Saudi Arabia “The Magic Kingdom” Time to visit UNESCO World Heritage site – Al-Balad, Old Town of Jeddah

Written by Anna Cardwell

Stop! Now !”

I turned round to see the police car’s ominous tinted window slowly whirring down – a sun glassed and mustached Saudi Arabian officer looking straight at me.

Most people think they know about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I thought I did too, until I girded my loins and went to teach at a female-segregated university there.  At a time, when in public, women were dressed in black from head to toe, were prohibited from  travelling abroad unless accompanied by a male family member or husband, and driving.  My colleagues and I couldn’t  leave the country either. Unless we had three signatures from our various bosses.

At that time, only the feistiest of Western women went to ‘The Magic Kingdom’  to offer their skills (and of course, enjoy the opportunity of a generous salary).  But now you don’t need to be feisty. (Although it’s still not as much of a “cake-walk” as a week in Tuscany ), because in 2019, the Saudi authorities started issuing tourist visas after decades of almost North-Korea-type isolation.

Saudi Arabia is currently intensifying its online and television tourism advertising. Showcasing very sophisticated, well-produced promotional videos.  So now would be a good time to go, in case it loses its mystery and exoticism.

The country has changed hugely in the last few years and I think it’s worth a visit.  If nothing else; to dispel some of the Eurocentric/ Western myths about it, and also because quite simply, it’s a fascinating country with the most hospitable and warm people I have ever met.

Jeddah is considered by many to be the most open of all cities in Saudi Arabia.  Because it was for centuries, the port used by Muslim pilgrims to nearby Mecca. It’s still the main airport destination for pilgrims, and its Terminal 1 is already luxurious and massive and there are ambitious plans for vastly expensive further developments.

If you are interested in Mecca itself, (and it’s famously difficult to get permission to film there, nor can you visit it in person unless you’re a Muslim), have a look at this informative but fun documentary, just screened on the BBC.

For me the most fascinating place  I have seen in  Saudi Arabia is the old town of Jeddah; Al- Balad, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and still attractively neglected.

A detail I like is that some of the façades of the old houses are made with a special plaster which includes crushed seashells, and to me this adds to the charm of the whole dilapidated and delightful place. The bright sunlight, haunting calls to prayer from the minarets, rickety streets and sheer foreignness of         Al- Balad all make it utterly intriguing.

Oh, and fortunately, the (pleasingly handsome) police officer at the beginning of this article was kindly stopping to offer me a little bottle of mineral water, because he’d spotted a foreign woman walking in the gorgeous heat of his native land.

Recommended Read: Saudi writers
Recommended Listening: Habibi, I love you by Achmed Chawki

If you would like to find out more about The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia , please contact

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