Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Central Region

Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Central Region Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010

The Central Region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia includes the capital, Riyadh, and a number of other important towns, north and west of the capital, such as Buraidah, Unaizah and Ha'il.

This is the heartland of the country, and in Arabic is known as Najd. It is also the most traditional and, in general, the most religiously conservative region of the country.

Outside Riyadh, in the towns and villages of the Najd, westerners are not as common as they are in the east or in Jeddah and are therefore objects of interest. Also in the Najd is the town of Buraidah which is the only place in Saudi Arabia where even foreign women are required to be veiled.

Though Riyadh is the capital of the country, it has only in the past few years that it has become the real centre of the Kingdom's government. Technically Riyadh was always the capital but until the early 1980s, the ministries, embassies and virtually everything else were in Jeddah. They have now been moved to Riyadh and the embassies are all located in an area known as the Diplomatic Quarter.

As a matter of fact, until the embassies moved to Riyadh, the only airline allowed to fly into the city was Saudia. All that has now changed with many international carriers serving Riyadh as well as Jeddah and Dhahran.

Riyadh has predictably undergone a major transformation since the discovery of oil. In 1932 the city was only 8.5 square kilometres in area, but by 1994 it had expanded to over 1600 square kilometres. As a matter of fact, very little of what you see in Riyadh today is older than 50 years and a great deal is less than 20.

Riyadh (which is the plural of an Arabic word meaning garden) enjoys a winter climate that is cool and pleasant with moderate temperatures. Rain is not unusual in the winter, nor are sandstorms. Summer is dry and hot, but without the uncomfortable humidity of Jeddah or Dhahran.

It is important to note that permits for visits to all archaeological sites and forts in the country, except for those located in the Eastern province, are obtained at the Riyadh Museum. The exceptions to this rule are Dir'aiyah (pictured) -- the oasis town which is the ancestral home of the Al-Saud and which was restored in the early 1980s, some 30km from the capital's centre) and the Najran Fort. Permits are issued at no charge upon production of your passport or residence permit (iqama).

Things to see in Riyadh

Riyadh Museum -- Telephone +966 1 402-0303

Open Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 2pm. Admission is free.

In the Ethnographic Hall is a large model of the Masmakh Fortress, which is central to the history of modern Saudi Arabia. This was the fort in Riyadh that Abdul Aziz and his followers captured in January 1902, thus returning the Al-Saud to a position of power in their homeland. (They had spent the previous 10 years in exile in Kuwait.)

Besides the model of the fort, the display includes carved and painted doors from Qaseem, the area north of Riyadh, and Qateef, a town which was once a major port on the Gulf. There are also clothes, musical instruments, weapons, traditional cooking utensils, woven bags and some jewelry.

The main hall is well organized with signs in both Arabic and English. The periods covered range from the Stone Age to early Islamic times. In one room, there is an interesting display of Islamic architecture.

Masmakh Fortress

The fort (pictured), built of dried mud, is open Saturday to Wednesday from 7.30am to 1.30pm. A permit is required which can be obtained from the museum.

This is the fortress which Abdul Aziz and his followers captured in 1902 and which begins the history of present-day Saudi Arabia. There is a well-restored traditional majlis on the ground floor. The courtyard contains a well, which is still functional. The courtyard is surrounded by six painted doors, which open into empty rooms. On the upper level, there are amazingly carved walls and three columns which support the wooden roof.

Murabba Palace

Built by King Abdul Aziz in 1946 as a home and seat of government, this combination palace/fortress is open from Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 2pm.

King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies

Normally there is an exhibit on some aspect of Islamic art or culture. There is also a permanent exhibition on the treatment and preservation of old books and manuscripts.

King Saud University Museum

Open from Saturday to Wednesday in the mornings. To visit it, an appointment must first be made through the university's public relations office -- telephone +966 1 467-8135. Usually, a day is required to arrange a visit for a small group.

Displayed in the museum are objects from the university's archaeological excavations at Al-Fao and Rabdhah. The former is on the edge of the Empty Quarter (the vast sandy desert in the Kingdom's southeastern corner) and was a pre-Islamic city between 300BC and AD300. The latter is about 100km east of Madinah and was a station on the pilgrimage road linking Makkah and Madinah to Persia and Iraq.

Outside Riyadh is the historic area of Diriya, the capital of the first Saudi state dating from the 18th century. This area has also been restored and opened to tourists.

An annual cultural festival is held at Janadriya, called the Janadriyah Festival. It is organized by the National Guard and takes place at a special site some 45km outside Riyadh. It includes traditional dancing, camel races, lectures and poetry readings as well as traditional arts and crafts shows. It normally lasts about two weeks and takes place in the winter when the weather is cooler, usually in February.

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