Hitchhiking Saudi Arabia
Written by Jake Murie & Erik Lillquist
As the rabbit dashed ahead, the Toyota Hilux bounced wildly through the desert, swerving to avoid clumps of brush and rocks. Ahmed drove with one hand on the wheel, the other flicked the headlights on and off, like a strobe light, in an attempt to disorient the rabbit. The engine revved as it hit 70 km/h in second gear. Ahmed swerved to avoid bushes and rocks, somehow he stayed with the rabbit. We had driven deep into the Saudi Arabian desert, far off the highway and many miles from the nearest town. Ahmed had picked us up hitchhiking three hours before and invited us to sleep in his home with him.
He knew a handful of words of English; our Arabic was hardly better. Ahmed somehow kept with the rabbit, sometimes closing the gap to just a few feet, other times falling 30 yards behind as the rabbit turned 90 degrees and headed out across a dry wash. Keeping up a constant string of Arabic under his breath, Ahmed never lost him, no matter what speed or maneuvers the rabbit mustered.
We screeched to a halt. Ahmed gestured for the gun in the front seat and stepped out of the truck, aimed and fired into a bush illuminated in the headlights. The rabbit’s body jerked and convulsed on the ground as Ahmed yelled “Knife! Knife!” The kitchen knife we had brought was long lost in the chaos of the truck cab, completely shaken up after an hour bouncing through the darkness. “Knife!” Frantically, Jake fumbled for his pocketknife in his front pocket and tossed it to Ahmed who ran into the eerie yellow of the headlights, yelled “Alahu Akhbar!” grabbed the rabbit by the ears and decapitated it.
Why would we want to travel as tourists to Saudi Arabia?
What little we, and most westerners as a whole, hear about the Kingdom (as it is often known) comes in reports critical of its political and religious affairs. The Kingdom is infamous for the 2018 killing and dissection of Washington Post correspondent and Saudi national, Jamal Khashogghi and as the home of Osama bin Laden and a number of the 9/11 terrorists. It is a nation made fabulously wealthy by its oil reserves, governed by a conservative monarchy where women hold few legal rights and the government ranks near the bottom of most human rights reports. All drugs and alcohol are illegal, as are sexual relationships out of wedlock and a host of other actions that would barely raise eyebrows in the West. The punishments for these crimes are draconian; the Kingdom executed 184 people in 2019, 82 of them for drug charges.
We were curious, so we set out to discover for ourselves a place that is largely unknown to western tourist travelers. In three weeks, we hitchhiked over 3,000 km in 43 rides, paid for only three nights in a hotel and encountered amazing hospitality. As two straight, white American males, we acknowledge that our experiences cannot be shared by all. Doors were opened to us that would remain closed to others.
What Westerners define as sexism, racism and gender discrimination are mainstream in Saudi, and are officially sanctioned by the government. This is the reality of this part of the world. While sometimes difficult to stomach, we attempted to observe, listen and learn rather than rush to judgment. We put forth our experience with an overarching humility in mind and the acknowledgement that Saudi Arabia has many contradictions and nuance - many of these ugly to western eyes. We share this story of the kind and generous people we met, especially the women we were fortunate enough to speak with, to help elucidate a misunderstood pocket of the globe, one often vilified and misrepresented in western media.
“If there is a final frontier of tourism left, it's Saudi Arabia,” says the 2019 Lonely Planet Guide to the Arabian Peninsula. The guide devotes only 46 of its 422 pages to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country larger than Alaska, home to 34 million people and the regions economic powerhouse. This dearth of information results from a decades-long ban on non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, except on closely controlled work visas. This situation changed in October 2019 when the Kingdom officially opened its doors to tourism in an effort to diversify the economy and provide alternatives to oil revenue. When we visited for three weeks in January 2020 the first travel blogs had popped up, but we knew little of what to expect or what we might find there. So why is Saudi Arabia opening up to tourists now, after decades of closure? Tourism is a key part of Plan 2030, an ambitious undertaking by Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader of the nation, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is popularly known. Plan 2030 seeks to “modernize” the country through a more diversified economy, one less reliant on oil revenues and liberalizing long standing Islamic social strictures. Music is now allowed in public places, women can go unveiled in public and drive, both of which would have seemed impossible ten years ago.
