Is Saudi Arabia ready for travelers?

The Middle Eastern kingdom has big plans for developing large-scale tourism—starting with Jeddah and its centuries-old architecture and history. 

In Saudi Arabia’s historic port of Jeddah, palm trees swing in the breeze against a broad panel of glittering water. Egypt and Sudan seem to peek over the Red Sea’s western horizon, while Mecca lies toward the mountains just behind me. 

Thousands of years old, Jeddah means “grandmother” in Arabic, and legend has it that the Bible’s Eve is buried here. The pilgrim trade and the storied spice highways of the Indian Ocean all beckoned from Jeddah.

Yet, Saudi Arabia is changing fast, and part of its Vision 2030 plan involves restoring Old Jeddah. The government’s strategic blueprint for preparing the economy and society for the rigors of a post-petroleum age includes everything from implementing digital and infrastructure projects to liberating women from the constraints of Islamic law to nurture a more creative and dynamic workforce. 

Also in the plan: developing large-scale tourism as another source of income. Since 2019, leisure travelers from 49 countries (including the United States) have been able to apply for visas.

Along with its vast deserts and remarkable archaeological ruins, Saudi Arabia has Jeddah—the maritime gateway to the country’s sacred sites—to show off. In all, 650 18th- and 19th-century white-plastered, coral stone buildings. in Al-Balad (Old Jeddah), a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2014. Now is the time to visit, during a magical interlude after it has been refurbished but before the holiday hordes arrive.

Gateway to the holy cities

Jeddah is the principal city of the Hejaz, which means the “barrier,” a narrow region along the Red Sea bordered by mountains and plateaus to the east. For centuries, Muslim pilgrims have come to the Hejaz from all over the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, bound for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, thus making for a form of globalization before the term itself took root. Al-Balad, near the original seventh-century port, lies at the heart of it all, the first place in Arabia that Muslim pilgrims saw in the age before jet travel.

The old town, once a hub of the spice trade, is a jigsaw of whitewashed buildings decorated with enclosed balconies made of teakwood from India. The balcony screens are cut into lattice formations and called roshans, from the Persian word rozen, meaning “window opening.” Here women could sit and see out into the street without being seen themselves. 

The roshans of Jeddah are similar to the moucharaby of Tunisia, Egypt, and the Levant. Their carved complexity is layered against blinding white facades that are striking in their simplicity. No two roshans here are identical, yet the architectural pattern throughout the old port appears uniform.

“We say in Arabic that ‘the houses talk to each other,’” said Abir Jameel AbuSulayman, who in 2011 became the first female tour guide in Saudi Arabia. She took me to meet Ahmed Angawi, who runs a workshop that is reviving the craft of building roshans.

“Latticework in all its variations,” Angawi told me, “represents a geometry that expresses both the unity and diversity of the Islamic world.”

When not in their natural dark brown teak, roshans are painted green or sky blue. Green is the color of Islam and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while blue is inspired by the mushrabiyahs of Sidi Bou Said, an urban masterpiece north of Tunis on the Mediterranean. The effect of the sky blue roshans set against the white walls also conjures up the Greek islands, and there is one building here called the “Mykonos House.” Like the Greek islands, the narrow and somnolent lanes of Old Jeddah are delightfully populated with cats.

The smell of incense charms and invigorates the interiors of Al-Balad, as it does throughout the Kingdom. I went into a sweet shop, its hundreds of clear cases filled with Indonesian tamarind seeds, dried apricots from Syria, various dried fruits from Thailand, dozens of different kinds of dates from Saudi Arabia, and more, making for a chromatic and rectilinear feast of color akin to a modern art canvas.

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I walked into the cool, dark interior of Nasseef House, a 19th-century Ottoman mansion where Abdelaziz Ibn Saud lived between 1925 and 1927. Then, he was known as “King of Hejaz, Sultan of Nejd,” before the two disparate regions he ruled were officially combined to form Saudi Arabia in 1932. 

On the second floor of the house (now a museum), I sat by the window where Abdelaziz himself must have sat, trying to erase the passage of time. Without Abdelaziz and his galloping, warrior charisma, the oil giant of Saudi Arabia would likely have never come into existence and the Middle East would now be radically different.

On the roof there was a wooden enclosure with open windows called a tairama, a place for birds, according to both AbuSulayman and Rawaa Bakhsh, a historic preservationist. I rested on a brocade cushion on the floor, admiring a view cluttered with glinting-in-the-sun skyscrapers of modern Jeddah: a vista that, until the 1950s, constituted only sea and desert beyond Al-Balad’s cluster of houses. 

From here I also spotted the graceful white Shafi’i Mosque by the old port. Its minaret is 800 years old, while other parts of the building date to the 18th century. The British intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, must have seen it, I thought, having begun his Arabian adventures from this Red Sea port in 1916.

Beyond the stereotypes

I’ve met Saudis over the decades who were educated abroad, became members of a globalized world, and yet returned home and retained their cultural values: the men still wearing ghutras and agals (traditional Saudi Arabian headdress and cord), the women wearing abayas and hijabs. Saudis have become cosmopolitan without becoming rootless. Al-Balad is at the heart of those roots.

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Indeed, Old Jeddah, though silent and a bit empty now, on account of the final repair work and the fact that it is still a secret, promises to become an extension of a young, hip coffeehouse culture that is taking over Saudi Arabia. Seventy percent of Saudis are under the age of 35, and the desert country is 84.3 percent urban. 

Throughout Jeddah and Riyadh I saw women sitting alone at cafés, immersed in their laptops, or greeting male or female friends. Scenes like these hint at how single female travelers from the West might be received.

One Saudi diplomat, having spent many years abroad and now at home in traditional dress, told me in an Ethiopian coffee shop in Al-Balad: “According to the stereotypes, we have oil, we are the land of Osama bin Laden, we repress women, and we chop off heads. Vision 2030 is trying to undermine those images. Now Vision 2030, of which the restoration of Old Jeddah is a small part, is itself being criticized for its own problems and imperfections. But that’s progress.”

Robert D. Kaplan’s most recent book is Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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