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A man looks at central Riyadh from the Faisaliah Tower - Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2003. - PBEAHUOLTBX
Order from Chaos

A glimpse inside Saudi Arabia in photos

From February 19-25, Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes traveled to Saudi Arabia with Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. The group visited Riyadh, Jizan, and Jeddah. The photos in the gallery below illustrate Saudi Arabia’s rapid urbanization, rising national identity, and some of the changes underway in society and politics as King Salman’s Vision 2030 gets underway.

  • Map of Saudi Arabia.
  • The iconic image of Riyadh: Kingdom Tower. Riyadh is a city of 5 million, officially, and growing. Urbanization in the kingdom has been extremely rapid—76 percent of Saudis live in cities today, and by 2030 nearly all will. Riyadh is now building a subway, and the growth has created urgent needs for housing and urban infrastructure.
  • A poster, printed by a local utility company to acclaim the king’s national reform plan, called Vision 2030. Ads for Vision 2030 are omnipresent in Riyadh. We often think of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a religious state, ruled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and whose constitution is the shariah. Analysts often describe the state as a grand alliance between the ruling family and the clerical establishment, in which religious legitimacy is central. But one of the interesting features of today’s Saudi Arabia is the way Saudi national identity is being pushed forward as a source of unity and legitimacy. This poster is a good example. The slogan next to King Salman says “May your greatness be infinite, oh nation,” and the heart next to the crown prince says “The nation is in our hearts.”
  • Faysalia Tower—designed by British architect Norman Foster, and built by the Saudi Binladen Company in about 2000. Riyadh has a fascinating mix of modern and mid-century architecture, often jumbled side-by-side.
  • When I first came to Riyadh in 1982, my dad told me a joke inspired by the country’s rapid, petro-dollar-fueled development: What’s the national bird of Saudi Arabia? The building crane. Today, it’s still true—but in addition to new skyscrapers, cranes are also working on redevelopment within Riyadh’s older neighborhoods, or on new infrastructure like the subway system. Construction is everywhere.
  • A painting made in art therapy by a “beneficiary” of the Mohamed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care (also known as the jihadi rehab center). The center is structured much like an addiction treatment facility, but the “illness” they treat is one that they describe as “intellectual deviation” into religious beliefs that justify terrorism. The program begins after prisoners complete their jail sentence, and works to reintegrate them into their families and communities.The 3,000 or so prisoners who have been through this program almost certainly saw gentler treatment than other jihadi prisoners, some of whom, human rights groups say, were tortured to elicit confessions.
  • Top-selling artist Abdelnasser Gharem, who spent a career in the army before turning full-time to art, hosted us at his home, which is also a hub for young Saudi artists. His library (on the left) is full of the art books he wishes he had had growing up. He and several of his protégés toured the United States last year for a half-dozen shows.
  • One of Gharem’s pieces, called “Men at Work.” The image is constructed from thousands of tiny rubber stamps bearing letters of the Arabic and Latin alphabets. Gharem told NPR that “that stamp is the symbol of bureaucracy, yeah. When you have a baby, you should stamp that you have the baby. When you go into marriage you should have stamps. Even if you need a vacation you need that kind of stamp. So I think that's what's killing the dreams of the youth here.” Gharem uses the stamp letters to spell out hidden messages, and paints images over the entire structure of stamps by hand.
  • Banksy-style graffiti art by a young Saudi artist.
  • The headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the “virtue police”). These guys used to patrol on the streets and in malls, where they would confront women who were deemed to be dressed immodestly or break up young men and women trying to talk outside allowed family bounds. They are now denied powers of arrest, were not visible on any of the city streets I walked, and reportedly are kept on salary but essentially confined to barracks.  “My Prayers, My Happiness” is the slogan for their current public awareness campaign.
  • The Saudi flag flies over Masmak Fort in the center of Riyadh. Abdelaziz Al-Saud’s secret return from Kuwait to capture Masmak Fort in 1902 is seen as a key event in establishing the modern Saudi kingdom. The incident is extensively documented in the Fort’s permanent exhibit, including by a 1950s-era, ARAMCO-produced film that dramatically recreates the story.
  • Until the early 1940s, the streets around Masmak Fort were crowded with mud-brick houses like these. The Four Points Sheraton, a hideous structure, rises at the end of this remaining old street.
  • Most of these 100 year-old Riyadh buildings are in extreme disrepair, or actually collapsed. Although dilapidated, these old houses are inevitably picturesque.
  • The old city of Riyadh was largely demolished in the 1950s, and thus the streets around Masmak Fort are now dominated by dissonant strings of dilapidated mid-century buildings. Here, a restored gateway from Riyadh’s old city wall stands before the mid-century modernist Riyadh Bank building.
