Saudi Arabia - A weekend in Riyadh

Around 12pm its empty here

I didn't have any other option to visit Saudi Arabia than the one with the transit visa and so spend a few days in the country. They issue a 72h or 96h transit visa, which makes it a relatively convenient way to get in. 

Riyadh was interesting to see before continuing on the trip and visit some difficult countries in the east of Africa.

Although the first step was even to get into Saudi Arabia.

Not simple to get the Saudi Arabia 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 packages that (for example) includes entry to the E-Formula race taking place in December. 

Also, it's 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 trivial as several requirements must be met as a non-pilgrim.

How to get a Saudi Arabia transit visa?

1. I needed a flight completely operated by Saudia Airline. All parts of the flights have to be within the same ticket and both flights must be operated by Saudia. Flights must be booked before applying for the visa.

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 the destination country was Sudan.

April 13 - Day 1 - Departure to Riyadh

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

Sudan protests almost canceled my trip before it started

The reason was the big protests going on in Sudan, which included a purge of the president of Sudan. It was big Sudan-Uprising week. This included Airport closure in Sudan and as it was my final destination after Saudi Arabia, this was a big issue, which 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.

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 sitting at the boarding gate, waiting for boarding.

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 didn’t question the staff's plead to change my clothes, and so changed into long-sleeved trousers to fit another requirement to visit Saudi Arabia.

Tourist Map with stuff to see

Arriving in Riyadh... finally

My transit visa for Saudi Arabia is valid for three days. I arrived on Saturday evening and will leave on Monday morning. Hopefully, my onward flight to Khartoum will depart without delay 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.

The taxis to the city center are expensive but at least with fixed announced official fares.

Arriving at 11pm with taxi to city

Day 2 - Spending a full day in Riyadh for Sightseeing

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 inhabitants

Through 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. Especially because back home, it was snowing yesterday. Here the region is extremely hot and the water exceeds 45 degrees Celsius in the summer months!

Down the main road are the national museum and some parks with palms beside. It's Al Murraba area.

Back in the day, 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 entranceAKA national MuseumSculpture around RiyadhSome small river flowing to the museumFor me just a random buildingDoes have drinking water inside

The Riyadh general court building and surrounding streets with mosques.

Here the criminals get judged
Some art or exhibitionMany mosques in different shapeHuge amount of religious temples in Saudi Arabia

"Deera Square" with water fountains (aka the 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 an open public square that looks like a modern village with shops and a shopping mall beside.

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

Don’t talk about that. 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 to throw you in prison.

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 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 did not look like a complete idiot to give the police a reason to throw me in prison.

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.

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 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 renovatedAll visible in the museum nowadaysLook like important Kings of Saudi

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. I didn't eat there, but it was right before 12pm. Good that it was before 12pm, cause at 12pm everything shuts down and everybody goes to pray and rest until about 3pm. 

Having lunch in a restaurant or a fast food corner within that time can be difficult as everything is shut down. I was ordering chicken and people in the line were curious about my presence.

They wanted to know where I'm from and why I'm here in Saudi Arabia. Very friendly people. I was one more time surprised by how genuine and friendly they were. They even wanted to pay for my chicken but I refused, knowing that in some Islam countries it is often a custom to offer foreigners to pay. 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. Enjoy your meal.

The cashier even added a bottle of sprite and a pack of bread. I will keep 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 negative chop-chop stuff?

An oasis in the desert 

After lunch, everything was still shut down everything, but I was ready 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 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 of Jeddah and will be completed in the next few years.

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.

I continued without going up there.

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 towers 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's 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 food. I had a delicious Saudi Arabian BBQ steak (no pork of course) before heading back to the hotel and preparing 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

Day 3 - Departure to Sudan

They have Uber in Saudi Arabia and Uber taxis are almost 50% cheaper than regular taxis on the street. 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 the check-in/boarding process was as planned. The flight even went off right on time and the plane made a 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 maybe 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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