The creation of NEOM is the most outlandish aspect of the plan. A futuristic super city on Saudi’s Red Sea coast, NEOM is intended to be a technology hub for expats, built from scratch along 10,000 square miles of virgin coastline. Complete with wild plans for cloud seeding and artificial rain, a fake moon, and artificial glowing sands, it is the crown jewel in Plan 2030 and what the government hopes will be the symbol of the Kingdoms power and progress for decades to come. The government is pouring $500 billion into NEOM alone and billions more into infrastructure, education for women to join the workforce and tourism upgrades across the rest of the country. The progress already made and visions for the future are dizzying.
Construction is rampant and it is rare to see an inhabited building more than 40 years old. We talked to many people in their 40s and 50s who grew up living in mud huts without running water, even in larger towns. Saudis journeying from the eastern side of the country for umrah, the holy pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca, took a month by camel in the 1980s, a journey that would take eight hours on a six-lane highway today. This meteoric growth is a result of the massive oil wealth the Kingdom has realized in the second half of the twentieth century, but as oil enters its twilight years the Saudis seek alternatives; hence Plan 2030.
Some background on us, the narrators, Jake Murie and Erik Lillquist; both of us are avid travelers who finance our jaunts (and add an air of respectability to our lives as itinerant travel bums) by working five months out of the year in Alaska as hotshot wildland firefighters. We have both traveled extensively around the world, often incorporating hitchhiking into our travel. This was our first trip together. We approached this trip with a mantra to say yes to everything offered to us. We didn’t always follow through to the letter but it was a guiding principle of our journey. We wanted to open ourselves to any and all experiences that might come our way. We knew a handful of words in Arabic before we entered the Kingdom, but as we hitchhiked across the country we picked up enough from our drivers to be able to have basic conversations by the end of our stay. Our choice to hitchhike was layered; because we couldn’t afford a rental car and the few buses that exist wouldn’t take us to the rural areas we wanted to explore. Although we said outwardly that we were hitchhiking to save money, our true desire was for the chaos and exhilarating uncertainty that hitchhiking provides. Standing on the side of the road with our thumbs out relying on a stranger’s kindness to invite us into their car is a vulnerable position. We attempted to embrace that vulnerability to open ourselves up to the profound experiences that can happen when you submit to the unknown.
As with most travel, the most important and memorable parts of what we witnessed were the people we met. And among these were two women we had the chance to talk to. The experience of women in many Muslim countries - especially Saudi Arabia - is something almost unfathomable coming from the United States. In our three weeks in the Kingdom we only spoke with three different women. Days would go by without seeing even a single woman. Oftentimes, when we were invited for a meal, it would be prepared for us by the women of the house who we never directly interacted with. The children would deliver it and we ate sitting cross legged with the men of the household. The women were almost like ghosts living behind closed doors.
Until 2011, women were banned from voting, and until June of 2018, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world with a ban on female drivers. Women are primarily relegated to the home and domestic duties. Arranged marriages are still common and women need permission from a male relative to travel. Until recently the law forbade them from walking in public uncovered, without the abaya, the dark shapeless robe and niqab, (the veil that only leaves the eyes
uncovered). It is only with Plan 2030 that women can go in public unveiled or seek work. To Western eyes this seems backwards and repressive. The reality is much more nuanced and fluid than it first appeared to us.
We met Aicha, a 29-year-old Saudi woman, working at a desk for a tour operator. Although we weren’t interested in a tour, she intrigued us. She was the first uncovered adult female face we had seen, first feminine voice we had heard. As we shared coffee with her, Aicha offered insight into a facet of the culture of this region that puzzles (and disgusts) many westerners. She immediately opened up to us, largely it seemed, because we were American. Having taught herself English from Netflix, she assumed American men could talk as friends, not simply viewing her as an object of sexuality like Saudi men. She was eager to talk to us and trusted us almost immediately to begin sharing details of her life experience. She had moved away from her family, unmarried, into an apartment by herself. She wore fashionable western clothes and chose to show her face, wear red lipstick and colorful (non-black) abayas, despite the stares she would receive from both men and women. Aicha knew she appeared promiscuous to many people, although in western culture she would still be considered conservatively dressed. Aicha also confided in us with a giggle that she liked alcohol and marijuana. She, like many in Saudi are exposed to constant Western media and advertisements. “Why can’t I drink and smoke like the women in America?” she asked us. This question extends beyond just drugs and hints at the larger questions many women in Saudi are now asking themselves and their society.
