Saudi Arabia was a place I thought I’d never go. It’s probably the only country in the world that doesn’t want any tourism (except Muslim pilgrims), and a tourist visa simply doesn’t exist. The only way to visit the country is to be from Saudi or one of the gulf countries who don’t need a visa, only transit thru the country in 72 hours, marry a Saudi, have family or relatives in the country to visit, get a job sponsor and enter on a work visa, or be a Muslim and go to hajj on a pilgrimage visa.
I considered the second and the last options, but thought a work or family visit visa might be more feasible. I visited a few Saudi embassies, made a few Saudi friends, and failed three times… but a miracle happened on my fourth attempt. I met the ambassador of Saudi to Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, and for some reason he wanted me to go there even more than I did, so I did exactly as he said and didn’t ask any questions. One passport photo and $50USD later, some woman named Elham approved my paperwork, pushed it through the online application system, and a visa was stamped in my passport a few hours later. I never even met her to thank her, but I didn’t want to stick around long enough for them to change their minds.
Actually visiting Saudi and writing about it is a bit like Israel – everything I say may be incriminating somehow. There are a handful of sensitive issues that I don’t want to offend anyone on, and I can’t really be honest about all the things I did and saw so long as my real name is attached to these blogs. Everyone there may have an opinion on female rights, the bombing of Yemen, Islam fundamentalists, and the long list of haram things: non-halal food, alcohol, drugs, uncovered women, female drivers, and even cinemas (they’re illegal!), and I certainly do too.
The long abaya cloak and hijab head scarf were a welcomed change. I didnt have to worry about what to wear or how I looked, because I could simply disappear and camouflage into a world where noone suspected I was a stranger. Apparently the strictness of covering varies around Saudi, and Jeddah is the most liberal place for women to comfortably reveal their hair or leave their heads uncovered in public. But we still couldnt go anywhere without or male driver or sit in the ‘singles’ or men only sections of any public spaces (including all cafes and restaurants).
I was visiting my Saudi friend Nora, and she welcomed me into her home full of maids and we were catered to like queens. Our driver was a 2 meter tall Sudanese truck of a man who took us everywhere in an airconditioned Escalade, and I don’t think I managed to pay for anything there except for one lens cap I needed to replace on my camera. We went to her family’s private beach home where we could laze in the sun without any burkinis, and every meal was served to us freshly cooked on different sets of plates each time. My bed was magically made every time I got out of it, and we enjoyed a very informative, private tour of Al Balad, the historic old Jeddah. I was glad to leave when I did, since this Saudi standard was a little too easy to get used to, and it couldn’t have come at a better time than after 5 weeks of overlanding in Africa.