Visiting Saudi Arabia Has Never Been Easier – Here’s Why You Should Go

Annabel Fenwick Elliott 3 OCTOBER 2018 • 6:51PM Tourists can, for the first time, obtain a visa to visit Saudi...

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Visiting Saudi Arabia has never been easier – here’s why you should go

Annabel Fenwick Elliott 3 OCTOBER 2018 • 6:51PM Tourists can, for the first time, obtain a visa to visit Saudi Arabia without facing the strict requirements that previously made it nigh impossible. Anyone planning to attend a grand prix being held there in December can now buy an ordinary 14-day tourist visa, the Kingdom has announced, giving them access to the race but also to the rest of the country. It’s the latest in a series of new government initiatives that hopes to encourage 30 million holidaymakers a year by 2030. Saudi Arabia clamped down on tourism in 2010 but in April of this year reversed their approach and started issuing tourist visas again. In reality, however, they were still tough to obtain unless the traveller was on a muslim pilgrimage for Hajj or Umrah. The new option, priced at 640 SAR (£131), makes the process far more straightforward. Using an online platform dubbed Sharek, visitors can buy tickets for the Saudi Ad Diriyah Formula E grand prix near Riyadh, to be held on December 15, and apply for their 14-visa at the same time. HRH Prince Abdulaziz BinTurki, vice-chairman of the General Sports Authority, said: “The best way for people to see the real Saudi Arabia is to come, and this their chance.” The inaugural grand prix, which kicked off in Beijing in September 2014, pits electric-powered racing cars against eachother in a race that wind through the streets of ancient city Ad Diriyah, a Unesco-listed site on the outskirts of the Saudi capital on a 2.8km route featuring 21 corners.   Ad Diriyah, which will host the grand prix in December CREDIT: GETTY Why the sudden tourism drive? Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, keen on moving the nation's economy away from a dependence on oil, is the driving force behind Saudi's new-found commitment to its tourism and leisure industry. His view is perhaps in part related to the continued success of this industry in its neighbours Dubai and Bahrain. Talking to the Associated Press earlier this year, he said: "[Saudi Arabia] is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia, and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis." There are limitations on the availability of the visa to women, for starters. Female solo travellers over the age of 25 are able to obtain a 30-day tourist visa, but those under 25 will have to be accompanied by a family member. Will Saudi Arabia’s tough laws apply to tourists? Perhaps the biggest hurdle for tourists considering a holiday in Saudi Arabia are the strict rules that remain in place governing women, religion and dress, as well as a total ban on alcohol. There is also international concern over the Kingdom's human rights record. But change could be in the air. What with the eradication of the driving ban in June, finally allowing women to drive without requiring permission, and the ban on cinema lifted after 35 years in January, laws surrounding foreign visitors could be relaxed too. The country’s Vision 2030 Plan includes the Red Sea development, scheduled to start in late 2019 - the intention being that resorts will be governed by laws “on par with international standards”, meaning that women should be able to wear bikinis. Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund described the project as an “exquisite luxury resort destination established across 50 untouched natural islands”. The Kingdom said the plans would include “the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure – including air, land and sea transport hubs”. The 50 islands under development on the coast will be turned into luxury resorts, the first phase of which is due to be completed by the end of 2022. It isn't yet clear exactly which of the strict Islamic laws will be exempt in the resorts, but it’s likely to mirror the status quo in places like Dubai, where tourists are permitted to drink alcohol and don swimwear at certain resorts, beaches and waterparks, but not public places. These resorts aren’t open yet - why else would I visit Saudi Arabia? Plenty of reasons. Here are just seven of its highlights. Mada'in Saleh   It features 111 ancient monumental tombs CREDIT: GETTY The largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra - and without the crowds you’ll find in Jordan. It features 111 monumental tombs, 94 with decorated facades, dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD.           Rock art A portal to the past CREDIT: GETTY Saudi Arabia can boast four Unesco World Heritage Sites, including the Rock Art of the Hail Region, which includes numerous representations of human and animal figures covering 10,000 years of history. Farasan Islands Sandy, unspoiled CREDIT: GETTY Saudi Arabia has fine beaches, believe it or not. The Farasan Islands, off the coast of Jizan, possess some of the best. For better or worse, this archipelago is one of the sites earmarked for development. Rub' al Khali (The Empty Quarter) The world's largest sand desert CREDIT: GETTY The largest continuous body of sand in the world, covering some 250,000 square miles. Excursions are offered. Jeddah   A port city with a bustle and buzz like no other CREDIT: GETTY Frank Gardner, writing for Telegraph Travel, described Jeddah as his favourite Arab city. "As a steamy, Red Sea trading port it has a bustle and buzz like no other place in Saudi Arabia," he said. "In the winding, labyrinthine backstreets of the old quarter, known as the 'Balad', you hear every language and dialect of the region. Here, little has changed since I first explored its colourful street markets in the 1980s, but in the open boulevards of north Jeddah I was in for a surprise. As the sun sank low, a cavalcade of bikers and souped-up sports car enthusiasts gathered in their hundreds, a Bob Marley reggae track blaring from giant speakers mounted on a flatbed. I rode with them, savouring the warm breeze on my face and the unexpected pleasure of hearing music played publicly in a country that normally frowns on such earthly pleasures." The city's highlights include Souq al-Alawi, Al-Tayibat City Museum for International Civilisation, the Corniche, and Jeddah Tower – planned to be the world’s tallest building – still currently under construction. Asir Mountains A breathtaking national park CREDIT: GETTY Frank Gardner also recommended this mountain range in southwestern Saudi Arabia. "Many imagine Saudi to be a monotone vista of deserts, camels, oil wells and motorways, but this corner is a land of precipitous terraced crops and plunging ravines, home to nearly half a million wild baboons, eagles and dazzling-blue lizards," he said. "It has long been one of the most isolated corners of this secretive kingdom, a place where almost within living memory tribe fought tribe, and village fought village."         Jizan   Alive and exotic CREDIT: ERIC LAFFORGUE Of this coastal town he said: "Anyone who had this as a first glimpse of Saudi Arabia could be forgiven for thinking he was in Africa. Exotic, pendulous nests made by weaver birds hung from branches and some of the houses were round and dome-shaped huts, topped by elaborately fashioned rope and thatch. That night we feasted on fresh fish and fiery sauce, cooked in front of us by garrulous, black-shrouded women who sharply warned the local men to keep their distance, but who were kind and hospitable to their guests from Britain." But before you go… A word of warning. Don’t forget that strict laws remain in place across Saudi Arabia, so be sure to research how to dress and behave in public before visiting. The Foreign Office advises against travel to the regions where Saudi Arabia borders Yemen.

