Saudi Arabia - Riyadh

a view of a city from the top of a building
Photo by ekrem osmanoglu / Unsplash

Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia is a modern, cosmopolitan city, with a population of 8 million.

Riyadh, means garden - an ancient name thought to reference the small oasis towns scattered around the area about 500 years ago.

The 2nd King Saud looked to American cities for his inspiration to create modern Riyadh, adopting the grid system and building skyscrapers. Despite an extensive road network, traffic is horrendous as locals rely on their cars for getting around. With limited pavements and occasional local buses, the new metro is well underway with hopes to alleviate the traffic chaos.

Arrival at Riyadh airport, King Abdullah Financial District Metro St designed by Zaha Hadid - designer of the Heydar Aliyev in Baku which I visited last year. Kingdom Centre and Sky Bridge. Photos: Jane

Salman, our city guide was enthusiastic and thrilled to be showcasing his city.

Our sightseeing commenced in Riyadh’s oldest district, al Murabba, located quite close to our hotel, visiting some of the shops around the old Souq Al Zel. Following on to the King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre, which includes the original Royal Palace, Masmak Fort and National Museum.

Top: Saudi flag flies in front of Masmak Fort (photo: Jane); Aerial view of King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre (Credit:; Bottom: Entrance to the Museum; and in the Museum: Standing Stones - date back to 4000BCE; a model of the mosque at Mecca. Photos: Jane

Our day continued with a visit to the Kingdom Centre, the sleek tower rising up into two peaks, joined at the top by a Sky Bridge on the 99th floor, offering panoramic views across the city. It’s easy to see the grid system with skyscrapers hugging the main road and low-rise homes spreading out in every direction.

Kingdom Centre and views from the Sky Bridge. Photos: Jane

Our next stop Al Sadat or Al Deere Square, a large open space surrounded by the Al-Hukm Palace and Imam Turki bin Abdullah Grand Mosque. During the day almost deserted except at prayer time. In the early evening families mingle with with lots of children about, kicking footballs and having a load of fun.

Al Deere Square Photos: Jane

On the outskirts of modern Riyadh lies the old town of Diriyah founded in 1446, a bountiful oasis offering food, water and shelter to weary travellers, traders and pilgrims, growing into a centre of political influence and knowledge attracting people from all over the Arabian Peninsula.

By 1740 the al Saud-Al Wahhab Alliance was formed creating the First Saudi State, forcing out other threats and in 1766 the district of Al-Turaif was built and became the home of the al Saud Royal Family.

Today its a UNESCO World Heritage Site which we visited in the evening - a beautifully restored and atmospheric area filled with adobe brick buildings including the Salwa Palace - home to 3 Saudi Kings, several mosques and a museum.

Diriyah Photos: Jane

After the destruction of the First Saudi State control of the region was held by the viceroy of Egypt under the Ottoman empire. Riyadh was named the capital of the turbulent Second Saudi State in 1823 and ruled jointly by the al Saud and rival Al Rashid tribes. At this time the Masmak fortress was built. The Second Saudi State collapsed in 1891.

A key to the existence of the Third Saudi State, was the return of Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud from exile in Kuwait in 1902. With the capture of the Masmak fortress he regained control of Riyadh and eventually consolidated all of the regions that make up the kingdom as it exists today.

With such large families, a family tree is usually found in every home. Some are simple, while others are artistic masterpieces.

Left: Our guide Salman shows us a family tree of the al Saud family - with detail bottom right. Top Right: A beautifully painted family tree we came across in Jeddah. Photo: Jane

Although we were not able to visit Mecca, we were surprised to know the Abraj Al Bait or Makkah Royal Clock Tower, located in Mecca is currently the 4th tallest building in the world at a height of 1,972 feet, while the working clock face is the largest in the world.

The clock stands at 601 metres high, which also makes it the highest clock above ground level in the world. At 43 metres in diameter, did you know that the clock face is six times bigger than Big Ben in London? With faces on all four sides, each has a diameter of 141 feet.

The Clock Tower Complex includes seven hotels that cater to the millions of pilgrims visiting Mecca each year.

brown high rise buildin
Photo by Haidan / Unsplash

We learned so much during our 8 days in Saudi Arabia which came to an end all too quickly. It was a fascinating and intriguing journey through a land that has only recently opened to tourism, where people fiercely hold on to their faith.

As we travelled around, we saw extensive building works everywhere as big changes are in progress and the country becomes more liberal. The Crown Prince has established Vision 2030, with aims to create a vibrant society, thriving economy and ambitious nation.

Our adventure was not over yet. The Kingdom of Bahrain was so close, it was an easy decision to spend a few days exploring yet another country. Keep an eye out on my posts about Bahrain soon.