Why Al-Baha is emerging as one of Saudi Arabia’s favorite tourist destinations

The 400-year-old stone settlement of Dhee Ayn, the name of which translates as “of spring,” a reference to the water source that runs through it. (Supplied)
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Updated 24 December 2022

Why Al-Baha is emerging as one of Saudi Arabia’s favorite tourist destinations

  • New tourism and hospitality ventures are flourishing in Al-Baha thanks to Vision 2030 
  • Gulf visitors flock to Al-Baha for its mild climate, ancient settlements and proud heritage

AL-BAHA: Located in the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia, Al-Baha region is home to a wealth of natural wonders and ancient heritage sites, making it one of the Kingdom’s most attractive up-and-coming tourist destinations.

The bare, granite slopes of the Shada Al-Asfal mountains provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to an area rich in the distinctive culture and traditions of the Hejaz.

Dotted with ancient fortresses, villages and agricultural terraces dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, Al-Baha reflects Saudi Arabia’s long history and captivating natural beauty.

Situated about 310 kilometers from the pristine coastline of the Red Sea, and 2,270 meters above sea level, Al-Baha enjoys a mild climate all year round. Yet, despite its appealing location and many attractions, the area has remained largely unexplored by foreign visitors.

Mohammed Mosfir Almahfoz Al-Ghamdi, right, at his Al-Malad (or “Two Brothers”) Museum, named after its towers. (Supplied)

That is about to change. A new development was recently completed in Al-Baha as part of the Kingdom’s drive to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons into sectors such as leisure, tourism and hospitality.

In September, the Heritage Commission of the Ministry of Culture unveiled the Dhee Ayn Museum. As the name suggests, it can be found at the 400-year-old stone settlement of Dhee Ayn, the name of which translates as “of spring,” a reference to the water source that runs through it.

Built atop a hill of marble, the village is surrounded by a breathtaking mountain range and the lush vegetation of Wadi Rash, where banana trees flourish and the scent of wild herbs and seasonal blossoms fills the air.

The multi-story homes in Dhee Ayn, which are built from large, flat stones, offer a window into the history of domestic life in the Arabian Peninsula long before the rise of nation states. From afar, the abandoned settlement almost appears to glow as sunlight reflects off its bright marble facades.

Al-Baha region is home to a wealth of natural wonders and ancient heritage sites. (SPA)

The village sits in an area known as the “region of 1001 towers.” The mountainside is littered with stone fortresses that once protected communities, plantations and travelers from bandits and rival tribes.

Situated along an ancient trade route, Al-Baha was long a popular destination for merchants and nomadic hunters, and offered one of the principal routes through the southern Arabian Peninsula to Makkah. Remnants of the ancient road can still be seen in the form of fragmented black-and-gray slabs.

Established as an administrative region in 1964, Al-Baha now includes six towns, of which the most important are the capital, Al-Baha City, Al-Mikhwah, Baljorashi and Al-Mandaq. The region is the ancestral home of Al-Ghamdi and Al-Zahrani tribes, and as of 2020 its population numbered 506,866.

Abundant in fertile soil, fresh water, forest and lush pasture, the region remains ideal for human settlement and has long been considered one of the most attractive parts of the Arabian Gulf.

In villages throughout the area, homes, businesses and places of worship are built from regionally sourced granite and basalt, decorated with quartz, and with roofs made of juniper wood covered with mud.

Construction methods are not the only traditions still celebrated by the region’s inhabitants. Al-Aqiq Museum, for example, contains a treasure trove of artifacts, jewelry, fashions and perfumes collected over the years by its owner, Sahla Al-Ghamdi.

Al-Baha City at night. (Supplied)

Visitors to the museum are greeted with dates and a cup of Arabic coffee, along with a performance of Ardah, the traditional Saudi sword dance. Female visitors can have their hands decorated with henna and try on some of the traditional robes and abayas that reflect the evolution of fashion in the region.

