Surprising, Unsettling, Surreal: Roaming Through Saudi Arabia

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Wandering alone along the southern fringes of Saudi Arabia’s mountainous Asir Province, some eight miles from the Yemeni border, in a nondescript town with a prominent sculpture of a rifle balanced on an ornately painted plinth, I met a man, Nawab Khan, who was building a palace out of mud.

Actually, he was rebuilding the structure, restoring it. And when I came across him, he hadn’t yet begun his work for the day; he was seated on the side of the road beneath its red-and-white windows — cross-legged, on a rug, leaning over a pot of tea and a bowl of dates.

Two weeks earlier, on the far side of the country, a fellow traveler had pointed at a map and described the crumbling buildings here, in Dhahran al-Janub, arranged in a colorful open-air museum. Finding myself nearby, I’d detoured to have a look — and there was Mr. Khan, at first looking at me curiously and then waving me over to join him. Sensing my interest in the cluster of irregular towers, he stood up, produced a large key ring and began opening a series of padlocks. When he vanished through a doorway, I followed him into a shadowy stairwell.

This, of course, was my mother’s worst nightmare: Traveling solo, I’d been coaxed by a stranger into an unlit building in a remote Saudi village, within a volatile border area that the U.S. Department of State advises Americans to stay away from.

By now, though, more than halfway through a 5,200-mile road trip, I trusted Mr. Khan’s enthusiasm as a genuine expression of pride, not a ploy. All across Saudi Arabia, I’d seen countless projects being built, from simple museums to high-end resorts. These were the early fruits of an $800 billion investment in the travel sector, itself part of a much larger effort, Vision 2030, to remake the kingdom and reduce its economic dependence on oil.

But I’d begun to see the building projects as something else, too: the striving of a country — long shrouded to most Westerners — to be seen, reconsidered, accepted. And with its doors suddenly flung open and the pandemic behind us, visitors like me were finally beginning to witness this new Saudi Arabia, much to Mr. Khan’s and all the other builders’ delight.

Few countries present as complicated a prospect for travelers as Saudi Arabia.

Long associated with Islamic extremism, human rights abuses and the oppression of women, the kingdom has made strides in recent years to refashion its society and its reputation abroad.

Central to the transformations led by 38-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is a major push for international visitors. It represents a sea change in a country that, until 2019, issued no nonreligious tourist visas and instead catered almost exclusively to Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. In February, by contrast, my tourist e-visa was approved online in minutes.

Saudi Arabia has already transformed one of its premier destinations — Al-Ula, with its UNESCO-listed Nabatean tombs — from a neglected collection of archaeological sites into a lavish retreat with a bevy of activities on offer, including guided tours, wellness festivals, design exhibitions and hot air balloon rides.

Another project will create a vast array of luxury resorts on or near the Red Sea.

Still more projects include the development of Diriyah, the birthplace of the first Saudi state; the preservation and development of the coastal city of Jeddah; an offshore theme park called the Rig; and Neom, the futuristic city that has garnered the lion’s share of attention.

All told, the country is hoping to draw 70 million international tourists per year by 2030, with tourism contributing 10 percent of its gross domestic product. (In 2023, the country logged 27 million international tourists, according to government figures, with tourism contributing about 4 percent of G.D.P.)

To get a sense of these projects and the changes unfolding in Saudi society, I spent a month exploring the kingdom by car. I traveled alone, without a fixer, driver or translator. Per New York Times ethics guidelines, I declined the government’s many offers of discounts and complimentary services.

Much of the time I felt I’d been tossed the keys to the kingdom. But there were moments, too, when I faced a more complicated reality, one epitomized by a road sign that forced me to abruptly exit the highway some 15 miles from the center of Mecca. “Obligatory for Non Muslims,” it read, pointing to the offramp.

To me, the sign broadcast the lines being drawn to compartmentalize the country, which is now marketing itself to two sets of travelers with increasingly divergent — and sometimes contradictory — expectations: luxury tourists at ease with bikinis and cocktails, and pilgrims prepared for modesty and strict religious adherence. It’s hard to know whether the kingdom can satisfy both without antagonizing either.

My trip began in Jeddah, where, after spending two days exploring its historic district, I rented a car and drove eight hours north to Al-Ula, a benchmark for the new Saudi tourism initiatives.

