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.”

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Updated 01 July 2022

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest works of literature. 
The novel, first published as a complete work in 1878, is centered around a love affair between Anna and Vronsky, a Russian military officer, with the book’s characters highlighting the conflict between socially accepted norms and human desire.  
Despite being married to Alexie Karenin, Anna has a scandalous affair with Vronsky and moves to Moscow with him. There they live together as a married couple. 
When he finds out about the affair, Anna’s husband gives her an ultimatum: Leave Vronsky and keep the family’s reputation intact — or never see her son again. 
Tolstoy is still revered as one of history’s greatest authors. 
Born to an aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he was a master of realist fiction, and produced plays, essays and short stories. 
His most famous works include “War and Peace,” “Resurrection,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” 
Tolstoy received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906, and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909.


Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris

Updated 01 July 2022

Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris

  • Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, described the new museum as the latest addition to the list of world’s most celebrated cultural landmarks
  • He was speaking during the 26th International Trade Show for Museums, a prestigious three-day event that took place at the Louvre Museum this week

PARIS: The UAE’s Museum of the Future has unveiled its bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow. It presented its ideas during the 26th International Trade Show for Museums, a three-day event at the Louvre Museum in Paris that attracted many of the world’s leading cultural institutions.

The delegation at the event, which concluded on Thursday, was led by Khalfan Belhoul, the CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, and also included Lath Carlson, the executive director of the Museum of the Future, and Majed Al-Mansoori, its deputy executive director.

The museum, which is located in Dubai’s Financial District and opened in February, was invited to attend the trade show to share its ideas for incubating a new generation of talent and helping to build a better future for humanity.

By embracing the latest breakthroughs in advanced technology, its team also aims to offer unparalleled visitor experiences and help to stimulate the cultural economy of Dubai.

“Our presence here in Paris represents a golden opportunity to engage with like-minded peers and establish deeper ties as we create pioneering experiences in a museum focused on making history by perceiving the future,” Belhoul said.

He described the Museum of the Future as the latest addition to the list of the world’s most celebrated cultural landmarks and added that it has set new benchmarks in the design and development of cultural landmarks.

“Today, it serves as an incubator for bright minds to accelerate big ideas that can strengthen Dubai’s position as a place to address some of the world’s most complex challenges,” he said.

By embracing cutting-edge technology and the pursuit of innovation to drive social, economic and environmental growth, Dubai is helping to unify global efforts to build a better future for humankind, added Belhoul.

‘London Nahi Jaunga’ promotions begin in UAE ahead of Pakistan launch next month

Updated 29 June 2022

‘London Nahi Jaunga’ promotions begin in UAE ahead of Pakistan launch next month

  • Film was initially scheduled to release in 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19 
  • Humayun Saeed and Mehwish Hayat-starrer will hit Pakistani screens on Eid in July

KARACHI: Promotions for upcoming Pakistani film ‘London Nahi Jaunga’ began in the UAE today, Tuesday, ahead of the movie’s premiere in Dubai on July 7 and its release in Pakistan next month over the Eid Al-Adha holiday. 

The much-anticipated London Nahi Jaunga was initially scheduled to release in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the Humayun Saeed and Mehwish Hayat-starrer will hit the screens in July.

The film has been directed by Nadeem Baig, who is a frequent collaborator with Saeed, and is behind some of Pakistan’s highest-grossing films like Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, Punjab Nahi Jaungi, and Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2.

In the latest film, Saeed’s character Fawad Khagga goes to London to chase after Hayat, Zara in the film, in a bid to bring her back to Pakistan as his bride.

Speaking to Arab News, Hayat said the movie was not a sequel to her 2017-starrer Punjab Nahi Jaungi (PNJ) despite the fact that the cast was roughly the same. 

“It is funny and also interesting that it is almost the same cast, same team but the story is completely different – the premise, the characters and the dynamics,” she said in an interview last week. 

The film had everything for fans — emotions, a family drama, love, heartbreak, betrayal and humor –, Hayat said, adding that humor was the main ingredient of the film.

“There would be scenes where there is a very serious dialogue going on but then there would be something to laugh at, something humorous,” she said. “The dialogues are going to be remembered forever.”

“Mohabbat science hoti hai,” Saeed said, repeating a dialogue from the film that means love is a science. “Bicharna art hota hai,” a smiling Hayat replied, meaning separation is an art.

Speaking about her character Zara, Hayat said she was headstrong a woman “with a mission.”

“And the mission, I cannot really mention or share anything about it … even in the trailer, they have kept it very ambiguous … but it is all going to be clear once you watch the movie,” she said. “That mission, people will get to see when they watch the movie. So, there is a mystery around my character and I love that.”

