READER REVIEW: An Arabian Adventure – BA Club World and holidaying in Saudia Arabia

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Today’s reader review is by Simon Robinson & Mitesh Desai. If you would like to submit a reader review, please contact [email protected] 

Telling someone that you’re going on holiday to Saudi Arabia elicits a spectrum of responses from surprise to total incredulity, questioning why one would visit an actual or indeed metaphorical ‘dry state’ reputed to be, at best highly conservative, and at worse, even oppressive.

Yet having ticked off many countries in the Middle East, visiting Saudi was only a matter of time. In fact, 5 years ago, looking across the causeway from Bahrain towards Dammam, we had contemplated a sneaky day trip, which proved to be impossible due to visa regulations – tourism was not deemed a valid reason for entry into Saudi Arabia at the time.

Over the last 2 years, Saudi Arabia has been in the international press with headlines about the emancipation of women from archaic and oppressive rules. These reforms have been driven by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who is more colloquially referred to as ‘MBS”. His 2030 Vision aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from its reliance on oil, towards services industries, which opens the country up, especially for non-muslin high-end travellers.

Vision 2030 is ambitious. A Ministry of Tourism has been established, the country is redeveloping its infrastructure and regenerating historical sites to cater for the needs of the discerning tourist. Metros are being built in major cities, high-speed railways laid, and old parts of town are being beautifully restored. If that was not enough, a new high-tech Red Sea city state is being constructed. Neom, as it is called, will be exempt from the usual Saudi restrictions of alcohol, and aims to compete with Dubai to become the destination for the events and hospitality industry in the Middle East.

Now, travelling to Saudi requires thoughtfulness and consideration. It is the birthplace of Islam and home to the religion’s most holy sites. Societal rules are based on Sharia law. So, before you go, you may want to decide whether you are travelling to broaden your own horizons to discover Saudi Arabia, or whether your intention is to test the local cultural boundaries.

No surprises, we would advise against testing boundaries – deliberately or otherwise! As alcohol is prohibited, we didn’t do the usual duty-free shop for holiday booze. We can even confirm that British Airways locked away and didn’t serve alcohol while in Saudi airspace. The lack of alcohol during the trip made it a great start for a new year without a hangover!

As two men in a relationship, we booked twin rooms when possible and avoided any public display of affection. In fact, it is only in the last few years that it has been legal for a man and woman to hold hands in public, so as cultures are slow to change and homosexuality remains illegal, we certainly didn’t want to be the first to test these boundaries.

Assuming that you have not been put off from visiting Saudi Arabia, we hope to share with you some of our insights from our trip. We flew out 29 December 2021 and returned on 09 January 2022!

 

Pre-departure formalities

Tourist visas are really easy to apply for online. We submitted our applications through the Visit Saudi website (https://www.visitsaudi.com/en). Anticipating significant bureaucracy, we were surprised and reassured when we received our e-visas within minutes of application.

With British Airways’ COVID-19 Travel Hub, pre-departure checks and documentation were really easy to handle – though you had to be a little attentive to the duplication of forms it was suggesting. Saudi has its own contract tracing app, Tawakkalna, which was required to be downloaded within 8 hours of arrival into the country. It was not possible to set-up an account until we arrived in Saudi and then we struggled to activate the account using our UK mobile numbers – security codes were not coming through despite international roaming and texts toggled on for the trip. Fortunately, to be able to get into restaurants, cafes, malls, and other locations, we used our NHS Travel Pass, which was sufficient to prove primary vaccination course status everywhere we went.

For pre-departure testing, Collinson at Heathrow served us well, as usual. We drove up to have a rapid PCR pre-departure test and used our BA discount code to get 20% off. We had our negative results within 2 hours of testing.

 

30 December 2021 | Flight BA0263 London (LHR) to Riyadh (RUH)

 

Flights were booked using BA’s book and upgrade option (World Traveller Plus £1,200 + 22,000 Avios upgrade to business).  With so many more people travelling, Heathrow Terminal 5 was busy with queues. The luxury of being able to use the First Wing as Gold members, made check-in very quick and we were in the South Lounge within 5 minutes of arriving.