The name Al-Ula refers to both a small city and a broader region packed with attractions: Hegra, the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and its biggest archaeological draw, is a 30-minute drive north of Old Town, a maze of crumbling mud-brick buildings now partly restored. Between the two, and fanning out to the east and west, are several other archaeological sites, as well as a smattering of resorts, event spaces and adventure outfitters. Farther northeast, beyond Hegra, is the Sharaan Nature Reserve, a vast protected zone used for conservation efforts.

My first priority during my five-day stay in Al-Ula was a visit to Hegra.

Like Petra, its better-known counterpart in Jordan, Hegra was built by the Nabateans, an ancient people who flourished 2,000 years ago. The site contains more than 100 tombs that were carved from solid rock, their entrances adorned with embellishments. Most impressive among them, set apart and standing some 70 feet tall, is a tomb colloquially called the Lonely Castle.

Not long ago, visitors could hire private guides and wander the area on foot, climbing in and out of — and no doubt damaging — the many tombs. Not anymore: I boarded an air-conditioned tour bus and zipped past most of them, stopping at just four locations.

At the penultimate stop, we exited the bus and trudged several hundred feet along a sandy path to the front of the Lonely Castle. Even in the late afternoon, the heat was stifling. I craned my neck to take in the details of the sculpted facade, which emerged like a mirage from one side of a massive boulder: its four pilasters, the rough chisel marks near the bottom, its characteristic five-stepped crown. Ten minutes evaporated, and I turned to find my group being shepherded back onto the bus. I jogged through the sand to catch up.

A few miles north of Hegra, I hopped in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser — accompanied by an Italian graduate student and his mother — for a drive through the sandy expanse of the Sharaan Nature Reserve.

The scenery was sublime: Slipping through a narrow slot canyon, we emerged into a vast, open desert plain, then settled into a wide valley enclosed by an amphitheater of cliffs. Occasionally our guide stopped and led us on short hikes to petroglyphs, some pockmarked by bullet holes, or to lush fields of wildflowers, where he plucked edible greens and invited us to sample their lemony tang.

Gabriele Morelli, the graduate student, had first come to Al-Ula a few years ago — a different era, he said, given how quickly the place had transformed. He described a version that no longer exists, rife with cheap accommodation, lax rules and a free-for-all sensibility.

Some of the changes, of course, have been necessary to protect delicate ecosystems and archaeological sites from ever-growing crowds. But several people I met in Al-Ula — Saudis and foreigners alike — quietly lamented the extent of the high-end development and the steady erosion of affordability. Many of the new offerings, like the Banyan Tree resort, they pointed out, are luxury destinations that cater to wealthy travelers.

These hushed criticisms were among my early lessons on how difficult it can be to gauge the way Saudis feel about the pace and the pervasiveness of the transformations reshaping their society.

I got a taste of Al-Ula’s exclusivity — and of the uncanniness that occasionally surfaced throughout my trip — at a Lauryn Hill concert in an event space called Maraya. To reach the hall, I passed through a security gate, where an attendant scanned my e-ticket and directed me two miles up a winding road into the heart of the Ashar Valley, home to several high-end restaurants and resorts.

Rounding the final bend, I felt as if I’d stumbled into a computer-generated image: Ant-size humans were dwarfed by a reflective structure that both asserted itself and blended into the landscape. Inside, waiters served hors d’oeuvres and brightly colored mocktails to a chic young crowd.

The surreality peaked when, midway through the show, I left my plush seat to join some concertgoers near the stage — only to turn and see John Bolton, former President Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser, seated in the front row.

Where else, I wondered, could I attend a rap concert in the middle of the desert with a longtime fixture of the Republican Party — amid a crowd that cheered when Ms. Hill mentioned Palestine — but this strange new corner of Saudi Arabia?

After Al-Ula, I drove to another of the kingdom’s extravagant schemes: the Red Sea project, billed as the “world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism destination.” After weaving through a morass of construction-related traffic, I boarded a yacht — alongside a merry band of Saudi influencers — and was piloted some 15 miles to a remote island, where I disembarked in a world of unqualified opulence at the St. Regis Red Sea Resort.

