RIYADH - Even in a Google-mapped world, Saudi Arabia is such an unseen kingdom that very few outsiders have an inkling of its wintry peaks, coral reefs and stylish cafes.
Its best-kept secret is Madain Saleh, the ruins of a lost city akin to Jordan's Petra, but still blissfully crowd-free. These rose-red sister cities deep in the desert were the jewels of powerful Nabatean merchants - of Arabic origin - who traversed the ancient Incense Route profiting richly from the frankincense trade.
Madain Saleh will be unveiled to the world in October next year, now that Saudi Arabia has decided to open its borders to international visitors for the first time.
On Sept 27, it launched a new tourist visa for 49 countries, including Singapore, in a glitzy multimedia event in the capital Riyadh.
After a mesmerising launch party where virtual falcons soar and Saudi women drive triumphantly across the stage, I get a first look at Madain Saleh and other Saudi secrets on a five-day expedition that reveals the country as far more than scorched desert.
I stroll alone in ritzy Jeddah and snorkel at a Red Sea private beach. I also stand at the Edge of the World, a geological wonder of cliffs and canyons outside Riyadh, where I realise again that the uncharted Middle East nation is rich in travel experiences and not just oil.
Indeed, the kingdom is intent on diversifying away from an oil economy even though it is still the top exporter of petroleum and sits on 18 per cent of the world's reserves.
Tourism generates 10 per cent of the world's gross domestic product, as Saudi officials often point out. This sector has splendid potential for a land awash in little-glimpsed treasures that include five Unesco World Heritage Sites, among them Madain Saleh.
First-timers to Saudi Arabia can start with these places.
1. TABUK: RED SEA BEAUTY AND WINTER SNOW
This region conceals mountains that, incredibly, are snow-dusted in winter - to the delight of Saudis whose summer months can be a blazing 45 deg C.
I do not spy any snow. But at Riyadh's gala launch of the new visa, there is an indoor virtual-reality experience of the mountains that can be trekked, while cold snowflakes waft from the ceiling.
Tabuk is also known for coral reefs and wadis or deep ravines with streams. We drive along the Red Sea with its deep-blue waves and rocky cliffs. In this border zone of the north-west, we also get occasional glimpses of Egypt and Jordan across the water. Israel lies a little beyond.
We also traverse cool canyons to the Wadi Tayeb Esm, with its tinkling perpetual stream. There is no time for a scenic 5km trek so I content myself with the solitude of the wadi and its Biblical echoes.
This is also known as the Valley of Moses where the Jewish prophet was self-exiled for a time. He led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea.
The Red Sea tells other stories today. A most Insta-worthy Greek shipwreck lies half-submerged in a bay. Becalmed since 1978, the cargo ship looks attractively lonesome, like the tiny Hayat Haql Resort and Marina some distance away.
On a private beach at the resort, where a couple of travel companions slip out of shoulder-to-toe abayas into bikinis, its gentle owner Amjad Al-Sanousi takes us out on his small motorboat to snorkel among untouched corals.
Mostly, I love sitting with my toes in the Red Sea, gazing at an ombre Arabic sunset of bright and pastel orange hues. It is also lovely to see the Saudis, sometimes stereotyped as zealots, enjoying the dreamy sunset like anyone else on earth.
Before long, possibly, the Neom futuristic city that is taking shape in the vicinity, may take these places out of a half- forgotten idyll.
2. AL-ULA: A 'PETRA-PLUS' OF LOST WORLDS
Saudi Arabia had revealed little about Al-Ula, a cluster of remarkable ruins from the pre-Islamic era, apparently to avoid displeasing the pious.
But the savvy Saudis now reckon that these remnants of epochs past in an endless desert have new appeal for high-end travellers.
The best of Al-Ula is Madain Saleh or Hegra, the southern-most city of the enigmatic Nabateans who toggled between nomadic and city life before being annexed by Rome in 106AD and falling into obscurity.
Their capital was Petra, a Jordanian icon that received about 780,400 visitors in 2017.
