PHOTOS: In high summer, imagine enjoying 18 degrees C weather in Saudi Arabia

Time: June 27, 2018

The highlands and southwestern regions of Saudi Arabia attract tourists, nature lovers as well as photography enthusiasts.

To escape the scorchingly high summer temperatures, many Saudis take to the highlands and southwestern regions of Saudi Arabia. In July, August and September the thunderstorms transform the atmosphere and attract tourists, nature lovers as well as photography enthusiasts.

While most of Saudi Arabia is experiencing high temperatures, Abha attracts tourists and visitors with its stunning climate ranging from 18 to 28° C. Not only that in the August summer, you can experience daily showers.

This is due to the movement of the tropical rainy belt on the African continent from the south of the equator to the north. Along with this, along the orbital belt the convergence of wind which rises in a vertical direction and condenses into thunder clouds.

Rain clouds

This orbital belt in summer reaches the African regions in the north of the equator, including southwestern Saudi Arabia. High mountains helps to activate the rising air currents that condense into rain clouds.

Among the areas of attraction is Asir, Al-Souda, where the temperature reaches 18°C with moderate and heavy daily rainfall, as well as Al-Namas with the beautiful greenery where the temperature reaches 20°C.

Mowadays, Al-Namas Governorate has acquired a new appearance, decorated with a green carpet. The lovers of pure Nature and photography enhtusiasts, compete and exert their skills to capture this impressive beauty.

Al-Namas governorate enjoys a reputation as a tourist attraction  among the governorates of Saudi Arabia. It is famous for its large natural parks and high mountains.

Abha Airport

The number of passengers at Abha Airport reached 457,873 since June 1 to  July 15, from 4,178 flights. Total June passengers reached 289,207 from 2,794 flights and 168,666 during the first 15 days of July from 1,384 flights.

Asir’s photographers depict the mountains in Abha during August, as well as its great historical heritage, through creative images that archive this beauty and preserve this historical repository for future generations.


This article was first published in Al Arabiya English  

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Is Saudi Arabia the next big heritage tourism destination?

A massive survey in a remote part of the desert kingdom reveals archaeological wonders, including huge, mysterious structures that are baffling experts

(CNN)Leaning out of a helicopter’s open door, 500 feet above the ground, David Kennedy is treated to bird’s eye views of immense sand dunes and lava fields strewn with giant black domes and boulders. Among these natural wonders are mysterious triangular constructions, a beautifully preserved ghost town and elaborate ancient tombs — the archaeological treasures which Saudi Arabia hopes will earn it a place on the heritage tourism map.

This other worldly landscape is Al-Ula county. Covering nearly 9,000 square miles (22,500 sq km), in north-west Saudi Arabia, it is about the same size as New Jersey.
Kennedy is part of an international team carrying out what they say is the Kingdom’s largest ever archaeological survey, which began in March. Unlike its regional neighbors Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia is not well-known for ancient history. But that might be about to change.
Team members say they have already identified thousands of archaeological sites, found evidence suggesting that people have lived in the area for much longer than was previously thought, and encountered bizarre structures, the function and meaning of which are shrouded in mystery.
Amr Al Madani, CEO of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU), which was established last July to drive the development, hopes the region will welcome its first visitors in four years and that by 2035, once the project is complete, up to 1.5 million tourists will visit annually.
To put that in perspective, 464,000 tourists visited Petra, in Jordan, and 5.4 million visited Egypt in its entirety in 2016.
“Al-Ula will be a living heritage, nature and cultural museum — a destination that both surprises and delights,” says Al Madani.

The birth of Saudi tourism?

Until now, almost all international visitors to Saudi Arabia have been either business travelers or religious pilgrims, but the government says it is opening up the country to mainstream tourism as part of economic reforms designed to end its dependency on oil exports, outlined in its Vision 2030 plan.
As well as Al-Ula, the Kingdom is developing a string of resorts along the Red Sea coast, and a Six Flags-branded theme park in Riyadh. However, a tourist visa that had been expected to launch in April has not yet been released — a representative of the Saudi government told CNN that regulations are still being reviewed by the Royal Court.
The potential jewel in Saudi Arabia’s heritage tourism crown is Mada’in Salih. A collection of 111 spectacular tombs carved into rocky outcrops, and one of four UNESCO world heritage sites in the country, Mada’in Salih was built by the Nabataeans, the same civilization that created the much better-known settlement at Petra in Jordan.
Along with other key sights in Al-Ula, Mada’in Salih is currently closed to the public. It will re-open when the RCU has decided how best to showcase its heritage to large numbers of visitors, while ensuring that it is carefully preserved.
Last September, the commission hired Rebecca Foote, a London-based American archaeologist, to establish an archaeology and cultural heritage department. Her first project is the survey: its aim is to identify and document all remains of past human activity, and create an inventory that will help to determine which sites merit further study, conserving and being developed for tourism.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” says Foote. “You rarely get the chance to carry out a best-practice, state-of-the-art integrated survey on such a large scale and in a landscape that’s largely undisturbed.”

