Saudi Arabia - A weekend in Riyadh

Around 12pm its empty here

Didn't have many more options to visit Saudi Arabia than the option with the transit visa and so spend a few days in the country. Riyadh was interesting to visit before continuing on the journey to some strange countries in the east of Africa.

Not so simple to get that Saudi visa

Saudi Arabia is opening up and reaching out to visitors more and more. Tourist visas didn't exist but nowadays it's possible to get a tourist visa, at least in combination with a tour package that includes the entry to the E-Formula race taking place in December. Also, it's (since always there) easier for Muslims who go there for pilgrim reasons.

For western non-muslims it's difficult but with the option of a transit visa, it's possible to spend a few days in the country. Getting the transit visa is however not easy as several requirements must be met as a non-pilgrim:

1. I need a flight completely operated by Saudia Airline. Both parts of the flights have to be within the same ticket and both flights operated by Saudia. Flights must be booked before applying. However, Saudia doesn’t make it that easy to book a flight with a specific amount of transit hours. They rescheduled my flight three times to a shorter connection and I had to call them three times and arrange to re-schedule it again to fit my purpose of the long transit, they didn’t like the whole transit-idea.

2. Transit time in Saudi Arabia had to be less than 72 hours but must be at least 14 hours. Less than 14 hours of transit time does not allow someone to leave the airport, and so a visa will not be issued.

3. The visa for the destination country has to be issued must be in the passport before applying for the Saudi Arabia visa. In my case it was Sudan and Sudan visa is also not that “here you go is easy” process.

April 13 - Departure to Riyadh? No, not so fast!

Even with all the visas ready there was still no guarantee that I will be allowed to board the plane.

Sudan almost destroyed my vacation

The reason was that this week was a big protest going on in Sudan, which included a forced change in government leadership. It was big Sudan-Uprising week. I always stayed up to date on the news in Sudan and for many months they are protesting there against the president which was in charge for about 30 years and he recently increased the price of bread.

That made people go wild.

I wasn't worried too much all these months but now, the worst thing that could happen was that exactly in the week of my departure the Sudan-Uprising was at its peak level.

Airport closure

This included Airport closure in Sudan and as my final destination after Saudi Arabia was Sudan, this was a big issue, means the flight will not be operating and I surely will not be allowed to board the plane to Riyadh.

Thankfully the airport in Sudan opened up again one day before my flight to Riyadh – this time it seemed luck was definitely on my side. Would the Sudan Uprising and president removal happened one day later, my whole trip to East Africa would be messed up and all the effort with receiving the Saudi Arabia visas and visas for further countries was for nothing.

Saudia Airline doesn't allow short trousers on board?

Another issue before departing to Riyadh was the dress code. I was wearing shorts and the airline staff saw me before boarding while sitting there and waiting at the gate.

Sir, you are going to Riyadh? Please be advised that we cannot let you on board with short trousers. We would like to ask you to wear long trousers.

I was looking around and indeed no one else was wearing short trousers. I should have known that I better wear long trousers in such an environment. I didn’t want to argue or question the staffs plead to change my clothes, and so changed to a nice pair of long sleeved trousers to fit another requirement to visit Saudi Arabia.

Map of Riyadh:
Tourist Map with stuff to see

April 13 - Arriving in Riyadh... finally

My visa for Saudi Arabia is valid for three days. Arrived on Saturday evening and will leave on Monday morning. Hopefully, my onward flight to Khartoum will depart on Monday or I will have a big problem as overstaying here will be disastrous.

Once arriving in Riyadh the whole process was very quick. The new immigration desks are operating real quick, there was no waiting line at all. I expected hours of waiting but they made big improvements there it seems. Also, money exchange and taxi just around before midnight was no problem at all, even though taxi to the city center are expensive but at least with fixed announced official fares.

Arriving at 11pm with taxi to city

Sunday, April 14 - A full day in Riyadh to walk around

Went up early to get something out of my stay here in Riyadh. In Islam countries the weekend is already over, they have their weekend on Friday and Saturday. I heard on weekends everything is shut down in Riyadh and so I'm glad I'm here on a workday. My onward flight to Khartoum is tomorrow Monday morning, so I have all the time today to explore the city.

Through whole Riyadh, there is one big main road from north to south, so I walked direction south to see some places that I pinned on google maps. There aren't so many touristic places to see but the city boasts a whopping number of more than 4,000 mosques.