I was chauffeured around in an electric golf cart — past 43 beachside “dune” villas and onto two long boardwalks that connect the rest of the resort to 47 “coral” villas, built on stilts over shallow turquoise water. Along the way, I listened to Lucas Julien-Vauzelle, an executive assistant manager, wax poetic about sustainability. “We take it to the next level,” he said, before rattling off a list of facts and figures: 100 percent renewable energy, a solar-powered 5G network, plans to enhance biologically diverse habitats.

By 2030, he said, the Red Sea project will offer 50 hotels across its island and inland sites. Citing the Maldives, he mentioned the kingdom’s plans to claim a share of the same high-end market.

Another prediction came by way of Keith Thornton, the director of restaurants, who said he expects the resort to legally serve alcohol by the end of the year. (While a liquor store for non-Muslim diplomats recently opened in Riyadh, the Saudi government has made no indication that it plans to reconsider its broader prohibition of alcohol.)

The hotel was undeniably impressive. But there’s an inescapable irony to a lavish resort built at unfathomable expense in the middle of the sea — with guests ferried out by chartered boat and seaplane — that flaunts its aspirations for sustainability.

Toward the end of my several-hour visit, I learned that every piece of vegetation, including 646 palm trees, had been transplanted from an off-site nursery. Later, reviewing historical satellite images, I found visual evidence that the island — described to me as pristine — had been dramatically fortified and, in the process, largely remade. Its footprint had also been significantly altered. It was, in a sense, an artificial island built where a smaller natural island once stood.

Something else struck me, too: The place was nearly empty, save for the staff and the Saudi influencers. Granted, the resort had just opened the month before — but the same was true at the nearby Six Senses Southern Dunes, an inland Red Sea resort that opened in November. Fredrik Blomqvist, the general manager there, told me that its isolated location in a serene expanse of desert — part of its appeal — also presented a challenge in drawing customers. “The biggest thing,” he said, “is to get the message out that the country is open.”

Since the country began issuing tourist visas, influencers have been documenting their experiences in places like Jeddah and Al-Ula, their trips often paid for by the Saudi government. Their breezy content contributes to the impression that the kingdom is awaiting discovery by foreign visitors with out-of-date prejudices. To an extent, for a certain segment of tourists, that’s true.

For many travelers, though, the depiction of the kingdom as an uncomplicated getaway could be dangerously misleading.

Speech in Saudi Arabia is strictly limited; dissent is not tolerated — nor is the open practice of any religion other than the government’s interpretation of Islam. In its travel advisory, the U.S. Department of State warns that “social media commentary — including past comments — which Saudi authorities may deem critical, offensive, or disruptive to public order, could lead to arrest.” Punishment for Saudi nationals has been far worse: In 2023, a retired teacher was sentenced to death after he criticized the ruling family via anonymous accounts. As of late 2023, he remained in prison.

Other restrictions are harder to parse. L.G.B.T.Q. travelers are officially welcome in the kingdom but face a conundrum: They might face arrest or other criminal penalties for openly expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity. As recently as 2021, an independent U.S. federal agency included Saudi Arabia on a list of countries where same-sex relationships are punishable by death, noting that “the government has not sought this penalty in recent years.”

When asked how he would convince a same-sex couple that it was safe to visit, Jerry Inzerillo, a native New Yorker and the group chief executive of Diriyah, said: “We don’t ask you any questions when you come into the country or when you leave.”

“Maybe that’s not conclusive enough,” he added, “but a lot of people have come.”

Female travelers might also face difficulties, since advancements in women’s rights are not equally distributed throughout the kingdom.

The changes were more visible in big cities and tourist centers. Ghydda Tariq, an assistant marketing manager in Al-Ula, described how new professional opportunities had emerged for her in recent years. Maysoon, a young woman I met in Jeddah, made extra money by occasionally driving for Uber. Haneen Alqadi, an employee at the St. Regis Red Sea, described how women there are free to wear bikinis without fear of repercussions.

Outside such places, though, I sometimes went for days without seeing more than a handful of women, invariably wearing niqabs, let alone seeing them engaged in public life or tourism. My photographs reflect that imbalance.

As an easily identifiable Western man, I moved through the country with an array of advantages: the kindness and cheery curiosity of strangers, the ease of passage at military checkpoints, and the freedom to interact with a male-dominated society at markets, museums, parks, restaurants, cafes. Not all travelers could expect the same treatment.

