Tourism in Saudi ArabiaJourney to al-Ula
Loud music booms from the dark entrance, while red-green party lights strobe into the night to the beat of an Arab pop song. Inside the bar, empty wine bottles are lined up on a shelf, "alcohol-free", as the small print reveals. In the dimly lit premises, young people sit at tables, heads close together, while others dance.
It is Friday evening, the first day of the weekend in Saudi Arabia. Tahlia Street is where the youth of the capital Riyadh gather. Young men rev their cars, women smoke shisha at tables outside the many restaurants. Only a few have donned the niqab, the black face veil with only a slit for the eyes. Many sport loosely tied headscarves, while others wear their hair down.
It is our last evening in Saudi Arabia. We left at the beginning of December, not really knowing what to expect. For almost two weeks we have driven around the country, 3000 kilometres in all, completing laps on roller skates at an outdoor disco and finding out how young men in Saudi Arabia date. Often amazed, sometimes confused, we have been forced to question our own preconceptions about this desert country. And then there have been the doubts: should we really be spending our holiday in a country that shows such blatant disregard for human rights?
Nationalism, the new religion
Arguably, few societies in the world have changed as quickly and as dramatically in recent years as Saudi Arabia. For decades, women and men lived strictly separate lives. They used separate entrances and rooms in restaurants, at weddings, in banks. If a woman and a man who were not closely related were caught together by the religious police, they faced imprisonment and flogging.
The religious police fined shops that remained open during prayer times; they punished women if a strand of their hair was showing. These and a number of other laws based on Wahhabism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, are now passe, all abolished within a few years. Since 37-year-old Mohammed bin Salman ascended to the crown prince's throne in 2017, little in Saudi society has stayed the same.
Diriyah – a suburb northwest of Riyadh – is perhaps the most telling example of the mythology the young crown prince is busy inventing for his country. Diriyah is considered the birthplace of the Saudi kingdom. In an earthen settlement surrounded by walls, the ruler Mohammed Ibn Saud made a pact in 1744 with the arch-conservative jurist Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism.
Both wanted to establish a state on the Arabian Peninsula, but failed single-handedly to subjugate the tribes. Ibn Saud used the strict ideology of Wahhabism, which turned people into zealous supporters, to lend his rule religious legitimacy. To date, this has been the official version of Saudi history.
But you won't find the date 1744 mentioned anywhere on information boards in the adobe settlement in Diriyah, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In recent years, the Saudis have turned the place into a large open-air museum with interactive screens telling visitors that Ibn Saud founded the first Saudi state in Diriyah in 1727.
The next date on the timeline is 1766, accompanied by the comment that markets and trade were flourishing, and that Diriyah became the "heart of calls for reform". There is no reference to 1744, nor to the role of Islam.
As a young female guide explains: "We only show the political history of the country, it's all about the statesmen here, religion was less important anyway." Her words express what the royal family is trying to convey. In early 2022, King Salman issued a decree declaring 22 February 1727 to be the nation's founding day. International historians consider the date questionable, but in Saudi Arabia people are told what to believe from the top down. The decree amounted to a break with Wahhabism. Now it is nationalism that is supposed to inspire Saudis with passion for their homeland. "I am very proud to be able to show off my beautiful country," says the guide. There are many misconceptions about Saudi Arabia, she says, and that is why it is great that foreign tourists are now able to come here to experience it for themselves.
Right now, Diriyah is mainly visited by locals. The restored adobe settlement celebrated its opening on 4 December. During our visit, it seemed as if half of Riyadh's high society was streaming in. Rolls-Royces, Porsches and Bentleys were parked outside the gates. Women carried designer bags and wore lots of make-up. The 200 rial, the equivalent of 50 Swiss francs, which the entrance fee costs at the weekend, could be deducted from our bill in one of the fancy restaurants, while "Feels Like Heaven" played softly from speakers in the background.
The huge site leading up to the adobe buildings is a bit like a luxury Disneyland. Expensive cafes cosy up to exclusive restaurants, all of which could be in Paris. A carousel, live music and ice cream stands entertain visitors. Were it not for pillars pointing to prayer rooms, you'd be forgiven for forgetting you are in Saudi Arabia.