The large mainroad is easy to walk in the morning
At the King Fahd RoadRiyadh is mostly a business destinationOnly little desert dust and no 4wd necessaryDidnt expect to find USA fastfood chains in Saudi ArabiaAl Faisaliyah Tower is the second tallest to see in Riyadhthe city is estimated to have some 5,000,000 inhabitantsIn the streets of Riyadh English is spoken by most Saudis The taxi driver told me so as it is spectacular buildingAt the end of the upscale shopping strip in Riyadh

Around the streets around the national museum

In the morning it was comfortable weather but with every hour it got worse, and I felt the heat as back home it was snowing yesterday. Here the region is so hot that, in the summer, the water exceeds 45 degrees Celsius!

Down the main road there is the national museum and some park with palms beside. Its Al Murraba area. Here back in time, it was the Saudi Kings home, but today not anymore as they figured out how to make money with oil and built bigger castles to live in.

Some Artifact outside national Museum of Riyadh
At the national Museum entranceCalled the Al Watan ParkAKA national MuseumSculpture around RiyadhSome small river flowing to the museumFor me just a random buildingDoes have drinking water insideMurabba Historical Palace is the name of the building

The Riyadh general court building and surrounding streets with mosques.
Here the criminals get judged
Some art or exhibition Many mosques in different shapeHuge amount of religious temples in Saudi Arabia

Deera Square with water fountains (aka chop chop square)

Among the places and only a few meters from the court building is the so-called chop chop square. This is the square on which usually on Fridays the criminals get beheaded in public. It's indeed an open public square that looks like a modern village with shops and shopping mall beside and all without any security, also it definitely doesn’t look at all like such an awful square but more like a very pleasant place to sit, relax and watch the water fountains with a cup of tea.

On Friday mornings, however, the facade drops. I asked someone if this is really the chop chop square and the guy answered while making a sign to be silent and not talk about it:

Don’t say it please, don’t talk about it. When some police officer overhears the conversation about such topic, they will get unpredictable, even accuse you of dishonour the prince family and you will get in real big trouble. They are even allowed throw you in prison or shoot you if right away because you could be a risk to security.

Now I realized again that I'm in Saudi Arabia and that it probably could be true. On average, one person has been executed every other day in Saudi Arabia in 2015. So I better shut up, as I remembered that strange, weird and bad things DO happen here. (Remember Khashoggi, the poor guy who visited the Saudi embassy and was never seen again?).  I'm glad I was wearing my long sleeved trousers now and not look like a complete idiot to give police a reason to shoot at me.

Convicts are publicly beheaded by sword here
Every friday the criminals get beheaded hereTo buy some snacks around the chop chop squareLooks like a village and peaceful, but it isnt

Castle in the middle of the city 

A few meters from the chop chop place is the castle "Masmak Fortress". There is a museum inside and free of an entrance fee. How nice is that? Surely inside the museum there are many topics explained about how and why Saudis are Saudis, but I definitely didn’t have the motivation to read through all of it. I preferred to look at the cool artifacts, the ancient clothes and the Saudi swords which are exhibited.

The Fortress in Riyadh is a leftover of a huge castle through whole Riyadh
Nobody is outside during lunch time as all are prayingEntrance to Masmak FortressFrom another Angle

Inside the castle museum.
Had a major part in the kingdom's history
At the beginning of the 1980s, the fort was renovatedThis building was built around 1865  to protect RiyadhAll visible in the museum nowadaysLook like important Kings of SaudiSwords are part of Saudis Culture

No problem to randomly walk around

Places to see in Riyadh are not all in one place and it requires some long distance walking (or taxi). But at least most of it is near the big main road.

Around the resident streets in Riyadh
Outside the city center of RiyadhBurkhas are availble hereAnd white towels, its the Saudi suit

Another former house of a former king-family-member and surrounding streets. Called the Red Palace.

One of the former Kings houses
Its currently being renovatedFood stalls and perfume storesSaudi water in the street of Riyadh

At 11:59am everything is closed - no food until 3pm

Also, there are different malls and stores. What I didn’t expect here in Riyadh were chains like Starbucks or KFC or McDonald's. No, I didn’t eat there but passed some restaurant along the way and it was right before 12pm when I went for lunch. Good that it was before 12pm, cause at 12pm everything shuts down and everybody goes to pray until about 3pm. Having lunch in a restaurant or a fast food corner within that time can be tricky as everything is shut down. I was ordering chicken and people in the line were curious about my presence.

