The desert’s sandstone cliffs stand in violet silhouette; this early morning, at a quarter to 6, I will climb up one of those cliffs with three new friends—Abdullah, Jumana, and our guide, Omar, of Husaak Adventures—as we aim to tackle a “moderate” hike in the Sharaan Nature Reserve. This is my final day in AlUla, an ancient oasis in the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, and we’ve saved my most life-threatening activity for the trip’s final hours.
“Moderate” is how I would describe a four- to six-mile hike that has some elevation change and slightly uneven terrain. Not this near-vertical ascent to the ridge of Madakhel canyon I’m sizing up in the predawn light. It’s only an hour to the top, Omar assures us. OK, sure, I’ve got this, I think, tightening the laces on my boots and the straps on my backpack. Abdullah, a Riyadh native who recently started working in communications for the Royal Commission for AlUla (the state-sponsored governing body of tourism), doesn’t seem fazed by the boulders he’s about to tackle in his Hoka sneakers. Meanwhile, this is the first-ever hike for Jumana, a 26-year-old Jeddah woman who now works with the tour company the Traveling Panther and has been my constant, delightful companion during a week in the Arabian desert. She’s dressed per usual in an abaya, a loose-fitting, wrist- and ankle-length robe commonly worn by Muslim women in the region.
As we start step-by-stepping over the sandstone rocks—many that seem to have a mind of their own and wobble beneath us—I stay a few paces behind Jumana. Her foot catches the hem of her abaya over and over, enough to make the mom and wilderness guide in me panic. The men speed ahead like billy goats unleashed after a long, cold winter. Omar calls down to check on us, and always has us in sight, but right now, it’s me and Jumana, trying not to freak out in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“Umm, Jumana?” I want to make a suggestion, and I’m terrified of offending her. Over the course of a week my travel companions and I have gone from safe chitchat about music we like, trips we’ve taken and want to take, food and cooking, all the way to our families, love (“have you ever been in love?”), work, university, gender pronouns, human rights, cancel culture, female empowerment. Traveling in and out of comfort zones, experiencing newness of place—and of self—forges these types of bonds, but the question I’m about to ask still feels verboten.
We pause for water and I quickly spit out: “What do you think about taking off your abaya? You keep tripping….” I trail off, looking down the cliff we’re scaling as the rising sun shines straight at us, like an interrogation beam.
She eyes me for a second, seeming to calculate the decision. As of 2018, after decades of mandatory dress codes, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, colloquially MBS, said Saudi women do not need to wear a head covering or a traditional black abaya: “The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.” Within these past few years, the kingdom has also opened up to international tourism for the very first time; dramatically reduced the role of the Saudi religious police; and given women the right to drive, to travel unaccompanied, and to mingle with men in brand-new movie theaters and concert halls. It’s all part of Vision 2030, a road map to a new normal for Saudi’s economy and society, one that’s less dependent on oil and more progressive. Yet given the speed with which change has come to Saudi Arabia, being a woman here still takes courage.
Over the course of a week in November 2022—right when the Middle East faced intense global media scrutiny as Qatar hosted the region’s first FIFA World Cup—I received an in-person crash course in Saudi Arabia tourism. AlUla was my on-ramp: Within 8,700 square miles of golden sand and palm groves, a desert oasis the size of Israel, are several significant historic sites that share heritage with Jordan’s Petra. Here in the AlUla Valley, excavation of Hegra—the second city of the Nabateans after Petra, with 111 monumental tombs dating to the 1st century B.C.—only began in the 1980s under the purview of King Saud University. In the early 2000s, a team of French archaeologists and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities collaborated on the first truly comprehensive survey of the site, which helped secure Hegra’s status as Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Before that, it was a popular bedouin campsite, where—if you believe the stories of our rawis (storytellers, or tour guides)—children would play inside the tombs and joust with the bones they found.
It’s all incredibly well preserved still, and it’s not the only site open to exploration. AlUla was once the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan, where chief archaeologist Dr. Rebecca Foote, the Harvard-educated director of cultural heritage research who previously led the Islamic Art Society in London, manages the ongoing excavation, now with 150-200 archaeologists working in the valley. Rock carvings of gazelle and ibex and inscriptions of prayers at Jabal Ikmah, a mountain near Dadan, appear new, having been sheltered from wind and erosion for centuries. Today, they serve as an “open-air library” with guided tours that allow you to get nose to carving to inspect their work.
Around the historic sites and natural wonders, a tourism operation has exploded at a pace that makes New York City look downright leisurely. There’s now five-star lodging (Habitas, Banyan Tree, and Aman resorts, to name a few); a mirrored, Instagram-friendly concert hall called Maraya that’s hosted everyone from John Legend to Alicia Keys to One Republic; restaurants, open-air markets, and soon, a boutique hotel in Old Town. AlUla’s first art and design center, Madrasat Adderra, housed in a former girls’ school, offers free weekly workshops and currently trains upwards of 70 women artists in ceramics, jewelry making, and other disciplines.