Madain Saleh, the second-biggest metropolis after Petra and just as timeless and significant, is still silent as we are among the first modern-day travellers here.
It is peppered with 131 towering tombs that remain gorgeously intact. The red sandstone facades have sophisticated carvings such as lions and steps to heaven.
Mr Amr Al-Madani, chief executive of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, tells The Straits Times Al-Ula is "Petra-plus" because it has more layers than the famous Jordanian attraction.
Al-Ula, which rests on a vast 22,000 sq km site, has evidence of other empires besides the Nabateans, including the Dadan kingdom that is mentioned in the Bible, the Romans and the Ottomans.
"How can you have all of this treasure and make it difficult for people to come?" he says. Al-Ula, which he calls an open living museum, will soon have 1,000 hotel rooms and an upgraded airport, among other plans.
In August, the Aman luxury resort group announced that it will plant three Al-Ula resorts, including a tented camp, and will receive guests in 2023. This marks its Middle East debut.
For now, the sprinkling of luxury lodgings includes Shaden Resort. Set among surreal sandstone towers that are subtly illuminated by candles when I arrive at night, it is still not fully open but accepts guests, for instance, those who travel here for the Winter At Tantora Festival (Thursday to March 7 next year).
They can soar over Al-Ula in vintage aircraft or book special excursions to the archaeological sites, besides listening to world-class musicians in a mirrored concert hall or popping into multiple art exhibits.
Like me, they can also go stargazing and sip spiced Arabic coffee in the desert at midnight, as the Bedouins have done for centuries.
3. JEDDAH: HIP AND ANCIENT
While the cosmopolitan port city of Jeddah hosts swish arts festivals and rock concerts and has a reputation as an open Arabic city, it also has 3,000 years of history.
We wander into the Al-Balad, the Old City of merchants' houses, spice markets and tiny communal spaces where kids play soccer or weddings are celebrated.
Al-Balad feels raggedly - the Unesco World Heritage Site dates back to the seventh century, after all - but it is a fascinating glimpse of multicultural Jeddah.
That sense that the world converges in Jeddah can be felt in the coral-stone homes of 19th-century merchants, pharmacies, art galleries, cafes - and also in a narrow alley where a supercar commercial is being filmed.
In one of the house-museums, I see Moroccan pots and an Indonesian batik sarong, and peer into a second-floor living room with roshan - wooden bay windows that look onto the street and let in lots of light.
A Domino set and Quran in the bay windows are clues to the family life of merchants.
Also multicultural is little Magad Cafe, owned by a historian who also hopes to open outlets in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
The low-ceilinged cafe is nostalgic with nooks replete with old photos, an antique rifle and a rotary phone once owned by an Egyptian king.
Later, it is a multi-sensorial experience to pop into Al-Buraidy Herbs, a traditional pharmacy that is also fragrant with incense, herbs and spices. On display are Indonesian cloves and Singapore's Axe brand of medicated oil.
I stroll on the corniche, a 30km coastal stretch that faces the Red Sea and is dotted with sculptures. I enjoy the time alone in a country that is deemed unsafe in some minds. It is safe.
But it is mid-afternoon and the sky is breathing fire, so I duck into the palatial Ritz-Carlton, where I am staying, for fresh Arabic coffee.
4. EDGE OF THE WORLD
On the outskirts of Riyadh, the Edge of the World has the majesty of the Grand Canyon, but is far less trodden.
I stand atop ochre cliffs that plunge 300m to an ancient ocean bed that is now etched by streams and caravan routes. I can barely see a caravan that is like an imaginary white dot on the horizon - Bedouin life endures.
Jebel Fihrayn, as it is called in Arabic, is an elemental experience. I have to walk step by step under a ferocious sun, trying not to trip over my abaya, or rip it, yet also grateful that its sheer fabric and flowing silhouette are perfect for the merciless desert.
My steps slow further on a ledge that I am told is solid, though when I look at my pictures later, I get cold feet in retrospect.
But that minuscule ledge, in contrast to the immensity of this place, is great perspective for any visitor. Just no selfie heroics, please.
