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 36 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.)

One event of interest is the Food Culture Festival in Riyadh, which features cuisine and culture from 35 countries. In 2023, the Festival ran November 8-November 12. 2024 dates TBA!

Lights, Camera, Action!

The number of movie theatres showing Western films is growing quickly. Black Panther was the first movie shown in the Kingdom, after cinemas opened after their lengthy hiatus. 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.

In 2023, Jeddah saw the return of Comic Con Saudi Arabia, between Nov 30-Dec 1! 2024 dates coming soon!

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.

It's not a secret that Saudi teams have recruited major talent, including: Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, and more.

In January 2023, the Italian Super Cup (Supercoppa Italiana), a four-team mini-tournament, returned to Saudi Arabia; this event returned in January 2024.

December 12-22, 2023 saw the FIFA Club World Cup 2023 in Jeddah for the first time.

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 (which was held again in March 2022). The Saudi International Golf Tournament, part of the men's European Tour, occurs each February.

Basketball

In December 2021, for the second time, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 3×3 World Tour Final came to Jeddah. The final featured the best 12 teams of the FIBA 3×3 World Tour season. The event returned to Jeddah December 8-9, 2023.

Baseball

In March 2024, Baseball United, the first professional baseball league focused on the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, announced a partnership with the Saudi Baseball and Softball Federation (SBSF), which will create three franchises, one each in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

Formula 1 Racing

On December 5, 2021, the first Saudi Arabia Grand Prix F1 race took 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.)

The excitement returned to Jeddah between March 7-9, 2024, for the latest season, and returns next year between April 18-20, 2025.

For those not interested in the actual race, concert performers at past events have included included Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, David Guetta, Alicia Keys, Pharrell Williams, DJs Martin Garrix and Fisher, and more.

Dakar Rally

Between January 2 and 14, 2022, the famous Dakar Rally returned to Saudi deserts for the race’s 44th edition. The 12 stages spanned from 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 race returned between December 31, 2022, to January 15, 2023. And between January 5-19, 2024, the race ran between the ancient city of AlUla, crossing the country towards the Empty Quarter, and then finishing in Yanbu, on the Red Sea.

The race returns January 5-17, 2025, during which the route "will take the pilots from the west side of the Saudi Arabian peninsula crossing of the country and bring them to the end at the Red Sea Beaches after leaving the Empty Quarter in the south east."

Extreme E

This off-road, electric vehicle race was first held in Saudi Arabia in April 2021, and occurs early in the year (Feb 2022, March 2023, Feb 2024). According to the Extreme E website, it is "... is a radical off-road racing series in the most remote corners of the planet impacted by climate change. 10 teams, consisting of one male and one female driver, racing to highlight global issues and inspire the next generation." 2025 dates TBA.

The Saudi Cup

The Saudi Cup, labelled “The World’s Most Valuable Horse Race,” was first run in February 2020, and its latest race happened in February 2023, and the next happening on Feb 23 and 24, 2024. Visitors could buy tickets to see horses race on turf and dirt tracks, for a total purse of over $31.5 million!

The races return on February 21-22, 2025.

Distance Running

March 2022 saw Saudi Arabia's first full marathon, the Riyadh Marathon, which included a full marathon, half-marathon, 10K, and 4K run (the latter being for children and beginners.) The second addition was held February 11, 2023, and the third will be February 23, 2024.

The race returns in January 2025, with exact date TBA.

Tennis

You will find tennis courts are common on housing compounds, but if you like to be a spectator, the Diriyah Tennis Cup, which happens in December, is the place to be.

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. See this list of the 10 of the best beach clubs in Jeddah.

Those who love the beach also can enjoy the NEOM Beach Games, which most recently ran from October 21-November 24, 2023. Activities included a beach soccer event, a triathlon, and a 3x3 event, and more. More to come for late 2024.

