Traveling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for 10 weeks was a revelation. Not least among the reasons is that the expansive country is overflowing with vibrancy, tradition and intrigue.
There are mountains, beaches, grasslands and forests — not to mention the largest sand sea in the world. Its history as we know it stretches back more than 7,000 years.
When I was the executive vice president at the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, I had traveled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia several times.
In 2019, the Kingdom opened its doors and actively started encouraging tourism as part of its Vision 2030 strategic initiative. Increasing numbers of visitors are now discovering that Saudi Arabia is unexpectedly diverse. Tourism and travel bridge people, time and cultures, leading to deeper understanding.
I wanted to return.
Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom (twice), Greece and Portugal combined. In reference to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River.
I explored the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the purpose of writing about and photographing my experience. The trip was nothing short of remarkable.
I went to Southwest Arabia – The Asir Region.
Asir has a short border with Yemen and a coastline on the Red Sea. The Hijaz Mountain range runs north to south, parallel to the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia. It is the fourth largest region in the country, encompassing 4,000 villages with more than 2.2 million residents. Asir is the size of Austria.
When I arrived in Abha, “The High City,” I reached out to my colleague and dear friend from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ International Advisory Board Co-Chairman, HRH Prince Abdul Aziz bin Talal Al Saud. (I am a member of the Council’s Board of Directors.) His brother, Prince Turki bin Talal Al Saud, is the governor of the Asir Region.
My friend Prince Abdulaziz called his brother. The next call was from a deputy in the Governor’s office: “Would I join the Governor that evening at 8 p.m. in his forest camp?” they inquired. “Of course,” I said.
I met the Prince and his family at his forest camp. I greeted them with my right hand on my heart. In turn, each put their hand on their heart. A slight bow of the head. Tradition.
Over the next few days, I shadowed HRH Prince Turki bin Talal as he attended meetings, celebrations and private family gatherings.