Other interesting attractions for visitors include Al-Malad, or Two Brothers, Museum, named after the siblings who built the two imposing towers that still stand there, originally to protect the village and store its food.

Museum owner Mohammed Mosfir Almahfoz Al-Ghamdi salutes visitors to the museum, which opened in 2020, with a volley of gunfire from a collection of antique rifles. The exhibits include photographs, books, weapons such as rifles and swords, traditional garments and cutlery that he collected over several decades, which offer visitors a glimpse of the region’s past and its cultural heritage.

Naser Alshdui, left, wears many hats: cave-tourism volunteer, bean-farm tour guide, researcher, historian, writer. (Supplied)

In the nearby town of Baljurashi, another gem awaits visitors: A stunning rural lodge owned by Sharifa Al-Ghamdi, a local woman who after years of teaching mathematics in Jeddah decided to return to Al-Baha and turn her home into a boutique hotel.

The property, which has been carefully refurbished to retain its traditional character and heritage, is decorated with colorful objects from across the region that she collected over the years. She said her thriving hospitality business would not have been possible but for the government’s national reforms in recent years.

“I wouldn’t have been able to decorate and refurbish this home had it not been for Vision 2030 and the increased freedoms given to women,” Al-Ghamdi told Arab News.

The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reforms agenda is designed to transform social and economic life in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, it aims to make it easier to establish a businesses in a host of new sectors, and increase the empowerment and participation of women and young people in civic and commercial life.

Abundant in fertile soil, fresh water, forest and lush pasture, the region remains ideal for human settlement. (Supplied)

Al-Ghamdi said the reforms, including the easing of guardianship laws that previously required women to be accompanied by a male relative in public, allowed her to hire workmen, purchase the materials to repair and refurbish her property, and to welcome guests.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, the Kingdom aims to increase the sector’s annual contribution to national gross domestic product from the current 3 percent to at least 10 percent by 2030.

Over the past year, the Saudi government has launched several investment schemes designed to help bolster tourism in Al-Baha. In September 2021, the Kingdom’s Tourism Development Fund signed a deal with travel services provider Seera Group to develop a 200-room luxury resort in the region, featuring shops, restaurants and facilities for outdoor activities. The Raghadan Tourist Resort, the first sustainable tourism project in the region, is one of the key investment destinations identified by the National Tourism Strategy.

“Al-Baha’s rich history, cultural heritage, climate, topography and geographic location in the southwest of Saudi Arabia make it an attractive area for tourism and one that will further diversify the country’s offering,” a TDF spokesperson said when the plans were officially launched.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, the Kingdom aims to increase the sector’s annual contribution to national gross domestic product from the current 3 percent to at least 10 percent by 2030. (Supplied)

At the inauguration of the project in July, Abdulrahman Al-Fadley, the Saudi environment minister, said local authorities in Al-Baha had spent more than $152.5 million on various initiatives, including seven projects to construct dams and wells to secure drinking water supplies. There are also plans designed to promote afforestation and to protect vegetation.

Since the beginning of this year’s summer season, Al-Baha has welcomed a growing number of visitors from across the Kingdom who are keen to take advantage of the region’s picturesque landscapes and temperate climate.

One attraction that has proved especially popular is a lavender garden that is located in the middle of the Raghadan Forest Park in the cool Sarawat Mountains west of Al-Baha City.

To reach it, visitors follow a path of natural stone surrounded by waterfalls. It is illuminated by 270 decorative lamps and the flowerbeds are complemented by seating and kiosks, all of which provides an idyllic and peaceful oasis of calm.

The investment in Al-Baha certainly seems to be paying off. Like the many of the giga-projects taking shape along the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast, Al-Baha looks likely to become a must-visit destination for Saudi and foreign travelers in the decades to come.

