Just Back From Saudi Arabia: Assumptions and Social Progress

Justin Huff, owner of Swaggy Swan, an affiliate of Embark Beyond, recently traveled to Saudi Arabia with the Travel + Leisure Academy. He was extremely impressed by the city of AlUla. Here is his report.

As my plane took off from King Abdulaziz International Airport, I was completely stricken by overwhelming love for Saudi Arabia. I felt so many similarities between the country’s history and that of my own to the point I felt like we’re kindred spirits—eternally bonded, if you will. Never before in my career have I felt so personally close to a destination, and after attending Travel+Leisure’s 10-day Travel Academy, I am jumping out of my skin with anticipation to share my experiences in Saudi Arabia with the rest of the world. 

Saudi drivers at AlUla’s Desert X exhibition  pose with a vintage 4x4.
Saudi drivers at AlUla’s Desert X exhibitionpose with a vintage 4x4. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

I received a crash course in Saudi hospitality immediately after switching on my international data plan in Riyadh—Lufthansa lost my bag after a tight connection in Frankfurt. The thought of wearing the same clothes for two to three days (while simultaneously wanting to make a good first impression with 20 people I’ve never met before) had me nervous and uncomfortable to say the least. After clearing immigration and checking into the Four Seasons, my driver Mahmoud made a plan to take me to a “medium price” store. Shopping at the adjacent mall at Kingdom Centre would be an all-out assault on my credit card for just a few days’ worth of clothes. 

AlUla’s Jabal Ikmah
Amaal, the tour guide at AlUla’s Jabal Ikmah, here shown with the author, chooses to be covered out of respect for her grandmother. She drives, lives alone, and is financially independent. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

We went to the Saudi equivalent of Target at—get this—midnight. It was booming. Speaking of the store, I had assumed that I would stand out like a sore thumb and draw unwanted attention being the only Westerner around for miles—it was completely the opposite. 

Food at Takya — Riyadh’s premier Saudi fusion restaurant
Lamb sandwich along with some very close second dishes was served at Takya—Riyadh’s premier Saudi fusion restaurant. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

Both Mahmoud and a store attendant helped me pick out clothes for the next few days, and I was able to poke around the store just for fun. We ended up walking around the area, which was a residential middle-class neighborhood with nary a tourist in sight. I saw Saudis—both men and women—out and about having late dinners, relaxing, enjoying sweets, tea and coffee. See the problem with assumption? 

The Travel Academy group at Diriyah
The Travel Academy group at Diriyah—the birthplace of the Al Saud dynasty and future luxury travel epicenter. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

This experience would be the first of many to reinforce the notion of safety in Saudi Arabia. I was able to walk around a city of nearly 8 million people at 1 a.m. with my wallet in my back pocket without a care in the world. Can you imagine the same scenario in San Francisco? I thought that maybe having a Saudi with me could have made my experience different, but that wasn’t the case walking around Jeddah by myself late night along the Corniche. Granted, I’m a 6’3” man, but there were plenty of unescorted women walking about minding their own business as well. Saudi Arabia is one of the only destinations in the region where one can freely explore markets, old towns and city centers without being constantly bombarded by shop owners looking to get the best of you. This safety and freedom were so comforting, and it was amazing to experience all of it just an hour after arriving. 

The mirror exhibit at AlUla’s Desert X was a crowd-pleaser.
The mirror exhibit at AlUla’s Desert X was a crowd-pleaser. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

The people of Saudi Arabia are its greatest asset, and their stories are incredible. Never have I seen such genuine, unexpected hospitality and openness to foreigners visiting their country. All of our assumptions about Saudis in the West are completely misunderstood, which is tragic. My interactions with Saudis (both men and women) were natural, organic and genuine. Take Amaal, our guide at Jabal Ikmah, for example. One of the female agents in our group asked her about why she dressed fully covered when women now have the choice. Her decision—explained in perfect English—was to honor and respect her grandmother. Her family was fine with her dressing with or without being covered, but she simply made her choice out of respect. By the way, Amaal drives, lives alone, does not have pressure from her family to marry/have children, and is financially independent. 