Table service by accessing menus with a QR code, was still in operation and added to the experience of customer service. Fully in the holiday mood, to be closer to the departure gate, we moved over to the B lounge where it was more self-service – except for the champagne!

Knowing that the G-YBB mini cabin at the front was full before checking in, we moved seats to the rear Club cabin to take up the option of greater “social distance” with the other 4 passengers.  On board, we had the standard COVID-19 Club dining experience with all courses served together on a single tray – here’s hoping it goes back to individual course service soon!  The cabin crew were the ‘expected’ friendly faces who ensured that the drinks flowed until just before crossing into Saudi!  Despite leaving an hour late, favourable winds meant we arrived on time into Riyadh.

Anticipating full on interrogation, we were pleasantly shocked by the many immigration officers being women, who welcomed us with a friendly smile and a smooth immigration clearance. We were off the plane with bags collected and at kerbside within 40 minutes of landing!

 

30 December 2021 – 02 January 2022 | Riyadh

Being the seat of the Royal Family and the centre of government, Riyadh is regarded as the most conservative of Saudi cities. In public, Saudi men and women adorn traditional attire, though contrary to western beliefs, women more commonly wear the hijab than the niqab or burqa.

Café culture is extensive with so many places to choose, from, trendy international to the more traditional Arabic shisha style establishments.  As for restaurants and fine dining, even some of Mayfair’s most prestigious restaurant brands have opened in Riyadh. With no alcohol, drinks lists comprised elaborate mocktails that soon killed any savings we were expecting on our bill.

For places to visit, The National Museum of Saudi Arabia was not to be missed.  Even for those who are averse to museums – one of us has a maximum museum tolerance of 2 hours – a speedy 90-minute visit provided a great overview of the history of Islam and Saudi Arabia.

Situated immediately adjacent to the museum in Al Dirah, were a huge Bedouin souk, Masmak Fort and Deera Square. The square has been known more colloquially as “Chop Chop Square” as it was, even in recent times, the place of public executions.  There have been no public beheadings in the last 12 years and the square is now filled with trendy cafés and eateries with no obvious signs of its recent past.

In terms of getting around town, don’t be fooled in to thinking that places that appear nearby on Google Maps are easy to get to by foot. We were easily misguided having failed to notice that the scale of the map was significantly different to the street views we get in the UK. A block can be hundreds of meters away and pavements were frequently unpassable due to construction. Our walk from Olaya to the National Museum, took 10km due to meandering detours through residential areas and along the side of busy freeways. The long-delayed metro is expected to open later this year.  In the meantime, tourists rely on taxis, whose drivers have clearly not past “The Knowledge” and need to use your phone for directions.

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Riyadh Olaya, which was in a central location. The twin room was functional for a “city break”.  The gym, spa and swimming pool were perhaps the highlight – note that these are segregated, male and female.  Perhaps a sign of Saudi not being quite ready for tourists, there were no concierge services, which limited our ability to book excursions.

Over New Year’s Eve, life appeared to carry on as normal though the “New Year” was welcomed with fireworks lighting up some of the city’s major landmarks – the Islamic New Year starts in July in 2022.

 

02 – 04 January 2022 | Al’Ula

Flying 900km north-west of Riyadh into the desert was the highlight of our Arabian adventure! Instead of undulating sand dunes of a desolate desert, Al’Ula’s landscape is punctuated by sandstone projections and mountains that tell the story of a pre-historic geology that began several kilometres below sea level.

The Incense Trade Route heritage is commemorated by ancient and modern iconic wonders. These include: Hegra, which was built by the Nabateans and comparable to Petra; and Muraya, a concert hall, which is the world’s largest mirrored building and has hosted the likes of Andrea Bocelli.  The Old City is being sympathetically restored to become a foodie destination that may well rival the street food scene of Shoreditch and Brixton.

The best way to get around is to hire a car – there is a lot of distance to cover between points of interest and as there is no alcohol, you don’t have to deal with the designated driver quandary.  Muraya and Elephant Rock in the late afternoon, Harrat Viewpoint at sunset, and the Old Town both during the day and at night are all highly recommended.  If you wish to visit Hegra, don’t expect the hotel to be able to get you a last-minute ticket, you need to book well in advance – it’s a clear sign that Saudi is not quite tourist ready.