Both Hayat and Saeed said they were relieved the film would be hitting the screens after the coronavirus disrupted previous release schedules.

“Of course, we are very excited; after a long time, I am coming back on the screen,” Saeed told Arab News. “I was dying for it.”

“We actually lost weight, looked better, and were performing better because I think we evolved during the two and half years as actors also,” Hayat added. “I think it actually worked for us.”

The actress said her on-screen chemistry with Saeed was an added advantage, as was the fact that the two had been working with each other for the past eight years.

“We just get along really well as friends also, off-screen,” she said. “There is a certain energy and synergy that we bring to the screen. And it’s just very spontaneous, that once the camera is on…there are some fireworks.”

London Nahi Jaunga will face stiff competition when it releases on Eid side by side with another high-budget Pakistani film, Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad, which stars acting powerhouses Fahad Mustafa and Mahira Khan. 

But Hayat said “healthy competition” was much needed for the industry’s success.

“Both films are amazing. I have great hopes from Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad,” she said.

Saeed piped in: “I really liked the trailer. “

“The good thing is the genres are also different, people are excited about both the movies,” Hayat said. “We have always had competition. We are pretty used to it. It is probably what works for us.”

Horror-comedy 'Lafangey' joins list of Pakistani film releases on Eid

Updated 28 June 2022

Horror-comedy 'Lafangey' joins list of Pakistani film releases on Eid

  • The film focuses on four young men who have big dreams and goals but are clueless how to achieve them
  • Leading actor Sami Khan says cast members felt lucky to be part of a film that offered something different

KARACHI: The official trailer of Pakistani horror-comedy, “Lafangey,” was released to the public at the Karachi Arts Council on Monday, with cast members and the director saying they were confident the public would react positively to a film that offered something new.

The movie, due to be released next month on Eid Al-Adha, revolves around four young men who have big dreams and goals, but are clueless how to achieve them. 

Salman Saqib Sheikh, popularly known as Mani, who recently appeared in “Ishrat – Made in China,” is one of the four main characters driving the story.

He told Arab News he was confident Lafangey was good enough to outcompete the other two movies, London Nahi Jaunga and Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad, also scheduled for release over Eid.

“We have already sold several shows,” he said. “Brands have booked our screenings in advance, so there is nothing to worry about.”

He said the difficulty with horror comedies was to get the special effects right and make them convincing to win public appeal.

“But I think we have been able to deliver what we promised,” Mani added.

“I think it is less risky to explore something new than go after traditional genres like everyone is doing,” Tariq Habib Rind, who produced the film, added. “This is going to be groundbreaking.”

Sami Khan, one of the four main characters, said the cast members felt lucky to be part of a film that was trying to break new ground.

“People always complain there is no diversity in content,” he said. “Now that we are bringing something different, they should accept it.”

(Left to Right) Mubeen Gabol, Mani, Sami Khan and Saleem Mairaj pose at the trailer launch of their upcoming film Lafangey in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 27, 2022 (Take II Media Consultants)

Writer and director Abdul Khaaliq Khan said Lafangey was inspired from a Bengali play.

“There hasn’t been a horror-comedy in Pakistan before,” he said. “We have given our best and are hopeful it will work.”

According to Saleem Mairaj, one of the four main characters, the film required far less resources than an animation.

“About 70 to 80 percent of it is shot on a single set that we designed ourselves,” he said.

Actor and comedian Mubeen Gabol added: “The standard for VFX [visual effects] is very high these days in the neighboring country [India] as well as in Hollywood. But believe me, you will find that the film managed to maintain the same standard which is huge. Just go to the cinema once and this movie will bring you back again toward itself.”

Veteran actor Behroze Sabzwari, who has returned to the silver screen after several years, described Lafangey as a “technically sound film.”

“We shot it in just 22 days,” he said. “I am 100 percent sure it will resonate with audiences.”

Hollywood actors Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas united by humor in ‘Official Competition’

Updated 18 June 2022

Hollywood actors Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas united by humor in ‘Official Competition’

  • Throughout the film, directed by Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the deadly sin of vanity is experienced with great intensity

