The Novelty Of Being A Tourist In Saudi Arabia

Do you want to see a beheading?

I can’t promise one. But in this Arabian adventure, we’re heading to a beheading square.

It’s not in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, nor is it in Mecca. But it is located in the gateway to Mecca — a place known for playing host to pilgrims that so happens to also have a “Chop Chop Square.”

But before we experience the novelty of being a tourist in Saudi Arabia, it’s time for little more luxury in Dubai and a dubious run-in with a border officer in Bahrain.

Are you ready for an exciting part 2 of my recent Arabian adventure?

Bar Hopping Dubai

Drinks at “The Treehouse”

Having just wrapped up my second Nomad Cruise, followed by cruising the fjords of Arabia, it was time to carry on with the second part of my Middle Eastern excursion.

My time in Musandam, Oman was bookended by two stays in Dubai. You already heard about the first — in which I hovered over the city and its manmade islands and floating hotels and pools.

Atlantis from above

Now it’s time to get a glimpse of Dubai nightlife.

After returning from Musandam, I stayed in Dubai for five full days. Chris, a friend and business partner of mine, joined me there. We planned to do some exploring together and show each other our favorite spots. 

I have spent a decent amount of time in Dubai, and Chris has an office there, so he spends a few weeks in the city every year. In a city like Dubai, it’s hard to ever really finish exploring, so we were looking forward to checking out each other’s favorite spots.

Chris arrived with his partner Michael. To start off, I took them to my favorite club in Dubai. It’s called COYA, and it is a Peruvian bar that has great cocktails, nice Latin music, sweet girls and quality steak. Right next door to COYA is the Four Seasons where I ate the gold flake steak on a previous trip to Dubai. This time I chose not to indulge. I figured it would become an expensive habit 🙂


You know by now I love a good steak, so long as it doesn’t get me sick, like what happened in Syria.

But believe it or not, on this trip I voluntarily went to a vegetarian restaurant and really quite enjoyed it. It was an Indian style restaurant and was very authentic. It’s called Rasoi Ghar and I highly recommend it to any veggie readers in Dubai. 

No meat but still delicious

Anyway, Chris had some experience with the rooftop bar scene in Dubai, so we barhopped a bit after eating. One of the first bars we went to was at the Le Meridien complex. The owner is a friend of Chris’ so he is always greeted by a live band and VIP treatment when he is there. We spent a couple of fun evenings there.

Bar Hopping

We hopped around to a few other rooftop bars which all had amazing views. Rooftop bars in Dubai offer you almost cinematic views. Here are some examples:


Dubai Marina


We ended our night and went to our separate hotels, planning for an adventure out of the city the following day. I was staying at the Hilton on the Dubai Creek for the first time.

I had always thought Dubai Creek was sort of like the poor, boring touristy part of Dubai, but found it to be a pretty nice area. The Hilton I was staying at was very nice, with great rooms facing the skyline and the river and a convenient location, too.

Dubai Creek

A Luxury Oasis in the Desert

The next day we left the city and traveled about 45 minutes inland to a national park called the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Despite having spent 10 years working in Dubai for a couple of weeks every year, Chris had never been into the desert there. We were both excited to get to experience what it had to offer. 

Right outside of Dubai it looks like this

Unlike some of my recent desert excursions, this time we would be staying in very fancy accommodation. There is a Marriott hotel, part of their Luxury Collection, located in the Conservation Reserve. It’s called Al Maha Resort.

This Marriott generally costs $2,000 euros per night or 85,000 Marriott Points, which I have plenty of. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to splurge and spend some, which turned out to be a good decision.

Beats sleeping on the ground without a tent 🙂

National Park in the background

We ended up having a private villa with our own private infinity pool where antelopes would sometimes even come up and start drinking. So that’s an example of what it’s like staying in a Luxury Collection resort in the middle of a national park. 

Antelope were very friendly

Maybe too friendly

We weren’t just there to swim with antelope, though. After enjoying the villa a bit, we went on what is called a “Sundowner.”

Basically this means taking either camels or a four-wheeler to a beautiful spot to watch the sunset, where drinks are provided. We opted to take four-wheelers and enjoyed the sunset with some drinks and everyone else from the resort who joined us on the trip.


Chris and I

We went back to the villa and used the pool while watching the stars. We were far enough from Dubai that there was almost no light pollution, so it was quite a beautiful night — and a very enjoyable one with our own private pool. We just relaxed, drinking and stargazing the night away.

The next morning we had a birds-of-prey show. After a nice breakfast, we had some local falconers show us eagles, owls, and falcons which the area is famous for. They did some exhibitions with the birds, showing us how fast they were, and then they let us handle them and take some pictures.

Falcon at Sunrise

Oskar the Owl

Possibly my future coat of arms animal?

After the birds-of-prey show, we went back to the hotel and had a delicious lunch before hitting the spa to get a massage. The massage was followed by a phenomenal six-course dinner. All of this was included in the price of the 85,000 Marriott Points, so I was very happy with my choice to redeem them at this rate.

