33 Sides to Saudi

33 Sides to Saudi

From the grandest scale to the lesser-known, the Kingdom abounds with unusual details, and we’ve picked out some of the most interesting ones
05 April 24

To stand back and consider the size of Saudi as a nation is a feat in itself. It is a territory just about the size of western Europe, for starters, and one that is still in the process of opening itself up to the world, revealing the charms and natural wonders it holds at its disposal. From its lush, rocky north to its breezy western coast strewn with powder-grind sand, to the vast and mesmerising centre of the entire Arabian Peninsula, there is culture, history, and mysteries yet to be uncovered. Dive into these 33 facts, features, and festivities from all over the Kingdom, and learn a little bit more about the country.  

  1. Arriving in their millions 

Last year, Saudi finally surpassed the nine-figure mark for tourists, welcoming 104 million visitors to all corners of the Kingdom, from Turaif, Abha, Jeddah, and Dammam, to modern Riyadh, holy Makkah, and ancient AlUla. With new destinations opening all over the Kingdom each week, you can expect that figure to continue climbing in the years to come.  

  1. A new generation 

The Kingdom has one of the youngest populations on the planet, with 63% of Saudis finding themselves under the age of 30 – as such, optimism seems to be soaring as the country opens up.  

  1. Making the hajj 

For what is the largest human gathering that the world plays host to each year, the hajj pilgrimage is the most important journey in Islam, one which 2.5 million visitors made in 2023 alone. A visit to Makkah is unforgettable for all manner of reasons, whether it’s your first, or your 50th.  

  1. The changing face of Saudi 

As of 2023, 13.5 million expatriate residents call Saudi their home, a little over 42% of the nation’s blossoming population, as the country furthers its efforts to become a global destination anyone can fall in love with.  

  1. Under the sun 

There’s no doubt that Saudi can get scorching hot at the peak of the summer. The region of Al Ahsa, in the country’s arid east, often finds itself registering some of the hottest temperatures on planet Earth, routinely topping out at over 50°C.  

  1. Deep freeze 

Don’t let the country’s balmy reputation fool you, though – Saudi can get plenty cold across different corners of its territory. Take the northern city of Turaif, where in a particularly biting winter, the temperature can plummet all the way down to -12°C. 

  1. March of the camels 

King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, held annually near Riyadh, is the world’s largest festival of its kind. Over the last quarter-century, the festival has grown into a grand, beguiling spectacle over 45 days, with some 45,000 camels on display across races, performances, and pageants.  

  1. Up in the clouds 

If you harbour a sense of adventure, then take a trip to the Asir mountains and find your way – by cable car – to Al Habala, Saudi’s so-called “hanging village.” For centuries, villages like Al Habala have sustained generations, and from their vantage point, you can take in the craggy glories of the surrounding mountainscape.  

  1. Jewel of the desert 

The vastness of Rub Al Khali – the Empty Quarter – is tremulous to comprehend: a desert of unmatchable size, a wild frontier that ties the nation eternally to the sands it was built upon. In its size comes serenity for those who come to seek it, and any visit is always peaceful and restorative. 

  1. Hiding in the pages 

The Jeddah International Book Fair is a paradise for the literary-minded. Last year’s edition at the Jeddah Superdome teemed with over 1,000 publishers, all displaying the best and brightest talents they had on offer, showcasing everything from scholarship to manga. 

  1. The poet’s court 

In the rose-scented city of Taif, you will find each year a celebration of Arabic poetry that stretches back over six centuries – the Souq Okaz festival. Here, works are read and re-enacted in a vibrant setting, telling stories that have fascinated so many for so long.  

  1. A hiker’s haven 

Jabal Soudah (or Sawda), a mighty mountain in the Saudi south, is not just one of the highest climes in the Arabian Peninsula – it is also one of the most enjoyable to visit, with a sturdy hiker’s path and ample spots for picnics in the clouds.  

  1. Reaching new heights 

King Fahd’s Fountain, one of Jeddah’s grandest and most famous civic symbols, counts itself as one of the world’s great fountains. Its jets can pump water over 1,000 feet (around 305 metres) into the air, producing a plume that’s visible all over the coastal city.  

  1. Dances with swords 

There are few folkloric traditions more potent than the famed Saudi sword dance, Al-Ardha. Performed with the accompaniment of drummers and singers, the dance is deployed to mark special occasions and celebrations, always sparking a lively time for all surroundings.  

  1. Growing all the time  

The Kingdom has one of the highest birth rates in the world, with an average of just under 2.5 children per female citizen. If the country stays on this track, it could be on the way to being one of the fastest growing populations on the planet, at a time of renewed vibrancy across the nation.   

  1. Journey to the centre of the Earth 

Should you want to see something truly stunning, head out to the lava field of Harrat Kishb in Saudi’s western region. The field is home to the astonishing Al Wahbah Crater, a monumental natural attraction with a salt flat at its centre – one of the great wonders of the Saudi west.  