As a UNESCO heritage site and with Al’Ula identified as one of the key tourist destinations in Vision 2030, there are many new hotels and resorts being built.  Having received favourable recent coverage in travel magazines during its soft opening, Habitas Al’Ula was at the top of our list of places to stay.

Nestled in the isolated oasis of the Ashar Valley, the views are simply breathtaking.  Habitas provides a 5-star experience with luxurious Bedouin-style villas, spa and wellbeing facility, as well as a bar and restaurant overlooking an infinity pool.  Great consideration has been given to how these are framed by the landscape, allowing the visitor to feel connected with the surroundings – something at the heart of the brand’s ethos.  The experience is heightened by interactive art installations including swings and trampolines.  While the trees are young and slight, it is clear to see just how beautifully established and softened the resort will look in a few years.

At this time of year, the winds are cold and despite daytime temperatures reported to be around 15-18 degrees Celsius, one needs to dress up warm. Disappointingly, this meant that we had no desire to experience the unheated infinity pool, no matter just how inviting it looked.

An à la carte breakfast, with no limit to the quantity you could order, was included with the £700 per night room rate.  The portions and presentation would satisfy any gourmand.  While for dinner we opted to explore the delights of the Old Town, we returned for after dinner mocktails, which were crafted to perfection from local ingredients.  Could alcohol be served here in the future?  Being out of sight of the locals due to its discreet location, and perfectly set to attract the international luxury traveller, it would not be a surprise if the resort is granted a special permit.

Overall, the resort invites you away from your daily life to make way for new experiences, with the intention to bring you closer to yourself and others.  Yet, we didn’t feel the need to sit down at a communal dining table “where strangers become friends and friends become family”. Instead, being away from the noise was precisely why this place was so special.  Having a quiet read, basking in the magnificence of life and the universe on the terrace of our villa was simply perfect!

 

04 – 06 January 2022 | Yanbu & Umluj

Home to an important Red Sea shipping terminal and three oil refineries – including 2 of the world’s largest – you would be forgiven for questioning why Yanbu would be worth a 365km road trip from Al-Ula.  If you enjoy driving, open roads through sandstone mountains, lava field and desert plains, and petrol so cheap that it only cost £20 to fill a 45L tank, make for some great reasons.  Historically, Yanbu was the port for pilgrims travelling to the city of Medinah.  It was also once the home of Lawrence of Arabia and as with many old parts of major cities, the surrounding area is being rejuvenated to attract tourists and is certainly worth a visit.

We stayed in a twin room at the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Yanbu, the only 5-star in town.  Very few of the rooms were occupied; the hotel felt empty, with signs of neglect requiring maintenance attention.  The breakfast buffet was perhaps too ambitious given the lack of guests, which resulted in poor service and food going dry from being left out for too long.

For places to eat, Almarsah seafood restaurant in the Old Town was a great choice: you go in, select your fish before telling the chef how you would like it cooked and served.  For two, the bill came to £35, the equivalent would easily cost £100 in the UK.

We took a daytrip to Umluj, which is 170km north of Yanbu.  Despite the warm 30 degrees Celsius temperatures in the sun, the cold winds reaffirmed why January is out of season and why the sea felt too cold to attempt anything more than a paddle.  Boats were not taking visitors to the islands for snorkelling, making it impossible to see why Umluj is considered the Maldives of Saudi Arabia.

 

06 – 08 January 202 | Jeddah

When we were checking out of Habitas Al’Ula, intrigued by two Brits on holiday in Saudi Arabia, the front desk clerk asked about our plans.  Hearing that we were going to Jeddah, she wryly remarked: “So you’re going to Las Vegas!”

Jeddah is the main port of entry for pilgrims travelling to the holy city of Mecca.  Perhaps centuries of migration have resulted in the city not only becoming the commercial centre, but also the most liberal part of Saudi Arabia, explaining the colloquial reference to Nevada’s metropolis.

