Having Fun in Saudi Arabia

Is "Riyadh the new Dubai"? - one of our recruits thinks it's heading that way

Forty years ago, we lived in Khamis Mushayt, in the southwest, mountainous Asir Region of Saudi Arabia. At the time, many Saudis had rarely seen foreign women with uncovered faces. We were regularly invited into the traditional mud-brick homes, served cardamom coffee, and asked many very personal questions.

At one time or another, our home housed unusual pets: wild desert cats who gave birth to kittens in our bedroom closet; a donkey that someone gave to us; a young monkey given to us by a departing American soldier. We named him Elron, and my children had a great deal of difficulty trying to reaccustom him to the wild; despite their best efforts, they failed, and ultimately, I understand, he refused to join his mates in the mountains, and instead joined the small zoo in our compound.

My favorite memory, which still gives me goosebumps, is hearing prayer calls echoing from small villages in the hills, especially when sung with an operatic tenor voice.

In 1980, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 9.6 million, was relatively untouched by the modern world. Today, the country has a population of about 35.5 million and, over the years, the social, cultural, and especially the entertainment life, has changed dramatically.

Dining

I will start with the food. I can’t quote statistics, but I suspect that Saudi Arabia has more restaurants per capita than even New York. There are many Western fast food restaurants, but you can get these at home. In my view, the best and cheapest food is in the local ethnic restaurants, at which you will eat cubes of deep-fried beef dipped in hummus, fish fresh from the Red Sea, or the sweetest desserts you will ever eat.

At the other end, Western hotels compete to draw the largest crowds for their regular Friday buffets. (Friday is the holy day of rest in Islam.) The buffets themselves are works of art.

Unmarried couples of the opposite sex can now dine together, as well as attend movies, concerts, and in general walk together in public. (On this note, abayas are no longer mandatory for women while out in public.)

Lights, Camera, Action!

The number of movie theatres showing Western films is growing quickly. Black Panther was the first movie show in the Kingdom. Audiences are usually mixed, Hollywood blockbusters are shown in English (some scenes may be censored), and you can eat your fill of the usual cinema snacks.

In January 2021, with the pandemic raging, Riyadh opened a 150-vehicle drive-in theatre.

The Red Sea International Film Festival is held in Jeddah every December. It focusses on original fiction, documentary, and animated films.

Last, but certainly not least, for several years now, Netflix has been available (although possibly with some censoring of explicit scenes or unacceptable political content).

For the Sports Enthusiasts

Soccer (aka Football)

Our British male recruits talk about going to football (soccer) matches. The Saudi Professional League is the top division soccer league in the Kingdom. It has a total of 16 teams, representing 12 cities in the Kingdom.

Paris St-Germain is the guest team for the Riyadh Cup in January 2022. PSG and its well-known players, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, will play against two of Riyadh’s – and the Kingdom’s – biggest clubs, Al-Hilal SFC and Al Nassr FC.

Fore!

For the men and women who enjoy a day on the links, Saudi Arabia is home to 14 golf courses, of which seven are grass and seven are sand. The most famous is the relatively new (2017) Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, located about 100 km north of Jeddah, and which has hosted the European Tour and the Ladies European Tour.

Basketball

In December 2021, for the second time, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 3×3 World Tour Final will come to Jeddah. The final features the best 12 teams of the FIBA 3×3 World Tour season.

Formula 1 Racing

On December 5, 2021, the first Saudi Arabia Grand Prix F1 race will take place on the brand new Jeddah Corniche circuit. Formula 1 advertises Jeddah’s track as, “The fastest street track in Formula 1 history ... with an average speed of over 250km/h predicted in simulations.” (Sounds crazy to a non-racing enthusiast, like me.)

For those not interested in the actual race, performers at the Grand Prix Concert include Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, and David Guetta.

Dakar Rally

Between January 2 and 14, 2022, the famous Dakar Rally returns to Saudi deserts for the race’s 44th edition. The 12 stages will span Hail in the north to Jeddah on the Red Sea Coast. (History buffs may remember that the son of former British PM Margaret Thatcher went missing for six days in the Sahara during the 1982 Dakar Rally.)