Roaming in the far north and south, I often found the earlier version of the kingdom — with lax rules and less development — that had been described to me in Al-Ula.

I trekked to the northern city of Sakaka to see an archaeological site promoted as the Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia: a set of monoliths called the Rajajil Columns thought to have been erected some 6,000 years ago but about which little is definitively known.

My heart sank when I pulled into the parking lot after a five-hour drive and found the columns blocked by a tall fence. Approaching on foot, though, I noticed that a section of the fence had been peeled back and that visitors were wandering freely among the stones, which protruded from the earth like isolated clusters of crooked teeth. I joined the small crowd, if hesitatingly, and was surprised to find no footpaths, nor anything to keep us a safe distance from the columns. In the end I wondered if our access had been officially approved or informally arranged.

My travel experiences were sometimes awkward in other ways, too.

Standing just outside the grounds of the central mosque in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried, I was detained by a stern member of the Special Forces. (Even after 2019, non-Muslim tourists remained barred from Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. The ban was relaxed in parts of Medina in 2021.)

The guard interrogated me and, after calling a colleague to confer, demanded that I leave the area. “Go,” he said threateningly. Another traveler who witnessed the encounter scurried away to avoid a similar fate.

The unsettling exchange cast a pall over my time in the city, which few non-Muslims have seen. As far as I knew, I’d abided by the rules by staying outside the grounds of the Prophet’s Mosque — a boundary line that I’d confirmed with tourism officials beforehand.

More than anything, family and friends wanted to know if I felt safe on my trip — and I did, almost without exception. Petty crime in Saudi Arabia is exceedingly rare. And while parts of the country are under a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory, even my rambling itinerary was approved by a security expert.

Instead of fearing for my safety, I was often preoccupied with how I’d fairly portray a place that elicited such a range of conflicting emotions: joy and distress, excitement and apprehension, sincerity and doubt. So much lay hidden from public view — like the collective anguish over the war raging in Gaza. And so little was easy to categorize, in part because the warmth of everyday Saudis was strikingly at odds with the ruthlessness of their authoritarian government.

In Riyadh, a young man warned me not to speak openly with strangers. “People get arrested here for a tweet,” he said. “Can you imagine?”

I could, actually. The Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi had chronicled his government’s increasingly draconian responses to criticism. “Repression and intimidation are not — and never should be — the acceptable companions of reform,” he wrote in The Washington Post in 2018, just months before he was killed and dismembered at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Were we to travel only where we feel comfortable and unchallenged, we’d all be poorer for it. But the question of whether to travel to Saudi Arabia is thornier than that.

It’s easy to see one response, “No,” as yielding to closed-mindedness at the expense of ordinary people — like the kindly vendor Abdullah, who served me local honey at his shop in the southern mountains.

But it’s easy, too, to see “Yes” as an affirmation that might makes right, that amusement outweighs morality, that princely wealth can wipe a stained slate clean.

Ten days into my trip, I ventured to Wadi al-Disah, a steep-walled valley where I’d booked a tent at a campsite I found on Airbnb. For an additional 300 riyals ($80), my host, Faisal, led me on a four-wheel-drive tour, departing the paved road and weaving through a path along the bed of an ephemeral river. Continually jolted by the uneven terrain, we eased past thick reeds, lofty palms and small bands of visitors who’d nestled into clearings.

As we left, I met a group of young men gathered for a picnic, their sandals scattered around a carpet on which they were preparing their dinner. Delighted to meet an American with a camera, they asked if I’d take a group portrait, then exchanged information with me so I could send them a copy — a scenario by then so familiar that I hardly thought anything of it.

A full day later, some 200 miles away, I was cruising along a lonely highway near the Jordanian border when a Land Cruiser blew past me at an astonishing speed. I felt my compact car rock from its turbulence — and then I watched with a twinge of dread as the car abruptly braked, slowing hard in the left lane until our front ends were aligned. It held steady there.

For a moment I stared straight ahead, hoping to avoid a confrontation. When I finally turned to look, I saw a group of boys grinning wildly and waving through an open window. Then I realized: Improbably, it was three of the young men I’d met the day before. Somehow we’d all followed the same route. And somehow, in the split second it took them to fly past, they’d recognized me. I lifted my camera from the passenger seat and snapped a photograph.

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