Aicha even asked to join us on one of our exploratory hikes in the surrounding canyons. Having never been hiking she ignored her country's social restrictions and joined us alone, constantly filming and updating her Snapchat. She plans on making a Youtube video about hiking and enjoying nature with aims to inspire other women. Aicha embodies the rebellious spirit by pushing the boundaries in these social realms. It’s a shift that she, and other women, are propelling - not a painless change in a country steeped in tradition and with a heavily conservative background. They are in new territory, defying the strictness of the traditional Saudi ways. But this desire to dress and act in a Western fashion isn’t felt by all women. The antithesis to Aicha was Ghaida, a multilingual lawyer in her late 20s, who carried herself with confidence, yet spoke to us with the excitement of a teenage girl behind her face covering niqab. We visited her home after her brother picked us up hitchhiking. Over some dates and tea, we discussed life in the US and Saudi Arabia and the misconceptions that often come with such a broad gap in culture. While Netflix can be culturally accurate, Americans don't all know a chemistry teacher who cooks meth or live on a street lined with palm trees where we drive our sports car down to our yacht. When one has little exposure, we base our judgements off that. It's all we know.
What exposure did we have to Saudi prior to this trip, and what misconceptions did we have? “What do Americans think about Saudi women?” Ghaida asked. This was a difficult answer to deliver. The conversation was open, but we had to be sensitive, honest, and careful with our words. We were guests in their home, their country. Despite all this we answered the best we could. “Repressed.” We shared that western media focuses a lot on the inequalities of women in Saudi, with the niqab dress being the focal point of this issue. She revealed that she genuinely wanted to wear the traditional abaya and niqab, and that it was a part of her culture. While she loves being allowed to drive, and is excited that Saudi Arabia has now even opened up cinemas as part of Plan 2030, she remains firm on her choice to continue wearing a black abaya and niqab, and wishes not to be seen as “repressed” for her choice of clothing. Western ideologies and culture are not desired by all.
Saudi Arabia has a complex cultural context, like every country, including our own. Although totally opposed, both of these women believe they are good Muslims and that their way of living is correct. It is not up to us to pass judgment on these women. What we can do is support them in their endeavors. Break down the boundaries allowing for equity but try to open our minds before we castigate a religion and culture we barely understand. The issues are complex, and deeply rooted. Support is key. We are grateful that our journey in Saudi intersected with both of these empowered women, each of whom gave us unique and opposing insights. Aicha, who defies so much of the strictness of the Saudi state; and Ghaida who chooses to resist conforming to Western dress and ideologies and keep her cultural traditions alive.
Our night hunting rabbits with Ahmed was our eighth in Saudi. We ended up in Ahmed’s Hilux totally by accident as we attempted to make it back to Al Ula to reunite with Aicha. We had detoured to the Northwest from Al Ula to check out the beautiful Wadi Al Disah and now we were heading south back to see Aicha and continue our journey south across the country. We left our campsite in Wadi Al Disah early and hiked down a dirt jeep track that crossed and recrossed a perennial stream (a rarity in this part of the world). Lush thickets of three-meter-high grass and reeds lined the track, interspersed with palm trees and framed by towering walls three hundred meters high. A beautiful oasis surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of lava rock and sandstone. By the time we made it out of the canyon and hit the paved road it was already 4:30 p.m.
With a confidence born of ignorance we stuck out a thumb heading south towards Al Ula. The first car to pass stopped and we hopped in the backseat of a Land Cruiser with two twentysomethings. As we meandered slowly down the blacktop, Jake sniffed and pointed to the front seat. “Dude I think these guys have weed!” Sure enough after they muttered some Arabic to each other, most likely discussing if they should show the “Ameriqi” (us) the goods, they looked back at us, gave a universal stoner giggle and passed us the fat spliff the passenger had just rolled. Should we hit it? The legal consequences are serious and neither of us smoke pot regularly. Of course we hit the spliff though. When the boys dropped us off at a deserted crossroads, we were both REALLY high and the twinges of paranoia and uncertainty were squiggling around our periphery. An SUV going the opposite direction hooked a U turn and came back to us. This conversation was one we would repeat many times in a similar form in our time in the Kingdom.
“What are you doing here? Is everything alright?"
“Just trying to hitchhike to Al Ula, we are okay, thank you.”
“ Wein sierra? Where’s your car? What’s the problem?”
“Mafi mushkilah , no problem. Mafi sierra. No car. We’ve just been hitchhiking.”
“But where is your car? Do you need food? It is very cold tonight, you’ll certainly freeze! Here - take some food”
“Thanks so much but seriously we’re fine. No car, no problem”
“But where is your car? We will call the police to come give you a ride!”