Down in the valley

While Kennedy leads the survey of Al-Ula’s “hinterland” another group within Foote’s team is focused on the project’s “core area.” Covering 1,100 square miles (2,890 sq km), it encompasses a valley — also called Al-Ula — hemmed in by sheer-sided mountains that rise 1,000 feet on both sides.
Once rich in water, the Al-Ula valley has channeled people, and trade, along its wide, flat floor for thousands of years.
Early settlements prospered thanks to passing traders transporting frankincense, myrrh and precious stones. Foote says that the first major city here, Dedan — now called Al-Khuraybah — was established during the first millennium BC. “The route from the south to Mesopotamia, Egypt and beyond ran up the western side of the Arabian Peninsula,” says Foote. Well-trodden paths linked oasis to oasis, like a dot-to-dot drawing. “The oases provided water for people and animals,” says Foote, adding that camels — which can survive with only occasional access to water — enabled long-distance trading.
The trade route eventually diminished after seacraft that could safely navigate the treacherous Red Sea were developed.
The valley remained relatively quiet for several hundred years and then boomed again, when Islam was established in the Middle East. “Mecca and Medina became the heartlands of the religion and a destination for pilgrims,” says Foote. “Al-Ula lay on the route south from Syria.”
In recent years, archaeologists have conducted research around the core area at Mada’in Salih, Al-Khuraybah and Al-Ula Old Town, a ghost town labyrinth of stone and mudbrick houses which — according to Foote — was inhabited from at least the 12th century right up until the 1980s.
But the new survey extends to many areas that have never been studied, and involves the use of cutting-edge technology that is revolutionizing the field of archaeology.
A Nabataean tomb carved into the rock at Mada'in Salih.

Flying machines

Jamie Quartermaine, who is leading the survey in the core-area, is a pioneer in high-tech archaeology. “The scale of the work we’re doing wouldn’t have been possible in the past, using conventional ground survey methods,” he says.
The process begins with a flight in a light aircraft equipped with a scanner and camera. “We take very detailed high-resolution photographs from the air,” says Quartermaine. “The camera captures objects four inches (10 cms) wide from altitudes up to 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).” The scanners use LIDAR (light imaging, detection and ranging) technology to shoot laser beams to the ground and calculate the precise altitude of each survey point.
The photographic and LIDAR data is then combined to produce a 3D relief map. “It’s like GoogleEarth but with a much greater level of detail,” says Quartermaine.
A drone takes photos of Al-Ula's archaeological sites.

Once he has identified promising sites, Quartermaine zooms in with drones fitted with powerful cameras. Finally, the team goes in by land. “We use 4X4s to visit sites identified from the air to verify, describe, sketch and photograph them,” he says.
Ground research, says Quartermaine, is the only way to see rock art and text found on vertical rock faces that are not visible from above. His team do not have the time or resources to translate the texts, which are written in numerous languages including Aramaic, Arabic, Nabataean, Greek and Latin. Others will do that later.
The rock art, however — some of which pre-dates the written word — is already yielding information. “There are pictures of giraffes, ostriches, one elephant, lots of camels and hunting scenes, ” says Quartermaine.
The animals provide clues to the age of the artworks. “The giraffes and ostriches date from the period before 6,000 BC, when those species lived here,” he says. “Climate change records show that after this time, the landscape transitioned from savannah to desert. As the environment dried up, these animals were driven south to their current range in Africa.”

