covers the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula and is the fifth largest country in Asia and the largest in the Middle East. It is bordered by the Red Sea to the west; Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait to the north; the Persian Gulf, Qatar and the UAE to the east; Oman to the southeast; and Yemen to the south. The Gulf of Aqaba in the northwest separates Saudi Arabia from Egypt and Israel.  Saudi Arabia is the only country with a coastline along both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and most of landscape consists of arid desert, lowland, steppe, and mountains. Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city is Riyadh; the Kingdom is also the location of Islam’s two holiest cities:  Mecca and Medina. In size, Saudi Arabia is 45% larger than the state of Alaska – roughly the size of Greenland.  Approximately 40% of the population in KSA is foreigners (including 80,000 Americans).

Pre-Islamic Arabia, the territory that constitutes modern-day Saudi Arabia, was the site of several ancient cultures and civilizations and traces of some of the earliest human activity outside Africa can be found here. The world’s second-largest religion, Islam, emerged here.  In the early 7th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad united the population of the peninsula and created a single Islamic religious polity.  Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to parts of Central and South Asia in the east) in a matter of decades.

The British established alliances and treaties with local rulers in the Arabian Peninsula, including the Al Saud family, which eventually led to the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by King Abdulaziz. He united the four regions into a single state beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the House of Saud.  Saudi Arabia has since been an absolute monarchy, where political decisions are made on the basis of consultation among the King, a council of Ministers and the country’s traditional elites that oversee a highly authoritarian regime. The ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam was described as a “predominant feature of Saudi culture” until the 2000s.  In 2016, the Saudi Arabian government curtailed the influence of the Wahhabi religious establishment and restricted the activities of the morality police and launched various Westernization policies such as the economic program of Saudi Vision 2030. In its Basic Law, Saudi Arabia defines itself as a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its official religion and Arabic as its official language. 

Petroleum was discovered in 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the east. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s third-largest oil producer and largest oil exporter, controlling the world’s second-largest oil reserves and the sixth-largest gas reserves.  The Saudi government has attracted criticism for various policies such as its alleged sponsorship of terrorism and for its domestic repression.

The Saudi economy is the largest in the Middle East. It offers a tuition free university education, no personal income tax, and free universal health care. Saudi Arabia is an active and founding member of the UN, Arab League, OPEC and other global organizations.

The modern flag of the KSA was adopted in 1973. It features a plain green field with the Arabic shahada motto and a straight sword. The sword is pointed to the left because the text is meant to be read from right to left. The text reads ‘THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH, MUHAMMAD IS THE MESSENGER OF GOD”.

Counting in Arabic:

  • One is wahid (waah-heet)
  • Two is itnan (ihth-naan)
  • Three is talata (theh-lah-theh)
  • Four is arba’a (ahr-uh-bah-ah)
  • Five is hamsa (hahm-sah)
  • Six is sitta (siht-tah)
  • Seven is sab’a (sehb-uh-ah)
  • Eight is tamaniya (theh-mah-nee-yuh)
  • Nine is tis’a (tihs-anh)
  • Ten is ashra (ahsh-ahr-rah)

CURRENCY:             AED – Saudi Riyal – $.27 USD or $.36 CDN (same as the UAE Dirham!)


BEER:   You’re not allowed to drink, sell, or store alcohol anywhere in the kingdom so no beer here!

GAS:   2.18 SAR a litre – about $2.20 a gallon USD                        DIESEL:   1.19 SAR a litre:  about $1.21 a gallon!

Our flight was pretty empty and although we each had aisle seats we moved back to an empty row where Fran took the window.  Flying out of Dubai to the west coast of the KSA, we could see some of the coastline including the Palm and the the undeveloped “Palm” further from the city.

As we flew over land, it was nothing but sand below us:

As we flew across the border into Saudi Arabia, we were welcomed on the PA system!  Later in the flight the landscape changed some a few times:

On our flight were many people dressed in “ihram” as they were doing their pilgrimage to Mecca.  On the plane it was on the screen when we would fly over the “miquat”.   It was a count down from one and a half hours.

When we reached the area, this announcement was made: “May Allah accept all your good Deeds” and a two minute long prayer was recited.

The miqat is a principal boundary at which Muslim pilgrims intending to perform the Hajj must enter the state of ihram (the word literally means ‘prohibition’), a state of consecration in which certain permitted activities are made prohibited.