The Saudi Cup

The Saudi Cup, labelled “The World’s Most Valuable Horse Race,” was first run in February 2020, and will run again in February 2022. Buy tickets to see horses race on turf and dirt tracks, for a total purse of over $30.5 million!

Outdoors Calling?

For years, we’ve told you about the "traditional” outdoor activities, such as desert hiking, camping, and diving in the magical Red Sea. You can now add horseback riding, archery, quad biking, and for the higher-maintenance types, glamping! These are standard offerings in Riyadh and Jeddah, and throughout the Kingdom.

Specifically of interest to beach bums, if a day lounging at a Red Sea beach is for you, the two private beaches are Silver Sands and La Plage, located about 30 minutes north of Jeddah. Day passes cost about SR180-200/day (US$48-53/day) or a 10-pass for SR1,100 (US$293). For the fee, you get a lounger, large beach umbrella, and access to a beautiful beach.

Interactive Fun

Fancy yourself a CSI? In Riyadh, CluedUpp runs interactive murder mysteries, based on the classic board game, Clue. The next event, on November 27, 2021, is “The Riyadh Ripper”, who has “murdered” three men. Purchase your ticket, download the app, and get your crew together and solve the crime!

Enjoy immersive games? Both Riyadh and Jeddah have Escape Rooms to enjoy interactive adventure with your friends.

Culture

The yearly, 70-day Riyadh Season, which starts each October, offers Arab and international concerts/theatrical performances, wrestling championships, and more. One of the 2021 concerts features Pitbull. (Yes! A rapper in Saudi Arabia.)

The Riyadh International Book Fair, a 10-day event held each October, features more than 1,000 publishing houses from 30 countries.

Each December, Riyadh also sees the MDLBeast SoundStorm, featuring 150 international and local artists (techno and electronic music) who play at the four-day event.

For patrons of the Arts, the first Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale runs from December 2021-March 2022, and showcases more than 70 regional and international artists. (Diriyah, located on the northwest edge of Riyadh, is the site of historical structures including the Salwa Palace and Saad bin Saud Palace.)

And December also sees the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, which includes camel racing, auctions, camel training, and (our favourite) best-looking camel awards.

March sees the two-week Janadriyah Cultural & Heritage Festival, held a short distance outside of Riyadh.

Meanwhile, Jeddah hosts the yearly Jeddah Summer Festival, which includes poetry readings, sports events, concerts, food, and more.

Other Social Activities

And whether your recreational interests include salsa dancing, ball hockey, quilting or playing an instrument, you will find clubs and teams which have been organized (usually) by other expatriates. Most of these organizations don’t have actual websites, but information can be found via friends and colleagues who are part of the groups, from social organizations like InterNations, and through ads on social media platforms.

Coming Soon!

The Rig

In October 2021, the Kingdom announced the development of a theme park located on an oil rig, which is expected to open in 2025. Built on a former oil rig, the theme park, will be called “The Rig.” It will have 800 hotel rooms in three hotels (one ultra-luxury), 11 restaurants, amusement park rides, diving in the Gulf, bungee jumping, and more. Luxury travelers can arrive via helicopter or at a 50-berth superyacht marina. (Check out the video on youtube or visit the TheRig.sa.

World Largest Coral Garden

A partnership between NEOM (the futuristic mega-city being built in the Kingdom’s northwest) and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is building the world’s largest coral garden. It will span 100 hectares on Shusha Island in the Red Sea. The island is home to more than 300 species of coral and 1,000 species of fish. The site will be for nature lovers, as well as for scientific research. The project is expected to be complete in 2025.

In Summary

I have written primarily about the organized, so-called Western entertainment which is intended to attract Saudi citizens, the expatriate resident population, and the increasing number of foreign tourists. But in my view, the most unique attractions of Saudi Arabia are the ancient sites, such as the 10,000-year-old rock art in Hail, the 2,000-year-old rock tombs of Medain Saleh, mountain villages of Abha, the traditional adobe and brick architectural style of Najran, historic downtown Jeddah ... Many of these are already UNESCO World Heritage sites. But who knows how many more sites are waiting to be discovered?

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