As with all the other places we visited, the city only comes to life after evening prayers, which was around 4pm; this is perhaps a reflection of the cooler time period of blisteringly hot summer days.  It’s as if someone flicks a switch and the place instantly come to life – something to take into consideration when planning your itinerary.

Yet again, the old part, Al Balad, is being restored sympathetically to regenerate the streets of yesteryear.  Serving the best Arabic teas, coffees and cakes, trendy cafés with roof top terraces entice the visitor to experience the city from a different perspective.

Building on the Kingdom’s determination to establish its place on the world stage of arts, entertainment and sports, the old town is the home of the Red Sea International Film Festival; nearby, the Corniche Circuit recently hosted its inaugural Formula One Grand Prix.  At night, the Corniche is buzzing with families and friends coming together for dinner, picnics or to just sit and chat in front of the view of the world’s second tallest fountain.

As we were arriving late on the first night in Jeddah, we decided to go for the option of staying downtown, near shops and restaurants, at the relatively cheaper Hyatt House Jeddah Sari Street – a residential hotel for extended stays with serviced apartment lodgings.  The price of £150 for the night, including breakfast and use of its free laundry services – perfect after being on the road for almost 1 week.  The roof top pool was clean and heated, though we were kicked out from it by security as it is not meant to be used late in the evening.

Wanting to finish the holiday in luxury, the next day, we moved to the Park Hyatt Jeddah – Marina, Club and Spa, located on the Corniche.  As soon as you arrive, you are greeted by a sense of 5-star luxury with well-presented staff, entrance lobby and restaurant.  Despite not having many residents, the hotel is clearly a destination for local businesspeople and socialites, creating a great buzz.

We had booked a twin room only, using 25,000 points for the night.  Except for not having a proper balcony to sit out on, the room was up to the usual high standards expected of a Park Hyatt.  The 2pm checkout times in Saudi meant that we could extend late check-out until 4pm the following day, before having to take an Uber to the airport.

Despite being on the waterfront, there is no beach at the hotel, so if you’re looking to sunbathe, you need to go to the spa, which is segregated male and female.  Seba Gentlemen’s Sports and Wellness Centre comprises a massive steam room; a small sauna, a modern fitness centre; tennis and squash courts; a 25m indoor pool; a therapeutic aquamedic pool; as well as football, basketball and volleyball courts.  Sunbathing loungers were available in the outdoor jacuzzi area.  A 90-minute spa treatment cost 610 Saudia Arabian Riyals (approximately £120 GBP).

Perhaps a sign of COVID times with fewer visitors, outdoors, the relatively less-trodden paths were crumbling, the jacuzzi had tiles that were falling into the water and the sunbathing area needed a good sweep and clean.

Breakfast at an additional price of £35 per person, did not disappoint with its lavish international spread capable of satisfying the greatest of gluttonous tendencies.  Overall, the one-night stay, which felt like 2 full days, was a very relaxing end to our Arabian adventure.

 

Internal flights & airports

All our internal flights were with Saudia.  We had flown economy from Riyadh to Al’Ula, business from Yambu to Jeddah, and economy from Jeddah to Riyadh.  Contrary to what we had read, all the airports were clean and efficient.  The reasonably priced domestic flights put the comparable domestic BA routes to shame with roomier seats, in-flight screens, free beverages and snacks.  However, do expect to be bumped out of your seat and separated from your travel companion because your seat is “out of commission” – the euphemism for “a VIP “needs your bulkhead aisle seat”!

The full flight from Riyadh to Jeddah took 1 hour 30 minutes, landing at the domestic terminal, which is shiny and new.  Having collected our bags, we took a free shuttle bus to the much smaller and older Terminal 1, for international flights.

After a swift check-in and security clearance, we made ourselves comfortable in the Plaza Premium Lounge.  The facilities were clean and basic with food counters providing a small selection of hot and cold dishes and non-alcoholic drinks.

 

09 January 2022: Flight BA0262 Riyadh (RUH) to London (LHR)

A chaotic boarding through a very small gate led us on to B777 G-VIIH.  The Club cabin was busier than on the way out with approximately 60% of seats taken.

