Time travel in Saudi Arabia

Discovering ancient civilizations and futuristic 'green' cities, Lisa Merrigan is wowed by the Middle East’s 'newest' old destination

Towering sandstone rocks and burnt orange desert stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s never-ending – and not by accident. Blending into the landscape around me, hidden in plain sight, is a building completely encased by mirrors, each one reflecting this otherworldly place infinitely.

Saudia mirror
Saudia mirror2

Translating as ‘reflection’ in Arabic, Maraya is the largest mirrored building in the world. The spaceship-esque concert hall has hosted performances from international artists that include Alicia Keys, Enrique Iglesias and Westlife – just one of the ways that Saudi Arabia is trying to embrace mainstream tourism.

Saudi Arabia is somewhere I never thought I would get to visit and so, as I swapped snowy London for sand dunes, I was both excited and unsure of what to expect from this mysterious land.

But that’s the beauty of travel and it is impossible not to be curious about a country which only opened its doors to tourism in 2019.

Currently, tourism is centred around AlUla in the northwest of the country, a site referred to as ‘the world’s largest open air museum’ – and for good reason.

Saudia ancient alula
Saudia ancient

Forward thinking

Since being here I’ve learnt that Saudi is ‘a tale of two halves’. You are first encouraged to look back at its ancient history before being invited to discover how it is building for the future.

Nowhere is this juxtaposition more evident than The Line. One of the most audacious urban developments ever, The Line is a planned ‘city’ that will run through the mountains of NEOM to the Red Sea in a perfect single 170km-long straight line. It is being designed to house nine million people, without roads, cars or emissions, and will run on 100% renewable energy with 95% of land preserved for nature.

The first phase of the project is due to be finished by 2030.

Part of the Saudi Vision 2030 – a strategy to further promote tourism to the country – is construction of the Diriyah Gate project, an ambitious $20 billion heritage and tourism development which, when finished, will become a hub for education, recreation, culture, retail and hospitality with museums, shopping, restaurants and hotels at its centre.

Saudia sunset
Saudia lounge

And it doesn’t stop there for the kingdom has its sights set on building the world’s tallest skyscraper, Jeddah Tower, which is expected to reach 3280ft high, dwarfing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

Our accommodation, although not futuristic, was in keeping with the modern theme. I was particularly wowed by the new Habitas, which offers 96 luxurious and sustainable tents in a desert oasis setting. Guests look like they are on a film set as they lounge poolside against a stunning backdrop of sandstone cliffs.

Saudia cave
Saudia group

Embracing Arabia

It’s no secret that Saudi is an ultra- conservative country and while rules are relaxed within hotels, tourists are expected to dress modestly in public.

Men wear a white throbe, an ankle-length shirt that covers their arms, which is paired with a chequered headdress.

Women usually wear a black abaya (a flowy overcoat) over their clothes with a hijab (headscarf) and a burka, covering their face. As our group quickly realises, the rules for expats are a bit more lax, but nevertheless respect for the local culture is expected and extremely important.

After an hour-long flight from AlUla we arrive in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, which is a hub for shopping, entertainment and business and also teeming with restaurants which tempt us with authentic dishes and blends of traditional spices. Seated on the floor, our shoes off, we are served some of the most delicious local dishes that come with the welcoming hospitality that we have become used to since being in Saudi.

We proceed to the UNESCO heritage site of Diriyah, its traditional mud-brick architecture and winding alleyways making us lose track of time. This ‘must see’ old city is 20km from the centre of Riyadh and is where the Saudi dynasty began in 1727.

The trip finishes in style with exclusive access to the new Alfursan Lounge at the King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) in Jeddah. The lounge is open for international flights only and access is given to Saudi Airlines” business and first-class passengers.

Despite still being somewhat new – and for some controversial territory for travellers – there’s no denying that Saudi Arabia is pulling out all the stops for tourism and is determined to find a way to future-proof its appeal to travellers while carefully embracing its unrivalled and unique history.

Book it with… Elegant Resorts

Elegant Resorts offers a four-night stay at Banyan Tree AlUla in a Dune One Bedroom Villa, including breakfast, economy flights with Saudia Airlines, private car transfers & UK lounge passes, from £4,015pp, based on September 9 departure.