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I drove across Saudi Arabia as a solo woman – and what I found may surprise you

Simon Calder’s Travel

Why?” asked my puzzled friend when I told him I was planning to drive solo around Saudi Arabia. “Because I can – at last,” is the short answer. My fascination with Arabia began when my Dad gave me the book Arabian Sands about Wilfred Thesiger’s heroic crossing of the Empty Quarter.

I went on to study Arabic and travel all over the region, but Saudi always felt closed. Now, you can get a tourist visa online in a matter of minutes and women won the right to drive in 2018. It was time.

Anas at the budget rent-a-car raised an eyebrow when I showed him my route. “‘You’ll be needing the unlimited mileage for this one.’” I shared that I was very nervous about Saudi driving – which had terrified me on my Uber rides.

He took it well considering I was about to use one of his cars. “Ha! Day one you’ll be creeping slowly.” He mimicked a slow Mr Magoo at the wheel. “After these kilometres…” He flicked his thumbnail beneath his teeth, stuck an imaginary arm out of his imaginary car and turned up the music. “You’ll drive like one of us.”

I left Riyadh at 6.30am on a Friday for what would end up being a 3,215km (1,998 miles) round trip. My first big aim was Jeddah with its historic old town and cosmopolitan community. It was the middle of May and outside it was 40C but Saudi does air conditioning brilliantly and I stayed cool. I needed the comfort because I had some long driving days.

My first hazard was sand planning. I hit a drift across the road and the steering wheel swung from side to side. Then came the camel crossings. Out of nowhere, a big bull camel hobbled into my path. A huge truck was powering down behind me so I whacked on the hazards and came to a stop, praying he would too.

I pulled into a rest area to fill up the tank and calm down. I believe that, like visiting a supermarket, motorway stops give you an instant insight into any country. Half a tank of petrol for just £12 and the women’s toilets situated in the ladies’ mosque in the ablutions area. I was glad I was wearing an abaya and a headscarf.

There is no legal requirement to wear either now, a huge change in Saudi. You must dress modestly, though, with sleeves to the elbow and skirts or trousers below the knee. I live in Morocco, so I am well used to a modest dress code and felt very comfortable in my abaya and headscarf.

Of course, I…

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