The ancient and the modern

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am

SAUDI ARABIA HAS a wealth of natural and cultural experiences to offer leisure and business travellers. Bordered to the northwest by the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, to the north by Iraq, to the east by the Arabian Gulf, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, to the south by the Republic of Yemen and to the west by the Red Sea, the kingdom's terrain varies from forest and grasslands to rugged mountain ranges, salt marshlands and desert.

The sprawling region has been inhabited since prehistoric times: trade links with the Egyptians and Babylonians for spices and incense were established in the second millennium BC. Prior to Roman times, the peninsula was the crossroads of caravan routes between Yemen and Rome, Egypt and Petra, and Sinai and Persia. The land is full of archaeological sites from the Byzantine, Nabataean, Umayyad and Abbasid periods.

Of the many historical sites, Madain Saleh (cities of Saleh), in the northwest, is most significant. It was once the southern capital of the remarkable Nabataeans, trading people of ancient Arabia. Spectacular rock carved dwellings and tombs, from the 1st century AD, are still in evidence. Bordering Jordan and Iraq, in the northernmost region, is Al-Jouf, which has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The region's capital is the oasis of Sakaka, dominated by the ancient mud-brick fortress Qasr Zabal, still well preserved by the dry air. A similar fortress exists in the town of Dawmat al-Jandal, site of the earliest recorded settlements. The fortress is said to have been built by the grandson of Abraham.

Despite its ancient heritage, Saudi Arabia is totally modern. The capital, Riyadh, is a dynamic city of 4 million inhabitants, with a network of super-highways and spectacular architecture. Two buildings in central Riyadh exemplify this: the Al-Faisalah Centre and the Kingdom Centre.

Both house luxury hotels, conference and leisure facilities, office and apartment buildings, and gigantic shopping malls.

The city was built on the site of a town captured by King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud (known as Ibn Saud), when he stormed the Musmat Fort in 1902. A spearhead embedded in the main door is said to be the one with which Ibn Saud killed the Turkish governor.

Natural wonders

Dramatic desert landscapes and sand dunes offer a unique travel experiences especially for the adventure seeker. The Rub' al Khali is the biggest sand desert in the world, with the largest sand dunes up to 300 metres high.


The Saudis have historically enjoyed sporting activities, and horse and camel racing remain the most popular. Other exotic local sports include falconry.

Business travel

The kingdom offers a wide range of conference and exhibition facilities. Exhibition space totals about 29,000 square metres while conference and meeting space, including hotel ballrooms, exceeds 61,000 square metres.