When I left Saudi Arabia in 2011 to study in the UK, I did not think I would spend the next nine years living in London, but I was immediately hooked by the city.
I enjoyed the cooler climate and greenery, and that Europe, with all its cultures, cuisines, and landscapes, was on my doorstep. While I missed my family and home back in Riyadh, in London I made life-long friends from all corners of the globe.
Over the years, I made numerous journeys back to Saudi Arabia, and during each of these trips, it became clear the Kingdom was transforming. There was an energy and excitement I had not felt before; a desire to embrace the change. In March 2020, I made the decision to return to Riyadh permanently and, having been back for a little over a year, I have not regretted it for one minute.
Quality of life has skyrocketed, with Riyadh transformed into a thriving, buzzing, green and welcoming metropolis, with culture, entertainment, and a plethora of new professional offerings. Like most places around the world, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions over the last 12 months hampered my ability to take full advantage of what Riyadh has to offer, but now the city is starting to open up again.
Last month, I visited the vibrant, inaugural Noor Riyadh Arts Festival in the historic King Abdul Aziz district. The festival was a speculator 17-day program of light and art installations — more than 30 across the city — showcasing the remarkable work of international and Saudi artists. It was the first part of the Riyadh Art project, announced in 2019 by King Salman to promote culture and the arts.
During the winter, I made a few short trips to different areas surrounding Riyadh. In January, I travelled 45 minutes to Riyadh Oasis, a 5-star leisure destination in the desert. With temperatures falling to five degrees centigrade at night, we donned our Saudi farwas — a traditional coat worn in winter — and enjoyed live entertainment, cultural shows, music and fine dining from famous international restaurants. It was a fantastic experience, surrounded by the diverse colours and styles of farwa fashion, and although international travel was not possible, I was still able to enjoy some of my favourite global cuisines in an idyllic oasis.
I also spent a weekend with friends at a nearby date palm farm in Al-Ammariyah. The farm was in a stunning location and home to camels, gazelles and, of course, magnificent Arabian horses. We were given the opportunity to meet the farm’s owner and, in the true spirit of Arabian hospitality — “Hafawah” as we call it in Saudi Arabia — he invited us to have lunch with him, treating us to a delicious selection of freshly prepared, homemade Najdi dishes. I felt genuine pride in the intimate, authentic nature of the Saudi people, a unique generosity difficult to find in other parts of the world.
Back in Riyadh, in a few weeks’ time, after Ramadan, football matches will once again be played to live audiences as stadiums re-open to 40 percent capacity. Initially, only people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be able to attend but fortunately, thanks to the Ministry of Health, I am among the growing number of fully vaccinated people.
Previously, to enjoy these types of experiences, to be immersed in cultural, music and sporting events, Saudis had to travel abroad. Fast forward to today and all of these offerings now take place inside the Kingdom, with a sustained push to welcome people from all around the world.
However, this transformation and efforts to improve the lifestyles of citizens and residents alike extends far beyond city activities. The government continues to spearhead innovative programs and initiatives around the country, with a goal to position the Kingdom as a driver of development, and the future of the Middle East.
In March 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative — two bold plans to combat climate change and protect the environment. These ambitious projects demonstrate the Kingdom’s longstanding commitment towards a greener, more sustainable Saudi Arabia. Prior to the announcement, sustainability had already been a key component of the Saudi roadmap of the future; over the last two years, I have seen trees native to the region springing up around hospitals, mosques and universities, in parks and gardens, and along roads and streets.
This green drive has improved the urban landscape of cities, and bettered quality of life through better air quality and public parks providing a temperate place for a pre-iftar walks during Ramadan, or a place to relax in the summer.
The introduction of tourist visas in 2019 marked an exciting moment for me. With the opening up of my country, friends who had only before heard of Saudi Arabia were now being given an opportunity to explore my homeland. It was an exceptional experience for me in 2019 to be able to enjoy the music and events of the Riyadh Season and the Diriyah Season with my international friends.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most exciting, unique, beautiful, undiscovered destinations in the world, and it is expected that international tourists will return in even greater numbers once restrictions have been eased. I hope that each traveler who comes to the Kingdom will love Saudi Arabia as I do — for the warmth and hospitality of the Saudi people, the diversity of Saudi culture, food and its landscape, and for the plethora of activities and entertainment available.
Abdullah Al-Dakhil is an international communications manager at the Saudi Tourism Authority. He completed his postgraduate studies in London. His interests are traveling, tourism, culture and international economy. Twitter: @AbdullahADakhil