Departing in the early hours of the morning, the flight is marketed as a sleeper flight.  With that in mind, every intention was to sleep.  The heaviness of our eyelids meant that we were not going to be able to stay awake long enough to cross out of Saudi airspace to enjoy the first alcoholic drink since the beginning of our holiday.

A useful trick was to make the bed with the seat in the take-off position and the seat belt fastened over the duvet so that once the fasten seatbelt sign was extinguished, all that was needed was for the button to be pressed to transition to bed mode.  We both slept for over 6 out of the total 7 hours of the return flight.

Audible groans trumpeted our arrival at the remote stand at 06:46 hours.  The usual farce of having to get off in small socially distanced groups only to be packed like sardines on to a bus continued.  We were met by a long queue for passport control, which snaked around the L-shaped corridor, however, the line moved very quickly – we were through the e-gates with bags collected and at kerbside within 40 minutes of disembarkation.

 

Reflections

Coming away from 9 days in Saudi Arabia, we are still trying to process the dichotomy between what we experienced and what we were previously led to believe by the UK and international media.

We discovered a country with outstanding beauty, a focused practice of religion that touches every aspect of daily life, and a great desire to be accepted on the world’s stage.  Please don’t get us wrong, 9 days of tourism does not make us experts, but it helps us to increasingly question our perceptions and beliefs.

MBS’ Vision 2030, while an economic diversification strategy, has at its very core, the need for massive societal shifts.  Those shifts are happening, and they are seismic.  Though it may take a lot more before the world comes running into Saudi Arabia’s relatively open arms.

In the meantime, if you are open to experiencing and discovering something different, going somewhere that’s currently well off the beaten track, then Saudi Arabia may be the location for your next adventure!

23 Comments on "READER REVIEW: An Arabian Adventure – BA Club World and holidaying in Saudia Arabia"

  1. What great an inspiring review.

  2. Very engaging review. Thank you

  3. A well written, comprehensive review of a country most people aren’t familiar with, let alone somewhere to consider for a holiday. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Looking forward to a review on holidays in Yemen.

  5. Wilma Partridge | 9 March 2022 at 7:56 am |

    Excellent review – extremely well written! Thank you.

  6. Nancy Jenkins | 9 March 2022 at 8:17 am |

    Loved your review! I lived in Riyadh for nine years, saw many changes and definitely want to go back for a holiday! Thank you for inspiring me!

  7. What a pleasure to read this review – a thoughtful, well-written and extremely interesting account of an unusual destination. Please can we have more like this!

  8. I’m afraid my long-term admiration and gratitude to TLFL can’t override my objection to this tone-deaf post.

    Last week the US released further evidence that MBS individually authorised the abduction and murder of a journalist in a foreign country; but never mind that, here are Simon and Mitesh, straight from their 9-day, 5-star holiday to tell us that whilst “not experts”, they know more than 42 Human Rights Organisations calling for sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

    Simon, Mitesh, no to be clear – it is not what you are “were previously led to believe by the UK and international media” – it is what Security Services, dedicated Human Rights Organisations, and yes, credited journalists with years of experience of the Middle East, conclude”

    I appreciate this is difficult to navigate for TLFL – you might want-to / have-to fly to Saudi Arabia and therefore might not want to include links to the Human Rights Watch, etc – to balance the article. Of course you could avoid the puff piece all together that strays well beyond the norms of what were the flights and hotels like!

    • I always knew this could be a controversial article for some. Personally I would not travel to Saudia Arabia for the reasons you describe but I don’t have an issue if other people wish to. If people want to see the real situation with their own eyes then that’s up to them.

      In some ways the more people that visit, the more visible the actions of the Saudis are to the world and the more accountable they become. I do believe things are gradually changing for the better there but nowhere near fast enough.

      I don’t believe in politicising the blog so I don’t comment on any countries in that respect. Many of the countries I write about have many many things that could be seen as unacceptable. UAE, Qatar, South Africa, Thailand all have things that I personally struggle with for example. So I keep the blog completely neutral as I don’t believe that it’s my place to talk about political issues. That’s what people read news websites for. I try to stick solely to the travel side.

      • Thanks Michelle, on one hand I respect you for not deplatforming in a world of wokism.