Height Of Adventure: Treading The ‘Edge Of The World’ Near Riyadh

Cliffs in Tuwaiq were formed as a result of the movement of the Arabian plate toward the northeast because of...

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Height of adventure: Treading the ‘Edge of the World’ near Riyadh

Cliffs in Tuwaiq were formed as a result of the movement of the Arabian plate toward the northeast because of the spread of the Red Sea rift • Several prominent Saudi tour companies offer daylong excursions to the site Thrill seekers and fitness gurus all over the Kingdom will be pleased to know that their choices for weekend activities have increased. Several tour operators in Riyadh have started offering trips to the area known as the Edge of the World, making the location more accessible than ever. With the country’s obesity rates on the rise and many citizens growing more concerned about their physical health and stress levels, people are seeking ways to maintain their fitness without having to restrict themselves to the monotony of a gym routine. One such solution that has steadily increased in popularity over the past year is hiking, which many have embraced as being much more exciting and fulfilling than spending hours on the treadmill. And most popular of all for hiking and other fitness activities in a natural setting is the magnificent landmark of Jabal Fihrayn, more commonly known as the Edge of the World. Described as a “window framed by rock,” the Edge of the World offers stunning views of the valley below, a lush grove of acacia trees teeming with wildlife and vegetation. The spot is well-known for being a favorite of visiting picnickers. ikers can choose from several trails of varying levels of difficulty, making their way to the top of the Tuwaiq escarpment to take in the magnificent views at the top of the trail, where the colossal cliff faces drop off to reveal the dizzying height from the valley below. In addition to the rich wildlife unique to the location, you can also find samples of fossilized coral and raw mineral deposits in certain areas of the valley. The cliffs in the areas were formed as a result of the tectonic movement of the Arabian plate toward the northeast because of the spread of the Red Sea rift situated 1,000 km to the west of Tuwaiq. Due to the increasing popularity of the site, the authorities have built a hardtop that leads to the gates of the sites and arrangements are in place to protect the area and its natural treasures. Several prominent Saudi tour companies offer daylong excursions to the site. The more intrepid explorer also has the option to go alone; though past visitors recommend that solo travelers take an all-terrain, 4x4 vehicle and extra precaution. Visitors can spend the day at the site and leave before 6 p.m. (when the gates are closed for the night) or stay behind for a night of camping to enjoy the sunset and the breathtaking celestial views of a star-studded night sky. Nora Alfard, amateur hiking enthusiast and two-time visitor to the location, was quick to offer praise about her trip. “The trip out there was a bit tiring, but totally worth it,” she said. “The views are stunning, and the hiking itself is not that difficult. Most people should be able to make it to the top without too much trouble.” She said she was likely to go a third time, and encouraged others to do the same. The Edge of the World is roughly 100km northwest of Riyadh, about 1.5 hours’ drive from the capital. Visitors should be prepared for at least 30 minutes of hiking, possibly more depending on your trail and your level of fitness and experience. Previous visitors recommend bringing water and snacks, and stress the importance of dressing appropriately — hiking shoes only!

Saudi Female Film Director Wins Top Award For Cultural Leadership

Haifaa Al-Mansour has been named as one of three recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award Al-Mansour has been honoured...

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Saudi female film director wins top award for cultural leadership

Haifaa Al-Mansour has been named as one of three recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award Al-Mansour has been honoured for her leadership in cultural transformation in the Arab world. Saudi film director Haifaa Al-Mansour has been named as one of the recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award, which celebrates the achievements of leading artists and cultural figures. Conductor Marin Alsop and broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough were the other recipients, the World Economic Forum announced. The winners will be honoured in the opening session of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, on January 21. “Any new architecture for ‘Globalization 4.0’ will need to be both inclusive and sustainable. The remarkable achievements of the recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award inspire us to see beyond the limits of convention to find solutions for the current issues the world faces,” said Hilde Schwab, chairwoman and co-founder of the World Economic Forum’s World Arts Forum, which hosts the awards. Al-Mansour has been honoured for her leadership in cultural transformation in the Arab world, the Forum said in a statement. She is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and Wadjda, her feature debut, was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. The success of her 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows was a breakthrough that was followed by a new wave of Saudi filmmakers and front-page headlines of Saudi Arabia finally opening cinemas in the kingdom. She was recently appointed to the board of the General Authority for Culture to advise on the development of the cultural and arts sectors in Saudi Arabia. She recently released Mary Shelly starring Elle Fanning, and Nappily Ever After starring Sanaa Lathan. Al Mansour is also the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.   Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony since 2007, is one of the greatest conductors of our time. Earlier this year she was the first woman to be appointed chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and, in 2013, was the first woman in 118 years to conduct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. Sir David Attenborough’s broadcasting career spans more than six decades during which he has played an extraordinary role both reinventing and developing the medium of television and connecting people to the wonders of the natural world, bringing distant peoples, animals and habitats into living rooms across the planet.

40,000 Expected To Attend Saudi E-Prix In Riyadh

The E-Prix, held in the UNESCO World Heritage Site outside the capital Riyadh, is the first event of its kind...