Desert discoveries

The level of preservation in Al-Ula is “staggering,” says Quartermaine. In the desert, the remains have not been subjected to water erosion and with so many stones lying around, manmade structures haven’t been dismantled for re-use, as often happens elsewhere.
The most commonly found structures in Al-Ula are cairns — piles of stones that mark graves, sometimes surrounded by low circular or square drystone walls — which are older than anyone expected.
“We don’t have verified dates yet, but it looks as if some may date to at least 4,000 BC,” says Foote, adding that some may even stretch back to the Neolithic period (10,000 to 4,500 BC). “It’s very exciting because it shows that the history of occupation of the area goes back much further than was known.”
Kennedy has been equally astonished by his discoveries in the hinterland. “In 10 days of flying, we found around 4,000 sites,” he says. Some graves in this area are unlike any that Kennedy had seen before, with triangular structures positioned to point towards cairns. Kennedy believes they are unique to Al-Ula. “We don’t know the significance of the shapes,” he says.
Most enigmatic of all, though, are the “gates” — stone structures that consist of short, wide walls linked by long parallel walls, which look like farm gates when viewed from above. Some in Al-Ula measure 650 feet (200 meters), the length of four Olympic swimming pools. Even larger ones are found elsewhere in the Kingdom.
“Gates are unique to Saudi Arabia. I’ve never seen anything remotely like them anywhere,” says Kennedy. “There are no entry points, and we don’t know what they were used for,” he says, adding that analysis of aerial photos and ground visits might help to reveal their purpose.

Will tourists come to Saudi?

When tourists arrive in Saudi Arabia, Al-Ula’s standout attractions are likely to be Mada’in Salih, Al-Ula Old Town and Al-Khuraybah.
Al-Ula Old Town.

Saudi Arabia is collaborating with experts from around the world on the Al-Ula development and in April signed a 10-year deal with France that includes provisions for hotels, transport infrastructure and a world-class culture and art museum.
Al-Madani anticipates that 50% of visitors will come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, the other 50% will be from overseas.
But will Saudi Arabia face challenges reconciling international tourism with its conservative Islamic population and values? It has been reported that only women over the age of 25 will be allowed to visit without a male chaperone, and they will be expected to cover their bodies in searing temperatures.
“I think they’ve got a problem selling Saudi Arabia in competition with, say, Jordan, which is a much more relaxed Middle Eastern society,” says Neil Faulkner, an archaeologist and historian who leads tours to Jordan and Egypt.
Gina Morello, from Dallas, Texas, toured Saudi Arabia earlier this year — entering the country on a business visa. She admits to some pre-trip nerves, especially around clothing rules. “When I saw Western women … they just had the abayas (long cloaks) on and no head scarf,” she says, adding that she, too, did not don a headscarf for most of the trip. Wearing an abaya made her feel uncomfortable, however, because of the physical restriction and loss of identity.

“There just weren’t a ton of women walking around,” she says. But people were unexpectedly friendly and warm. “In one park women wanted to take pictures with us … doing selfies and the peace sign.”
Al Madani believes that travelers’ inherent desire to experience new places will outweigh such concerns. “Once here, people will enjoy our hospitality and authenticity, be accepting of the local traditions and customs and respect the norms and values of the communities they are engaging with.”
Heritage top of Saudi tourism plans 
Faulkner says a second barrier is the perception of the Middle East as dangerous, unstable and potentially hostile to Western visitors. “It has had a huge impact on cultural tourism across the region for the last 15 years,” he says, adding that the tourist industry has declined even in relatively safe destinations. He believes that Saudi Arabia faces an uphill challenge, pointing to their involvement in the war in Yemen and long-running regional conflict with Iran.
“Security is, of course, an important element in anyone’s decision to travel,” says Al Madani, “but there have been very few, if any, incidents affecting travelers or tourists in Saudi in recent years, and we will continue to work hard to ensure this remains so.”
Ultimately, he believes that Al-Ula’s archaeological treasure trove is strong enough to draw crowds to a country that has long captured the world’s imagination.

This article was first published in CNN

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PHOTOS: Enthusiastic Saudi women in Russia to support national team

Time: June 21, 2018

A series of photos shared by female fans on social media showed their excitement to be supporting Saudi Arabia. (Social media)

A large number of Saudi women made their way to Russia to support their national team in the World Cup matches.

A series of photos shared by female fans on social media showed their excitement to be supporting Saudi Arabia. They are all seen wearing the national Saudi flag’s colors, with the flag painted on their faces, as they posed for pictures in Russia’s streets and stadiums.

In yet another historic move by Saudi Arabia, families began to enter the sports stadiums for the first time in January.

The announcement that Saudi Arabia will allow families into three sports stadiums was made last year, in a landmark move that opened up the previously male-only venues to families.

The announcement was in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious reform drive shaking up the kingdom, including the decision to allow women to drive from next June.

Saudi Arabia is set to play against Egypt in their final World Cup 2018 match on Monday.

