North by southwest: Outlying Saudi regions face economic change, retain culture
It was mid-morning by the time we arrived at a site that few Westerners would associate with the words “Saudi Arabia.”
4x4 vehicles lined the sides of a canyon, with bright green trees and shrubs clinging to the rocks above.
Thin strands of water joined together to form the start of a babbling brook, coursing past families setting up campsites for a day of picnicking and relaxation.
No sooner did we shunt the rental car across the gravel and park, than one Saudi man came up to us with a gift.
“For your car,” he gestured, handing us a bundle of sweet-smelling sagebrush that filled the rental with a fresh minty aroma for the rest of the journey.
We were a thousand kilometers away from where Saudi travelogues usually start - in Riyadh, a sprawling grid of a capital city, ringed by sand and rock in (seemingly) every direction.
Likewise, this valley was hundreds of kilometers south of where the Hejaz Mountains gaze out on cosmopolitan Jeddah and the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and far, far away from the oases and oil fields of the Eastern Province.
It often makes sense to start here - two in three Saudis live in the central Jeddah-Riyadh-Dammam corridor, with nine of the Kingdom’s ten largest cities splayed out along an East-West from the Red Sea to the Gulf.
Yet this can obscure the staggering range of cultural and natural diversity in the Kingdom that often goes unnoticed. As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman noted in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think.”
More Saudis live in the Southern regions of ‘Asir, Jazan and Najran than there are Omanis in all of Oman, while the Northern regions (Ha’il, Tabouk, Al-Jouf and the Northern Borders) contain the Saudi equivalent of the world population of Qataris – five times over.
Winter visitors to the Kingdom can catch a glimpse of this diversity at the annual Jenadriyah Heritage Festival outside of Riyadh, where they can find ad-Diha Bedouins chanting from the Northern Borders, or war dances performed by men from al-Baha wielding swords and guns.
Only by travelling to these outlying regions, however, can you get a sense for how life out here has changed – first under King Abdullah during the long oil boom of the 2000s, and now under King Salman with the flurry of new policies that have accompanied the reforms of Vision 2030.
For over a decade, more Saudi students than ever before have travelled abroad on the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (now the Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques' Overseas Scholarship Program), with over 50,000 enrolled in US universities today.
These students have come from, and returned to, every corner of the Kingdom: From a majliss guest hall in rural Ha’il (the first of many!), where the young man pouring me coffee had recently returned from a language course in Kentucky, to the remote mountain village in Jazan where the English teacher hosting me served me lamb mandi along with a carrot-and-cucumber salad he’d learned to make while studying in Toronto.
Compared with the insular country of the past, even the most remote villages are today rarely more than one or two individuals removed from Europe, North America, or East Asia.
Investments in study abroad have been matched by new infrastructure at home, as well as expanding access to higher education.
While small-branch campuses of major universities provided some local offerings in the past, every region of the Kingdom has by now acquired a university to call its own: Al Jawf University (est. 2005), the Najran University (est. 2006), Northern Borders University (est. 2007) and so on.
While much work remains to build up teaching staff, research capacity and connections between university offerings and local industry, these institutions represent a low-key yet seismic shift in the availability of higher education – particularly for Saudi women.
Women make up fewer than half of students at King Saud University (est. 1957, Riyadh) and King Abdulaziz University (est. 1967, Jeddah) yet these ratios are reversed elsewhere – 51 percent of Al-Baha University students, 55 percent of Jazan University students, and a full 62 percent of University of Ha’il students were women in 2015.
Still, while many Saudis from the far regions still head to the big cities for work, those who remain in the South or North can struggle with limited opportunities for meaningful work.
Oil and government contracts have dominated the economy for so long that finding the comparative advantage of many regions is still a work in progress. Local development schemes seeking to address this problem can take their time – the economic city north of Jizan, announced back in 2006, is only now getting up to speed.
Tourism is one area that holds some promise for attracting visitors and making out-of-the-way locations in the Kingdom a key area of focus for Saudi Vision 2030 and the associated National Transformation Plan.
In hotel after hotel in Jazan, for example, women from the region worked the reception counters – from the Courtyard Marriott to the smallest units for rental apartments, at all hours of the day. Even the less well-off glean some income from domestic tourism, as men throughout the South regions meet the demands of a city-Saudi obsession with locally produced flower crowns.
My guide to this hospitality sector, Dr. Ali al-Alma‘i, was born in the mountains of ‘Asir yet learned the ins-and-outs of the tourism trade through a Master’s degree at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Now a professor at Jazan University (est. 2006), Ali is a tireless booster for bringing Saudi and foreign travelers alike to the region, and helps train staff on the Farasan Islands – intended to be Jazan’s premier tourism destination.
While high-profile efforts to attract foreign tourists have garnered more media attention, – Formula E cars racing around the historic town of Ad Diriyah, or luxury investments along the Red Sea coastline – these smaller-scale projects encourage Saudis and resident expats to explore the reaches of the Kingdom rather than seeking adventure abroad.
Friends in Ha’il, for example, insisted we visit the oasis town of Jubbah - the fourth of Saudi Arabia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites (al-Ahsa Oasis became the fifth in 2018), with a dozen others from around the Kingdom in line to be nominated.
There, tour guide Mamdouh al-Fadhel showed us around cliffs and boulders inscribed with 10,000 years of human history. Having taught himself the pre-Islamic alphabets of the site as a hobby, he now rushed to point out drawings of camels, lions, dancers, or translate written records of commercial transactions, prayers, and boasts.
Far to the south, Eng. Abduh bin Manaji, director of tourism for Jizan, marked out some of the must-see sites for my upcoming road trip – the leafy canyon of Wadi Lajab, the verdant paradise of Faifa Mountain, and the peaceful beaches and waterways of the Farasan Islands.
While time grew too short for us to sail to the Islands, we coaxed as much power as we could from our Hyundai Accent rental and climbed up into the mountains, which brought us right to the campsites and cliffside forests of Wadi Lajab.
We spent hours clambering over rocks and hopping over streams, darting in and out of the warm morning sun as we hiked deep into the valley. The canyon was cool, quiet, and overgrown with green, filled with the sound of rushing water – as far as could be from the chaotic traffic and dust-choked air of Riyadh. It was wonderful.
To be sure, we wondered how much experiences like these, however priceless on their own, could be harnessed to improve the lives of those around us.
For all the hype, Faifa Mountain has just one conventional hotel – Faifa Hotel – while the steep, narrow roads and frequent switchbacks mean that it will likely remain a boutique destination for some time, whether to foreign visitors or Saudi tourists. Wadi Lajab, too, was splendid, but more involved exploration of the region’s mountains would have required dedicated equipment and a seasoned guide.
Yet as we gazed out over the colorful houses clinging to hillsides, clouds swirling around and through the emerald orchards of the terrace farms, it was hard not to hope for what could prove impossible – that the many regions of Saudi Arabia would come to provide the life opportunities of a Riyadh or a Dammam, while preserving those qualities that allow travelers to visit world after world without ever leaving the Kingdom.