A few months ago, I was invited by Saudi Arabia to visit the Winter at Tantora festival. This cultural festival takes places in the desert of Saudi, for 8 weeks. It’s actually one of the first times in history that Saudi Arabia is inviting so many foreigners for such a mayor event, including influencers, journalists, business partners etc. First, I was in doubt about going. However, the mystery of visiting a country, which is normally not inviting to visitors, was tempting me. Nevertheless, in Belgium we only hear negative stuff about this Arabic country. Next to this, there are no LGBT-rights, nor is the LGBT-community accepted. Women weren’t even allowed to drive a car until a few months ago.
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I met an influencer (@jo0sef) from Saudi Arabia a few months ago in Indonesia, during a press trip. He was really kind and told me his country would be definitely worth a visit. As Saudi is super ‘closed off’, I didn’t expect an invite that fast. However, he was in charge of inviting influencers for the festival. A few weeks later I received an email that they wanted to fly me to Al’Ula.
The pictures I found about Al’Ula on the internet were amazing! It reminded me of the Grand Canyon in the USA (Not that I’ve ever been there… but whatever, lol). I didn’t know anyone who went there already, but that normally means the chances of meeting huge crowds of tourists will be small. Nevertheless, the treatment of the gay community in Saudi was still bothering me.
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After doubting for a few weeks, we decided that we wanted to see Saudi Arabia through our own eyes. We left safe Belgium for the mystery of the Middle-East. We had a driver picking us up at the airport of Jeddah. The city was looking boring, as there was only traffic, large roads and shopping malls. It was late so most stores and shops were closed already. The morning after, we already left to Al’Ula.
The final destination was super beautiful. The colors, the mountains and the environment itself was perfect. Our driver was a man who lived in the town of Al’Ula. Although his English was quite bad, he tried everything to tell us more about sights of Al’Ula.
The country is still very conservative. Most of the stores or restaurants have separate entrances or desks. One for ‘men’ and one for ‘families’, including women, children or men who are coming with their family. The last years, Saudi Arabia is starting to change. Most of this progress is coming from the Crone Prince of Saudi. Because of him, women are allowed to drive now. In Riyad, the capital of Saudi Arabia, restaurants or cafes which are opening now don’t have separate entrances anymore. ‘People in Saudi don’t want this anymore’, was told us. Next to this, women don’t need to wear a fully black burqa, as they can choose to wear only a headscarf. Unfortunately, nothing has changed for the gay community yet…
Despite the absence of gay rights, I felt more secure in Saudi than other Arabic countries which are said to be more Western. Last year, we went to Marrakesh together and although we weren’t holding hands or did anything else, I felt super unsafe sometimes. To make things clear: this is not me saying that Saudi is safer than Morocco or that Al’Ula is the next Marrakesh.
I’m just trying to say that seeing a country through your own eyes is better than seeing it through the media sometimes. Saudi still needs a lot of time to establish the same rights for all its citizens, but every country has its own speed. And if we need to take into account the policies of every country we are visiting, we’d probably just stay in Belgium.
All photos are made by Dennis Van Peel & Matthias Geerts w/a Canon Mark IV 5D.