Saudi Arabia - Kingdom At A Crossroads

In the last 40 years Saudi Arabia has shifted from a tribal nomadic desert nation to an ultra-modern land of gleaming towns and cities, all the while guarding its conservative way of life founded on strict Islamic principles. Recently, however, there are signs of a new kind of change, including women being given permission to drive and more fully participating in the workforce. Has the plunge in oil prices since 2015 pushed the kingdom to reevaluate itself? Will social reforms usher in further progressive changes? This GeoEx journey will focus on this beguiling country at a crossroads and give us a fascinating look at this ancient land.


December 2 - 14, 2023 (Abu Dhabi extension December 14 - 16 )


Itinerary at a Glance

Saudi Arabia - Kingdom At A Crossroads

Day 1 - Arrive JeddahAfter arriving at Jeddah's King Abdulaziz International Airport, you are met and taken to your hotel.

Jeddah was the main port for the city of Mecca, an important stop on the north-south inland trade route, long before the coming of Islam. The rapid spread of Islam saw Jeddah's importance increase as pilgrims from all over the Islamic world disembarked in the city's port en route to Mecca. This melding of cultures and openness to outside influence has stayed with the city, which is more heterogeneous than other parts of the country.
Day 2 - JeddahAs part of the Hejaz, Jeddah was long ruled by the Ottomans and vestiges of their unique style of building are still to be found in Al Balad, the old part of the city which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We begin our sightseeing here this morning to get a glimpse of a way of life long gone. Walking through the old streets we’ll visit Nasif House, built in the mid-19th century for a wealthy local merchant, and Bashan House, another old family house which is now a cultural centre.

From there we see a more resolutely modern side of the city with a visit to the Sculpture Park on the Corniche, where a collection of large contemporary sculptures has been assembled by such notables as Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Jacques Lipchitz, Victor Vasarely, and Arnaldo Pomodoro.

Time permitting, we visit a contemporary art gallery and studio. Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly known for its talented young artists, several of whom have gained international renown. We’ll spend time with one or more artists at their studios learning about their inspiration and techniques.

This afternoon we drive to the private museum of Abdul Raouf Hasan Khalil. Housed in a mock Andalusian-style three-story building, the ground floor consists of exhibits on the civilization, geography, geology, and spread of writing, minerals and trade routes of the Arabian Peninsula; the second floor has textiles, coins, and weaponry; and the third floor has excellent examples of traditional costume and jewellery, and other articles of Saudi culture. It is an impressive collection put together by one man.

This evening we gather for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant.
Day 3 - Jeddah to AbhaThis morning, we fly to Abha in Asir province in the southwest of the country. A longstanding tradition in this region is for women to paint their houses in geometric patterns in vivid colours ranging from scarlet to cadmium yellow and electric blue. Nowadays the women use modern paints to achieve their distinctive look, but in the past they created their own dyes using local vegetables and minerals.

On arrival, we visit Bin Hamsan who has turned his home into a traditional Asir Palace complete with courtyard, open fire, and traditional Bedouin tent. After lunch, we continue to the traditional village of Al Yanfaa.

This evening, we visit Fatema’s Museum. Fatema is a "house painter," while her husband, Ali Megawi, is an indefatigable promoter of local culture.
Day 4 - AbhaThis morning we drive to summit viewpoint for Jebel Sawdah, Saudi Arabia’s highest peak at 9500 feet. The road takes us through little villages of architecturally unique houses, terraced fields, and stands of juniper and cypress trees.

From here, we will drive to the village of Rijal Almaa, once an important regional commercial centre. The village consists of about 60 palaces built from natural stone, clay and wood, and containing several floors. The village contains a heritage museum established by the efforts of the local inhabitants in order to save their regional heritage, and they have turned one of the forts into the museum headquarters since 1985.

In the afternoon, we return to Abha and visit the Tuesday Market, where, unusually in the Kingdom, women are the vendors. We continue to the Muftaha Arts Village, a collective which nurtured the talents of many of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known artists, such as Abdulnasser Gharem, Arwa al Neami, and Ahmed Mattar, whose mother is a calligrapher and a painter of the traditional houses.
Day 5 - Abha to RiyadhAfter breakfast, we drive to the airport for our flight to Riyadh, capital city and modern metropolis, which rises from the dun-coloured desert in an optimistic thrust of concrete, steel, and glass-sheathed towers. Originally an oasis city, Riyadh is considered to have been founded in 1746, although settlement predates that by several centuries. In 1932 Riyadh was a walled city of only 5.5 square miles; today the city sprawls more than 1,245 square miles of flat, scrubby desert.