        That said, the post is clearly political in extolling the virtues of MBS, a man who:
        – Authorised the murder of a foreign journalist
        – Has killed and imprisoned political rivals
        – Is pursuing far more foreign military action than his predecessors (at huge Human cost in Yemen)
        – Continues to deport Uyghurs back to China (no Simon and Pitesh, this is not a sign of religion at the core of policy)

        None of the above is about being led by religion, it is about the man this article extolls as a reformist based on entirely superficial and untested measures, contradicting far more informed sources. It goes further to say MBS is trying to find a compromise with religion, when evidence says he actively ignores religion when it suits his goals.

        The tone deaf element, of course, is that we are seeing a similar leader, one Vladimir Putin, conducting countless Human Rights Abuses in Ukraine; action that will no-doubt increase demand for Saudi Oil and Middle Eastern Gas at inflated prices, further entrenching MBS power and authority.

        So no, I must disagree, we don’t need to add Tourism money to the Saudi economy, that would be entirely irresponsible for any well-informed traveller.

  9. Interestingly it is common practice for men to hold hands in Saudi

  10. Interesting report, which reinforces the impress6 I got from visiting the Saudi pavilion at Expo 2020, Dubai.

  11. Whilst the trip may have been an interesting read, extolling the virtues of MBS as part of it dud not sit well with me.

  12. One can only wonder how much they were paid for this review, and by whom.
    I know Michelle will go crackers at this, since it does not fit with her ethos, but MBK (I prefer these initals of the Thai bargain basement super store to those of the Saudi prince/murderer).
    The Saudi oppressor relies on useful fools to do his job for him. If you agree with his system then support his economy by going there, or be a decent human being and don’t have anything to do withe this regime, which should be called out on every occasion. , and to quote a religion as a reason to visit is to perpetuate another untruth.
    I expect an ‘i am not sure whether to take this down’ post from Michele.

    • Well I certainly didn’t pay anyone.

      You are entitled to your opinion. The same as the people that wrote the article. Just because they formed a different impression from yours does not mean that someone paid them.

      I don’t take comments down unless it involves name calling or overt trolling. Yes you are on the borderline of that with this comment.

  13. Oh, and by the way, for men to hold hands is cultural not sexual in the middle east, see what would happen if these two guys were to hold hands in public is Saudi, I don’t think the response would be so chipper as Michele implies.

    • You are just being argumentative now. Of course no one is suggesting that it would be wise to be openly gay in Saudi or most Middle Eastern counties.

      Nothing in my response was “chipper”. I simply stated that it is normal for men to hold hands in many places in the Middle East. Yes it’s a cultural thing not an acceptance of gay couples.

  14. I went to Riyadh and Jeddah in October and absolutely loved it. I was also a bit afraid to go before I went, but I would highly recommend it as a great destination with friendly people.

  15. Would a review of a trip to Moscow be published? Probably not. The evil rulers of S.A. have bombed and killed many in Yemen, executed gay men, persecuted women and repressed opposition in a way Putin could only envy. I’m not surprised at how many responses have been negative. S A. is the antithesis of Islam, a religion of love and peace.
    I’m saddened to see the reviewer giving this disgraceful state any tourist euro.

  16. I felt it important to categorically say that Simon and I were not paid for any element of this article or received any kick backs, directly or otherwise – though, we are flattered with the suggestion that someone may be willing to pay for such a review.

    We knew this was a contentious article and we felt that we acknowledged this from the outset, and in the conclusion, so as not to deny the controversies. Yet, our aim was not to get into geopolitical issues when writing for a travel blog. We aimed to ensure that statements related to what is happening in the country are based on what we learnt from our experience as tourists. As we stated in the conclusion, it does not make us experts and yes, we continue to question what we experienced versus what international institutions report.

    Ultimately, we hope that it’s an interesting read, many of the kinder comments have certainly suggested that, so thank you.

    Thank you Michelle for sharing this and for your openness to see the integrity with which we tried to approach what we have written.

  17. Still want to go to Saudi ?
    Headlines 12/03/22.

    The state-run Saudi Press Agency announced the executions saying they included people ‘convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children’. 81 EXECUTIONS TODAY. still want to go to this barbaric country ?

    216 comments

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