  1. Standing tall 

The ancient city of Dumat Al-Jandal, located in the northern part of the Kingdom, holds Neo-Assyrian archaeological ruins dating back thousands of years. The area, once known as “the stronghold of the Arabians,” is now an impeccably preserved historical site which beckons you to explore it.  

  1. Bursting with colour 

Find yourself amid a riot of pastel colours in the mountain city of Abha, famed across the country as a mountain idyll like no other. Sitting prettily 2,270 metres above sea level, the city has long held a reputation as a tourist spot for discerning Saudis – now the rest of the world is finding out about Abha.  

  1. A heritage of empire 

One visit to Madain Saleh is enough to confound and delight you. But Saudi’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site rewards long visits, dune drives, and returning travellers looking to marvel at the might and the craft of the Nabataeans, who ruled their empire from here some 4,000 years ago.    

  1. Shop until you drop 

Six centuries old, some say, and still going strong, Jeddah’s Souq Al Qaisariya remains one of the buzziest and brightest shopping districts in the city they call the Bride of the Red Sea. Here, you’ll find artisans and tradesmen of superlative talents, selling everything from spices to fabrics, abayas, and furniture.  

  1. Arabian nights 

For those in the capital, or those who want to celebrate the national culture, the Janadriyah Festival is an unmissable annual event. Held outside of Riyadh, Janadriyah is a fortnight of revelry which champions anything and everything that is quintessentially Saudi.  

  1. On some faraway beach 

Tucked off the south-western coast, Saudi has its own tremendous, coral-studded waters, situated around the tranquil Farasan Islands. The glistening azure is home to thousands of species of marine life and remains as clear and pristine as anywhere along the sea. 

  1. Where the date palms sway 

The roar of the desert sun may push us visitors to immediately find shade, but to the thousands of acres of date palms scattered through the nation’s oases, conditions could not be more ideal. The Kingdom produces 1.61m tonnes of dates per year – the second largest amount in the world, the equivalent of 332,000 adult male elephants’ worth, if you need a hand for scale, or 150 Eiffel Towers.  

  1. Making the desert bloom 

One of the great building projects of the 20th century, the Najran Valley Dam is a feat of engineering, as well as a thrilling drive. Built into the wadi, bisecting the tributary alongside it, the dam directs water and power upwards through the country, storing three billion litres under the ground.  

  1. Slip through the cracks  

Step into another world, into spaces of undulating limestone sculpted by the tremors of the Earth over millennia, in the caves of Al Qarah Mountain. Most famous is the Judas Cave, named as such for the belief that Judas Iscariot chose it as his hiding place after the death of Jesus Christ – an extraordinary destination for all mankind.  

  1. Symbol of strength 

No visit to Riyadh is complete without taking in the Masmak Fortress: the nation’s first great prize of resistance against Ottoman rule and the centre of Saudi’s reunification under King Abdulaziz. Though the king moved palaces in 1933, the fortress remains open as a museum to this day.  

  1. Hands across the border 

The King Fahd Causeway, connecting the east of Saudi to neighbouring Bahrain, is one of the longest bridges in the world, stretching over 25km. On either end, in the Saudi city of Al Khobar or Bahrain’s elegant Al Jasra, you’ll find plenty to entertain you, with much more left to explore.  

  1. Design delights 

For some of the most intricate and charming coral buildings, head straight to Jeddah’s Old Town, Al Balad; a district so rich in culture and community that feels unlike anywhere else. It’s both a living museum and still a home to so many who continue to enrich it – a taste of Jeddah at its purest.  

  1. South by south-west 

One of the friendliest little coastal corners in the Kingdom, Jazan is a must-visit for anyone in the Saudi south-west; a port city which bustles at a different tempo to loud and proud Jeddah or demure Dammam. Go for luscious mangroves, fresh air, and seafaring heritage.  

  1. Here comes the bride 

The region of AlUla, Arabia’s ancient heart, has almost too many incredible sites and wonders to name, but to spotlight one, Bride Rock is a sandstone formation that must be believed. It looks like a woman standing in a veil, looking back across her shoulder.  

  1. Mirror, mirror 

Gleaming in the sun, a pearl of the desert and one of the boldest modern constructions in the Kingdom, stands Maraya: the world’s largest mirror-covered building and a world-leading venue for music, art, and fine dining alike.  

  1. Closer to the edge 

Al Shafa or, as it translates, “The Edge,” is a well-kept Saudi secret: a verdant village with pomegranates, grapes, and wild olives growing freely, as well as valleys of healing and crystalline water. Hidden in the Makkah province in the country’s west, it’s a fantastic trip to make at the end of the hajj.  

  1. The life aquatic 

With a nickname like the “Maldives of Arabia,” Umluj comes with a weighty reputation which it more than delivers on. Home to more than 1,200 species of fish, as well as turtles and dugongs swimming with abandon, this sleepy archipelago is a slice of nautical heaven.