I rest in a cleft of the mountain and listen to the silence. It is so soundless that there is a "ringing" in the ears and I imagine it is like being in outer space.
In that moment, I realise that Saudi Arabia has many edges of the world.
5. BEYOND: FLOWER TRIBES, WINTER PEAKS
A short journey in Saudi Arabia quickens a yearning to see and do more.
I have yet to step onto wintry peaks in Tabuk or bury my face in massive damask roses in the southerly Taif village.
And long before this visit, I have been enraptured by photos of the Asir flower tribe in the far south-west. Here, men wear headgear ornamented by fresh flowers. Asir is also a region of juniper-clad 3,000m-high mountains. Saudi Arabia, the largest country.
Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East and a huge presence on the world stage, is still undiscovered and filled with last frontiers.
SAUDI WOMEN ROCK
At a chic cafe in Jeddah, a fleeting conversation with a young female neurosurgeon-in-training opens a delightful window into Saudi life.
Ms Jumanah Ajawi, 25, pictures herself as a solo traveller, music addict and coffeeholic and shares these pleasures on Instagram. She is also determined to drive.
The Coldplay fan once travelled to Chicago where the British chart-toppers were on tour. She also jetted to Amsterdam for a performance by British rock trio Muse.
"Music feeds my soul," she says.
In Saudi Arabia, where restrictions on entertainment have eased, she has enjoyed three concerts fronted by Greek composer Yanni, Dutch DJ Martin Garrix and well-known Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir.
When we pick up our conversation on WhatsApp last weekend and I wonder how she had been able to vacation solo in London and Paris, she says only her father's "electronic permission" was required.
But even this is history in a changing Saudi Arabia. "Now, any female above 21 can travel on her own," she says.
Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on women drivers in June last year and she is waiting in line.
"I applied for a licence, but I am still in the queue. I think everyone is applying," she says. "But I'll get it soon. Of course."
Twice a week, she lingers at Toqa Coffee, where we first meet in October. Owned by a stylish female entrepreneur, the indie cafe creates savoury and sweet treats with an Arabian twist, such as brownie baclava and warm date cake topped with luscious spiced Arabic-coffee ice cream.
Black coffee brewed from Ethiopian beans is Ms Ajawi's default cuppa. "But I like to give myself the chance to try everything."
Which surely sums up her embrace of life as well.
During my week in the conservative kingdom, I encounter other independent women, often travelling alone or in all-female groups.
Intent on getting her driving licence, one young woman had flown from Jeddah to Tabuk, where the wait-list was shorter.
She is always travelling - she made friends with three Singaporeans in Korea - and got her wandering gene from her father.
Airports are a good place to observe female gumption, sometimes expressed in a flair for fashion. I watch a millennial who is dolled up with dramatic red make-up. She taps incessantly on her smartphone that displays a breaching whale. She looks nonchalant with a monogrammed knapsack and white sports shoes under her abaya.
Like me, she heads to a separate security line for women at the airport. The big upside is that this line is shorter than that for men.
While I see women at work everywhere, including in banks and hotels, I have more interaction with men, who display the generous hospitality instilled in all Saudis from early childhood. Our guides and drivers include a logistics manager in Jeddah and a used-car dealer in Tabuk, who love showing guests around as their sideline.
Ibrahim, my driver in Tabuk, speaks little English but eagerly uses Google Translate to chat with me in the front seat the entire day.
He buys a USB charger when I indicate that I would like to charge my phone. He treats us to chocolates. A Bedouin, he loves tenting with his family on weekends.
In Jeddah, we are shown around by Mr Sami Khairy, a logistics manager who received a scholarship to earn a BA in marketing in New Brunswick, Canada, where his wife was pursuing a doctorate. He has part-timed as an English-speaking guide for years.
Born in Virginia in the United States, where his naval-officer father was stationed, he holds Saudi and American passports.
Illustrating how multicultural Jeddah is, he says: "My father was originally from Egypt. My mother was from Punjab in India. I was born in Virginia. Two of my four kids were born in Canada.
