Lonely Planet guide reveals Saudi Arabia’s tourism treasures

There are dive shops across the country, especially in Umluj, where you will meet local divers and instructors. (Tharik Hussain)
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Updated 03 March 2021

Lonely Planet guide reveals Saudi Arabia’s tourism treasures

  • For its latest regional edition, the popular travel guide sent a researcher to explore the Kingdom for the first time
  • The new edition goes into detail on previously covered sites and touches on remote and never-before-covered areas

LONDON: Saudi Arabia has been designated “the final frontier of tourism” by Lonely Planet, one of the world’s largest travel guidebook publishers.

The sixth edition of the company’s Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula travel guide was published this month, with an extensively updated section on Saudi Arabia, which announced its newly simplified e-visa late September. 

Tharik Hussain, who wrote the section on Saudi Arabia, told Arab News that it is the most-comprehensive guide yet to the attractions of the Kingdom.

Tharik Hussain spent around two months in Saudi Arabia researching its numerous tourism and heritage sites for the book. (Tharik Hussain)  

“It’s a good time to make sure that the guidebook was brought up to speed and reflected what is really on the ground. If you look at the previous editions, coverage was minimal because Saudi Arabia was ‘the impossible country’ to get in to,” he said, adding that while Muslims could previously acquire a visa for pilgrimage, it was not easy to travel around the rest of the country.

Hussain, a Bangladesh-born British Muslim who previously lived in Jeddah, spent around two months in Saudi Arabia researching its numerous tourism and heritage sites for the book. He acknowledged that, despite its hefty expansion, the updated guide still only covers a small amount of what is available in such a vast country, but said it covers “all the compass points and major towns” and “serves as a foundation for the Kingdom’s global tourism, which can be built upon.”

Farasan Islands is historically home to wealthy pearl divers and merchants. (Tharik Hussain)

This is the first time in recent history that Lonely Planet has sent one of its researchers to travel across the Kingdom, and the writer claims it is the first time any foreigner has explored the entire country this century.

“I was turning up in places where I felt I was the only outsider who had ever been (to) that area, in the far reaches of the corners of Saudi, like Haql in the northwest from where you can see the Jordanian and Egyptian border, to the huge oasis town of Al-Hofuf in the Eastern Province, I went to the Farasan Islands in the deeper south, I was in Dammam and Hail, I went to the edge of the Empty Quarter and the Red Sea. It was pretty epic,” Hussain said.

The rub' al Khali empty quarter desert aerial view. (Getty)

“I think one of the most amazing strands that rarely gets spoken about — and Saudi Arabia is really onto something if it knows how to tap into it — is Red Sea diving,” Hussain added.

There are dive shops across the country, especially in Jeddah, Tabuk, Umluj and Yanbu, where you will meet local divers and instructors (including female instructors), he explained, who mention “the pristine and almost virgin territory, because there’s never been any mass tourism. Some of these places have amazing flora and fauna and rare creatures, like the whale shark and the hammerhead shark.”

The Haramain High Speed Railway that transports pilgrims to the Holy Cities was opened last year and several new rail and metro systems are also under construction, along with new roads to accommodate the expected boom in tourism, as Saudi Arabia aims to challenge the UAE as the Gulf’s main tourist destination.

The Hijaz Railway Station transported pilgrims to the Holy cities. (Getty)

Hussain said: “Clearly they’re working hard and you see lots of infrastructure in a lot of tourism sites, especially the really amazing UNESCO World Heritage ones that date back thousands of years.”

In February, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched tourism projects in AlUla, an area in northwest Saudi Arabia so rich in cultural and natural history that it has been dubbed “an open-air museum.” 

Those projects include the Sharaan Nature Reserve and a resort designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, who designed Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The guide also sheds light on the ancient city of Madain Saleh, the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which lies within AlUla. The city was built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans —Arab people native to northern Arabia and the Southern Levant.

Farasan Islands is historically home to wealthy pearl divers and merchants. (Tharik Hussain)

The new edition of Lonely Planet goes into more detail on the sites that it has covered in the past, but also touches on remote and never-before-covered areas, including the Farasan Islands, which were historically home to wealthy pearl divers and merchants. 