Our exploration of the city begins with a visit to Masmak Fort, a mud-brick building famous as the site where in 1902, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud and his men scaled the walls to regain control of the city from the Al Rashid family, traditional rivals of the Al Saud.

We take a stroll through the old souk, where it is still possible to find traditional items of Bedouin culture such as frankincense burners, baskets, and brass coffee roasting pans.

After lunch we visit the state-of-the-art National Museum, an interactive museum with reconstructed Dilmun tombs, audio-visual displays of the old frankincense route cities of Al Faw and Meda’in Salah, as well as excellent exhibits of everything Saudi, from its geology, flora, and fauna to the beginnings of Islam and the Prophet’s family tree.

Time permitting we'll walk to the nearby Al Murabba Palace, built by King Abdul Aziz in 1946, with summer and winter reception rooms constructed around an open courtyard.
Day 6 - RiyadhWe begin our sightseeing with a visit to Diriyah, family seat of the Al Saud family and capital of the Emirate of the same name from 1744 -1818. The area known collectively today as Turaif is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1802 after the Al Saud-led Wahhabis captured Mecca, they destroyed some saints' tombs, the visitation of which they considered idolatrous, and turned away the Hajj caravans from Cairo and Damascus as infidels and idolaters. The Ottoman Sultan, nominally in charge of the region and hence the pilgrims, was affronted and dispatched an army under Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian viceroy, to punish the perpetrators. In 1818 Abdullah al Saud was defeated and sent to Constantinople, where he was executed. Diriyah was destroyed and the remnants of Al Saud family ended up in Riyadh, a few miles to the south.

Several buildings in the Diriyah complex, including Saad bin Saud Palace, Qasr Nasr, and Burj Faisal, have already undergone extensive restoration and the palace is notable for its traditional painted doors.
Day 7 - Riyadh to Qassim Province En route to Buraidah in Qassim Province, we stop to explore the old mud-brick villages of Shagra and Ushaiger. Like all ancient desert towns, they were surrounded by thick mud-brick walls with towers placed at strategic points to protect them from marauding nomads. Shagra still has remnants of its old city walls and tower, as well as a small heritage centre. In Ushaiger the walls and the gatehouse, which has distinctive stepped merlons, have been restored, as have the carved and painted doors. The town is also surrounded by date palms, perhaps the country’s most visible export after oil.

After lunch, we continue to Buraidah, where we visit the souk and the local museum, which is built in the traditional style. Dinner is served at a local restaurant.
Day 8 - Qassim to HailThis morning, we'll head out to visit the Buraidah camel market, one of the largest in the kingdom. If we’re in luck we may see some locals bidding for them. These days, camels are kept only for racing or for camel beauty contests.

Afterwards, we drive to Hail, capital of the province of the same name. Hail gained importance as a major stop on the camel routes that crisscrossed the Arabian Peninsula, north-south from Dawmat al Jandal to the ancient South Yemeni kingdoms of Saba, Hadramawt, and Himyar, and east-west from Mesopotamia to the Red Sea. Much later, during the Islamic period, it was one of the stops on the Darb Zubaidah, the pilgrim route that linked Baghdad with Medina and Mecca. It was named for Zubaidah (one of the wives of Harun al Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame), who funded the maintenance of the route and the upkeep of wells. With the advent of the Hejaz Railway, which bypassed the town, Hail declined in importance, but after a long period of economic stagnation, it has developed into a centre of agriculture with dates being a major product.

Until its conquest by Abdul-Aziz in 1921, Hail was the capital of the Jabal Shammar Emirate and seat of the Al Rashid family. During this time, Hail was visited by several intrepid European travellers, including Lady Anne Blunt, William Palgrave, and the indefatigable Victorian Charles Doughty, all of whom wrote about their experiences. In 1914 Gertrude Bell also paid a visit.