MEXICO CITY: What is art? Do awards make you a better artist? Are blockbuster movies only for pseudo-actors? These are some questions unleashed in “Official Competition,” a comedy starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez in a battle of egos.
Throughout the film, directed by Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the deadly sin of vanity is experienced with great intensity. It is felt from the beginning, when an old businessman (José Luis Gómez) seeks to leave his mark on history by financing a film about two brothers fighting to the death directed by a renowned filmmaker — even though he never read the novel in which it is based.
The director is Lola Cuevas (Cruz), a relentless woman with no filter, passionate about film down to the smallest detail, but with a rather unconventional approach.
“She believes that her actors must suffer to get a better result,” Cruz said in a recent interview from New York, where the film was shown at the Tribeca Festival ahead of its theatrical release on Friday in the US.
“She’s a very peculiar character, very quirky, but that’s why she’s so fascinating. When I read it (I said) ‘how wonderful, how lucky to be able to play a person like that, a being with no filters who says everything she feels and thinks and doesn’t care what people think of her’”, the Academy Award-winning actress added.
One of Lola’s first jaw-dropping comments on the film is that “an artist without children has a great advantage, he can create freely, without fear. When there are children, there is panic.”
Cruz, who is a mother of two, disagrees with her character’s statement.
“You can take (motherhood) into your work, for sure it’s a big injection to creativity. Even if you are much more tired all the time, it doesn’t matter, it’s worth it,” said the actor, who recently was recognized with Spain’s 2022 National Film Award for her contributions to the art.
In “Official Competition”, Lola summons two equally recognized but diametrically opposed actors: Iván Torres (Martínez), a very experienced Argentine who has his own school, does theater and hates the deceptive glitter of fame; and Félix Rivero (Banderas), a star of international stature with many awards and blockbuster films, but who tends to be late for rehearsals. The tension is present from the first script reading and increases but, secretly, little by little, Iván and Félix begin to do things that they learn from the other, while trying to demonstrate their superiority.
“They are dangerous animals. They can destroy themselves in order to obtain the predominant position in that production,” said Banderas in a video call from New York.
For the Spanish actor, one of the points of the film is that “you can see how easy it is for people to become what they criticize.” He has avoided falling into the mistakes that Félix makes, despite having a world-renowned career, precisely as a result of meeting actors like his character in real life.
“My career was built little by little,” said Banderas. “I basically started in theater, which is very helpful, because theater confronts you with yourself very strongly every day, you have an audience that responds, or not, to whatever you’re doing, and you start analyzing yourself in a completely different way that cinema actors do. ... I think it’s sometimes very dangerous when you have a very successful career very early.”
In “Official Competition”, Lola acts as a referee, but also as a sparring partner, inciting confrontation between the two actors — if the tension is real, her film will be better, she thinks. One of the tests she puts them through to combat their egos is the destruction of their awards, including her own Palm d’Or and Silver Lion.
“You can take that very seriously, you can just think that is a very real exercise to any human being just to break that kind of attachment that we have to objects, and those objects that they represent things that we obtain in life,” said Banderas.
That was one of Cruz’s favorite scenes, along with another in which the director is alone on the floor talking to herself through a plastic tube, insulting herself.
“I think it’s a very funny and pathetic moment, where you also see the lost girl she has inside,” said Cruz, whose character sports big red, curly hair.
“It was a big statement,” she said of of Lola’s appearance. “She’s not trying to hide herself, she wants people to see her, to look at her. She thinks she always has the most interesting things to say in the room. She is such an egomaniac.”
Coupled with the great personalities of the three main characters, the film, shot in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, takes place in a cultural complex whose gloomy and modern architecture contrasts with the absurdity of the scenes, but also makes it feel like a conceptual art performance.
“Being in those spaces brings up so many questions about art — What is wrong? What is right?,” said Cruz. “Being in that space is like all that information was floating everywhere in the room”.
The shooting began in early 2020 and was cut short in March by the coronavirus pandemic. They were able to resume it in September of that year.
“The nice thing about this is that I see the movie now and I don’t remember what was shot in March and what was shot in September. I think we recovered the tone that we had when we left the movie ... and luckily we didn’t lose inspiration,” said Banderas.
Playing a director has only fueled a spark that Cruz has since she was 16. The actor directed a documentary, 2016’s “Yo Soy Uno Entre Cien Mil,” as well as two short films for Agent Provocateur, a lingerie brand.
“It is something that I want to do for sure in my life,” Cruz said. “I am preparing a documentary now that is gonna take me a few years, because it’s complicated and requires different treatments, different locations. It’s not an easy subject to approach. I need time to do it right,” she added, without revealing any details.
Although they have known each other for about 30 years and consider themselves friends, “Official Competition” is the first film in which Cruz and Banderas have numerous scenes and dialogues together. Before, they had shared small scenes in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” and “I’m So Excited!”
“It was a pleasure and especially in a comedy world, although deep down it is a very thoughtful and complex film,” Banderas said. “Seeing her create a character ... that has nothing to do with her, that is so different from who she is, it was very beautiful.”