Introducing Saudi Arabia

Al Faisaliah Hotel, Riyadh © Rosewood Hotels

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but few enter as tourists. This conservative country connecting Africa and mainland Asia contains the spiritual centre of the Islamic world, Mecca, and the sacred city of Medina, so most of the visitors are pilgrims, permitted on special religious visas.

Others come to this oil-rich nation on sponsored business trips, generally finding little time or facility for leisure and pleasure. Saudi Arabia is intent on keeping its traditions, culture and religious heritage away from prying western eyes. Its cities, however, are not backwaters but modern, bustling commercial centres, like the Royal capital, Riyadh, offering excellent hotels and some breathtaking sights such as the Al Faisaliah golden geodesic dome, one of the tallest buildings in the region.

Amongst it all, the magic of Arabia shines through in the souks (markets) where vendors tout everything from carpets to camel milk. Rules and regulations make sightseeing difficult for foreigners except on a few approved and expensive tours, but sites like the ruins of 15th-century Dir'aiyah (the nation's first capital) and trips to the world's largest camel market make for interesting excursions. The preserved ancient city of Jeddah is also listed as a 'tourist site', as is that city's seafront corniche, a popular spot with the air of a British seaside resort that draws the country's own domestic holidaymakers.

Occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula, and bordered by no fewer than eight Middle-Eastern states, Saudi Arabia manages its highly-controlled religious society alongside the onslaught of its progressive oil-boom industry. The kingdom's strategic position both geographically and culturally at the centre of the Arab world has made it an unsafe place for westerners, and those who do visit are advised to plan thoroughly and be fully informed.

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