Apr 30, 2024 3 min read

Safer in Saudi than Sydney on a Saturday Night

‘Why would you go to Saudi Arabia as a woman on your own? Don’t you know it’s dangerous? Are you naive or crazy?’ warn friends.

Yanbu Saudi Arabia...Hope happens everywhere
Yanbu Saudi Arabia...Hope happens everywhere

Surely there’s a difference between crazy or curious. I ventured simply because I’d never been; to see for myself a country much maligned in the media and only recently open to tourists—wondering how much might actually be viewed through narrow eye slits in a burka?

Any anxiety soon morphed to amazement after landing in a modern airport with no queues, free Wi-Fi, ATM’s and courteous customs officials who only glanced at my visa, easily obtained online.

Speaking of customs, I arrived dressed in black with a headscarf. Although no longer required, I usually wore one, even if somewhat inelegantly. More stylishly dressed women spontaneously greeted: ‘Welcome to our country. Thank you for respecting our culture.’

Behind the veil, I peered into dark chocolate, smiling eyes that pierced right through any ethnic bias.

An obvious curiosity, I saw only one other Westerner, apart from golfing in an expat compound. Yet, there was little problem communicating. According to statistics, over 97% of Saudis speak English—but with varying degrees of fluency, I might add.

Riyadh, with 7.5 million residents and birthplace of Osama Bin Laden, offers free healthcare but little public transport, although a new metro is under construction. Few locals walk outside, which made it easy to whiz around footpaths on electric scooters in newer neighbourhoods. Watch your step elsewhere—best to avoid eligibility for disability parking signs that display:‘Handicapped Access-People of Determination’.

Meanwhile, billboards around the Jeddah Grand Prix circuit read: ‘Overtake the future.’ Motorists seemed determined to do so, where white lines on 14-lane freeways appeared only decorative. It made me wonder if women, who became fighter pilots before they could only recently drive cars legally, might question what they’d wished for? I opted for readily available and inexpensive Ubers and convinced one driver to let me do a lap around a parking lot—just because I now could.

‘To make you welcome dear lady’, he’d earlier fumbled on his phone for Spotify to play the Australian national anthem, while changing lanes at 100 kilometres per hour.

That was the most dangerous incident during my entire visit as I feasted on falafels and flat bread fresh from a streetside oven, a breakfast buffet at a five-star hotel or tacos at a mid-range Mexican eatery. Some restaurants, banks and other services still have segregated areas for men and women but shopping centre food courts offer everyone all array of cuisine and global brand names.

They are an oasis to gather in 55-degree Celsius summer heat. December’s mid-twenties winter temperatures were as welcoming as the people. From modern malls to ancient souks; from Red Sea swims to desert hikes; I felt comfortable and not harassed.

I met men practicing polygamy but most readily offered: ‘I only have one wife.’ Some quipped: ‘More is too expensive.’ 

Looking south from the 99th floor Kingdom Centre skybridge between Riyadh’s own Twin Towers, stands the old town of Diriyah; with its Deera Square, also known as Judgement Square. Where horrific public executions once took place, I fortunately only witnessed the kindness of strangers during a music festival that evening. In the adjacent Al Zal Souk, crowded shops sold gold, perfume, carpets, clothing and knives.

It is wise to abstain from condoning or judging another country. Speaking of abstinence, not a drop of alcohol was consumed, but my thirst and curiosity quenched with Arab coffees and mint lime juices—as refreshing as the brief glimpse of Saudi itself.

A litre of drinkable water is no longer more expensive than a litre of oil. But without a single river in the nation and home to one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, the Kingdom indeed appears to be re-inventing itself.

When they upset Argentina in the first round of the World Cup Football, a public holiday was declared. I predict that with a bit more focus on reliable information and customer service standards to match their impressive infrastructure, this country will kick more goals internationally as tourists discover an ancient land and rich culture.

So, was it crazy and naive, as friends suggested, to visit as a solo woman? Let’s just say that I felt safer in Saudi than Sydney on a Saturday night--and returned home with a heightened sense of hope.

BYLINE Catherine is a best-selling author & professional speaker who has addressed audiences in 32 counties, visited over 150 and seeks a publisher for her next book about universal kindness & connection.

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