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40,000 expected to attend Saudi E-Prix in Riyadh

The E-Prix, held in the UNESCO World Heritage Site outside the capital Riyadh, is the first event of its kind in the Middle East. (Photo/Supplied)
A Formula E event in the historic town of Ad-Diriyah is expected to attract around 40,000 people, including visitors from the Americas and Europe. The E-Prix, held in the UNESCO World Heritage Site outside the capital Riyadh, is the first event of its kind in the Middle East and also boasts a glittering lineup of musical talent including David Guetta, Jason Derulo and Amr Diab. Formula E, officially the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, is a class of auto racing that uses only electric-powered cars. “The Kingdom is preparing to host the Formula E race a week from now,” Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, vice president of the General Authority for Sport, said on Thursday. “We are confident that a fruitful partnership agreement with the Formula E World Championship is an ambitious and inspiring step to organize the grand and anticipated Formula E race. “I would like to emphasize that the tickets will not only be dedicated to race events, But also to attend the largest-ever festival in the Kingdom for motor racing, music, entertainment and cultural activities, which will include the organization of six major international art exhibitions for the first time in the Kingdom.” The biggest number of registered visitors were coming from Europe and North America, the prince said, but people were also coming from Russia and Australia. “The fact is that we are hosting one of the biggest races in the world even though we don’t have an official racetrack. We are racing in the streets, just like how it started in the past, yet in a historical place which is the fatherland of the first Saudi state. To merge the past and future and enjoy the present will only add to Ad-Diriyah, Riyadh and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Nobody will be excluded from the event, he added, because it also has attractions for women and children. Prince Abdul Aziz, himself a famed racing driver, told media at Thursday’s press conference that two Saudi nationals would be taking part in the E-Prix but that he would not be on the track at Ad Diriyah. “I still race, but in other forms. If I got a chance I would go for it but my turn today is bigger than participating and it is to organize this worldwide event in which we hope everyone will enjoy.” Prince Khalid bin Talal Al-Faisal, president of the Saudi Federation of Motor Sports and Motorcycles, called the E-Prix a dream come true. Prince Khalid, who retired from racing in 2011, said: “It is a dream for me, as a race car lover, to see Formula E in Saudi. It’s a day that will go down in history, and I am honored to be working on it.” He revealed there was a surprise in store for drivers as spectators will be able to vote on who will get an extra boost of 25 kilowatts to their vehicle.

Al Ula, Saudi Arabia: Tourist’s Alternative To Jordan’s Petra – In Pictures

As the Winter at Tantora Festival takes place in Al Ula, we take a deeper look at the kingdom's first...

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Al Ula, Saudi Arabia: tourist’s alternative to Jordan’s Petra – in pictures