“Most of the houses are in semi-ruins but are being slowly refurbished,” Hussain said. “The architecture is completely different to anything else (in) the rest of Saudi Arabia and (it) really blew me away. You could see the style had been influenced by the Islamic art and architecture of places like India, which the pearl merchants would have been trading with.”

The southern Asir region is included in Lonely Planet for the first time. “Asir is the only place in the whole of Saudi Arabia where they have forests and these amazing mountain villages that are completely different from the rest of Saudi Arabia,” Hussain said.

Asir National Park is home to the Kingdom’s highest peak, Mount Sawda, part of the Sarawat Mountains. It stands more than 3,000 meters above sea level, with cable cars, viewing areas covered in a juniper-type forest, and several picnic spaces.

Asir National Park is home to the Kingdom’s highest peak, Mount Sawda. (Tharik Hussain)

“All around that region and tucked away in the valleys are these beautiful villages of stone houses that look like they’ve been carved into the face of the mountain. They are absolutely stunning,” Hussain said, adding that many of them were uninhabited and used as tourist attractions, like the ‘Hanging Village’ of Al-Habala, which used to be accessed solely via ropes.

The guide also highlights Jeddah’s old town of Al-Balad — another UNESCO World Heritage site — as a must-see destination.

The district’s buildings are made from Red Sea coral and feature beautiful hanging “mashrabiyas” — huge wooden lattice balconies that allow cool air to flow in but keep the sun and prying eyes out.

Coral reefs decorate the Red Sea in Jeddah. (AFP)

There are also the ruins of the Hijaz railway that was built by the Ottomans to transport pilgrims betweeen Damascus and Madinah. Remnants of the project, including overturned locomotives, can be found scattered across the country and some of the bigger old stations have been reappropriated. Those in Tabuk and Madinah have been turned into museums.

For Hussain, the chance to describe these sites at the time of such a highly anticipated change in the Kingdom’s tourism sector was a unique opportunity.

“Saudi Arabia is so diverse in what it has to offer and, generally, it’s an absolutely amazing place to travel around,” he said. “I hope this guide shows just how much potential it has as a tourist destination.”

British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi discusses her debut feature ‘The Teacher’

Farah Nabulsi on the set of 'The Teacher' (Supplied)
Updated 05 December 2023

British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi discusses her debut feature ‘The Teacher’

  • ‘What’s happening in Palestine can’t be ignored anymore,’ Nabulsi says
  • The Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s debut feature premieres at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Dec. 5

DUBAI: As the war in Gaza stretches into its second month, “The Teacher,” the feature debut of Oscar-nominated British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi, which screened in competition at the Red Sea International Film Festival this week, could hardly have had a timelier airing in the region.

“The Teacher” is the latest entry in the canon of films chronicling the contemporary Palestinian experience under occupation, and dives into many themes that have been the subject of global discussion as the conflict rages on. In it, a member of the Israeli Defense Forces is held hostage in the West Bank as his parents fight for his release, international aid workers grapple with their role in supporting justice, and a seasoned schoolteacher struggles to keep his community together as local settlers wage a campaign of violence.

But for Nabulsi, who was herself put into the global spotlight after the success of her debut short film “The Present” in 2020, “The Teacher” was never intended as a political statement. First and foremost, the film exists as an exploration of the human condition, as ordinary people are forced to contend with extraordinary circumstances. Its meaning, ultimately, is left for the viewer to decide.

“I did not make this film with a message,” Nabulsi tells Arab News. “I didn’t even set out to make a political film, but, by default, any film about Palestine is going to be considered political somehow. It can certainly be interpreted as including statements about the socio-political environment we exist in, but it is storytelling first and foremost, not an essay. I’m more interested in the individual journeys of people in that landscape, the human dynamics and the emotional experiences.

“If I can create one moment that an audience member is left contemplating long after the film ends, if I’ve created one character whose humanity forges a genuine connection to this situation for the viewer, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do,” she continues. “If the film does contain a deeper meaning, it should be a personal one that the viewer comes to on their own. That’s what exists in the movies that inspired me, and that’s what I want in my movies, too.”