Friendly they wanted to know from where, why how and when and so on I'm here in Saudi Arabia. Very friendly people. I was one more time surprised how honest friendly they were. They even wanted to pay for my chicken but I refused and refused and refused, knowing that in some Islam countries it is often a custom to offer some foreigner to pay a few times until the beneficiary declines a few times. I thought I was successful in denying and already got the money together when I was handed over the food. However, the cashier didn’t accept my payment while shaking his head:

No pay it's already paid. its good you're visiting Saudi Arabia. You're welcome and this is how we show it to foreigners. Please, enjoy your meal.

The cashier even added a bottle of sprite and a pack of bread. I couldn’t believe what is happening, but I had to, keeping this experience as a very positive representative memory of my visit to the country.

Why do we not hear such positive stories about Saudi Arabia in our western world and only always the bad chop-chop stuff?

An oasis in the desert 

After lunch, it was still shut down everything, but glad having powered up with lunch early enough, I'm was about to continue walking in the heat. I read about a lake in Riyadh and thought it probably is some kind of pool. The place is called Wadi Namar Waterfall and took a taxi there.

When arriving there I see that this is not a lake, this is a full-size manmade river flowing through Riyadh. It even looks like a small canyon. On these days the river dam was broken and so the water was pouring over the borders, causing the place to be closed because of maintenance. A few hundred meters to the beginning of the river dam was all intact and the view from the top showed me it was worth coming here to see this as a contrast to the city center concrete towers.

Park that looks like an Oasis
Many people come here for breaksThe river even has fish to catch in RiyadhHandmade river in Saudi ArabiaIts a place for everyone, even tourist likemeHaving a good afternoon in RiyadhAt Wadi Namar Waterfall it can be dangerous

The two towers with a view to see the sunset

On the way back I wanted to go to the top of the highest building, the “Kingdom Centre Tower”.  The Kingdom Centre is the fifth tallest skyscraper in the country and is one of the tallest in the world.

Who has the biggest building in the world?

But now Saudi Arabia officially got the green light to really build the world's tallest building, the Jeddah Tower — aka the Kingdom Tower, which will be 1 kilometer tall. But it will be built in the city Jeddah and will be completed in 2020.

Here in Riyadh are two tall buildings and both have a lookout deck, but also both ask for a heavy entrance fee, which I wasn’t in the mood to pay. Continued without going up there to have the view. Also was a bit tired after the long day in the heat. Dunking Donut, yes also Dunkin Donut is here, helped me get back some energy to cope another few kilometers of sightseeing Riyadh before the sunset.

Uptown area in King Fahd Road
At sunset the buildings in Riyadh are sparklingExpensive bakery with expensive cakesMany cars but no buses in the 5 million city Riyadh

One of the tallest tower in Riyadh is a lighthouse

In the evening the tallest tower "Sky Bridge Kingdom Tower" turns into a light show while switching the top light every 10 seconds, which is nice to observe.

There aren’t many low price restaurants in Riyadh uptown city center, which are obviously seen from the streets. The ones on the street are expensive.

But in the light-changing-tower, there is also a mall and also a food court which has a huge selection of any kind of foods. That’s why I like food courts all over the world. They have all varieties of restaurants there and it's easy to walk back and forth within seconds and don’t require to ask every time to see the menu first. SO I had a delicious Saudi Arabian BBQ steak (no pork of course) before heading back to the hotel and prepare for tomorrow morning, the departure to Khartoum in Sudan.

Located between King Fahd Rd
Yellow Kingdom CenterIts 302.3 m tallA 65m skybridge atop the skyscraper.Taller than Faisaliyah Tower as the tallest tower in Saudi ArabiaNecessary to take two elevators to reach that level

Monday, April 15 - Departure to Sudan thankfully

They also have Uber in Saudi Arabia and Uber taxis are almost 50% cheaper than regular taxis from the street. At least this is what I experience here. For only 48 Rial the Uber brought me to the airport at 5am in the morning.

I was still nervous about the situation in Khartoum and if the protests have escalated again, resulting in a new closure of the airport in Khartoum. But it didn’t seem like that and check-in/boarding process was all as planned. The flight even went off right on time and the plane made scenery circle around the city to see Riyadh from above.

From Riyadh to Khartoum
The plane circles around the centerHuge center with small resident housesOn the way to Sudan

The plane flew quite low and it was possible to see the mountains of “Tuwaiq”, which are located outside of Riyadh. Maybe one day when the visa process is getting easier, I probably will go back to Saudi Arabia and visit the area around Jeddah, to see the soon to be finished tallest building in the world. Also, Jeddah has places to go scuba diving.

Visible from above and impressive mountains

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