  • At the Janadriyah Cultural Festival in Riyadh, each region of the country has a pavilion with local foods, handicrafts, and arts. Here’s a dance troupe performing at the Jizan pavilion. Vision 2030 had its own tricked-out pavilion at the festival, with flat-screen TV displays. It was pretty empty. The India pavilion, though, was packed.
  • From Riyadh, we flew to Jizan, on the Red Sea coast just a few dozen kilometers from the Yemeni border. The resort town of Jizan gets internal tourism, but few foreign visitors. The local officials were so delighted to have an American delegation visiting that they greeted us at the airport not just with the traditional coffee and dates, but with flowers and a floral wreath than some locals wear in place of the traditional black rope agal to hold their keffiyehs on. (The local officials also required us to travel with a police escort throughout our visit.)
  • The view from our seaside resort hotel in Jizan. Part of Vision 2030 includes social liberalization and developing internal tourism, part of an effort to persuade wealthy Saudis to spend their weekends and vacations at home rather than in Dubai or Bahrain (where there are movies, concerts, beaches, and so on). The pool at our hotel was packed with kids—they played in the water while their dads sunbathed in shorts and their moms, who were nearly all in niqab (a veil that covers the face except for the eyes), lounged under umbrellas in the humid heat.
  • Not too far inland from Jizan, foothills rise to tall mountains where they grow mangos, guava, and coffee in terraces. (The mountains, on the horizon in this photo, are invisible through the haze.)The wadi (valley) that comes down from the mountains is dammed here at Al Aridhah, and the water is used for irrigation. The place was full of birds and butterflies, acacia trees and grazing cows. Sadly, the local police would not allow us to take photos near or on the dam (critical infrastructure protection, I guess), so you can only see this faraway view from our lookout point.
  • A fantastic lunch of local delights in the small town of Abu Arish outside Jizan. The black stone pot with a spicy fish stew reminded me of Yemeni food. In the bowl next to it is a stew with lamb, beans, and Ethiopian-style injera bread, topped with a strange yeasty foam. Instead of lentil soup (a traditional peninsula starter), we started with an incredibly rich lamb-bone broth.
  • After a walk through Jizan’s central souk (market), another amazing Yemeni-style dinner. In the souk, a little boy begged me for change; locals dismissed him, telling me, “huwa min Yemen” (“he’s from Yemen”). A local told me that there is child trafficking into Jizan from Yemen. I did not see evidence of a major refugee inflow (e.g. homeless or begging families in the souk), and locals spoke of cross-border migration as a longstanding feature of life here—indeed, some locals trace their ancestry to Yemen.
  • Our single day in Jeddah was spent largely on the streets of the old city, which locals fought to preserve and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2014. But Jeddah—the country’s commercial center and traditional port for Muslims arriving to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca – is also a lively, multicultural city, especially compared to Riyadh. Here’s one of the wall murals that dot modern buildings, offering a splash of color and public art that jumps beyond the large concrete coffee urns and incense burners one is used to seeing in public spaces in the Kingdom.
  • Old Jeddah – much of it dilapidated. The buildings mostly date from the early 20th century, though the city is much, much older.
  • In the kitchen of the well-restored Al Nassif House in old Jeddah, in which King Abdelaziz Al Saud set up his office for some period (probably why it’s been so well preserved). The kitchen had two large ovens and twelve “burners” for cooking pots, all wood-fired. Camels were used to transport the platters of food from the top-floor kitchen to the diners several stories below—the stairs were built wide and shallow to allow the camels to go up and down.
  • Looking from the roof of Al Nassif House across to another historical multistory building, with modern Jeddah crowding in behind. Kitchens were built on the top floor—thus you can see the dome and chimneys of the white home’s kitchen directly in front of you. The horizontal lines on the house are dark wood planks, placed between layers of mud brick to support the multiple stories.
  • At the door of the single cistern that stored fresh water for the old city of Jeddah. Saudi law requires a woman to wear the black abaya robe whenever she is in a public area, but does not require a headscarf. Although norms are loosening, the vast majority of women I saw still wore black abaya, hijab (headscarf) and many wore the black niqab (face veil).
  • Al Shafi’i Mosque in old Jeddah, considered the oldest remaining mosque in the city (the minaret is estimated at 900 years old and parts of the building may be much older). It’s been under renovation for years.
  • Inside Jeddah’s main souk, a small door leads to “the monastery/shrine of the one with two swords (Abu Sayfain).” For an old Islamic city, visited by millions of pilgrims, Jeddah has surprisingly few of the shrines or memorials (like fountains) that you see in Cairo, Istanbul, and elsewhere. Perhaps this is because of Saudi official Islam’s preference for the austere and hostility to sites of veneration for individuals. Such sites may have simply been destroyed or covered up in the rapid redevelopment since the 1950s. Swift progress can often have unanticipated effects on culture and society—a fact Saudis may confront again as Vision 2030 is implemented.
1 of 27