Interactive Fun

Fancy yourself a CSI? In Riyadh, CluedUpp runs interactive murder mysteries, based on the classic board game, Clue. November 2021 saw “The Riyadh Ripper”, who had “murdered” three men; February 2022 saw "CSI Riyadh"; December 2022 to March 2023 saw "Alice in Wonderland"; and December 9, 2023 saw "Beauty and the Beast Experience." 2024 TBA. Tickets go fast!

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

Or is Paintball your thing? Head to Firstaiment in Riyadh to wipe out your enemies.

Culture

The yearly, 70-day Riyadh Season, which starts each October or November, and runs until January or February, offers Arab and international concerts/theatrical performances, wrestling championships, and more. (2023 concerts included Imagine Dragons and K-Pop BLACKPINK, and one of the 2021-2022 concerts featured Pitbull. Yes! A rapper in Saudi Arabia.)

Just outside Riyadh, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Diriyah, you can take part in the Diriyah Season. The Diriyah Season generally runs from October to February, and began in 2021-22, continued in 2022-23, and 2023-24. 2024 events included the Diriyah E-Prix 2024 (January 26-27, 2024) and concerts including the Backstreet Boys, OneRepublic and four more acts.

Meanwhile, the Jeddah Season runs from May through July, with 2022's events including 140 restaurants and cafés, 70 immersive experiences, 60 rides, nine entertainment zones, internationally famous Cirque du Soleil, four international exhibitions, five beach activities, and two international plays.

Jazz afficionados enjoyed the first ever Riyadh International Jazz Festival between Feb 7-9, 2024 at Mayadeen Theatre in Diriyah.

The AlUla Art Festival runs early in the year. In 2023, the Festival hosted an Andy Warhol exhibit. In 2024, the festival ran Feb 9 - Mar 2.

Also at AlUla, the Winter at Tantora is a celebration of art, culture, and music, which runs between December and January.

And the first-ever Saudi grand opera was performed between April 25 and May 4, 2024: Titled Zarqa Al Yamama. The story is "... an ancient tale about a legendary Jadis woman with the gift of foresight. She sees a rival army threatening to destroy her people. The story unfolds as she makes efforts to warn her leader and advisers of the imminent danger ahead."

The Riyadh International Book Fair, a 10-day event held each autumn, features more than 1,000 publishing houses from 30 countries. In 2024, it runs between Sep 26-Oct 5, with its theme and location TBA.

Fashionistas take note: Saudi Arabia is having its second Fashion Week in Riyadh, between October 17-21, 2024.

Each December, Riyadh also sees the MDLBeast SoundStorm, featuring 150 international and local artists (techno and electronic music) who play at the several-day event. In 2004, it will be Dec 12-14. And BaladBeast comes to Jeddah in January.

For patrons of the Arts, the Islamic Arts Biennale ran January 23-April 23, 2023 in Jeddah. As its name suggests, this Biennale returns to Jeddah in 2025, between January 25 and May 25, and will take place at the Western Hajj Terminal at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport..

Meanwhile, the first Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale ran from December 2021-March 2022, and showcased 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.) The Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale returned between Feb 20 and May 24, 2024, with the theme being "After Rain," featuring 92 artists from 43 countries.

December sees the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, which includes camel racing, auctions, camel training, and (our favourite) best-looking camel awards. (Scandal rocked the 2021 competition, with, "Camels ejected from beauty contest over Botox use and other 'tampering'"!)

Those who love dates can visit the Buraydah Date Festival (aka Qassim Date Festival) each August.

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

And in January 2022, Juman Park in King Abdullah Economic City was home to Saudi Arabia's first yoga festival.

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.)

Six Flags Qiddiya

Expected to open in 2025, Six Flags Qiddiya, located on the outskirts of Riyadh, will have 28 rides and attractions, including the world’s longest, tallest and fastest roller coaster.

This amusement park will also be home to the Qiddiya water theme park, called Aquarabia. The water park will have 22 rides and attractions.

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?

P.S. If you have access to the New York Times, on June 5, 2024, they published a great article, with abundant pictures, about the new Saudi Arabia: Surprising, Unsettling, Surreal: Roaming Through Saudi Arabia

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