As the Winter at Tantora Festival takes place in Al Ula, we take a deeper look at the kingdom's first city to appear on the Unesco World Heritage Site list Nabatean rock-cut tombs at Madain Saleh, near Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. Amar Grover / The National Until recently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remained a mystery to tourists. But now, with the release of tourist visas, travellers are becoming more intrigued by the sites the kingdom has to offer. One in particular is the historic city of Al Ula, where The Winter at Tantora Festival is running a jam-packed schedule of performances by world-renowned musicians, a Hot Air Balloon Festival, and high-profile horse race. Historical significance Dating back more than 2,000 years, Al Ula was the capital of the ancient Arabian kingdom of Lihyan. Renowned for their economic prowess, the city was part of the famed Incense Trade Route, which stretched from the Mediterranean to North Africa and the Levant to India and South East Asia. The city also holds deep historical significance in Islam with the Prophet Mohammed reportedly passing through the city in AD 630 as part of his military expedition to the north-western Saudi city of Tabuk. Today, you can see old Al Ula's abandoned and now crumbling mud-plastered houses and labyrinthine lanes overlooked by a small fortress. Madain Saleh Al Ula is also home to the archaeological site of Madain Saleh, which in 2008 became Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage Site, and where nearly a hundred rock-cut facades of tombs pierce the cliffs and spectacular island-like stacks of rock erupt on the desert fringes. Known as Hegra to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder and Al Hijr in the Quran, the multitude of names for this site in north-western Saudi Arabia is entirely apt for a city that was the nexus for trade routes to the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East. Built between the first century BC and the first century AD, this cosmopolitan city was home to the Nabataean civilisation in the kingdom's southernmost settlement and is second only to Petra in size and splendour. With 111 necropolises hewn from the sandstone rock and an oasis with about 130 wells, these ruins are a great way to take in the blend of Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hellenistic architectural influences without the hassle of the crowds, as Madain Saleh sees only a trickle of visitors. The Winter at Tantora Festival One of the biggest draws to this season's Winter at Tantora Festival is the series of music concerts, dubbed Stars Under the Stars, taking place every weekend. With only 500 tickets available for each gig, booking early is essential. Various packages are available, with tickets beginning from SR 712.50 (Dh697) that includes a pick-and-drop bus service from Riyadh (9 hour and 40 minutes) and Jeddah (7 hours) to Al Ula in addition to lunch and dinner. French violinist Renaud Capucon will play on January 4, followed by one of the Arab world’s most famous composers, Egypt’s Omar Khairat, on January 11. The following Friday, Chinese pianist Lang Lang is booked to perform a recital. Even the late, great Egyptian diva Um Kulthum will have a performance on January 25 in hologram, backed by a real-life orchestra. This will be followed by an appearance by popular Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who will make his debut concert performance in Saudi Arabia on February 1. It will all be wrapped up by a performance by legendary world star Yanni on February 8. From January 31 to February 9, the sky above Al Ula will turn multi-coloured as hundreds of evocatively patterned hot-air balloons are released. Finally, on February 2, the inaugural The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup horse race will take place, with more than 80 riders vying for what organisers say will be one of the largest prize pots for such a race in the region.

Janadriyah Is An Opportunity To Promote Saudi Cultural Heritage Worldwide

The National Festival of Heritage and Culture in Janadriyah, which began last week, is a valuable opportunity to highlight the...

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Janadriyah is an opportunity to promote Saudi cultural heritage worldwide

The National Festival of Heritage and Culture in Janadriyah, which began last week, is a valuable opportunity to highlight the tangible and intangible elements of the Saudi cultural heritage on the international stage. The festival is the largest event of its kind in the world and it attracts millions of lovers of heritage and ancestry from not only Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf region but also worldwide. Hundreds of local, Arab and international media organizations are covering the rich activities of the festival. The festival reflects unique cultures, traditions and behavior from every region of the Kingdom, representing the many dialects and customs. This is both in the heritage of the regions, or through the folk market where the "Katateeb" (traditional schools), folk games and old tales all in a traditional setting reveal the simplicity and identity of society at the time. The festival highlights the distinctiveness of the various areas of Saudi Arabia and their urban heritage through showing the identity of each region, as well as the heritage elements of handicrafts, folk dishes and museums. The Folk Market The Folk Market is a forum that reflects the great diversity in Saudi folklore. Shops and workshops were allocated for craftsmen from each region in the market, which has been the main focal point of the festival since its inception. At the Folk Market everything is displayed in a panoramic way preserving the depth and diversity of culture in one place. Al-Warraq The National Heritage and Culture Festival is keen to support craftsmen by choosing the handicrafts for each region according to special criteria and mechanisms. More than 300 handicrafts are scattered throughout the festival. Al-Warraq is one of the handicrafts that have become extinct, and this year for the first time will be in the folk market, where the public will notice the artisans specialized in the binding of books and their preservation, using simple craft tools such as thread, needle, scissors and glue.   Women's activities This year, women will participate in several activities aimed at handicrafts and productive families, as well as highlighting the role of people with special needs. There will also be professional courses for visitors. The Traditional Farm was the main source of livelihood in the past and displayed will be the means of plowing and chanting that echoed from the farmers during their work.   Katateeb School On display will be an imitation of the mutawa (the traditional teacher) and his students, with a courtyard next to the school for old folk games.