Saudi Arabia New Guidebook for 2024

A bustling souk in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Max Hartshorne photos.
A bustling souk in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Max Hartshorne photos.

Saudi is open for tourism now!

Written by a female Middle East expert, Bradt’s Saudi Arabia guidebook is the first English-language travel guide from a mainstream publisher focusing exclusively on the Kingdom, which has now opened for general tourism as part of rapid political,Bradt's Saudi Arabia guidebook economic, and social reforms.

With detailed advice on what to see and do, listings for accommodation and restaurants, guidance on cultural etiquette, and advice for women and other diverse travelers, this book provides the practical information adventurous tourists need to explore this new, exciting destination.

Saudi Arabia will appeal to adventure travelers, offering pristine, world-class scuba diving to mountain trekking. With dramatic scenery, including a desert stretching hundreds of kilometers (where you can camp like a Bedouin) and several accessible nature reserves, visitors looking for undisturbed landscapes are spoilt for choice.

Culture vultures will appreciate pre-Islamic rock art, Nabatean heritage, Mada’in Saleh (the sister city to Jordan’s Petra in Jordan) and six UNESCO World Heritage Sites rarely visited by international tourists.

Particularly after sundown, when Saudi Arabia truly comes alive, urbanites can explore the cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, where shopping opportunities range from traditional souqs to top-end malls where the wealthy go to see and be seen.

Gastronomists can enjoy varied cuisine, from fine dining worthy of a Michelin star to traditional meals served on the floor, shared by all and eaten by hand.

This guide dispels misinformation by providing an unbiased, up-to-date and comprehensive resource that accurately reflects what Saudi Arabia now offers visitors from all backgrounds. Most outsiders know little about the Kingdom other than from typically negative media coverage, so may be pleasantly surprised at its rich history and youthful population eager to extend hospitality to guests respecting their culture and traditions.

A comprehensive guide combining detailed travel information about the entire Kingdom (from the Northern Borders to Asir, and from Hejaz to Eastern Province) with a chapter explaining some of the main practices of and reasons for the hajj and umrah pilgrimages, plus contextual insights covering cultural etiquette, reforms and women travellers, Bradt’s Saudi Arabia is the perfect companion for people who thrive on off-the-beaten-path travel.

Excerpt from the Book:

Visiting the Al Ahsa UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hofuf

IMG 8287

Officially known as ‘al Ahsa, an Evolving Cultural Landscape’, this UNESCO-listed gem qualifies for its natural characteristics, as well as sites of historical and cultural importance. Encompassing Hofuf and the surrounding al Ahsa area, this is a treasure trove of oases, palaces and a fantastic souq.

Twelve separate locations have been defined as part of the ‘cultural landscape’: Eastern Oasis, Northern Oasis, as Seef, Souq al Qasriyah, Qasr Khuzam, Qasr Sahood, Qasr Ibrahim, Jawatha Archaeological Site and Mosque, al Oyun village, Ain Qannas archaeological site and Buhayra Asfar. Highlights include:

The Red Sea in Saudi Arabia
The Red Sea in Saudi Arabia

Al Mulla House (Beit al Bai’ah)

The gem of Old Koot is undoubtedly al Mulla House. Also known as the House of Allegiance, it is important for both its architecture and its history. Built by the Governor of al Ahsa Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Mulla in 1787–88, the mudbrick building has been sympathetically restored and mixes Arab and Ottoman architectural styles.

Ceilings are beautifully decorated with contrasting colours of the wood supports and straw. The upper floor has gorgeous wooden balconies suspended over the inner courtyard. The future king of Saudi Arabia, ibn Saud was hosted by Sheikh Abdullatif bin Abdul Rahman al Mulla in this residence in 1913. This was where ibn Saud facilitated the peaceful annexation of the Emirate of al Ahsa to the Emirate of Nejd, a significant step in the unification and current borders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Qasr Ibrahim

This castle is unusual as it blends the styles of Islamic and military architecture. It sits on an entire city block and has a total area of 16,500m2. In the centre of the structure stands the al

Qubba mosque, built by the Ottomans in 1555, with its distinctive white dome and Turkish-style minaret with spiral stairs. The mosque is surrounded by thick walls, observation windows and towers on each corner. Inside the castle, there are also remnants of barracks, a weapons warehouse, the commander’s residence and meeting room.

There is also a steam bath. The walls are made of mud-brick, and the ceilings of palm wood and sandalwood. The entrance to the castle is located on the south side and leads to a museum.

Souq al Qasriyah

Souq al Qasriyah
Souq al Qasriyah

This souq is one of the most authentic and beautiful souqs to be found anywhere in Saudi Arabia. Although many historians date the souq to the early 19th century, others believe it has its origins at least 600 years ago.

It suffered from a major fire in 2001, but it has been restored in a sympathetic way while adding modern conveniences such as a flat floor that makes for good wheelchair and buggy access.

Try to enter through Gate 1 at the southern end of the souq. The gate itself is multistorey and contains a large, pointed arch surrounded by symmetrical rounded arches, topped by a viewing platform and wooden window covers above. Inside, there are more than 400 shops, built into clay structures and adorned with wooden doors. Traditional dakas or terraces overhang the shops to protect customers from weather extremes, and high ceilings throughout the souq provide for ventilation, keeping it cooler in the summer.

The souq is remarkably well organized, with well-signposted aisle numbers in Arabic and English making it easy to keep track of your location. Most of the shops at the southern end of the souq sell household goods ranging from Saudi-style coffee pots and mabkhara (incense burners) to ordinary, everyday items.

There are also many small food stalls and mini-markets that remain very popular with local Saudi customers. The north end shops are a delight for anyone looking for traditional Hofuf clothing, for men and women, which incorporates tribal decorations distinct from elsewhere in the Kingdom.

Every thobe-wearing Saudi needs more of these to keep their Keffiyeh in place.
Every thobe-wearing Saudi needs more of these to keep their Keffiyeh in place.

This part of the souq is a particularly good place for bishts, the robes usually adorned with gold trim and worn by prominent Saudi men over their thobes. Wool-lined, soft leather winter waistcoats beautifully crafted in the al Ahsa style are a more practical purchase as, unlike bishts, which should only be worn by Saudi men, these waistcoats can be worn by visitors.

If you like dates, the local khalasi variety, grown in al Ahsa, are a great treat and souvenir – you may find it a struggle to avoid eating your purchases before you get home. It is much better to visit after sunset as many shops do not open until then despite published opening hours.

Grace Edwards has worked throughout the Middle East for decades, including in Saudi Arabia, both as a businesswoman in her own right and in a number of key roles for multinational corporations. She currently provides business consultancy services for people working in Saudi Arabia and Saudi nationals working with other cultures at home and abroad. Over the years, extensive travels means that she has spent significant time in different regions of the Kingdom less known to outsiders.

She understands the nuances of Saudi Arabia both as a woman and, in her professional capacity, as an ‘honorary man’. Edwards’ long experience also helps her understand the significant changes the country is continuing to undergo and how they impact Saudis and visitors alike. She is the author of Working and Living in Saudi Arabia.

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