Secret Traveller by Jamal Shaikh: Saudi Arabia’s secret garden

Updated on Dec 05, 2022 10:54 AM IST

In AlUla, an oasis in Saudi Arabia, new age coffee franchises rub shoulders with 4,000-year-old monuments

Rainbow Rock or The Arch is a sandstone, arch that is 90 minutes away from the centre of AlUla town
Rainbow Rock or The Arch is a sandstone, arch that is 90 minutes away from the centre of AlUla town

If I were to tell you that I attended a Mariah Carey concert in Saudi Arabia, would you believe me?

If I were to say that 200 years after the world cherished the ancient city of Petra, an even older city has now been discovered in the middle of the Arabian desert, and archaeologists continue to make discoveries dating 4,000 years, or more… would you be surprised?

And, if I were to put a new luxury tourism spot on your radar, and tell you there’s just one catch: alcohol is illegal there, what would you say?

Welcome to AlUla in Western Saudi Arabia, about 1,100 km west of Riyadh, and 300 km north of Medina. As the Islamic country takes steps to open itself to tourists from all over the world, the city of AlUla is set to be the gem in its crown.

Jabal Al-Fil or Elephant Rock is another iconic natural rock formation; it resembles an elephant with its trunk touching the ground (Omar Al Nahdi)
Jabal Al-Fil or Elephant Rock is another iconic natural rock formation; it resembles an elephant with its trunk touching the ground (Omar Al Nahdi)

Artificial, but real

Now, it isn’t without a certain amount of scorn that one looks at artificially created cities made for business and tourism. Dubai, with its “seven-star hotels” (if something like that even exists!), ski slopes in the middle of a scorching desert, and man-made islands, has done enough to put off genuine character-seeking travellers. You may be able to do a lot of what you’d do in New York, Paris and Tokyo in Dubai… but do duplicated experiences excite the curious traveller?

Interestingly, AlUla cannot be slotted in that characterless pile. For, just outside this oasis town lies Hegra, a 4,000-odd year-old city of the Nabatean Kingdom; and a sister city to Jordan’s very precious Petra. About 100-odd tombs have been discovered in Hegra, and the day I visited was also the day the gift shop opened on site.

If and when AlUla becomes a top tourist destination in the world, I think to myself, I’ll consider myself fortunate to have been one of the first few people to visit here.

The rooms at Banyan Tree AlUla look like tents, but are luxurious with living rooms, plunge pools and modern luxuries.
The rooms at Banyan Tree AlUla look like tents, but are luxurious with living rooms, plunge pools and modern luxuries.

The guided tour took us to three tombs in a vintage Range Rover; and our guide, Anwaar, an abaya-wearing young Saudi girl, gave us the lowdown of all that had been discovered: how the tombs were created by people when they were alive and hoped to be buried there, how the steps on the outside were meant to ease their ascension to the heavens, and more.

“All of us tour guides visited Petra last week to be able to understand what we have at hand,” Anwaar told us, as she warmed up to my chattiness. The Saudi Arabian government has appointed a Royal Commission to develop AlUla as a major attraction, and by the looks of the small, but luxurious AlUla airport and our guide Anwaar’s trip to Jordan, no expense has been spared. There is also an emphasis on employing locals from the region as guides, drivers etc.

Isn’t Anwar a man’s name, I asked.

The swimming pool set amongst unique rock formations at AlUla’s new luxury resort, Banyan Tree
The swimming pool set amongst unique rock formations at AlUla’s new luxury resort, Banyan Tree

Our guide seems to smile under her hijab. “Anwar is a man’s name,” she says, as she holds out her ID for me to see. “My name’s got a double A, which makes it female.”

Anwaar had instinctively and cleverly used her thumb to cover her face as she showed me her photo ID. Yet another thing to note, accept and respect.

Landscape mode on

Even without the history of Hegra, AlUla is a stunning place to see. Its unique rock formations can be compared to Cappadocia in Turkey, and being an oasis in an otherwise arid country, the soil is fertile enough to produce dates, figs, acaria and moringa.