Map of Saudi Arabia.

Expand Expand Close Close
2 of 27

The iconic image of Riyadh: Kingdom Tower. Riyadh is a city of 5 million, officially, and growing. Urbanization in the kingdom has been extremely rapid—76 percent of Saudis live in cities today, and by 2030 nearly all will. Riyadh is now building a subway, and the growth has created urgent needs for housing and urban infrastructure.

Expand Expand Close Close
3 of 27

A poster, printed by a local utility company to acclaim the king’s national reform plan, called Vision 2030. Ads for Vision 2030 are omnipresent in Riyadh. We often think of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a religious state, ruled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and whose constitution is the shariah. Analysts often describe the state as a grand alliance between the ruling family and the clerical establishment, in which religious legitimacy is central. But one of the interesting features of today’s Saudi Arabia is the way Saudi national identity is being pushed forward as a source of unity and legitimacy. This poster is a good example. The slogan next to King Salman says “May your greatness be infinite, oh nation,” and the heart next to the crown prince says “The nation is in our hearts.”

Expand Expand Close Close
4 of 27

Faysalia Tower—designed by British architect Norman Foster, and built by the Saudi Binladen Company in about 2000. Riyadh has a fascinating mix of modern and mid-century architecture, often jumbled side-by-side.

Expand Expand Close Close
5 of 27

When I first came to Riyadh in 1982, my dad told me a joke inspired by the country’s rapid, petro-dollar-fueled development: What’s the national bird of Saudi Arabia? The building crane. Today, it’s still true—but in addition to new skyscrapers, cranes are also working on redevelopment within Riyadh’s older neighborhoods, or on new infrastructure like the subway system. Construction is everywhere.

Expand Expand Close Close
6 of 27

A painting made in art therapy by a “beneficiary” of the Mohamed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care (also known as the jihadi rehab center). The center is structured much like an addiction treatment facility, but the “illness” they treat is one that they describe as “intellectual deviation” into religious beliefs that justify terrorism. The program begins after prisoners complete their jail sentence, and works to reintegrate them into their families and communities.The 3,000 or so prisoners who have been through this program almost certainly saw gentler treatment than other jihadi prisoners, some of whom, human rights groups say, were tortured to elicit confessions.