Ihram clothing (Ahram clothing) includes men’s and women’s garments worn by Muslims people while in a state of  Ihram (see below), during a pilgrimage. The main objective is to avoid attracting attention. Men’s garments often consist of two white unhemmed sheets (usually toweling material) and are universal in appearance The top  is draped over the torso, and the bottom is secured by a belt; plus a pair of sandals. Women’s clothing, however, varies considerably and reflects regional as well as religious influences, but they often do not wear special clothing or cover their faces.

White ihram clothing is intended to make everyone appear the same, to signify that in front of God there is no difference between a prince and a pauper. Ihram also contributes to a feeling of unity that pilgrims have when they are in the city of Mecca, that they are all brothers and sisters joined to worship Allah.

Ihram is also a state which a pilgrim is in during the Hajj pilgrimage. Before entering Ihram, they bathe, trim their nails and hair, make wudu (a cleansing ritual), and pronounce a formal intention to perform Hajj. While they are in this state, pilgrims are not allowed to hunt or kill any living thing, participate in sexual intercourse, cut hair or nails, or wear make-up or perfume.

Upon arriving in Mecca, pilgrims gather in the courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram around the Kaaba. They then circumambulate (tawaf in Arabic) or walk around the Kaaba, during which they hope to kiss and touch the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), embedded in the eastern corner of the Kaaba.

We arrived a bit late in Jeddah and then the “fun” began.  The signage for passport control was terrible; after waiting 20 minutes in one line we were told that we had to get a visa “over there”, then “over here” we were told, “go to those machines if you are from Canada”.  “Those” machines –of which there were about ten,  had only THREE working.  Luckily one was free but this process took about another 20 minutes for us both (you get a “Visa receipt”) and then we had to get back in that first line.  After another 15 minutes were we through with a stamped passport.

By now it’s been over an hour since we landed and our luggage should be here right?  Well, we were at the correct belt but the sign showed not only our flight from Dubai but a later one and no sign of our bags.  Fran went over to the baggage claim desk, was sent to a different one and then a man came to help.  He couldn’t seem to find them either but as they walked around the other side of the carousel, lo and behold, there they were all on their lonesome, standing beside a bench!  WTH?  Anyway, we found them that was the most important part.

We walked through customs and went looking for an ATM and SIM cards before leaving the airport.  The former was easy, the latter even easier; it was just a guy walking around with a shoulder bag selling ZAIN tourist SIM cards  so we got that sorted and he inserted them both and we got 15GB for two weeks for 60 SAR ($16 USD)

Now the car debacle began; Fran had rented a car through Priceline and had thought it was at the airport.  Nope, we couldn’t find Enterprise.  We were told by a fellow in the rental car area, “no Enterprise here”.  We called the number we had and they confirmed they were NOT at the airport and yes they had our reservation.  By now it’s 3:30 ish and our reservation for was 1pm.

After a very confusing call, we finally had to take a taxi to them (Enterprise does not deliver in KSA).  Upon arrival, Fran went in and was told that since it was past two hours from our reservation time, they had cancelled it!  Apparently, despite Enterprise’s rule of holding a reservation for 24 hours, here in Saudi, they only hold it for two hours.  He told her they had no cars available (despite her seeing at least six right there in the office/garage!).  He told her we could call the 1 800 number in the morning as they were closed on Sundays.  Very helpful – not!

We sent the taxi away and then she went back inside and pleaded saying we needed a car today and had no place to go, could he please help.  He relented and became nicer and got us a small Hyundai Grand 10 for around the same price as we’d been quoted and after a long 30 minutes, we were on our way (he had to use his phone number for the rental but all her information – for some reason, it would only take a Saudi number and although we had SIM cards, we had only purchased data).   The car is rented in Fran’s name so for the next couple of weeks, she’s driving and Doug is navigating. (this also will mean less photos along the drive….).   There are no unlimited mileage cars in this country either so we have 300 free kms per day which should be just around enough.

Now it’s 4:40 in the afternoon and we had no desire to drive the over 300 km / 200m to Yanbu which we had hope would be our destination today for two nights.  Traffic was thick in Jeddah and it took a while to get out of the city so we only drove 150 km / 100m to Rabigh where we found a pretty good hotel on  Outside the city we stopped for a cold drink and continued on.

Sidebar:  In case we had to give Immigration a hotel upon arrival, Fran had already picked one out and taken a screen shot but not booked it.  Turned out we ended up at that exact one!

We stopped again at a grocery store to pick up some items to eat and then just settled in for the night.  The hotel was pretty nice and we had everything we needed and a bonus of a free pretty good breakfast the next morning.

Monday morning, we both woke up feeling pretty good; we both slept pretty good with no long waking periods.  Doug even went for a run.