These conversations would continue and repeat themselves for another five minutes. These were moments of complete cultural bypass, where neither party could comprehend the other’s mindset. How could these crazy foreigners be out here in the desert with no car, sleeping on the ground and say they were fine? Why don’t these Saudis understand and believe that we’re okay, we’re here by choice? These moments of absolute inability to understand another person highlighted with even starker contrast those exquisitely human moments of companionship we shared with other people who gave us rides.
When the SUV left, we paused to collect our breath and take in the desert sunset around us. Calm warm air gently blew across the sand dunes and the sky slowly bent from orange into pink and then into the purple of true dusk, like the cliche of a sherbet colored sky. At this point we realized we might have made a slight miscalculation. We were finally able to connect to some cell service and realized that Al Ula was still 300 km away across a string of backroads. Anywhere else in the world both of us (or anyone really) would laugh at the idea of trying to hitchhike that far at night. Usually, hitchhiking at night isn’t even worth trying. Usually. Somehow things in Saudi Arabia had a way of defying expectations and working out for us. Our next ride, Irfan was an electrical engineer from Pakistan, one of the 13 million foreign workers in Saudi, 38% of the population. Like many other immigrants, he couldn't find a job to match his education level and meet his family's financial needs in Pakistan, so he came to Saudi Arabia. The majority of working immigrants come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Yemen. These men provide the workforce that enables Plan 2030. Their manual labor and technical expertise build massive new infrastructure projects across the country and enable the rapid modernization that is apparent everywhere
After another five rides, it was past 9:00 p.m. and the miles and hours of attempts at conversing in Arabic wore on us. As we contemplated whether to call it for the night and wander into the desert for a place to sleep, a young guy wandered over to offer us a ride in his “taxi,” a decrepit looking Toyota Camry. We politely declined, trying to explain in halting Arabic that we tried to go by thumb, tagging along with locals who were driving the same direction we wanted to. The young guy stuck around trying to badger us into going with him and pointing out the general lack of light in the sky and cars on the road. Just as our situation started to look bleak and we began to doubt our predicament, a true guardian angel appeared, the man we would soon know as Ahmed. Ahmed shooed the “taxi man” away and motioned us to hop in with him. We looked at each other and with a nod of confirmation, we tossed our gear into the bed of the truck and shut the doors.
As we continued down the barren highway, dull yellow headlights illuminating the road, it grew apparent that we had met a special human who genuinely wanted to help us. Radiating compassion and care, he described it as his duty, his obligation to us as visitors to his country. 20km later, Ahmed pulled over at a rundown compound in the desert, his bachelor pad. Did we want to sleep there that night and continue the two hours to Al Ula in the morning? Exhausted and grateful we agreed. Of course Ahmed, who spoke only a few words of English, wasn’t tired and wanted to talk. As we sat smoking cigarettes and drinking tea cross legged in his living room we learned Ahmed liked hunting and had chased Ibex around the surrounding mountains before they had been largely extirpated due to overhunting. “Do you want to go rabbit hunting?” “Right now? It’s past 11:00...” He nodded. Despite our weariness we nodded our assent in return. When would another opportunity like this present itself to us?
Ahmed left the room and returned a minute later with two hunting rifles, handed them to us and gestured to get in his Hilux. So began our wild ride through the night hunting rabbits by headlight until the wee hours. The morning after our hunt, we woke up late, still groggy from our journey the day before. Ahmed treated us to a bowl of heavily spiced fresh rabbit soup and drove us two hours to Al Ula, though he had no reason to go there, simply to help us out. It was bittersweet as we said our goodbyes, though we were excited to see Aicha, Ahmed had shown us such care and compassion. It seemed as if he couldn't possibly do anything more to help. As we were shutting his truck door, he pulled out his wallet and offered us money, on the verge of demanding we take some. Most likely thinking that if we weren't with him, there would still be a part of him with us that would help. It was touching and a little overwhelming. We declined, in all reality we were likely better off financially than he. Separate lives from wildly different contexts had intersected in the brief hours we spent with Ahmed. Brief yet impactful. We shared a long exhale as we watched him disappear. It seems unlikely to meet more than a few people of this caliber in a lifetime.