Expand Expand Close Close
7 of 27

Top-selling artist Abdelnasser Gharem, who spent a career in the army before turning full-time to art, hosted us at his home, which is also a hub for young Saudi artists. His library (on the left) is full of the art books he wishes he had had growing up. He and several of his protégés toured the United States last year for a half-dozen shows.

Expand Expand Close Close
8 of 27

One of Gharem’s pieces, called “Men at Work.” The image is constructed from thousands of tiny rubber stamps bearing letters of the Arabic and Latin alphabets. Gharem told NPR that “that stamp is the symbol of bureaucracy, yeah. When you have a baby, you should stamp that you have the baby. When you go into marriage you should have stamps. Even if you need a vacation you need that kind of stamp. So I think that’s what’s killing the dreams of the youth here.” Gharem uses the stamp letters to spell out hidden messages, and paints images over the entire structure of stamps by hand.

Expand Expand Close Close
9 of 27

Banksy-style graffiti art by a young Saudi artist.

Expand Expand Close Close
10 of 27

The headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the “virtue police”). These guys used to patrol on the streets and in malls, where they would confront women who were deemed to be dressed immodestly or break up young men and women trying to talk outside allowed family bounds. They are now denied powers of arrest, were not visible on any of the city streets I walked, and reportedly are kept on salary but essentially confined to barracks.  “My Prayers, My Happiness” is the slogan for their current public awareness campaign.

Expand Expand Close Close
11 of 27

The Saudi flag flies over Masmak Fort in the center of Riyadh. Abdelaziz Al-Saud’s secret return from Kuwait to capture Masmak Fort in 1902 is seen as a key event in establishing the modern Saudi kingdom. The incident is extensively documented in the Fort’s permanent exhibit, including by a 1950s-era, ARAMCO-produced film that dramatically recreates the story.

Expand Expand Close Close
12 of 27

Until the early 1940s, the streets around Masmak Fort were crowded with mud-brick houses like these. The Four Points Sheraton, a hideous structure, rises at the end of this remaining old street.

Expand Expand Close Close
13 of 27

Most of these 100 year-old Riyadh buildings are in extreme disrepair, or actually collapsed. Although dilapidated, these old houses are inevitably picturesque.

Expand Expand Close Close
14 of 27

The old city of Riyadh was largely demolished in the 1950s, and thus the streets around Masmak Fort are now dominated by dissonant strings of dilapidated mid-century buildings. Here, a restored gateway from Riyadh’s old city wall stands before the mid-century modernist Riyadh Bank building.

Expand Expand Close Close
15 of 27

At the Janadriyah Cultural Festival in Riyadh, each region of the country has a pavilion with local foods, handicrafts, and arts. Here’s a dance troupe performing at the Jizan pavilion. Vision 2030 had its own tricked-out pavilion at the festival, with flat-screen TV displays. It was pretty empty. The India pavilion, though, was packed.

Expand Expand Close Close
16 of 27

From Riyadh, we flew to Jizan, on the Red Sea coast just a few dozen kilometers from the Yemeni border. The resort town of Jizan gets internal tourism, but few foreign visitors. The local officials were so delighted to have an American delegation visiting that they greeted us at the airport not just with the traditional coffee and dates, but with flowers and a floral wreath than some locals wear in place of the traditional black rope agal to hold their keffiyehs on. (The local officials also required us to travel with a police escort throughout our visit.)

Expand Expand Close Close
17 of 27

The view from our seaside resort hotel in Jizan. Part of Vision 2030 includes social liberalization and developing internal tourism, part of an effort to persuade wealthy Saudis to spend their weekends and vacations at home rather than in Dubai or Bahrain (where there are movies, concerts, beaches, and so on). The pool at our hotel was packed with kids—they played in the water while their dads sunbathed in shorts and their moms, who were nearly all in niqab (a veil that covers the face except for the eyes), lounged under umbrellas in the humid heat.