The temperatures are around 30C and it’s pretty clear skies. Once outside the city, there’s not much in the way of scenery. The landscape was really flat and similar to the Sahara in Morocco where there were no dunes:

On our drive north along the coast but not right on it, we saw lots of camels but got no photos as they were either on the other side of the highway or too far away.

We finished our drive to Yanbu today; the sky was quite hazy – again, not sure if it’s morning fog or smog but Yanbu is a big petroleum city, so lucky the latter or maybe even jus dust as we saw signs warning of sandstorms.

Yanbu is the second largest port in the country (after Jeddah) and there is a great deal of petroleum industry:

It’s hotter here than the UAE – high today was 33C / 91C! and this is January – apparently Jeddah hits mid 50’sC  / 130’s F in summer if not higher! The sun is out and it’s a tag muggy near the ocean in Yanbu.  It’s also a little muggy here.

We’d read it was an amazing city but we have to disagree.  We stopped at the famous manmade Yanbu Lake:

It’s more like a pond to us but the gardens and small fountains are lovely.  There were a few families picnicking in the shade.

Then we went to the Corniche in the Industrial area – not so great  – it’s not even on the Red Sea but more like a canal heading into the city.

Final stop was Historical Centre near the cruise ship terminal – yes a cruise ship terminal and we saw tour groups around but it was crowded.  We saw the remains of Lawrence of Arabia House behind a fence – it “looks” like it is under restoration but no work is being done – much like most of the historical centre.  We did find the market area and took a walk through there.

Then we went to find the 11km long beach – not impressed.   It’s a very narrow beach and although the water looks quite nice, it’s rocky and there’s lots of green stuff amoungst the rocks.  There was however a few people in the water.

Doug found us a hotel on on the outskirts of Yanbu and we messaged to see if we could get in at 1 instead of 3.  No reply so we drove over and it look deserted.  We went inside, no one around; called, got no answer; called the number on what looked like a locked office, got no answer.  Then suddenly a fellow appeared who got another fellow who called what we assumed was the manager and finally someone came around but he spoke little English.  Finally through google translate, we understood, yes they got our messages but the room won’t be ready till 3 as they were full last night (?).  We found that hard to believe as there was no one around but whatever, we’ll come back.

We went over to McDonald’s for Wi-Fi and a drink in the AC and returned to the hotel after 3. It was not a good hotel – guess we got what we paid for – cheap!  It was a small one bedroom apartment with a full kitchen but NO kitchen stuff except a kettle!  How are you supposed to use the stove without pots? Or eat without dishes or utensils!  Worse than that, there were NO towels – the manager claimed they were apartments, not hotel rooms!  The bathroom was a “wet bath” with hot water but the pressure was awful, there was AC in both the bedroom and living room but there was no way to adjust it.  The only redeeming quality was the Wi-Fi was good.  It was too late to cancel so we stuck with it.  Then we were told that they do not accept Visa so we spent the last of our cash.

After we got settled, Fran went for a walk and after the third ATM managed to get some cash and then hit a grocery store for a few items for dinner.  Having no plates or cutlery, proved a challenge but we managed.  We decided to keep the one spoon we found in back of a drawer for ourselves and it became our knife and spoon!

Neither of us slept that well although it was comfortable temperature wise in the apartment and the noise of the AC units, kept out the traffic sounds.  We left first thing in the morning and will not be leaving a good review.

Click here  for more photos of our first couple of days in Saudi.

We had 370 km / 230 mi to drive today to catch one of three tours we booked in the city of Al Ula – well inland from where we were in Yanbu.  Luckily, for the most part, speed limits are high in Saudi, (140 kmph / 95 mph on highways and 60 or 80 in the cities).  We made good time and reached the bus tour meeting point at “Winter Park” north of the city, well ahead of schedule.

The drive here took us through a changing landscape and we actually began to see mountain ranges which reminded us very much of driving in the state of Nevada.

We saw camels again today:

Our SIM cards did not work so well in the rural areas so that sucked.  Once we got to Winter Park  we found a spot to sit in the shade and did a few things on our phones that needed doing.

As we approached Al Ula – it felt like we were now in Southern Utah – red rock and awesome formations!

The tour was at 1:30 and it was to the ancient city of Hegra – Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO world heritage site also nicknamed “Little Petra”.   We were to meet the bus at a parking area called Winter Park:

While waiting for the bus tour, we had something to eat and we each received this text message via our cell phone provider:

Forecasts from the National Center of Meteorology indicate that moderate to heavy rain will fall in the Medina region (Yanbu – Al-Eis – Badr) from Tuesday to Thursday (from 12/26 to 28/2023 AD). The Civil Defense calls on everyone to exercise caution and adhere to its instructions. May God make it rain of goodness and blessings and spread it beneficial throughout the country. Your cooperation is our goal. Your safety is our goal.

