EA trip through Saudi Arabia sounds pretty adventurous. The journalist and author Stephan Orth spent nine weeks in the closed country. As a couch surfer visiting locals, he got special access to the people and experienced a nation in upheaval. But not everything is getting better.
Question: How did you come up with the idea of going to Saudi Arabia?
Stephan Orth: In conversation with a colleague, we came to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia would be the perfect country for my next book. Because it is very closed, little is known about it and many fears are associated with it. Ten days after the conversation it was said that there will now be a tourist visa for the first time. I sent the application straight away.
Question: What made the country so exciting for you?
Orth: I was interested in the change because an unbelievable amount has happened in the last three years under Mohammed bin Salman, the current Crown Prince. A massive modernization is taking place, but it also has its limits. On my journey I wanted to find out what is show and what is real reform.
Question: Where is this process of opening up taken seriously and where is it more used for state propaganda?
Orth: A lot of money is invested in tourism and a billions of dollars in entertainment program with concerts by the biggest stars. I was at an electro festival in the desert with hundreds of thousands of visitors, where men and women were dancing and David Guetta was playing.
I have always had the feeling that the young people themselves do not know exactly where the limits are, what is allowed and what is not. Because suddenly things are possible that were completely forbidden two or three years ago for religious reasons.
And because sometimes the rules within the family are stricter than the state laws. Many find it a particularly great relief that the dreaded religious police have been ousted.
Question: And what is still taboo?
Orth: As soon as it comes to more civil society and democracy, a possibly lower power of the royal family, the reforms will stop. I spoke to an employee of the human rights organization ALQST who said that it is currently more dangerous to express oneself critically of those in power than it was five or ten years ago. Critics are dealt with with great brutality – as can be seen from the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the long prison sentence for the blogger Raif Badawi.
Question: In your role as a tourist, were you able to move freely in the country or was that somehow controlled by the state?
Orth: For the most part I was completely free and could travel as I wanted. For some places you need some kind of registration, for example for the King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah. This is a new building project, a satellite town. Everyone needs a permit, which you can get without any problems. In any case, I did not feel observed or followed on the way.
Question: How did the people in the country receive you?
Orth: Warm and hospitable. I was always invited to coffee, tea and dates. At the same time, I found people very enthusiastic about social media. Often the phone was held in my face when I was greeted and I was filmed for Snapchat and Instagram.
Never before have I felt myself so much at the center of a trip. I’m a story collector by profession, but here I was constantly becoming a story myself.
Question: How do you explain this enthusiasm for yourself?
Orth: In rural areas in particular, tourism is still something completely new. For many, I was the first guest ever. Tourism is a huge issue in the country, people want to get away from oil as their main source of income. As one of the first backpackers I was news. With my 60-liter backpack, I was once even asked if I was a skydiver.
Question: How common is couch surfing in Saudi Arabia?
Orth: So far, people have tended to use the website to network and get to know people. There was a little scene of locals and expats. Otherwise it is still fairly new, there are few members. I found it more difficult to find hosts than in other countries. Sometimes it didn’t work out and I had to go to the hotel.
Question: Which cliché about Saudi Arabia is the least true?
Orth: The cliché that it is an inhospitable country in which one feels constantly in danger. For example, in everyday travel you don’t have the feeling that you should be afraid of being robbed. It is probably a deterrent that thieves can have their hands chopped off under Sharia law.
Question: And which prejudice has been confirmed for you?
Orth: Saudi Arabia is one of the most religious countries I’ve come across on my travels. There are about 94,000 mosques in the country with a population of 34 million. The five times of prayer are consistently observed by most. Religion plays a central role in everyday life and in people’s thinking.
I haven’t had a single conversation where someone has criticized Islam. One feels in a special role in the Islamic world, because of the holy places Mecca and Medina.
Question: Is it easy to get into conversation about religion?
Orth: Even if a church is not allowed to be built in the whole country, one is respected as a Christian. It is one of the three book religions; there are many common roots. Jesus is a prophet in Islam too, Moses plays an important role. There are many parallels that people also know.
I have repeatedly seen attempts at conversion. (laughs) People wanted my best and that I came to the true religion. Even the first taxi driver wanted to convince me of Islam. In another conversation I realized that it was very strange when I said that I don’t pray regularly.
Question: You were a tourism pioneer in Saudi Arabia, with a special approach. In your experience, which travelers can the country be a worthwhile experience for?
Orth: Excursions into the desert are spectacular. To the east lies the Empty Quarter, the Rub al-Chali, one of the largest and least explored deserts in the world. But you should definitely be out there with people who know their way around – there are already some off-road vehicles missing.
In the west there is a top attraction with the ancient rock tomb town of Hegra that can compete with Petra in Jordan. On the other hand, you have to think about whether you want to spend a five-star luxury holiday in Saudi Arabia, whether you think that’s okay in view of the dictatorship. I couldn’t imagine booking a relaxing vacation there.
Question: Would your journey as a woman have been so possible?
Orth: Yes, but it would be a little more complicated. You have to adjust to the cultural peculiarities even more and try not to cause misunderstandings. As a woman you would get a better insight into the world of women, which was closed to me. In the nine weeks, only one host introduced me to his wife, fully veiled, and probably only because she was American.
Even very good friends often don’t know the other’s wife. This strict gender segregation is difficult to understand for someone who grew up in Western Europe. On the trip I only managed to meet a Saudi Arabian woman who was very liberal, in Jeddah, and that is the most modern city in the country.
Literaturtipp: Stephan Orth, “Couchsurfing in Saudi Arabia: My journey through a country between the Middle Ages and the future, Malik, 256 pages, 18 euros
To person: Stephan Orth, born in 1979, is a freelance journalist and author. He has published travel books on couch surfing in Iran, Russia and China.