The stunning scenery of the Hejazi mountains. (Supplied)

Much of its initial success is thanks not only to state investment, the region’s natural beauty and its ancient settlements steeped in history, but also to the commendable efforts of the local population to preserve and share their heritage, culture and traditions.

Thanks to them, Al-Baha clearly has the potential to become one of the Kingdom’s most celebrated attractions.


King Salman sends best wishes for Ramadan to Saudi citizens and all Muslims

Updated 22 March 2023

King Salman sends best wishes for Ramadan to Saudi citizens and all Muslims

  • It came as he chaired the weekly Cabinet meeting, during which ministers reviewed the outcome of recent meetings and approved a number of international agreements

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Tuesday sent his best wishes for Ramadan to citizens of the Kingdom and Muslims everywhere, expressing his hope that the holy month will bring hope and peace to Muslims and the entire world.

He instructed authorities involved in providing services for visitors to the Two Holy Mosques to continue to work with the highest levels of efficiency and excellence to ensure that pilgrims can perform their rituals with ease and tranquility, the Saudi press Agency reported.

The king was speaking as he chaired the weekly Cabinet session at Irqah Palace in Riyadh, after the Supreme Court announced that Ramadan would begin on Thursday.

Minister of Media Salman Al-Dosari said ministers reviewed a number of issues that were discussed during meetings involving senior Saudi officials in the past week that aimed to develop relations and cement the regional and international status and role of the Kingdom.

Ministers reviewed Saudi Arabia’s participation during the 49th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, during which its representatives affirmed the Kingdom’s continued support for joint action, particularly in the humanitarian and development fields, and its unwavering stance in support of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect worldwide.

The Cabinet noted the Kingdom’s pledge, during an International Donors’ Conference in Brussels on Monday, to support the victims of the earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria, help mitigate the effects of the disaster, and assist the recovery process.

Ministers affirmed that such efforts reflect the Kingdom’s constant commitment to showing solidarity with communities in need around the world and helping to address their needs.

The Council of Ministers said that recent positive evaluations by credit-rating agencies of the Kingdom’s economy reflected the effectiveness of the reforms implemented by the state, including the development of public-finance management, improvements to the quality of financial planning, and the more efficient use of resources under the financial sustainability program.

Al-Dosari said that the fact the Kingdom climbed 15 places on the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index 2022 is a reflection of the continued interest in and support for upgrading the quality of the research, development and innovation sector, which is helping to enhance the Kingdom’s global competitiveness and leadership in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030.

The Cabinet approved a memorandum of understanding for cultural cooperation between the Saudi and Mexican cultural ministries, and another relating to the digital economy between the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and its Chinese counterpart.

It also authorized the minister of Islamic affairs, dawah and guidance to sign a draft memorandum of understanding in the field of Islamic affairs with the Somali Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs.

Ministers approved two agreements with South Africa, one for cooperation in a feasibility study for establishing a joint fund to encourage direct investment, and another for cooperation in the field of maritime transport.

They authorized the minister of transport and logistics and the chairman of the board of directors of the General Authority of Civil Aviation to sign a draft agreement for air services with the Polish government.

The Cabinet also authorized the chairman of the Education and Training Evaluation Commission to sign a draft cooperation agreement for the evaluation and accreditation of Arab language curricula and programs with the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.

Ministers approved an agreement between the Saudi Public Prosecution Office and its Tajik counterpart for combating terrorism and its financing, money laundering, and other related offenses.

They also added the Human Rights Commission to the membership of the secondment and employment committee of regional and international organizations and bodies, and approved amendments to a bylaw for protecting personal data.


Thursday to be first day of Ramadan in Saudi Arabia — Supreme Court

Updated 21 March 2023

Thursday to be first day of Ramadan in Saudi Arabia — Supreme Court

  • Muslims across the world fast from sunrise till sunset during the holy month of Ramadan
  • This is followed by the sighting of the new moon and is marked by Eid Al-Fitr celebration

RIYADH: The crescent moon was not sighted on Tuesday evening in Saudi Arabia and Thursday, March 23, will be the start of the holy month of Ramadan, the Kingdom’s Supreme Court has said. 