While Nabulsi did enter filmmaking with the idea of highlighting the plight of the Palestinian people — turning her back on investment banking after an illuminating trip to the West Bank — she could never have predicted the journey her first short would take. “The Present” garnered awards at nearly every festival in which it screened, and ended up earning a BAFTA, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film. Soon after that, it was trending worldwide on Netflix, with former CIA director John Brennan even penning a New York Times opinion piece about it entitled “Why Biden Must Watch This Palestinian Movie.”

“I came to filmmaking late, but the deeper I got into it, the more it became clear to me that the industry has a graveyard of brilliant films that no one will ever see — films that people poured their hearts and souls into, but that, for one reason or another, never captured the world’s attention,” Nabulsi says. “It was astounding what happened to ‘The Present,’ but I’m keenly aware that I can’t rest on my previous accolades and expect the same formula to be repeated each time. And if I try to pander to that same audience in order to provoke the same result, it will do me no good either.

“In approaching a follow up, I had to unburden myself from all of that success. I’ll be grateful forever for what that film gave me, but to hold myself to that with every subsequent endeavor would be ridiculous,” she continues. “In order tell the next story, I had to focus on doing justice to these characters and their plight, I had to be sure that my artistic expression never lost its integrity, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

It's clear to Nabulsi that “The Teacher” will not be as easy for audiences to process as “The Present” proved to be. The latter followed a father named Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmine (Miriam Kanj) as they made their way through checkpoints in the West Bank in order to bring home a gift for her mother, leading to a final conflict with border patrol agents that ends with a surprisingly optimistic result. “The Teacher” features Bakri in the title role playing something much closer to an “anti-hero,” in Nabulsi’s words, and resolves in a far more complicated fashion.

“There’s a lot to absorb compared to the simple story of ‘The Present.’ There are a couple layers of injustice in ‘The Teacher’ and with these various characters and journeys on both sides of the conflict, there’s a lot to digest — especially if you’re not familiar with the reality on the ground,” says Nabulsi.

“But even as people may have wildly different interpretations of the film, I think a lot of people are coming from a place of goodwill and good intentions. Most who will watch a film like this just want to understand, because what’s happening in Palestine can’t be ignored anymore. And with what’s happening in Gaza now, though the timing of the film is coincidental, people are more focused on these issues than perhaps ever before,” she continues.

Now that the film is completed and continuing its acclaimed run on the festival circuit, Nabulsi is able to sit back and begin to chart her own journey. “The Teacher” was an experience of personal growth too, one in which she developed not only as an artist, but as a person.

“If you looked at the runtimes of (my) two films, you’d say (‘The Teacher’) should be six times harder, but it was honestly hundreds of times more difficult. Perhaps I have myself to blame — I put so much pressure on myself, wore so many hats from beginning to end, and spent three years living and breathing this film, all day each day. And the sacrifices that come with that are heavy,” says Nabulsi.

“Sometimes it’s not easy to enjoy the journey. But there are moments — truly beautiful moments. I think I’ve become more able to recognize those triumphs and appreciate them, and then, when they’re over, get down the mountain and get ready to start again,” she continues. “And as difficult as this can all get, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that nothing great can come without hardship.”


Chris Hemsworth shares career insights at RSIFF 

Updated 05 December 2023

Chris Hemsworth shares career insights at RSIFF 

JEDDAH: Marvel superstar Chris Hemsworth held a panel discussion during the Red Sea International Film Festival this week — and he gave fans insight on his career choices during the talk.  

Moderated by director Baz Luhrmann, who is also the head of the jury for this year’s edition of the film festival, the pair discussed Hemsworth’s involvement in the upcoming “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” movie. “There’s a lot of anticipation for myself and from the fanbase that has been there for the 45 years,” Hemsworth said. 

Luhrmann and Hemsworth also addressed how “Mad Max” franchise director, George Miller, was brave enough to create a fictional universe from scratch, with Hemsworth adding:  

 “Taking leap, doing something different, thinking outside the box. The fear and the anxiety that comes with that is something to face and overcoming that and choosing to tell a story from your perspective, to be influenced by other people but not to be directly mimicking anyone else … there’s courage to that.” 

