I’m standing in the queue at Jeddah airport, waiting to enter Saudi Arabia. Every one of the customs officials is a young woman clad in a uniform of black abaya, black headscarf and black face mask. Only beautifully manicured hands, and eyes outlined flawlessly in liquid eyeliner, are visible. In comparison, I’m a hot, sweaty mess, having just survived the scrum of an early morning flight from Cairo. Wearing jeans, t-shirt, a scarf and a long cardigan, there’s no perfume, no make-up and my hair is tied in a messy knot.
The woman processing my passport directs my blotchy red face toward the cameras and I pull down my own face mask. “Mashallah,” she exclaims. Let me tell you, there is nothing in this scenario worthy of thanking Allah for its beauty, but she is looking at my green eyes.
“Beautiful,” she says, stamps my passport, smiles and admits me into Saudi Arabia.
Until late 2019, I could not have had that interaction. Only business visa holders and religious pilgrims could visit Saudi Arabia, and even then, as a woman, I would have needed to be accompanied by a male guardian. Living in Egypt in the late noughties, my father had passed away, I was unmarried and neither of my brothers wanted to visit Saudi Arabia. It remained one of a few countries I had not visited in the Middle East, yet with an all-pervasive influence in the region’s economy, politics and societal expectations, there was a Saudi-sized gap in my understanding of the region.
Then, just before COVID closed the world down, Saudi Arabia threw out its own rule book, and brought in e-visas for independent travellers, issued online and almost on the spot.
As a solo traveller, a woman and a journalist, I admit to some trepidation on entering Saudi recently via the port city of Jeddah, heightened by the chorus of reminders from friends and colleagues of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the well-documented discrimination against women’s rights in the region.
At Jeddah, there is no welcoming committee, no car, no tour guide waiting for me at the gate; I simply fumble with the usual tourist dramas of getting cash, getting a SIM card, getting an Uber (yes, Uber is here) to the hotel I’ve booked online. I am helped by two very young women at the local tourism desk, a large, open stand in the middle of Jeddah airport. They pour me a shot of coffee, offer fresh dates, share the names of their favourite restaurants and give such practical advice as never to use the shonky public cabs with their “broken” meters.
Even before leaving the airport, what’s immediately obvious is that social change is underway at breakneck pace in Saudi Arabia, and those changes have a direct impact on travellers who choose to visit the country of 40 million.
Prior to the changes of 2019, I would have been compelled to cover my hair and don an abaya, a long-sleeved robe that cloaks the wearer from neck to ankle: not having to do this is one of the most obvious changes to Saudi Arabia, as it positions itself as the last outpost for adventurous travellers.
Like many countries in the world, modest clothing is still preferred, and as I wander the streets of Jeddah, most women are still in abayas.
“It’s just a habit wearing it, I guess,” says the young saleswoman in an upmarket cosmetics shop wedged between Zara and Marks & Spencer. “And it’s easy, you just throw it on and go,” she says, swishing toward the cash register.
Layla, who guides me through the coral houses of Jeddah’s historic Al Balaad district, puts a different spin on the abaya. Born to a Saudi mother and Italian father, she was brought up in Rome and moved back to Jeddah as it began to open up. She brings a boho look to her heavily embroidered abaya, opened to reveal a colour-laden long skirt, layers of wooden prayer beads around her neck and chic, open-toed sandals to finish. Her cropped, blonde-tipped hair is uncovered, and her look draws appreciative glances and even complements from passing Saudi women.
We share a love of Arabian needlework, and I admire her ensemble. “We have no need of abayas,” she says, “but it would be very disrespectful to walk around in shorts and a tank top.”
In contrast, my outfit is a mid-calf cardigan and a lightweight maxi dress below, which the sea breezes cause to billow on Jeddah’s waterfront. It’s not quite Marilyn Monroe in the Seven Year Itch, but enough for the many picnicking families at the seafront to pause in mild astonishment.
“Don’t worry,” says Layla. “They’ll get used to seeing a bit of ankle now we’re opening up.” That’s fine, but I don’t need to be the one to kick off the desensitisation process.
As a woman traveller – often travelling solo – I’ve been allowed to join the conversation about how life is changing for women in this part of the world, compared with my life in Australia.
For example, prior to December 2019, Saudi restaurants and other public areas had two entrances – one for men, the other for women and children. That rule abolished, every cafe I attend in Jeddah sees women and men sharing platters, shisha pipes and conversation until well past dark in this late-night society.
