We recently visited the Middle East and asked you to tell us the myths you’d heard so we could find out if they were true or not.
Everyone has preconceived ideas of how different areas of the Middle East will be and, as a company that has been working with clients our there for a number of years, we thought we were well prepared for the trip. The purpose of our visit was a twofold blend of work and myth busting intrigue. Online visas had recently opened up and we wanted to see first-hand what this notorious country had to offer.
Wearing traditional dress in public is your choice… TRUE.
As two young blond women, the first thing on our shopping list complimented the first thing on our priority list – respectful cultural attire. After having practiced adorning, ourselves at home we were ready, if not slightly apprehensive, for our flight into Riyadh. While it felt exciting to fit in so well with locals going through immigration, we couldn’t help but feel slightly jealous of the streams of other travelling women who were wearing far less conservative clothing, and it was a refreshing reminder that Saudi Arabia has come a long way in welcoming more variety for all women’s wardrobes. By the end of our trip we drew similar attention to ourselves as tourists regardless of whether we wore local or foreign attire, albeit modest.
It’s well documented that the form of dress in the Middle East is very different to what we’re used to in the West. Visions of having to cover up completely and wear something you’re not used to during your entire trip, is usually what people imagine.
Here we are on day 1…
…and then day 2…
Only local food is available in Saudi Arabia… FALSE.
Within about 30 minutes of our drive from the airport to our hotel, we had passed so many different international chain restaurants it was like looking through a kaleidoscopic menu, each spin bringing a new cuisine to the forefront. In fact, we were hard pressed to find something local – and were we not paying in Riyals we may have thought we were on a culinary tour of Europe. Our hotel was no different, both the a la carte menu and buffet options catered for every imaginable palette, the choice each day ranging from American pancakes to Brazilian feijoada.
We did try local style dining at Najd Village, which specialises in Middle Eastern and halal cuisine. The menu was stacked with such an amazing array of dishes that we ended up going for a set menu for 3.
The real complication really was where we were allowed to be seats; our mixed gender and unmarried combination was not unusual or unwelcome however, and we were seated in a family area. (Other areas include separation for unmarried men, and unmarried women who follow local custom.) The food was delicious and enough for at least 6 people, the tea and coffee put on quite the display.
They even had non-alcoholic beer which tasted about as authentic as non-alcoholic beer back home.
There’s a wide array of international cuisines available, and working with us in Saudi Arabia, you’ll have the opportunity to try some incredible food from around the world as the resident chefs are some of the best in the world.
It isn’t safe in Saudi Arabia, especially for women… FALSE.
Saudi Arabia has an extremely low crime rate by global standards making it arguably safer than a lot of ‘well-travelled’ countries. This was well reflected by our experiences while there, and as women (regardless of dress code) we were treated with nothing but respect as we visited restaurants and shopping malls and walked the streets of Riyadh.
We have already planned our return trip, which is likely to take place later this year, and are excited to see what continual steps the country has taken to providing a modern lifestyle for locals and tourists alike. It is, of course, important that you are respectful to local customs, are mindful of your surroundings, and carry out due diligence when travelling around – like anywhere in the world.
Saudi Arabia is boring and there’s nothing to do… FALSE.
Riyadh city is so massive we couldn’t hope to explore every avenue in only a few days, but during our visit we were exposed to so much potential for enjoyment; whether or not it would be boring to live in depends entirely on your disposition and interests. However, the fact that you can enjoy cultural museums or site visits in the morning, indulge the shopaholic within at one or several huge shopping malls during the afternoon, and become an intrepid desert explorer on quad-bike or camelback in the evening, makes for an impressive variety.
A trip to Al Nakheel shopping mall, the most impressive in Riyadh, gives opportunities for go kart sessions, arcade game and even a foray into Victoria Secret, should you desire it.
People are really welcoming to tourists and Westerners… TRUE.
As always, going somewhere new usually means feeling a little unsure of what to expect, and that can lead to feeling nervous. Luckily, the people of Saudi Arabia were so friendly, and almost surprised to see us, making our trip fun from the moment we landed.
In many cases local people are equally as nervous and confused as tourists when confronted with each other, neither having had much experience of the other, and largely depending on biased information likely learned from the media. It was big welcoming smiles of surprise and eager forthcoming assistance everywhere we went. On more than one occasion I was told what a pleasure it was for tourists to come and see the country for themselves and experience first-hand Saudi Arabian hospitality. It is also a very rare truth that tourism hasn’t yet got the tarnished name often associated to it in other parts of the world. It felt unusually great to be British and still very much welcomed with open arms!
Travelling around the different areas of Riyadh felt almost like a journey through time. You are trapped between a modern and an historic global landmark where the rich cultural tapestry is receiving a fresh lick of paint. It’s like walking into the unfinished renovation of a forgotten painting where the artist is unsure of where to go next.
Saudi Arabia obviously wants to be recognised as a global leader, you can see it in how they are redesigning their cities, updating their laws and throwing open their doors to Western and Eastern tourism alike. However, there is a sense of insurmountably deep routed tradition here that will have an unknown combination with the very impactful elements of modernisation happening all around.