Hemsworth later shared with the audience that the escapism offered by films attracted him to the art of storytelling from a young age — he also noted that the ability to shapeshift and inhabit different characters is part of the reason he got into the film industry. 

“From a very young age, whether it would be books or television films, I enjoyed the fantasy, I enjoyed the escapism, the journey that the narrative and the story would take me one,” he said.  

“I think the vivid imagination of me as young kid carried through and still does now and that was the attraction to inhabit different spaces and different worlds and be taken on a journey,” he added. 

 Hemsworth appeared at the festival as part of the In Conversation series that has already featured the likes of US actor Will Smith, Bollywood star Katrina Kaif and Arab stars Amina Khalil and Yasmine Sabri. 

Amal Clooney glitters on 2023 Fashion Awards red carpet  

Updated 05 December 2023

Amal Clooney glitters on 2023 Fashion Awards red carpet  

DUBAI: Lebanese British human rights lawyer Amal Clooney this week wore a glittering gown as she attended The Fashion Awards 2023 in London. 

The 45-year-old philanthropist wore a head-turning bronze-and-gold Atelier Versace gown that was covered in circular metallic paillettes. She had her hair down and opted for voluminous waves.  

For the accessories, she donned Cartier jewelry.  

Ashley Roberts, who wore a Lebanese creation, attended the event in London. (AFP)

The event, which took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall, was also attended by Danish model Mona Tougaard, who is of Turkish, Somali and Ethiopian descent.  

She wore a sheer white dress from Maison Alaia’s Spring/Summer 2023 ready-to-wear collection.   

Meanwhile, US singer and TV presenter Ashley Roberts stepped out in a fully sequined floor-length gown from Lebanese couturier Georges Hobeika’s Fall/Winter 2023 ready-to-wear collection. The color palette of the dress ranged from deep black to vibrant shades of purple, blue and green. 

The fashion event honors industry leaders and young creative talent.  

Spanish luxury brand Loewe’s creative director Jonathan Anderson won the designer of the year prize, Reuters reported.  

Anderson, who founded the fashion label JW Anderson, arrived accompanied by actress Taylor Russell. 

Italian designer Valentino Garavani, known to the world simply as Valentino, was honored with this year’s outstanding achievement award. Founder of the eponymous brand, the 91-year-old has dressed the rich and famous, created a business empire and introduced a new color to the fashion world, the so-called “Valentino Red.” 

American Paloma Elsesser was named model of the year.  

The 2023 edition of the award show was hosted by British television presenter Maya Jama and musician Kojey Radical and featured a performance by singer Sam Smith. 

Stars attending the event also included actors Anne Hathaway, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tessa Thompson and Pamela Anderson, model Kate Moss and race car driver Lewis Hamilton.  

The show is a fundraiser for the British Fashion Council (BFC) Foundation which focuses on supporting the UK’s fashion industry. 

Filmmaker Talal Almusaad talks ‘weird, psychedelic’ short film ‘Salem’s Legs’ at RSIFF

Updated 05 December 2023

Filmmaker Talal Almusaad talks ‘weird, psychedelic’ short film ‘Salem’s Legs’ at RSIFF

RIYADH: At just 18, Saudi filmmaker Talal Almusaad is making his cinema debut with a short film titled “Salem’s Legs” at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

Almusaad was raised in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran at a time when cinemas were nonexistent in the Kingdom. Nevertheless, he saw films, notably the “Halloween” movie franchise, during visits to Bahrain. He cites Hollywood film giants Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino as among his favorite directors.

“From childhood, all I wanted to do was tell stories,” Almusaad, who is based in Riyadh, told Arab News. 

The fledgling director said that he is interested in making films about Saudi culture for non-Arab audiences, but also wants to surprise Arab audiences with “creepy and weird” plots.

“I want to make something new in Saudi cinema,” he said.

“Salem’s Legs,” which runs for just five minutes, is an Arabic-language dark comedy about two young friends, Salem and Mohammed. When the former swallows an anonymous pill and collapses, Mohammed panics and believes that his friend has died. He tries to get rid of Salem’s body by rolling it up in a carpet. Their adventures lead them to the Saudi desert.