Expand Expand Close Close
18 of 27

Not too far inland from Jizan, foothills rise to tall mountains where they grow mangos, guava, and coffee in terraces. (The mountains, on the horizon in this photo, are invisible through the haze.)The wadi (valley) that comes down from the mountains is dammed here at Al Aridhah, and the water is used for irrigation. The place was full of birds and butterflies, acacia trees and grazing cows. Sadly, the local police would not allow us to take photos near or on the dam (critical infrastructure protection, I guess), so you can only see this faraway view from our lookout point.

Expand Expand Close Close
19 of 27

A fantastic lunch of local delights in the small town of Abu Arish outside Jizan. The black stone pot with a spicy fish stew reminded me of Yemeni food. In the bowl next to it is a stew with lamb, beans, and Ethiopian-style injera bread, topped with a strange yeasty foam. Instead of lentil soup (a traditional peninsula starter), we started with an incredibly rich lamb-bone broth.

Expand Expand Close Close
20 of 27

After a walk through Jizan’s central souk (market), another amazing Yemeni-style dinner. In the souk, a little boy begged me for change; locals dismissed him, telling me, “huwa min Yemen” (“he’s from Yemen”). A local told me that there is child trafficking into Jizan from Yemen. I did not see evidence of a major refugee inflow (e.g. homeless or begging families in the souk), and locals spoke of cross-border migration as a longstanding feature of life here—indeed, some locals trace their ancestry to Yemen.

Expand Expand Close Close
21 of 27

Our single day in Jeddah was spent largely on the streets of the old city, which locals fought to preserve and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2014. But Jeddah—the country’s commercial center and traditional port for Muslims arriving to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca—is also a lively, multicultural city, especially compared to Riyadh. Here’s one of the wall murals that dot modern buildings, offering a splash of color and public art that jumps beyond the large concrete statues of coffee urns and incense burners one is used to seeing in public spaces in the Kingdom.

Expand Expand Close Close
22 of 27

Old Jeddah – much of it dilapidated. The buildings mostly date from the early 20th century, though the city is much, much older.

Expand Expand Close Close
23 of 27

In the kitchen of the well-restored Al Nassif House in old Jeddah, in which King Abdelaziz Al Saud set up his office for some period (probably why it’s been so well preserved). The kitchen had two large ovens and twelve “burners” for cooking pots, all wood-fired. Camels were used to transport the platters of food from the top-floor kitchen to the diners several stories below—the stairs were built wide and shallow to allow the camels to go up and down.

Expand Expand Close Close
24 of 27

Looking from the roof of Al Nassif House across to another historical multistory building, with modern Jeddah crowding in behind. Kitchens were built on the top floor—thus you can see the dome and chimneys of the white home’s kitchen directly in front of you. The horizontal lines on the house are dark wood planks, placed between layers of mud brick to support the multiple stories.

Expand Expand Close Close
25 of 27

At the door of the single cistern that stored fresh water for the old city of Jeddah. Saudi law requires a woman to wear the black abaya robe whenever she is in a public area, but does not require a headscarf. Although norms are loosening, the vast majority of women I saw still wore black abaya, hijab (headscarf) and many wore the black niqab (face veil).

Expand Expand Close Close
26 of 27

Al Shafi’i Mosque in old Jeddah, considered the oldest remaining mosque in the city (the minaret is estimated at 900 years old and parts of the building may be much older). It’s been under renovation for years.

Expand Expand Close Close
27 of 27

Inside Jeddah’s main souk, a small door leads to “the monastery/shrine of the one with two swords (Abu Sayfain).” For an old Islamic city, visited by millions of pilgrims, Jeddah has surprisingly few of the shrines or memorials (like fountains) that you see in Cairo, Istanbul, and elsewhere. Perhaps this is because of Saudi official Islam’s preference for the austere and hostility to sites of veneration for individuals. Such sites may have simply been destroyed or covered up in the rapid redevelopment since the 1950s. Swift progress can often have unanticipated effects on culture and society—a fact Saudis may confront again as Vision 2030 is implemented.

Expand Expand Close Close

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