A little bit late since it was now the 9th of January but we got it twice!

Hegra also known as Mada’in Salih, is an archeological site  located outside the city of Al-Ula.  A majority of the remains date from the Nabataean Kingdom from the first century AD. The site constitutes the kingdom’s southernmost and second largest city after Petra (in Jordan. Traces of Lihyanite and Roman occupation before and after the Nabatean rule, respectively, can also be found.  A population of 40,000 was believed to have lived here at the height of its time.

The archaeological site lies in an arid environment. The dry climate, the lack of resettlement after the site was abandoned, and the prevailing local beliefs about the locality have all led to the extraordinary state of preservation of Al-Hijr, providing an extensive picture of the Nabatean lifestyle. Thought to mark the southern extent of the Nabatean kingdom, Al-Hijr’s oasis agriculture and extant wells exhibit the necessary adaptations made by the Nabateans in the given environment—its markedly distinct settlement is the second largest among the Nabatean kingdom, complementing that of the more famous Petra archaeological site in Jordan. The location of the site at the crossroads of trade, as well as the various languages, scripts and artistic styles reflected in the façades of its monumental tombs further set it apart from other archaeological sites. It has duly earned the nickname “The Capital of Monuments” among Saudi Arabia’s 4,000 archaeological sites

In 2008, UNESCO proclaimed Mada’in Salih as a site of patrimony chosen for its well-preserved remains from lat antiquity, especially the 131 monumental rock-cut tombs, with their elaborately ornamented façades, of the Nabataean Kingdom.

The bus left right on time and we were driving to the parking area at the Welcome Centre.  Here we were offered small packets of various dried fruits (figs, pineapple and more) and offered bottled water while waiting for the bus.  We had no sooner sat down to enjoy them with a couple of locals offered us delicious warm chocolate chip cookies!

The bus left on time and we had a two hour tour of four of the sites on the grounds.

At the first stop, we were taken to a sacred space between two rocks called the Siq with carvings of the Nabataean gods on the walls and a large “hall”.

The second stop had 26 tombs and we were allowed to enter only one on the back side facing where the residential part of the city would have been.  The tombs have a set of five steps at the top above the door – these are the five steps to heaven.  They also have two cut out columns with the Nabataean crowns atop them.  There is a plaque which would have shown who built the tomb, who it was for and who could be buried there.  Below this in a long triangle is Medusa’s head above 5 flowers which symbolize eternal life/immortality.  We were not allowed in any of the tombs except one.

The third stop was the tomb of Lihyan although it was never completed and he was not buried there – there is only speculation about the reasons for either of the above.

The final stop was the rock (Jabul Alhamar) where the tombs of lesser citizens were buried; it was discovered after a sand dune was cleared away.  In one tomb alone 27 bodies were found; in another 80 including a woman named:  Hinat.  She was wearing a necklace dates for food in the afterlife.

The tour ended on time and we were returned to Winter Park to get our car.  Fran had already found us a hotel in town and as we have two more tours tomorrow and a long drive to the next city, we decided we ask about staying a second night as there’s very little between here and Ha’il – over 400 km away which is too much to drive in one afternoon.

Click here  for lots more of photos Hegra.

We arrived at Friday Suites, and arranged to Abo the owner, to stay a second night so that was great.  He tried to sell us tours but we already had arranged what we needed.  He gave us a bowl of dates, told us where a grocery store was (no restaurants around) and then advised he only takes payment in cash – also did not seem to require that we registered (or maybe we do that tomorrow?).

We walked over to the store and picked up some items for dinner and tomorrow’s lunch as we have a tight schedule and lunch will have to be squeezed in between tours.

The room here is quite nice, (has towels!) and it’s quiet.  We have a fridge, microwave and a kettle with some dishes but strangely no utensils although we just asked and we were given some.  The temperatures here inland are more comfortable than the coast (mid 20’s C / mid 70’s F) so quite nice and we probably don’t need AC tonight.

As the temperature was going to drop down some, we opted not to turn on the AC last night and that was a mistake as it got stuffy.

Today we had two more tours arranged in this area.   The first was at 8:30 and it was of the Old Town of Al Ula.  It took about an hour or so.  We drove to the south parking lot and were taken by golf cart to the Welcome Centre where again we were offered refreshments.