Mmm… Wagyu Carpaccio

Back to Dubai for an Aquaventure of a Lifetime

The next day we returned to Dubai. I had a photoshoot obligation.

I needed to take some photos with a French photographer for a story the German newspaper WirtschaftsWoche did on me (already published here). For about an hour I went around with him and he took pictures. Then it was back to meet up with Chris and Michael.

Photoshoot for a German newspaper

We took a break from our pretty rigid bar-hopping itinerary to visit the Aquaventure aquarium/waterpark in the Atlantis part of Dubai (the palm tree part). The aquarium was a bit underwhelming.

Basically, it was just one big tank with a bunch of sharks and fish. Apparently there are 65,000 total marine animals in it, but I prefer seeing them in the wild while snorkeling.

Shark Tank with some people using the waterslide underneath

However, the water park was a lot of fun. They have lots of cool slides, some of them absolutely massive and some of them scary, including one where at the end you fall about 60 meters into a pool. Personally not my thing, but the people who did it looked like they enjoyed the part where they resurfaced after hitting the water 🙂

Leap of Faith

I highly recommend this water park. Admittedly, I had a VIP pass, so I got to skip all the lines, which probably made it more fun.

But it’s something worthwhile to spend money on if you are ever there. On one of the slides you even go through a glass tunnel that passes through the whole aquarium tank. All the sharks and rays are swimming around you as you slide by.

After Aquaventure we went out to the new Dubai Marina at Dubai Creek. It was very beautiful with some nice bars and restaurants. We enjoyed a nice sunset from the boardwalk of the marina and had dinner before saying goodbye and heading back to our hotels.

Dubai from the Boardwalk

Excited to return to Dubai soon in order to get my Afghanistan visa 😉

Discovering so many rooftop bars and excellent restaurants was a game changer for me. This trip really taught me to appreciate Dubai.

But I ended up staying an extra day in Dubai, which meant my trip to Bahrain would be cut down from two days to just one. Really, it would just be a walkthrough as my arrival flight and subsequent flight to Saudi Arabia were only six hours apart.

How to Visit Bahrain in 3 Hours

I landed in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Unfortunately, I immediately ran into issues with the border officer, which shortened my stay in the country even more.

When he asked what I wanted to do in Bahrain, I told him I was in transit and just wanted to walk around a bit before my flight to Saudi Arabia that was departing in six hours.

He refused to let me in, saying it wasn’t enough time to see the country. He also claimed I’d miss my flight.

The interaction became tense and even a little hostile. Eventually, I figured it wasn’t worth causing a scene in the airport. I stepped out of this officer’s immigration line and evaluated what to do.

Still determine,I came up with a plan. I would just wait a bit until this guy was busy and then go to a different border agent.

It worked. The second officer let me in, no questions asked.

For the first time in my life I was in Bahrain.

National History Museum

At this point, I only had about three hours to explore Bahrain and then get back to the airport. I immediately got a taxi, and the driver brought me to the National Museum of Bahrain. It was a nice building with lots of expositions on the history of Bahrain. Unfortunately, my museum visit was a bit hurried. I didn’t enjoy it as much as it probably deserves. But I’d still recommend paying a visit to this museum.

More of the museum with the Manama Skyline backdrop

From there I ordered an Uber to the old fort called Qal’ at al-Bahrain, or the Portuguese Fort. I took some nice pictures and walked around the fort a bit before setting out in another Uber to visit Manama’s big mosque.

Portuguese Old Fort

The Al Fateh Grand Mosque made for my final destination in Manama and in Bahrain. Between the mosque, the fort and the museum I had seen pretty much all I had come to see in the country. The border officer who wouldn’t let me in really underestimated me. 😉

Al Fateh Grand Mosque

I hurried to the airport and caught my flight to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Last fall, Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas for the first time. It was part of a national effort to the boost the Saudi tourism industry, and I was one of the early-on tourists to visit the kingdom under the new program.

I landed in the new Jeddah airport late in the day and picked up my visa on arrival. It was quite a convenient process with a big counter at the airport and some very flirtatious female border agents who were totally covered up.

My initial impression was that when you just see the eyes of the female immigration officer, you know you have made it into Saudi-Arabia. One of these burqa-clad women curiously asked me for my height.

Getting the visa on arrival was very simple, with the exception of making the payment. You pay with your card digitally on an iPad. For European cards, this triggers PDS2, which becomes a hassle. So for Europeans visiting Saudi Arabia, make a note of that.

All things considered, it was a very interesting welcome to the country to say the least.

Arriving in Saudi Arabia after dark

After leaving the airport I headed to my hotel. I was meeting up with a friend of mine named Rene who was also on the Nomad Cruise I had just wrapped up. We went and had dinner together, discussing our post-cruise adventures and planning our exploration for the following day.

Because of my extended stay in Dubai, I would only have one full day in Jeddah. We were planning to go to a dive center where he would do some diving and I could do some snorkeling.

