No other country in the world is as misunderstood as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps no other country – rich with culture, heritage, and natural beauty – is as worthy of a visit. It is more than a harsh desert (though the sands it does boast include the Empty Quarter, a beautiful expanse of undulating dunes unlike anywhere in the world), it is a country with many areas of beautiful oases and dramatic mountain-tops, beaches and rivers.
There are also the untamed stretches of Red Sea coast in the west of the country, southwestern mountain towns such as Taif, plus the ancient history in the north, where the town of Al Ula serves as the gateway to Medain Saleh, a collection of stone dwellings as magnificent as Petra.
Then there are the cosmopolitan city centres of Jeddah, the Red Sea port; Riyadh, the throbbing central capital; and Gulf-side Dammam, the large city in the east. All feature chic cafés and top-notch restaurants. There are shops galore, from traditional souks to glittering malls with all the latest fashions. Hotels are being built at a rapid clip, and each seems to feature a chef of ever-increasing pedigree.
For the tourist interested in religion, few other countries are as rich in historical sites as Saudi Arabia. As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Saudi Arabia is home the two holiest sites in Islam: The Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina (although these are off-limits to non-Muslims). The Saudis take pride in protecting the integrity of this holy land and Islamic laws are strictly enforced by the mutawwa (religious police).
To a novice visitor, Saudi Arabia can seem like a daunting place for a vacation, and it certainly pays to swot up on cultural rules (such as women not being allowed to drive) before you arrive. But for the intrepid traveller, this is a complex country with much to offer.