This afternoon we visit the 18th-century mud-brick A’Arif Fort in the centre of Hail. The square in front of the fort is sometimes used by weavers to stitch together the long panels of the black goat-hair tents traditionally used by Bedouin. Today the tents are primarily used for cultural and leisure purposes. Next, we explore Al Qishlah, a mid-20th-century structure in the traditional mud-brick tower-style that was originally built as a palace before becoming a barracks and now a military museum.
Day 9 - Hail to Al Jouf & Sakaka via JubbahThis morning we drive north towards Al Jouf, stopping to visit the cliffs at Jubbah, the most recent of Saudi Arabia’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Considered by some experts to be one of the foremost sites of rock art in the world, we see depictions of long-horned cattle, ibex, oryx, hyenas, camels, dogs, ostriches, and horses. Among the human representations are two exceptional carvings documenting a chariot being pulled by horses and two human figures facing each other. The inscriptions are in Thamudic, the oldest known script on the Arabian Peninsula, which experts believe to be at least 3,000 years old.

En route to Sakaka, we pause to see some large, menhir-like stones called Al Rajajil (or, "the men"). The standing stones which almost certainly had astrological significance, date back to the middle of the 4th millennium BCE. Some of the pillars are also inscribed with Thamudic script.
Day 10 - Sakaka to Tabuk via Dawmat al JandalThis morning we begin the drive to Tabuk along the northwestern edge of the Nefud Desert. About an hour into our drive, we stop in Dawmat al Jandal, of which the earliest references -- 688 BCE in Assyrian texts -- note that Dawmat al Jandal was attacked by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. The city generated considerable wealth as a centre of worship of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, and later as an important commercial centre due to its location astride the same north-south frankincense route and east-west trade routes as Hail. Despite all this activity, the first recorded visit to the desert town by a European was not until 1845.

We look around Qasr Marid, built by the Nabataeans and the most impressive building in Dawmat. In the 3rd century, it was attacked by the army of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, but the fortress proved impregnable. Several of the round towers still remain. We also see the mud-brick ruins and unusual architecture of the Mosque of Omar, named for the second Caliph Omar ibn Khattab, who was en route to Jerusalem. Founded in 634 BCE, it is one of the oldest mosques in the kingdom.
Day 11 - Excursion to Wadi HesmaThe day is ours to explore the red sand dunes of Wadi Hesma. Travellers who have been to Jordan’s Wadi Rum, located just over the border, will recognize the same red sand and weirdly shaped limestone rock formations here.

Four-by-four vehicles take us into the sand dunes to see ancient rock carvings of oryx, camels, and wild dogs or jackals, as well as Kufic script, the earliest style of Arabic script, which dates back to the early years of Islam.
Day 12 - Explore Tabuk; Fly to Jeddah This morning we visit the Ottoman fort, built in 1655, and the Tabuk station of the Hejaz Railway. Constructed from 1901 to 1908 by the Germans (allies of the Ottoman Empire during World War I), the Hejaz Railway was ostensibly built to take pilgrims to Mecca, but was also a way of transporting troops and weapons to the restive Hejaz province. It did not run effectively after 1916 due to the Arab revolt led by Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, and T.E. Lawrence. The Arabs attacked the tracks and trains regularly. With the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the railway was abandoned in 1924.

Later today we fly to Jeddah. This evening we gather for a farewell dinner and reminisce about our adventure together!
Day 13 - Depart JeddahToday you are taken to the airport for your flights home (typically via Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates).

If you're joining the extension to Abu Dhabi, bid farewell to Saudi Arabia and fly to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates and its administrative heart. This former fishing village is now a city with some visually stunning modern architecture, although it remains slower-paced than its sister city Dubai. Meaning "father of the gazelle" in Arabic, Abu Dhabi was described by Wilfrid Thesiger as "a dilapidated town along the seashore".
Day 14 - Excursion to the Louvre Abu DhabiIn late 2017, the long-anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors, part of a 30-year agreement between the city and the French government. With masterpieces borrowed from French institutions, the museum collection includes icons of the artistic canon, such as Jacques-Louis David and Auguste Rodin, to more contemporary works by Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer, and Cy Twombly.

After our visit we have lunch at Mezlai Restaurant at Emirates Palace, followed by an afternoon at leisure for shopping or independent explorations.

At sunset, we visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the largest mosque in the Emirates, before returning to our hotel and dinner.
Day 15 - Depart Abu DhabiThis morning those interested may visit the Falcon Hospital, the rehabilitation facility that nurses injured or sick birds of prey back to health. Falconry has been an important sport in history and continues today.

Continue to the airport for your departing flight home.