Every day in Saudi brought new exigencies and experiences we never would have expected. Whether we fell asleep under the stars or on the floor of a generous person’s home,the recurring thought before sleep was, “that was a fucking crazy day.” Every single day had something that we never could have imagined would happen or we would have dismissed as impossible the day before. We became minor celebrities on Snapchat and Instagram and were recognized by drivers who had seen videos of us online. We shared tea and Arab Coffee with herders in tents where they tend their camels in the miles of sand and lonely shrubs. We jumped off the prow of a half sunken ship into the Red Sea framed by the sun setting over Egypt. We were dropped off at dusk in the vast nowhere of the desert, no towns for hundreds of. We wandered unperturbed into the desert to sleep wherever we pleased; beautiful moments stretching out under the stars and relaxing, perfectly content. Each morning we hit the road with our thumbs out to do the exact same thing again.
The future of Saudi Arabia remains a series of complex uncertainties despite the plans of the state. American media focuses on the atrocities of the Saudi state: public executions, the treatment of women as second-class citizens, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to name a few.
Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads. Competing elements within society push and pull in opposing directions with convoluted visions for the future. Those that seek a state dedicated to Sharia law and fulfilling the Prophet’s commandments are still numerous within the population. If current courses are reversed and the country reverts to its latent conservatism, the western capitalism it has attempted to embrace while upholding Islamic values grows more tenuous, as does the foreign investment it craves.
The capitalist society with more liberal social policies and slow westernization that MBS pushes is gaining impressive ground at the moment, especially as he consolidates his power. In March his two most prominent political rivals were jailed - a reminder that although Saudi is embracing some social reforms, political reforms are not upcoming and the mullahs and conservatives within Saudi politics will need to bide their time. In 2001, Osama Bin Laden cited the US troop presence in Saudi Arabia prior to the first Gulf War as one of the primary reasons for 9/11. More visible and permanent moves like promoting tourism in Islam’s holy land and allowing alcohol and other vices in NEOM will likely foment discontent and fuel the anger of many radicals.
The population of Saudi seems deeply divided on this rapid social change, especially along generational and geographic lines. People in the more liberal cities of Jeddah and Medina, in the west central region, have embraced many of these changes and it is common to see women there in public, unveiled. However, in the northern and western parts of the country, mostly rural and deeply conservative, old values remain and it is uncommon to see women in the streets at all.
Younger Saudis embrace the modernization along with smartphones, video games and Snapchat, while older generations still frown upon music and adhere to traditional Islamic strictures. Though many ordinary citizens support these changes, many also ardently oppose them.
So much of the humbling generosity and hospitality that we experienced seem at odds with narcissistic Western media and selfie culture. If Saudis want to keep this part of their cultural heritage they will need to find a way to deal with or incorporate these new technologies and social norms prevalent in much of the world.
Current developments related to Coronavirus make the situation even more tenuous. The Saudi healthcare system (which provides free healthcare to all citizens) and the government have been very effective in controlling the spread of the virus, but the country has been hit hard financially by oil prices plunging to below $30/barrel. The government's programs and spending projects depend on an average oil cost well above these levels. If oil prices stay as low as predicted as the pandemic takes its course well into 2021, the entire financial foundation of the Saudi state appears shaky.
The Kingdom has announced billions of dollars in stimulus money, spending cuts and increased deficit spending, which leaves some outside observers wondering how attainable the glorious visions of the future really are. Without oil money and lacking serious outside investment, NEOM might be dead before it gets off the ground. Saudis are entering a period of existential crisis whether they fully realize it yet or not and the next ten years are likely to be among the most important in Saudi history.
Despite all the larger questions of politics and development, what we will remember most about this trip is the kindness and generosity of the people we met along the way.
“You are a guest in Saudi Arabia, it is my responsibility to help you.” We heard this phrase countless times from people in all walks of life. The closest English approximation to what we experienced in the Kingdom is “hospitality,” but that doesn’t convey the full meaning.
The hospitality we experienced in there derives from the Koran and the ancient belief systems of this part of the world and is familiar to anyone who has traveled among Muslims: offers of meals, water, tea and any sort of help we could need were invariable. These people took us in and treated us with a kindness we couldn’t hope to receive in our own country.
On the surface we shared next to nothing with these people - we had barely any common language and no shared religion. Yet they treated us with unerring kindness and warmth that really did brighten our faith in humanity. All this from the nation that many suppose harbors terrorists and plots the killing of innocent American lives. We as Americans should take note of some of the teachings of Islam, which promotes the hospitality and willingness to share with others that we encountered in Saudi Arabia. Islam and the ancient culture of the Arabian Peninsula combine to create people like Aicha, Ghaida and Ahmed. For this it has our respect and gratitude. We hope that others of our culture can learn to appreciate some of the nuance of this place and people.
Follow Jake Murie