Yet given the speed with which change has come to Saudi Arabia, being a woman here still takes courage.
Over a mere handful of years, an entirely new culture has been unleashed: one with mega-concerts and roller rinks, road-tripping and Airstream camping, elaborate Desert X art exhibits and Louvre Abu Dhabi–trained tour guides. There’s also a commitment to, and appreciation of, the outdoors: Sharaan Nature Reserve, where we’re hiking, has been rewilded with more than 1,500 Nubian ibex and Idmi gazelle introduced this winter; they will someday be prey to Arabian leopards, slowly coming back from critical endangerment. A captive-breeding program at the Arabian Leopard Breeding Center in Taif, Saudi Arabia, celebrated the birth of four leopard cubs in 2023, and a state-of-the-art breeding center is slated to open early 2024 in Sharaan.
As part of the Saudi Green Initiative, 80 percent of AlUla’s land will be converted into nature reserves; Sharaan will have Indigenous flora and fauna cultivated across 600 square miles. (An electric fence currently surrounds the reserve to keep camels from coming in and eating all the new grass.) AlUla residents, trained as park rangers, will help visitors navigate the new Arabian Leopard Celebration Trail, a permanent 4.3-mile route in Sharaan that will be the first in a global network of Catwalk Trails, cocreated with nonprofit Catmosphere.
Investment in AlUla is one of several “giga-projects” happening across the kingdom, “intended to increase the number of international travelers from around 20 million annually (a majority of which are Muslims on hajj to Makkah/Mecca) to more than 100 million per year,” reported AFAR cofounder Greg Sullivan following the World Trade and Tourism Council global summit in Riyadh. These ambitious destination-building programs include the construction of tens of thousands of hotel rooms; Diriyah, a “city of the future,” built from scratch outside Riyadh; and the Red Sea Project, “a development on Saudi Arabia’s western coast across 11,000 square miles—including 90 islands and inland dunes” will run primarily on solar, backed by biofuel-powered generators.
To adapt a line from the great Field of Dreams: If you build it, will they come? And who, exactly, will “they” be? The pursuit of international travelers comes with an ongoing PR problem. “While women’s rights are advancing, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of journalists, activists,” and the LGBTQ+ community “has come under worldwide scrutiny,” we reported in the January issue of AFAR.
Even the most intrepid of travelers asked why I would bother to go to Saudi Arabia. A few remarks I heard prior to my trip:
Are you scared to go? (Follow-up: Are you scared to go as a solo female traveler?)
Beautiful place, but given their human rights record I could never be comfortable spending dollars there.
Why would you not go to Dubai first, or Abu Dhabi? At least they’re more liberal.
When I posed these concerns to Zoe Shurgold, the global head of public relations for the Royal Commission for AlUla, she replied:
“We invite people to come and experience the warmth and hospitality of the people firsthand. … There are few countries around the world that don’t come with complicated politics and history. All we can do is continue to tell stories about a destination that is one of the seven unheard of wonders of the world, with extraordinary man-made monuments and geological landscapes, and let visitors decide.”
Back on the cliff, Jumana has decided to remove her abaya (after first shouting up to Omar and Abdullah to let them know). She does so quickly, folding it up so I can stash it in my backpack, and proceeds at a new, more confident pace in her hoodie and joggers, the attire of twentysomethings worldwide. Up we go, carefully choosing our footholds, the men having already crested the top. I start singing nonsense—“If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “Happy Birthday”—trying to manifest happiness and distract us until the finish line. Meanwhile, we discuss how everyone I’ve met in AlUla seems to want to buy a farm. (Saudi Princess Noura sets a high bar with her place, growing dates and citrus and raising goats and ostrich after decamping from Jeddah during the pandemic.) It’s the Saudi equivalent of the conversation I had with so many New Yorkers who moved to the bucolic Hudson Valley once COVID set in. Life isn’t so different, I think to myself.
Two hours after starting, with the sun now well above us, we haul ourselves over the ridge with a hand from Omar. Abdullah cheers, arms raised like his favorite football team just won. Jumana turns and gives me a hearty hug, an act that silently screams relief, exaltation: WE DID IT. Before us is a rock-strewn volcanic terrain, like a moonscape, at odds with the sandstone canyons below. We take in the views in a comfortable silence, munching apples at the top of the world. I can’t get enough of the natural beauty; it’s evocative of the desert canyons of the U.S. Southwest, Israel’s mountains, or a set piece from Star Wars. Better still, I’m sharing it with someone who now, most definitely, wants to buy hiking boots.
“I think I want to go camping,” Jumana says between bites of apple. “And learn to ride a bike.” This may be her first hike, but it won’t be her last.
Then, with a final thought I couldn’t script, she says: “No one can stop me.”
Read before you go
Saudia Airlines, flydubai, and flynas fly into and out of AlUla’s International Airport (ULH), a 30-minute drive from the city center. Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dubai are common transfer spots, though a seasonal Paris direct route is said to be in the works.