This article was first published in Saudi Gazette

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IN PICTURES: How Nature shaped the unique ‘Jabal al-Isbii’ in Saudi Arabia

Time: June 20, 2018

The mountain is considered one of the most famous destinations sought after by nature enthusiasts and explorers. (Supplied)

The Saudi mountain of “al-Isbii” – which means ‘finger’ in Arabic due to its unique shape – was split since millions of years, in a triggering of geological movements, noted down by many generations of archaeologists, to become a touristic destination for mountain and rock lovers.

The mountain is located close to al-Qiddiya area southwest of the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Professor Abdul Aziz bin Laboun at the Geology department at King Saud University said: “ The geological formations in (al-Qiddiya) was formed since millions of years to  its current shape, with cliffs and slopes. While Jabal al-Isbii mountainous chain split from al-Qiddiya due to atmospheric conditions – it is now an area rich with fossils of various marine species, including coral reefs, shells and snails.

The location and its importance

The Jabal al-Isbii is located close to Khashm Tuwaiq, especially the higher part of it east of Darma governorate, near the Qiddiya Project which was announced recently and will be the largest and most important tourist destination in the region.

The mountain is considered one of the most famous destinations sought after by nature enthusiasts and explorers because of its unique geological shape. It is also considered the most prominent landmark of Tuwaiq, forming a huge arch of mountains extending more than 1,200 km.

Enthusiastic photographers

Photographers from different part of the Kingdom throng to the area at different times of the year, to shoot the unique nature scenes  of Jabal al-Isbii. Among these photographers is Saudi Sulaiman al-Gwainee who has taken memorable shots of this natural landmark.

This article was first published in Al Arabiya English  

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Folklore dances illustrate the maritime history of eastern Saudi Arabia

Time: June 17, 2018

The eastern region residents in Saudi Arabia have a lot of folklore arts inherited within its historical heritage, receiving them from generations before them. The most prominent of which is the “Ardah al-Saifiya”, a folklore dance used in the past to encourage men before their battles during wars.

After victory, this art remained a way to express joy and celebration.

This show is related to several dancing teams, who represent this kind of art, including (Al Raiya Al Dawliya) show team, one of the oldest in the region.

The dance is performed in different national occasions as well as during social events like weddings. The eastern area folklore has different types; some of which were related with the land arts, which are the martial arts while others are linked with the sea which was a source of main income before the discovery of oil, and this was the maritime arts.

“Al Raiya” team is booming as one of the folklore dancing teams, which preserve the Saudi heritage, and highlights its presence in formal and popular events, the last of which was the Saudi cultural exhibition in Moscow, Russia.

Gawhar al-Dossary, the leader of the “Al Raiya” folklore dancing team, told Al Arabiya English that: “This is not a new team, but it has been there for years. We have enhanced it, whether regarding the presented shows, the instruments or the tools used in presenting the shows and the parties. This dancing team has been holding concerts inside and outside Saudi Arabia in the Gulf or European countries”.

Dossary said in a video to Al Arabiya English that the “Ardah al-Saifiya originated from the coastal people. It is called a maritime Ardah performed by the people who live in the kingdom’s seaside. It is concerned specifically with the coastal areas in Eastern Saudi Arabia, it has its own nature which has its impact on the citizens. It is performed in the religious occasions, national celebrations, festivals and weddings. Families in the coastal areas still perform this art in their occasions for its special impact on the public social life”.

How is the dance performed?

This folklore keeps the heritage in the memories of the children, and seeks to preserve its continuity. Drums are used while performing it, by hitting on it, there are people who hit on the tambourines in lines singing war songs, poems of pride and praise. While the performance is in two opposite rows, called the “al-Shayila”; opposite to a man who narrates a poem called “al-Shayial”, while others strike on the drums and tambourines, they are called “Al Edda men” where young and old men dance with joy while raising the swords and waving with it.”

Abdullah Hawsawi, one of the members of the dancing team, explains that this sword art has been performed for a long time, before exploring Oil. This art starts on the deck of the ship, as the singer, and others repeat the poems in a small circle on the ship. When the drums began, the ships in the harbor, starts raising the flags for the ship coming from the sea.

With the civilized and methodological development that took place in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. The Sword art did not have its previous role, it became a nice folklore and heritage showing the customs and traditions in the grandfathers’ age. This art is performed by some folklore dancing teams, especially in weddings and national and formal occasions.

The words of these arts and folklore songs are derived directly from the popular memory, where every genuine art of the inhabitants of the coastal areas is inspired by the values, historical and social life of these people. Despite the dominance of the contemporary art forms, these folklore dancing teams still attracts different ages of Saudi audience, which confirms that it would remain present and inherited by generations.

This article was first published in Al Arabiya English  

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