"And we are all Saudis."
Like him, Saudi Arabia as a nation is embracing travellers. Give it time, I say.
When I step off the plane in the capital Riyadh, it is fun to be greeted by an iPad-toting millennial. "Open Hearts. Open Doors," flashes the message on his device.
But when I am leaving the airport in my abaya, an officious man steps up and asks: "Where is your husband?"
In the next moment, he wants to know: "Are you a nurse?" No doubt he is alluding to the huge presence of Filipino professionals in the country.
When he realises that I am a journalist on a business visa, the situation flips and he says with new warmth: "Welcome, welcome."
Three Saudi giga-projects will revolutionise luxury tourism. They flow from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's post-oil diversification plan, known as Vision 2030.
1. Neom: futuristic city
Flying taxis, glow-in-the-dark sand and an artificial moon live-streaming images from the cosmos. Cloud-seeded rain that keeps the desert city cooler than over-the-top rival Dubai. Holographic teachers.
This utopia was painted in July by The Wall Street Journal, which delved into 2,300 pages of secret documents.
How much will remain fantasy? That is uncertain, but here are some knowns: The government has pledged US$500 billion (S$675.9 billion) to create this smart city-state bordering the bio-diverse Red Sea and is seeking investments.
Neom, powered by clean energy, will be 36 times the size of Singapore. Images of Gardens by the Bay are in the dossier, suggesting that its creators are taking inspiration from Singapore.
The first phase is imminent: 2020. But an international airport is almost ready.
2. Red Sea Project: Eco luxury
This next-generation eco luxury haven encompasses diverse and hidden terrain - think remote desert with pinnacles and an island archipelago amid the world's fourth largest coral reef.
The natural appeal is matched by cultural wonder, for this western Saudi region was an ancient crossroads of the world.
Mr John Pagano, chief executive of The Red Sea Development Company, tells The Sunday Times: "For travellers across the world, what sets us apart is the diversity on offer in an integrated destination."
To keep the place pure, the Red Sea Project will be 100 per cent carbon-neutral. Fifteen million plants will beautify the islands.
The government-backed project continues to seek investors. The first phase, planned for 2022, has reportedly been fully funded with US$750 million worth of contracts inked.
3. Amaala: Saudi Riviera
The super-rich can chill in this uber-luxurious bubble of wellness that also lies on the Red Sea.
Mr Carlos Wakim, the project's chief of urban planning, says beyond luxury, "they are looking for new experiences and extraordinary journeys".
Here, they can indulge in pleasures from extreme sports to art auctions. They can boost environmental protection so marine life stays vibrant.
While the final cost of the giga-project is not yet clear, the target for completion is 2028.
From Singapore, I fly Emirates (emirates.com) to Dubai. Then I take another flight to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
My five-day trip also covers the cities of Al-Ula, Tabuk and Jeddah that I reach by road or domestic flight.
I fly out of Jeddah to Singapore via Dubai.
My adventure itinerary is designed by Dubai-based Escapes (es-capes.com), which has seen a huge rise in inquiries since the new tourist visa was introduced on Sept 27.
Escapes also has an itinerary more focused on culture and heritage. There are overlaps, with both itineraries covering the signature attraction of Al-Ula.
The price for a five-night journey starts at around US$2,000 (S$2,700) a person on a twin-sharing basis. This includes accommodation, transfers, private guided excursions, tickets for attractions and meals. International and domestic flights are not included.
• Travellers to Saudi Arabia can now get one-year, multiple-entry visas that allow them to spend up to 90 days in the country.
Visas can be obtained online, on arrival, or from embassies and consulates. They cost 440 riyal (S$158.50).
To apply for e-visas, go to visa.visitsaudi.com.
• For women travellers, abayas are no longer mandatory. But this rule has only just been relaxed, so dress respectfully.
Made from sheer black fabric, a loose abaya actually offers comfortable protection in the desert. Head scarves are not required, though pack one for places of worship.
• Tourism is nascent in some places, so explore with an open mindset.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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