In the morning we drove 45 minutes to a place we found that offered both.

Great day for snorkeling

They asked us for our passports before we started. Rene didn’t have his, so we had to wait about an hour and a half for him to go retrieve his passport. Protip: always have your passport on you when you’re traveling in Saudi Arabia.

When Rene returned we set out on a boat and cruised a river that cuts through Jeddah and spits you out into the Red Sea. It was a nice experience to get to see so much of Jeddah from the boat and not have to deal with traffic.

We saw quite a lot from the boat, including something currently under construction that will one day be the tallest building in the world. It’s called the Kingdom Tower of Jeddah, and when complete, it will be about 1,000 meters high.

Unfinished Kingdom Tower

Tourism is a very new concept in Saudi Arabia, so even our tour guides on the boat were a bit surprised by us. Normally it’s just experts and scientists and people with official business who visit the kingdom.

People on the street would stop us and ask where we were from. When we’d tell them we were tourists, they were quite happy.

Times are changing in Saudi Arabia. During this nascent period of tourism in the country, the kingdom ended its rule on the separation of men and women in restaurants. This actually happened the week I was there. Prior to then, there were entrances for single males, families, and single women.

Anyway, the snorkeling trip was quite fun. I had always wanted to snorkel in the Red Sea, and the guides took us to a great spot with an old wrecked ship, though not quite exciting as the WWII shipwreck snorkeling in the Solomon Islands.

Apparently this Red Sea dive spot was amazing, so I heard.

Still, the water was clear enough that I could see well with just my snorkel. The coral reefs around Saudi Arabia are very very healthy and with that comes a lot of marine life and a very active underwater community.

Beautiful, healthy coral reefs

Beware the Beheadings

We finished our boat tour around 4 pm. Rene wanted to visit the Mosque of Jeddah and Chop Chop Square. I tagged along.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, Chop Chop is the local’s name for the square where the public beheadings take place. The country is trying to attract tourists now and word is beheadings are becoming rarer, but they still happen every couple months, following Friday afternoon prayers. 

King Saud Mosque

We didn’t witness a beheading nor want to witness one. But we did pay a visit to the King Saud Mosque.

By the way, there are different Chop Chop squares around the country, with the most prevalent one being in the capital Riyadh. The actual chop chops draw quite large crowds.

We moved on to the old town of Jeddah, which was an interesting place.

Gate to the Jeddah old town

Many of the houses there are built with coral and wood, which creates bizarre-looking structures. Walking around through the bazaars of the old town we had many people staring at us strangely. It’s very evident that tourism still has a long way to go in Saudi Arabia.

Old Town

We took a taxi to the Jeddah flagpole, which is apparently the highest in the world. Something was missing, though.

There was no flag on the flagpole. I don’t know if that means it’s just the highest pole in the world. Regardless, it was a little disappointing.

It is sort of assuming to think about Saudi Arabia wanting to have the tallest building and highest flagpole and all these sorts of things. Maybe overcompensating a little 🙂

Finally Seeing the “Largest Something” in Saudi Arabia

What we did get to see that was much cooler than a flagpole? It was the largest fountain on earth.

We arrived right at sundown and right when the fountain started to shoot water extremely high up into the air. There were a lot of people there to watch the spectacle.

Then the Muezzin (the crier who calls Muslims to pray) started calling, so we were surrounded by people praying and singing as the sun set and this fountain erupted. It was quite a unique atmosphere.

The largest fountain in the world

After sunset, we walked around the Corniche, which is the beach promenade where our hotel and some restaurants were located. I went to the hotel to grab my bags because after dinner I would be heading straight to the airport to head “home” to Germany for Christmas.

We found an Italian restaurant. But of course, Saudi Arabia is a completely dry country so I would not get to enjoy a glass of red wine with my gazpacho and pizza 🙁

Future Arabian travels

It was a short, but nice stay in Saudi Arabia and I’m glad that I went.

I would’ve liked to do a lot more, but I had such a nice time in Dubai that I wasn’t too bummed.

One thing I’m upset I missed visiting is Mada’in Saleh. It is an archaeological site from the time of Muhammed that was once the largest settlement of the Thamudi people, who were supposedly punished by Allah for worshipping false idols. It’s in a different region of the country, and it’s not accessible to the public anyway. But I plan to be back in Saudi Arabia, and I’ll cross that off the list one day. 

All in all, it was a brief, interesting, fun couple of days in Jeddah and Manama,  Bahrain, which put an exclamation point on the blast I had in Dubai. I didn’t used to think Dubai was a very compelling city. But Dubai succeeded in changing my mind.

The Dubai nightlife won me over.

My time inside the peninsula’s foremost and largest country was short. And my time spent in Bahrain was shorter. But they’re countries collected, nonetheless.

For those keeping score at home, on the Arabian Peninsula, I’m only missing Kuwait and war-torn Yemen. And tickets are booked for mid-March…

Happy to have gotten to visit Saudi Arabia 🙂