The court called on all Muslims in the Kingdom to look for the Ramadan crescent on Tuesday evening that corresponds to Shaban 29, 1444.

The Ministry of Justice announced it has launched an electronic system for crescent sighting “with the aim of automating and governing the moon sighting processes, and unifying work procedures between the courts of first instance and the Supreme Court.” 

The service aims to unify the data source of the observatory through a robust electronic system that provides speed and integration with the relevant authorities, raising the quality of the observatory operations, and speeding up the issuance of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding new moon sightings.

More than 1.9 billion Muslims around the world will mark the holy month, during which believers abstain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn until sunset.

These Saudi restaurants offer a taste of Persia on a plate

Updated 21 March 2023

These Saudi restaurants offer a taste of Persia on a plate

  • Restaurants in the Kingdom offer flavor-packed Persian dishes, including the national dish of Iran
  • Launched in 1999, the Persian restaurant Alshaya has expanded to nine locations around the Kingdom

RIYADH: Persian cuisine is popular around the world for its healthy, hearty and luxurious dishes.

The aromatic and flavorful cuisine includes perfectly cooked fluffy rice, grilled or stewed meat such as chicken, lamb, goat or fish, and vegetables that are enhanced by a variety of nuts, fruits, herbs and rich spices like cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, sultanas, berries and dried rose petals, among others.

Bordered by Iraq, Turkiye, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman and Turkemenistan, Iran comprises diverse ethnicities, with neighboring countries having a huge influence on its food.

Popular Persian dishes include ghormeh sabzi, chelo kabab, dizi, kabab koobideh, khoresht gheymeh, zereshk polo, tahdig, faloodeh and tulumba, among others.

The undated photo shows chelo kabab, a popular dish by Isfahani, a Persian restaurant in Saudi Arabia. (Photo courtesy: Isfahani)

Renowned Saudi food blogger Hisham Baeshen is known for his cooking videos on Instagram. With about 4 million followers, Baeshen makes dishes from around the world, including Saudi Arabia.

Baeshen said that he has cooked Persian food, with his favorite being the national dish of Iran — ghormeh sabzi, a stew prepared with meat and kidney beans with a side dish of zereshk polo, a mixture of white and saffron flavored basmati rice topped with barberries.

“I consider sabzi as the king of Persian foods. With a side order of zereshk rice, which I consider one of the staple dishes in Persian food,” Baeshen told Arab News.

Drawing similarities between Saudi and Persian cuisine, the blogger said: “I would absolutely recommend Saudis cook Persian food at home, because all the materials that you need for the Persian kitchen are available in the Saudi kitchen and the techniques used in cooking Persian food are not very different than the Saudi cuisine.

“Many people have tried Persian recipes and loved them. Honestly — very beautiful and delicious.”

Here are some restaurants in the Kingdom offering a taste of Persia on a plate.

Founded in 1990 in Bahrain, Isfahani has expanded its presence to eight locations across Bahrain and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, with branches in Dhahran and Alkhobar.

Ahmed Alqaseer, vice president of Isfahani group, said that Isfahani started when his uncle, Elias, gave his father, Jalil Alqaseer, the business.

Ahmed’s father took it upon himself to learn more about Persian culture from top Persian chefs by visiting Iran and Lebanon.

“The most important thing for us is to explore and share is the quality of the food. We keep on tracking, developing and adding more dishes,” Ahmed said.

With many great options to choose from, chelo kabab remains by far the the most popular choice among diners.

“Chelo kabab is the dish that gets the most recommendations and gets sold out the quickest in Isfahani locations and food delivery applications like Talabat,” Alqaseer said.

Isfahani’s target for 2023 is to expand to new locations and focus on its design, ambience and food.