The ancient tombs of Hegra
The ancient tombs of Hegra look very similar to what one would find in Petra.  (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

Saudi Arabia also boasts some of the most ethereal sights on the planet. AlUla, home to the famed Nabatean tombs of Hegra (similar to Petra, just without the crowds) and jaw-dropping scenery that make Bryce Canyon look underwhelming, is one of the most awe-inspiring destinations I’ve seen in my life. Easily, AlUla can be considered the “Taj Mahal” or “Machu Picchu” of Saudi Arabia—simply put: it’s the wonder of the world you never knew existed. Not once in my 13-plus year career in tourism have I experienced such unexpected delight, and I am extremely confident that the site will maintain its pristine integrity by limiting the number of visitors with a low-volume/high-yield tourism model (similar to Botswana and Bhutan). Thus, AlUla will be the ultimate aspirational destination in the entire region. 

Huff and the group are all smiles as they head out on an expedition in AlUla.  (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

We had a tremendous five-night stay at Habitas, currently the best luxury property in AlUla, and our experiences were diverse, meaningful, fun and unique to that of the region. Initially touring the pre-Islamic sites of Dadan and Jabal Ikmah as well as the iconic Nabatean tombs in Hegra helped us understand the overall significance of AlUla and its role in the Kingdom’s history. We also soared all over AlUla by helicopter, which really gave us an appreciation of how enormous the area really is (and fascinating from an aerial perspective). One of the most special experiences was a visit to an artisan school where we were able to see how local ceramics, pottery and mosaics were made. This visit was also a great opportunity to interact with primarily female students and see their enthusiasm about new social norms and freedoms in the country. We also strolled the streets of AlUla’s Old Town with its imposing fort, tasted incredibly diverse cuisine, and attended an Arabic music concert in a setting that would put Red Rocks to shame. AlUla is also the holy grail of Instagram posting.

Four Seasons Riyadh
The group meets with the Four Seasons Riyadh’s management team in the Royal Suite. The views of Riyadh from the Kingdom Tower were spectacular. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

Our sightseeing in Riyadh and Jeddah was fantastic in addition to being a really nice contrast to Saudi Arabia’s major urban centers. Starting in Riyadh is ideal to set the stage of what’s to come. The National Museum does an unbelievable job introducing visitors to the Kingdom’s history in a clear, concise manner that doesn’t overwhelm even the shortest of attention spans. The Masmak Fort (where Prince Abdulaziz assumed power over the Nejd region and started the Third Saudi State) was also highly informative and engaging. Jeddah’s Old Town is unmistakably authentic with its iconic windows, which are known as roshan. My personal favorite part of touring Old Jeddah was—once again—having the freedom to explore independently without feeling harassed or pressured to buy something.

AlUla’s Pink Camel
The group stopped for lunch at AlUla’s Pink Camel, which is set amongst the ruins of ancient homes and an oasis of date palm groves. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

New mega-projects, such as Diriyah, NEOM and the Red Sea development (all part of Vision 2030) will feature the hottest new clubs, restaurants, and luxury hotels on the planet. Time is very powerful, and when one considers the pace of change, Saudi Arabia will be a complete game-changer within the next one or two years. Most importantly, the overwhelming majority of Saudis are embracing their new liberties and opportunities. The challenge for Saudi Arabia will be to maintain its priceless authenticity while rapidly building a sustainable future with high service standards. The latter of which doesn’t happen overnight.

Siq_reminiscent of Jordan’s Petra
Suleiman, the group’s guide in Hegra, led them through the famed “Siq”—reminiscent of Jordan’s Petra; just without the crowds. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

Being well aware that Saudi Arabia is a controversial destination for tourism, I want to address my feelings on leisure travel to the Kingdom. My views on tourism to Saudi Arabia are absolutely not an endorsement of the sensitive issues we all know about. Most importantly, I believe travel unites and borders divide. Citizens, especially those living in an absolute monarchy, do not necessarily maintain the same value systems as their government. Imagine making a list of our clients’ past travel and comparing the respective governments to the same human rights issues Saudi Arabia is under a microscope for. In such a case, I believe you would find a massive double standard exists. 

The iconic Tomb of Lihyan
The iconic tomb of Lihyan isarguably the most photographed places in the Kingdom after Masjidal-Haram in Mecca. (Photo Courtesy Justin Huff)

Overall, it is in the West’s best interests that Saudi Arabia succeeds in diversifying its economy as the world moves towards renewable energy in the coming decades. A safe, stable and prosperous Saudi Arabia is a net positive for the whole world, in fact. For decades, the country has maintained stability in a fragile region, and any kind of power vacuum (i.e. Iran, 1979) would be disastrous, especially when you consider who supplies its weapons. Additionally, cross-cultural exchange always gives way to social progress and the liberalization of ideas, customs and beliefs. 

I am proud to be part of the change in Saudi Arabia. 

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