Information on Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a destination unfamiliar to many travellers due to the country's strict policy about issuing tourist visas. It is a fascinating place, steeped in tradition yet embracing the high-tech and modern. Landscapes range from vast deserts to mountain ranges, and ancient holy cities and archaeological sites stand in contrast to the high-rises and luxury hotels of Riyadh. Most visitors to Saudi Arabia are Muslims making their sacred pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
Riyadh has been the country's capital since 1932 although it played a secondary role to Jeddah up until the 1970s. Built with money from the oil boom, it is a high-tech capital boasting massive luxury hotels and one of the world's largest airports. Al-Bathaa is located in the centre, and is an interesting place to explore.
The Masmak Fortress in Riyadh was built in 1865, and renovated recently, serving now as a history museum focused on the kingdom's unification by Abdul Aziz. The history of the country from the Stone Age to the present day is covered at the Riyadh Museum. Dir'aiyah, the kingdom's first capital, is located 30kms to the north of Riyadh, and is the most popular archaeological site in Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah, known as the 'Paris of Arabia', has a long and fascinating history which is well-chronicled at the Municipality Museum. The museum is located in a 200-year-old house made from Red Sea coral, and has been recently restored. A collection of photographs traces the development of Jeddah. The Jeddah Museum, a regional museum of archaeology and ethnography, is another cultural attraction of interest.
Mecca is the holiest city in Islam as it was the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed. Most visitors to Saudi Arabia see only this one city, which is located inland from Jeddah. All Muslims, regardless of where they live, are expected by their faith to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once in their life. The Grand Mosque and the sacred Zamzam stand at the centre of the city. Mecca and other holy sites in the vicinity are closed to non-Muslims, and checkpoints are set up along the access roads to enforce this.
Near the country's border with Yemen is Najran, a sprawling oasis which was at one time a major stopping point on the 'Frankincense Route'. Taif is another site of interest, located above Mecca in the mountains, where cooler weather prevails. The Shubra Palace, a beautifully-restored traditional home, houses the city museum.
The country follows a strict code of Islamic laws. The consumption of alcohol and pork are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Women are required to dress with modesty, and are not permitted to drive. They also are not allowed to eat in mixed company unless their husbands are with them, and then only in specifically-designated areas. The mutaween, the kingdom's powerful religious police force, actively enforce these Islamic laws.