“I want the customers to have a great restaurant experience and taste, as if they are in another world. We keep on developing the food and getting new recipes all while maintaining the quality of the food. The new restaurant will have customers will feel like they are in a very modern Persian restaurant,” Alqaseer added.

Mohammed Abduljabar is the owner of Zahra Zad, one of the only Persian restaurants in Al-Qatif.

The undated photo shows Saffron tea served at Zahra Zad, a Persian restaurant in Al-Qatif, Saudi Arabia. (Photo courtesy: Zahra Zad) 

“We decided to open a Persian restaurant because we saw that there weren’t any in the city of Qatif. The people of the city love Persian food and we wanted to give them something to indulge in,” said Abduljabar.

The soft opening of the restaurant, which is adorned with paintings highlighting Persian culture, architectural style and clothing, took place in February this year.

“We try to capture the true essence and atmosphere of a traditional Persian restaurant through these paintings and decorations. We have all sorts of paintings that symbolize Persian society and dress. Additionally, we added Persian music to add to the ambience.

“I think before starting any project, it is very important for us to study the culture thoroughly so that project truly succeeds,” Abduljabar said.

He added that the most popular dishes are mixed Persian grills — a mixture of beef and chicken kabab — and kashk bademjan, a Persian eggplant dip.

To satisfy one’s sweet tooth, Zahra Zad offers saffron cake and bastani sonati, a rich pistachio ice cream with saffron and rose water.

Taking accessibility and inclusivity into consideration, Abduljabar has kept its ground floor exclusive to people who are unable to climb stairs.

To make the restaurant attractive for customers of all ages, Zahra Zad also contains a shisha cafe.

Alshaya is another Persian restaurant with branches in Riyadh and the Eastern Province. Started in 1999, Alshaya has expanded to nine locations around the Kingdom. The restaurant offers traditional Persian dishes such as kabab, sultani steak and morgh chicken kabab, among others.

Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court calls on Muslims to look for Ramadan crescent on Tuesday evening

Updated 21 March 2023

Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court calls on Muslims to look for Ramadan crescent on Tuesday evening

  • Ramadan 2023 will begin either on Wednesday or Thursday this week depending on the sighting of the crescent
  • Saudi court says anyone who sights Ramadan crescent with their eyes, through binoculars should notify nearest court

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court has called on all Muslims in the Kingdom to look for the Ramadan crescent on Tuesday evening, Saudi Press Agency has reported.

Tuesday corresponds to Shaban 29, 1444 and if the Ramadan crescent is spotted on Tuesday evening, then Ramadan will begin on Wednesday. If not, the holy month will start on Thursday.

The court said anyone who sights the Ramadan crescent with their eyes or through binoculars should notify the nearest court to their location and record their testimony there, or contact the nearest center so that they can be directed to the nearest court.


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Saudi Arabia ranks second for world’s happiest people — Ipsos global survey

Updated 20 March 2023

Saudi Arabia ranks second for world’s happiest people — Ipsos global survey

  • Results show 86% of residents in Saudi Arabia are 'very or rather happy'
  • China came in first with 91% and the Netherlands ranked third with 85%

Saudi Arabians are the second happiest group of citizens in the world according to a new survey.

The results of the new Ipsos global survey showed that 86 percent of residents in Saudi Arabia say they are “very or rather happy.”  

This put Saudi Arabia second out of the 32 countries that were polled.  

China came in first with 91 percent, and the Netherlands third with a 85 percent, followed closely by India at 84 percent, and Brazil 83 percent.  

Meanwhile, respondents from Hungary, South Korea and Poland reported the lowest, ranging from 50 to 60 percent.

The US hovered around the middle of the pack, with 76 percent.

The survey found that on average, nearly three in four adults described themselves as “happy.”  

With 73 percent of people on average saying they “happy,” the survey shows that global happiness has gone up by six points since last year.  

Globally, people say they are most satisfied with their relationships with their friends and family.