After 6 sea days then the longest 3 days ever in Saudi Arabia, I’m finally getting some updates done. Saudi Arabia was not on our original itinerary and was only added after Egypt changed there rules on Covid to if there was even 1 case of Covid on a ship, they could not get off the ship. Silversea felt the risk was too high that we could get stranded for several days with no where to go, so they made the alternative plan to go to Jeddah and Yanbu. You might have heard of both of these last week as they were both attacked by Yemen missiles and bombs at their oil complexes.
Saudi Arabia only started issuing visitor visas in late 2019 and with Covid that was shut down, so we were one of the first cruises to enter with visitor visas. What we found was Saudi Arabia is still extremely restrictive to outsiders and there were many places we were either not allowed to go or only with a chaperone. Women had to make sure legs and arms were covered and head coverings were recommended. The first indicator is when going through passport control, they have separate women and men’s waiting rooms. Also, no alcohol is permitted so all ships bars were closed, no wine at dinners and even your room was cleaned out of any alcohol while we were there.
I’ll speak about Jeddah first. Although considered one of the most liberal cities in Saudi Arabi, it still very restrictive and outsiders are looked down on. The immigration officers bordered on down right rude and seemed to purposely find things to make you wait and just stand there. You were finger printed for all fingers and thumbs as well as photographed. You were also required to get an exit stamp before you left the country and this was completely disorganized with each agent doing something different. As a result, they thought 2 passengers had not been stamped and would not let the ship leave until that was resolved. At one point, all passengers had to bring their passports to reception to be verified of an exit stamp by crew members who then went back to discuss with immigration. The result was a 3 hour delay leaving which, even though the captain tried to make up time, ended in a delay arriving the next day in Yanbu.
Now as for Yanbu, it was like a different country. The immigration officers were polite and helpful and seemed happy for us to visit. In both locations, once you got away from the government officials, the actual people were very nice. So I’m not complaining about the country as much as I am their government.
Now for the last of my rant, if you want to know what happens with all the money we spend on Saudi oil, it is used to build the most elaborate, gaudy and large infrastructure you can imagine. They pride themselves in having the largest flagpole in the world, the largest fountain and have plans for a new skyscraper to become the largest one. Everything looks new or is under construction with no end to the funding.
Jeddah – The only excursion I did here was an area called the “old town”. This was the original Jeddah and the buildings are 100’s of years old and were falling apart and is now being restored. They used a unique construction method because the main stone available was coral and coral is too soft to take much weight, so they would build a wall about 3 feet high, lay timbers across that level to spread the weight and then build another wall 3 feet until the buildings were typically about 3 stories high. This is also the home of the largest souk in Jeddah, supposedly with all the hustle and bustle you might expect. I say supposedly because they close from 2-5 and our tour left the ship at 1:30 and returned at 5:30, so all we saw were many closed doors and only a few of them open. If you notice the ornate wood screens on the front of the buildings, they serve 2 purposes. This first is ventilation for the rooms and the second is to allow the women to maintain their modesty by not being seen by males not members of the household. The ornate screens are made of wood and very intricate. We visited a wood shop where they make these and teach the art of creating them.
Yanbu – As I mentioned, Yanbu seemed much more welcoming and friendly. My excursion there made all of us chuckle. Yanbu is not a large town other than the oil refineries so there were not many options. So, we board our bus and ride about 45 minutes south from the pier to a man made lake in a park. The guide gave us 20 minutes to walk around the park. They were extremely proud of this lake and park as it’s one of the few fresh water lakes in Saudi Arabia. To those of us in the US, it was a typical city park with a manmade lake, waterfalls and green water. We still hadn’t seen any sign of the old city that was supposed to be the focus of the tour. We reboard the bus and now start driving north at which point several of us start joking about this “old town” must be closer to the ship and we had no idea how correct we were. When we got there, we got off the bus and our ship was tied up about 200 yards away. So we went on a 1 1/2 hour bus ride to look at a city park. The old town here was a fraction the size of the one in Jeddah but one of it’s key features is the house where T. E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, lived when he led the arabs against the Ottomans to take control of what is now Saudi Arabia. There is also an incredible water front park lined with out door coffee shops and restaurants along with a small shopping area of souks. It was pretty empty in the afternoon and I went back there in the evening and the park was filled with families and kids riding electric cars and scooters. You could rent the electric cars from a vendor there and they were not Barbie cars or jeeps, they were all Bentleys. I had some of the best coffee and some incredible snacks. The snacks were something called Balila which are chickpeas, beets and a bunch of seasonings. Not something I would have ordered but turned out to be very tasty, so when in Rome. The other was a little half dollar sized pastry that were very light and fluffy and drizzled with hazelnut and pistachio icing.
After 3 days of sobriety and restrictions, we were all ready to get on to our next adventure in Aqaba Jordan. My primary goal there is to visit Petra and play Indiana Jones. A couple of us are sharing a private car and guide so we can maximize our visit. As for leaving Saudi Arabia, we had a pajama party in one of the bars last night as soon as the harbor pilot left the ship. Everyone is much happier today. We should arrive in Aqaba on Tuesday, the 29th.