The Old Town is an archaeological site near Al Ula.   It is known as the deira (the town). Inside the town, there are ancient heritage buildings, mosques and market dating back to about seven centuries. The heritage town looks like a single building due to the crowding of its residential units. These units are separated by narrow and winding alleys. The town is divided into two districts: Al-Shugaig in the north and Al-Haf in the south.

We once again had a female guide and there was only one other participant on the tour with us, a woman from the UK who works as doctor here in Saudi and she’s been here about ten years.

This old town has recently been restored and it was kind of liking walking around a small medina in Morocco.  Buildings were all attached, some had second floors and they need constant upkeep due to deterioration by the weather.

There were approximately 900 houses in this village and most have two stories.  Fourteen clans lived here and each clan had its own sheik.  They all got along together.

Us at the second view point on the way up:

The best part of the tour was the walk up to the highest point in the town where we had 360º views of the surrounding area – the city of Al Ula and the palmeries.  We were told that there are over 2,300,000 palm trees in this valley producing over 200 kinds of dates!   It is the third largest oasis in the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

Click here  for more Old Town photos.

After the tour, we were returned to the parking area and we had over two hours till our next tour.  We decided to take the time to get laundry done.  As we have packed for two months, and needed clothes for both warm, hot and cold weather, we don’t have a lot of everything to save space.  We had just over a half of a laundry bag but felt it was time and it may be hard to find the time elsewhere.

Looking on Google maps only found us dry cleaners (we checked a couple) so upon returning to the hotel, we asked Abo, the owner, and he directed us down the street the suites are on and that too was a dry cleaner and no one spoke English to ask if we could just get a “wet” wash and dry done.  Fran had found another on Google that we drove to and there someone spoke English and yes, they could do a regular washing.  When asking when it could be done by, Fran was told tomorrow a ten; no acceptable; so they said tonight at 10; not acceptable so they said when would you like it?  When she said this afternoon, they said they could do by 5pm.  Sold. We left our clothes in their expert hands.

We stopped at an ATM and then drove to Winter Park to catch our tour bus to Dadan.

Lihyan also called Dadān, was a powerful and highly organized ancient Arab kingdom that played a vital cultural and economic role in the north-western region of the Arabian Peninsula and used the Dadanitic  language (the basis for Arabic). The Lihyanites ruled over a large domain from Yathrib in the south and parts of the Levant in the north. In antiquity, the Gulf of Aqaba used to be called Gulf of Lihyan, a testimony to the extensive influence that Lihyan acquired. The term “Dedanite” usually describes the earlier phase of the history of this kingdom since their capital name was Dedan, which is now called Al-‘Ula, both cities located in modern-day Saudi Arabia, while the term “Lihyanite” describes the later phase. Dadan in its early phase was “one of the most important caravan centers in northern Arabia”. It predates Hegra and is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The Lihyanites later became the enemies of the Nabataeans. The Romans invaded the Nabataeans and acquired their kingdom in 106 AD. This encouraged the Lihyanites to establish an independent kingdom to manage their country.

There are over 700 tombs at this site.  Upon arrival on the bus, we were once again given refreshment and then given a brief history talk inside before going out to view the tombs from a viewing area with provided binoculars – no access was given to get closer.

After about ten minutes there viewing the tombs and the lion sculptures about a few of them, we were walked over to a kind of corny little archaeological digging section.  We were all given vests and matching hats and given a work station to “excavate” an artefact.  Then we were taken to “work tables” where we had to file a “report”.

and Fran’s item and report:

Next we boarded the bus to the area where the temple was discovered but again, could not get very close due to ongoing excavation (although we saw no sign of anyone working).  At the temple was a large basin that was carved from one huge rock:


Nearby were the walls of an Islam Castle:

Across the way were more tombs (taken through the bus window):
We were then taken by bus to Jabal Ikmal – a place where there were rock carvings, mostly writing but some picutres.  These were written in the language that today is known as Arabic.


Rock carvings:

After this visit, you could again partake of an activity, rock chiseling (we bowed out) and then we were returned to Winter Park.

Click here  for more Dadan site photos.

We returned to Friday Suites stopping first to get more food and spent some time online before Fran had to go fetch the laundry.  It was ready as promised and all pressed and hung on hangers!  Tonight we used the AC and slept better until 2:20 am – the fire alarm began beeping!  After finagling a tower of furniture, Doug managed to reach the high ceiling and remove the battery and we did manage to get back to sleep.

Fran’s cold is 90% gone – the cough medicine Doug bought back in Casablanca worked great and she’s had few coughing fits but still feels a bit of a lingering congestion at times.  Doug’s didn’t last long at all but when he coughs he’s still a little rough sounding.  Thank goodness they didn’t manifest into something way worse.