‘Salem’s Legs,’ which runs for just five minutes, is an Arabic-language dark comedy. (Supplied)

“It’s a weird, psychedelic movie. You can even see that in our poster,” said the director of the fluorescent pop-art design.

“There is no message in the film, but that is the message: You don’t have to do a film with a message just to brag and say you’re an artist.”

The plotline was put together by scriptwriter Nawaf Alzahrani and the film features three actors, Mohammed Alajmi, Salem Alattas, and Norah Abdalaziz.

“I told the group, ‘Let’s make something we love. Don’t think about if we win or lose at the Red Sea Festival.’”

The film was shot in just 48 hours and will be screened at Vox Cinema in the Red Sea Mall on Dec. 5 and 8.

It is a surreal experience for Almusaad to showcase his work at the festival, as he only recently graduated from high school and hopes to study filmmaking abroad.

He would like to shoot one more film in his homeland, which has recently undergone a major transformation in terms of cinema access and production. At the festival alone, there are more than five Saudi feature films screening this year.

“If you told me five years ago that many filmmakers will do films in Saudi Arabia, I would not have believed that. It’s crazy,” Almusaad said.

Short animation ‘Saleeg’ heads back to Saudi Arabia after international screenings

Updated 05 December 2023

Short animation ‘Saleeg’ heads back to Saudi Arabia after international screenings

JEDDAH: With Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival in full swing, Saudi Arabia’s up-and-coming talents are firmly in the spotlight.

Among the selection of Saudi films screening at the event, which runs until Dec. 9, “Saleeg,” a captivating short animation directed by Afnan Bawyan, stands out. This short masterpiece, running just shy of 10 minutes and produced in 2022, employs diverse puppetry techniques and was created in Amsterdam at 5 A.M. Studios.

“Saleeg” is showing in the “New Saudi, New Cinema: Shorts” category among the other 19 shorts from the Kingdom.

Saudi film director Afnan Bawyan  expressed her excitement about screening “Saleeg” in Jeddah, the city that inspired the film’s creation. In an interview with Arab News before the screening, she anticipated a profound connection between the local audience and the narrative, given its roots in Jeddah and the west of Saudi Arabia.

“I am thrilled to participate in the Red Sea International Film Festival as it signifies the inaugural screening of my film in Jeddah, the city that inspired its creation. I am optimistic that the audience in Jeddah and the Saudi western region will perceive the film uniquely and forge a deeper connection with the narrative and characters compared to any other audience as they will be able to relate to it,” Bawyan said.

The film’s title draws inspiration from the traditional Saudi Hijazi dish saleeg, which originates in Taif in the Makkah region. In the film, 60-year-old Hajer is preparing saleeg for dinner with her son. In need of vegetables, she rushes outside when she hears the grocer’s bell, but forgets to cover the pot. Meanwhile in the kitchen, the rice has fallen into the boiling water where it has expanded, overflowed and is soon flooding through the house and out into the yard, carrying Hajer with it.

The film is a family drama with voices in a Saudi dialect of Arabic, subtitled in Urdu, Tigrigna and English, and it made its mark on the international stage with a premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France earlier this year.

The film poster for Saudi animation 'Saleeg.' Supplied

“The film has been fortunate to receive significant publicity, especially after its screening at Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France,” the director said.

“Saleeg” was also screened in the Saudi Cultural Exhibition in Paris and at the Film Criticism Conference in Riyadh and took part in more than 15 Saudi, Arab, and international film festivals.

The work discusses various issues in Saudi society, including rapid urbanization and the tension between traditional and contemporary ways of living, particularly how the elderly is affected.

Behind this film stands a director who, despite a background in chemistry, embarked on a self-taught journey into filmmaking, enhanced by attending workshops by the Saudi Film Commission.

Crafting the stop-motion film demanded over 65 days of meticulous work, she said. Bawyan’s expertise as a script supervisor for seven Saudi feature films laid the foundation for her debut as a writer and director with “Saleeg,” which was co-produced with animation writer and producer Mariam Khayat.

Looking ahead, Bawyan is working on a clutch of projects, including a new short-animated film set in her hometown, Makkah.