Living Well

Living Well

From ancient traditions to cutting-edge tech, we take a look at wellness in the Kingdom through the ages
27 March 24

Lululemon to fitness trackers, hot yoga to silent retreats – our contemporary notion of wellness has become a universe of tools, rituals, practices, and destinations. However, the essence of wellness as we know it today has deep historical roots based on traditions that stretch back through the ages. Much of what we engage in now is indelibly influenced by ancient holistic practices that draw from timeless wisdom and regimens. Well on its journey of transformation, Saudi has naturally witnessed a surge in contemporary wellness approaches and state-of-the-art fitness centres – mirroring global trends. Yet what many of us in the Kingdom may not realise is that this peninsula has long been a cradle of ancient concepts of physical and spiritual healing.

Age-old traditions

Habitas AlUla spa

Before the advent and even during the spread of Islam, a religion renowned for nurturing spiritual, physical, and mental wellbeing, our region was home to a rich tapestry of medicinal and wellness approaches – ranging from herbalism to cupping therapy.

Known locally as Al Itara, herbalism involves the use of natural herbs for medicinal purposes and stands as one of the most prevalent practices in Saudi, with origins dating back to ancient times. Today, as in the past, each region has its herbalists, with Jeddah particularly renowned for practitioners who would source herbs from India (and occasionally from Syria and Egypt). What could also be considered a type of herbalism is the garlands worn by Saudi’s famous “flower men,” members of the southern Qahtani tribe who adorn intricate arrangements of herbs and flowers – some woven together for medicinal purposes such as alleviating headaches.

Cupping therapy, or Al Hijama, has been used for centuries to ease bodily pains and induce relaxation. With roots tracing back to ancient Egypt and China, and later embraced by the ancient Greeks, it gradually became prevalent worldwide – including in Saudi. In fact, it is said to have been endorsed by Prophet Muhammad himself, and its application persists till today, with the Kingdom’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), established in 2008, formally recognising it as an endorsed practice.

Perhaps perceived as an unexpected wellness practice is the art of henna. Said to have also originated in ancient Egypt during the Pharaonic era some 9,000 years ago, the use of henna today in Saudi serves both aesthetic and traditional purposes. For centuries, however, many in this region have believed that natural henna provides a world of medicinal benefits, from antibacterial to antifungal, as well as its use as an astringent and cooling agent.

Wellbeing practices transformed

In more recent history, traditional wellness practices were either replaced or complemented by modern approaches – reflecting global trends and a more contemporary way of life. Abrar Mohammed Saad, founder of Lavendra Spa, notes that during the 70s and 80s, for instance, informal “beauty salons” thrived within Saudi’s private sphere. Experienced professionals would be welcomed into homes to provide beauty and wellness services – an undeniable convenience – and this then paved the way for more contemporary forms of wellness to take shape.

By the 90s, beauty and wellness transitioned into more public business models, and by the 2000s, the Kingdom’s larger cities saw the proliferation of beauty centres offering spa-like services such as massages. Amidst this growing trend, a few establishments in Saudi have maintained a commitment to the region’s heritage of natural ingredients and remedies, such as ANAT (which means “calmness”).

Anat Spa

Owner Najla Al Qahtani explains: “At ANAT, natural ingredients are used in the experiences we offer. Historically, the use of natural ingredients was integral to wellbeing, a tradition we uphold at the spa today. By centring our approach on this ethos, our clients leave feeling good and renewed.”  

In addition to beauty centres, there is no shortage of gyms and fitness studios across Saudi. The appeal of yoga studios, in particular, lies perhaps in the practice's focus on nurturing the mind, body, and soul. Shahad Nazer, owner of The Yoga Space Studio, suggests that the appeal stems from the desire for the silence, stillness, and simplicity our ancestors experienced, “a pure connection with ourselves without distractions.”

Putting wellness on the map

Today, the Kingdom boasts a world of spas, gyms, fitness studios, health food stores and eateries, and even wellness tourism destinations – in places like AlUla, along the Red Sea, and even in the Kingdom’s metropoles. Some of these addresses are all about digital detox and reconnecting with nature, while others focus on using innovation and cutting-edge tech to achieve a level of wellness that is satisfactory to every client.

In the former camp are sanctuaries like Thuraya Wellness, located in AlUla’s Our Habitas. Here, personalised treatments are provided amidst the region’s ancient landscape, complemented by local cuisine and cultural experiences. Embracing the latter approach are destinations like Six Senses Southern Dunes, The Red Sea, where modern wellness technologies – from biomarker screenings to tension-relief tools – are used to tailor bespoke wellness programmes.

Six Senses Southern Dunes Spa

Additionally, destinations across the Kingdom, such as the natural springs in Al Ahsa, promise therapeutic benefits (in Al Ahsa’s case, due to their mineral-rich waters). What these aforementioned locations and many others have in common is the use of nature to enhance one’s overall wellness experience, with notable retreats located in either the stunning desertscapes of the Kingdom or along the country’s mesmerising coastline.

“Having access to nature allows for massive healing and connection to oneself,” explains Ghalia Al Madani, a wellness curator and wellness tourism consultant who also designs corporate wellness strategies for a governmental entity in Saudi. To date, she has worked on over 50 retreats in the Kingdom and counting.

Al Madani began her journey with yoga and breathwork eight years ago, studying all modalities of holistic wellbeing. “We cannot ignore the fact that medicine also aims to improve our quality of life. Many medicines that doctors prescribe today actually come from natural elements like plants. Yet, even with pharmaceutical and technological advancements, we still acknowledge ancient practices today like cupping and acupuncture.”

Beyond just creating an address, regions like AlUla have taken wellness a step further. There is now the AlUla Wellness Festival, set amidst the region’s striking nature and offering the chance for rejuvenation, mental clarity, spiritual care, and physical health. It also features integrated therapeutic experiences such as eco-gardening and cooking classes using organic ingredients. AlUla has also introduced Five Senses Sanctuary, an event that provides activities dedicated to overall wellbeing, including wellness lessons, discussion sessions, and workshops designed to stimulate the five senses.

Al Madani, who has worked as a curator and creative director of Five Senses Sanctuary for two years, says of the event: “Being close to nature in Saudi, and how it is developing in a way that preserves that beauty, offers vast opportunities for healing – an inspiration to prioritise wellness.”

Making wellbeing a way of life

As people across the Kingdom embrace prioritising their wellbeing, Saudi continues its efforts in expanding its wellness sector, launching even more ambitious projects with wellness at the core, such as Amaala, a luxury spa resort on the Red Sea's northwest coast. Part of the Triple Bay development, it will offer top-tier medical facilities and locally sourced pharmaceuticals. Coupled with AlUla's current efforts, projects like Amaala aim to position the Kingdom as a hub for wellness tourism.

Aside from ancient traditions, modern spas, retreats, and festivals, Saudi has also taken key steps in transforming its cities into spaces that nurture physical and mental wellness, with the ultimate aim of boosting overall quality of life. For instance, the Royal Commission for Riyadh City announced a number of grand projects, such as the ambitious urban forestation Green Riyadh project, Sports Boulevard that extends through the city, and King Salman Park, said to be the largest urban park in the world – and there’s a lot more to come.

From ancient remedies to modern innovations, the journey of wellness in the Kingdom reflects both tradition and progress. As Saudi continues to embrace wellness as a way of life, from the emergence of contemporary initiatives and spaces to the preservation of natural healing practices, its commitment to holistic wellbeing stands poised to elevate residents and visitors alike. The country’s landscape continues to be reshaped to foster physical, mental, and spiritual health, affirming Saudi’s position as a nation that prioritises wellness.