Are Saudi butchers

There are pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, but no tourists. Cultural sites are orphaned and hardly noticed. The country offers a versatile beauty. At least that is what the geophysicist Sabrina Metzger noticed during her stay in Saudi Arabia.

Like in a bad gangster film, the big car chased us as we rolled leisurely through the spectacular landscape on our excursion to the lava fields in the Arabian hinterland, which would overshadow any national park in the southwest of the USA. The car was unobtrusively far behind, but our numerous photo stops made a confrontation inevitable. It turned out that the driver, who hardly speaks English, belongs to the Saudi “tourist police”, which is responsible for accompanying tourists like us wherever they go. Whether for our protection or that of the locals is not clear to me until now.

Many pilgrims, few tourists

Although Saudi Arabia hosts more than 1.5 million foreign pilgrims each year, tourism is a little-known term in the kingdom. The already delicate relationship with travelers worsened when three French tourists were killed by snipers in 2007 near Medain Saleh, UNESCO World Heritage Site and the country's most important attraction. Since then, foreign travelers have been reluctant to wander around alone. Pilgrims are accompanied back to the airport under close supervision on their journey to Mecca and Medinah. Quite a few people from poor countries, however, begin the pilgrimage with no intention of returning, with the hope of a new, better life in the Holy Land.

The Gulf state does not maintain any tourist infrastructure. Apparently they are not interested in foreign tourists here, nor are the Saudis themselves curious about their homeland. There are hardly any hotels, and detailed maps are in vain. Street signs are usually only written in Arabic and the few travel agencies earn their money with expats, i.e. Western guest workers like me, who now and then book a weekend excursion to the rose city Taifa, to the rustic cattle market in the neighboring town or to Medain Saleh.

Neither night life nor promenade

What is the reason for this incomprehensible lack of interest in one's own country? Already during the short time of my stay it became clear to me that Saudis do not lead public life. In Jeddah there are neither frequented places with nightlife, promenades or permanently occupied tables in the restaurant. The unbearable heat and the strict gender segregation certainly also contribute to this couch potato mentality. Sport is irrelevant, mobility is only possible by car, if possible directly from one garage to the next. Those who can afford it flies abroad for a weekend of shopping or partying; everyone else may just quickly visit their relatives in the next town and spend the night in their house.

This country, which is more than three times the size of France, has so much to offer. There is the Rub'al Khali desert in the south of the country. It is one of the most misanthropic areas in the world, but the dune formations are of a unique beauty. Towards the southwest, the Asir plateau rises 2500 meters high against the sky, only to then drop back to sea level over a very short distance near the coast. An ancient mountain range stretches along the west coast as far as Jordan, interspersed with volcanoes and young lava fields. And right next to it, the Red Sea beckons with its endless coral reefs.

On my exploratory trips I have seen how much the Arab cultural heritage is neglected and how the country is still in the tourist Holocene. The beauty of Medain Saleh can be compared to the Jordanian Nabataean city of Petra. However, while Petra is overrun by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, a maximum of a few thousand make their way to Medain Saleh. Our tour guide gave a colleague an antique pottery shard that he had picked up on the floor, although warning signs indicate the fragile balance of this place and ask visitors to behave accordingly (do not throw anything away, do not take anything with you, etc.)! To the left and right of the streets, the mud houses of the densely built, narrow alleys, quarters have crumbled to dust since all residents moved into more modern houses in one fell swoop. Only hesitantly do suggestions emerge as to how one can protect the unique old town of Jeddah with its carved wooden balcony-like windows from decay, moisture and car exhaust. We used printed satellite images from Google Earth as hiking maps. On hikes in the apparently deserted areas, I got rid of my abbaya, but always with the awareness that I could come across an ultra-conservative Muslim even in the farthest valley who is indignant about bare calves.

A visa odyssey

There are currently only a handful of agents authorized to issue tourist visas. When I read through the strict requirements, I consider myself happy again about my “business” multi-entry visa, thanks to which I can move freely around the country: Normal tourists are only allowed to travel in guided tours with at least 4 people. Women under 30 must be accompanied by a male relative. The state wants to be informed about the respective whereabouts. For drivers who cross the country by land, visas are issued for a corresponding number of days, which is just enough for a quick passage. The many pilgrims get a visa more easily, but are also bound by fixed routes.

The kingdom is currently earning a golden nose thanks to its oil fields, but other sources of money will soon have to be tapped. Tourism could be one, and I'm sure the people would come pouring in, especially since the fascinating country is considered extremely safe when it comes to crime. For Saudi Arabia to be able to open up to tourism, however, a major relaxation of the situation would be necessary, which certainly does not happen overnight. Masses of short-haired tourists would be unthinkable right now.

To the author

Sabrina Metzger studied interdisciplinary natural sciences at the ETH Zurich. After she then worked for a year at the Swiss Seismological Service on a project in which microquakes were investigated near the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which was under construction, she switched to Spectraseis Technologie AG, a spin-off from the University of Zurich. In spring 2008 she returned to ETH to do her doctorate at the Institute for Geophysics.
Metzger is currently visiting Saudi Arabia at the newly founded King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), as her supervisor, the Icelandic geophysicist Sigurjón Jónsson, has moved from ETH Zurich to KAUST.