An elephant-shaped rock, Jabal Al-Fil, is marketed as a popular tourist spot, with camping sites and night stays, while the other “soft adventure activities” include ziplining, horseback and camel riding, hot air ballooning, helicopter rides and more.

The Old Town promised a lot of discovery, but when we landed there at 2 o’clock one afternoon, most shops were closed; everything opens post 4 pm because it’s too hot before that! The first store we came across was… hold your breath… Dunkin’ Donuts!

AlUla Old Town, a maze of buildings that date back to the 10th century and now houses a market, too
AlUla Old Town, a maze of buildings that date back to the 10th century and now houses a market, too

The Starbucks around the corner opened only at 5, but when we returned after dinner at 11 pm, it was buzzing with several tables occupied by women only, which itself is a breakthrough for the otherwise conservative nation.

The stores sold everything from local handicrafts to clothes, but the entire set-up seemed more new than old. The most head turning experience came from a 20-something Caucasian youngster, who slurred in a loud voice, “I’m so high right now….”

For a country that bans the consumption, sale and even possession of alcohol—even in five-star hotels—one instinctively looked around for the boy and wondered how he was high, and what had helped him get there.

The Maraya concert hall holds the Guinness World Record for largest mirrored building on earth
The Maraya concert hall holds the Guinness World Record for largest mirrored building on earth

Not so high!

It is 6 in the evening, and we are at a pre-concert reception in a rectangular building called Maraya that’s covered in mirrors. Set in the middle of sand dunes, the idea is to ensure the building—commissioned and owned by the government—blends beautifully into its surroundings. Interestingly, the international artiste performing here today shares her name with the building.

First sentence to change to: Mariah Carey has been invited by Accor Hotels and Banyan Tree to celebrate the opening of AlUla’s newest super luxury resort, the Banyan Tree AlUla. The hotel consists of lavish villas set amidst sand dunes, complete with living rooms, private plunge pools and all-day breakfast on demand. The design resembles a tent, but is just as modern a living space as any other. The swimming pool is carved in between two rock formations and is as stunning to look at as it is to swim in.

Unfortunately, I’m staying in the more modest, but younger resort, Habitas. This one also has tents, but no private pools, TVs or room service. Instead, it offers guests battery-powered bicycles to encourage you to be more active..

AlUla City already has four top-end resorts up and running, and more are on the cards. But, will the top dollar paying customer visit if he is forbidden to buy alcohol?

Mariah Carey performed at Maraya to celebrate the opening of the Banyan Tree hotel
Mariah Carey performed at Maraya to celebrate the opening of the Banyan Tree hotel

My thoughts are interrupted by an anecdote Mariah Carey narrates on stage. “Everyone called me Maria growing up and I hated it so much,” she says. “I should have spelt my name like this building is named: Maraya!”

The big question

Hoteliers explain, on conditions of anonymity, that alcohol may be allowed in resorts in the near future. But in my mind, that’s no deterrent at all. To the curious traveller, a country that has remained so closed to the outside world for so long is a treat to visit. To the fitness-conscious, experience-seeking millennial traveller, a no-alcohol holiday may make this vacation a standout amongst others.

And for the history seeker, there’s more than Hegra: a city called Dadan, built meticulously by stone and dating back to the late 9th and early 8th century BC, shows how it was one of the most developed towns of the time. And Jabal Ikmah, a mountain with inscriptions on the cliffs dating back to the Dadanite and Lihyanite periods, is described most intriguingly, as a huge “open air library.”

Let’s leave the duplication to Dubai. This part of Saudi Arabia has a lot of its own to sell.

Follow @JamalShaikh on Instagram and Twitter

From HT Brunch, December 3, 2022

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Jamal Shaikh is National Editor - Brunch and New Media Initiatives at the Hindustan Times. He is a well-known TV host and magazine editor, who has launched and edited the Indian editions of Men’s Health, Robb Report and Discovery Channel Magazine. He tweets and Instagrams @jamalshaikh

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