Only once in my too-brief time in Jeddah am I steered toward a women-only door in a slightly down-at-heel restaurant beside a mosque. Far from banishment, the gesture is courtly: surely I’d be far more comfortable with my own family-sized table, rather than squished shoulder-to-shoulder with a gang of tired, off-shift workers who would either feel inhibited and forced to behave (or, fed a diet of Hollywood films, would assume that I was about to leap into bed with them).
There are other, lesser-known privileges of being a solo woman, too: older women jump straight to the head of the queue with impunity – in the bank, the butchery, at the ticket office. No-one complains. And the women-and-children-only carriages found on trains, buses, airport shuttles and even in cosmopolitan Dubai’s metro, and are invariably less crowded. And continuing my solo adventures in Jeddah, I catch taxis late into the night – no fighting with drunks on the street for a cab at closing time in this (publicly) teetotaller country – and am invariably treated with courtesy, as well as genuine curiosity, by the male drivers from Saudi and the Levant.
That sense of openness goes to the next level in AlUla, an oasis on one of the great trade and pilgrim crossroads of Arabia. As one of the country’s first major tourism sites to open to the world, it is astonishingly cosmopolitan for a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, with plenty of international residents complementing the local population.
It’s also positioned to lure youthful, wealthy and well-travelled Saudis to its riches – restaurants by renowned chefs, UNESCO heritage sites, grand-scale arts programs and adventure travel. And AlUla has adopted the international outlook that the Saudi jet set has come to expect from lives spent in the world’s great capitals, from London to New York.
I’m breakfasting by the infinity pool at the Habitas Alula hotel with Zainab, a chemist by qualification and tour guide by choice. Does anyone care if I don’t cover my hair, I ask. “Am I being judged?”
“Look at her!” says Zainab, pointing to the woman with the buzzcut. “She’s Saudi.”
“And her!” The woman in skinny jeans and a T-shirt.
“And her!” The woman whose hijab is tipped back from her head, leaving her hair uncovered. “They’re all Saudi.”
“People here are happy to see you more than you are happy to see them,” she says, with a laugh.
“And we are expecting you to come as you are. This is who you are. People here are more open than the world understands.”
Later that day, I meet two women promoting their own perfumes at a festival in AlUla. They have been supported by a local entrepreneurial program, and we chat as they spritz my wrists with the scents of Arabia – oud, cardamom and musk.
Like the girls in Jeddah airport, these women are in a public place, interacting with all comers, including travellers like me. Unlike many tiny villages I’ve visited in the backwaters of Oman or Egypt, they are not hidden, and they are not framed simply within a family role. We chat in a mix of English and Arabic, and it is all still new enough for each of us to be thrilled by our interaction.
On leaving Saudi Arabia, I check into Alulu’s quiet new international airport. At the entrance to the lounge, men are patted down at the security gate, while women are directed into a small, windowless room for a private pat-down, instead of the public stripping down I’ve experienced in airports in Australia, Singapore and Turkey: it’s one of my favourite features of travelling in the region. My fellow female traveller and I are ushered into the room, where a female security guard is placing a pot of coffee on a heat pad, its fragrance filling the room.
“The coffee smells wonderful,” I tell her while she pats me down.
“Would you like some?” she asks, and instantly stops frisking us to whip out three tiny cups, and pours us each a thimble of Arabia’s signature cardamom-scented green coffee.
She then pulls out a small bag. In lieu of sugar, she hands us each a petite ma’moul, the date-filled pastries from this part of the world. So we three stand chatting, laughing, nibbling pastries and sipping hot coffee in her security room. As we leave, we thank her for the most civilised airport security experience either of us has ever experienced in two lifetimes of travelling.
Without journalists and travellers (and possibly, ex-Bachelorettes) visiting Saudi Arabia to get some indication of the society, how can we call ourselves informed? Are we not part of the change to bring international standards of respect to humans, as well as animals and the environment?
Every woman I meet in Saudi Arabia is invariably welcoming, gracious and hopeful that we can meet again. And I hope so, too.
Habitas AlUla comprises tent-villas hidden in a sandstone canyon in the Ashar Valley, 20 minutes from Alula. The restaurant by the infinity pool seals the deal. Costs from SAR2250 (A$799) a night. See ourhabitas.com
Saudi low-cost carrier Flynas flies direct from Dubai to AlUla International Airport, flynas.com
Australians can apply online for a tourist e-visa, visitsaudi.com
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Gozahid travel agency (gozahid.com) and Alula.
See also: The upside of being a woman traveller in the Middle East
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