I can’t wait to see Saudi Arabia’s many wonders

I can’t wait to see Saudi Arabia’s many wonders

When tourist visas to Saudi Arabia become available from Sunday, the rest of the world will finally be able to visit the natural wonders and heritage sites of the Kingdom. Few foreigners have traveled to Saudi Arabia and, when non-Muslims travel there, it is almost always for business or international diplomacy. Unless they are on Hajj or Umrah or a family reunion, visitors generally only see boardrooms, offices and oil wells.
Now we will be able to see the sites, tour the countryside and experience Saudi Arabia like we might experience Greece, Egypt or Japan. I have been to Saudi Arabia, and I have spent time in the cafes of Riyadh with friends. Mostly, though, I went to meetings and visited businesses and businessmen. When I first traveled to France, I saw the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Bayeux Tapestry, and the battlefields of Normandy. I was a tourist in France. Next time I go to Saudi Arabia, I hope to be a tourist too.
I am excited to share pictures when I finally visit Jabal Sawda. Most people I speak to in the US assume Saudi Arabia is all desert and that the highest point is atop the shifting sand dunes. I tell them there is a variety of beauty in the Saudi landscape, but I have not had the opportunity to visit any landscapes more diverse than an industrial center or a mall. As a tourist, visiting Saudi Arabia for enjoyment, I will be able to bring back pictures of forest areas and mountain peaks. While its deserts are indeed beautiful, global travelers should know there is more to Saudi Arabia than just sand.
Also on my itinerary will be the Ottoman-built Hejaz railway, which T.E. Lawrence and his comrades blew up during the First World War. I have taught about this memorable battle in American universities, and I have even shown my classes the scene from the famous movie, “Lawrence of Arabia,” but I have never been there. Next time I teach about this event, I hope to be able to describe the scene from personal experience and show students images I have taken with my own camera.

Tourist visas will allow people to unlock the Kingdom’s mysteries — it will no longer be a land of extremes, but a land of sights and smells, detail, nuance and opportunity.

Ellen R. Wald

As a historian who has written extensively about the diplomats who lived in Jeddah in the mid-20th century, I would love to visit and photograph the city’s old diplomatic quarter. The first American and British ambassadors who were stationed in Jeddah, who were unaccustomed to the heat and humidity, often wrote about the nights they spent on the latticed balconies trying to cool down. Also on my list is the Jeddah Regional Museum of Archeology and Ethnography to learn more about Arabia from a much earlier era. These are things I have not had the time for between meetings, but a tourist visa would allow.
I want to see the Al-Hijr archaeological site, also called Mada’in Saleh. Years ago, I visited Petra in Jordan, another city where the long-dead Nabataeans lived. The intricate cut-out stone structures must be appreciated up close. Globally, it is not commonly known that parts of Arabia were once at the crossroads of culture, but this site of Nabataean tombs and wells is said to reveal influences from across the larger region. Mada’in Saleh was Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and is being preserved by the government for future generations to see. There is a rich ancient history to the people and places of Arabia, in this case dating back over 2,000 years, but the world barely knows this.
Even older than that is the Jubba Paleolithic Kingdom, which has rock art from at least 7,000 years ago and stone artifacts from thousands of years before that. This site is not near any major city I have visited, so it has not been accessible on a busy business trip. Yet it is vital to understanding the rich history of Arabia. In the West, we learn about the importance of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt. No one learns that there were people living, building and drawing in the Arabian Peninsula many thousands of years ago.
In Riyadh, I would like to find the time to visit Masmak Fort. Of course, everyone who studies Saudi history learns of its capture by King Abdul Aziz in 1902, but I have not had the opportunity do more than pass by the citadel while in Riyadh — there is never enough time when one visits for business. But a tourist visa would mean I could see these sites, take my family and share my stories when I return home.
To most of the world, Saudi Arabia is still a complete mystery. I find that much of what people think they know about the country is exaggerated or entirely false. Now that tourist visas are being made available, the world will see more and learn more about the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia will no longer be a land of extremes; it will become a land of sights and smells, detail, nuance and opportunity.

•  Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D.  is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank, and the president of Transversal Consulting. She also teaches Middle East history and policy atJacksonville University.
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