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Saudi Birding?! The Question of Safety

Ten years in the Middle East and, to date, here’s the scariest situation I’ve found myself in…

December 2018 I was out hiking at a reservoir near Abha, still thrilling from my third encounter with Arabian Waxbill, when I heard the sounds of vegetation getting trampled a distance away to my rear. I turned around to see eight armed men rushing towards me. Six of them were wearing cheap camouflage fatigues and carrying machine guns and the other two, one of whom appeared to be leading the group, were in sportswear and holding pistols. In that instant I had convinced myself that this was it—looking like that, they simply couldn’t have been police or security forces—and here I was a lone Westerner in a remote area about to piss his pants. All I could think to do was throw my arms in the air and stand stock still with my binoculars and camera dangling innocuously below my chest. As they drew closer, the one who appeared to be leading the group shouted a question—where was I from—and I shouted back in rapid-fire Arabic that I am American, working with Aramco, and just out birding. They came in close and made a loose semi-circle around me. My arms were still raised and I was trembling, still not sure what was about to happen. One of the men questioned me further—I volunteered that there’s was nothing but photographs of birds on my camera—and, seeing that I was afraid, said in English ‘no problem, no problem’. They stood looking me over a moment longer, perhaps a little disappointed, before heading off in the opposite direction.

I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing out there, but as they were jogging off I heard one of the men say “wain rah?” (“Where did he go?”) and assumed then that they were trying to hunt someone down. Thinking then that there might be a man on the run and potentially dangerous—I’ve heard stories of illegal migrants resorting to thieving and mugging—I hurried off to my car and made my way out of the area. Sure enough, on the ride back, there was a noticeable security presence in the area with two police vehicles, packed with men, prowling the dirt roads I had been exploring earlier that morning and a larger convoy passing by out at the main road. But that was it—the scariest thing that’s happened to me in all my time in the Middle East. My time back in the states has proven more eventful—gun shots near our place in Fort Worth, friends assaulted at a park, and my car broken into, not once but twice. I was even attacked while birding in Arizona in my 20s. Nothing close has ever happened to us in Arabia.

As Saudi welcomes more and more foreign tourists, the Kingdom’s avian treasures are sure to draw birders from around the world, hoping in particular to see one of the world’s newest and rarest species—the Asir Magpie—in the only place it exists, the mountains of Saudi’s southwest. Yet the attraction won’t be without reservations, as the question foremost in people’s minds when considering a visit to Saudi will surely be just how safe the Kingdom is really. Now, of course, before you come, read up on potential safety threats—according to the US State Department’s Travel Advisory, American citizens in Saudi should exercise increased caution when traveling around the country—and you’ll be sure to read about the terrible attacks from the early 2000s, but don’t for a second let that stop you from experiencing Saudi for yourself. To date—armed men notwithstanding—every encounter I’ve had has been positive. Saudis are very friendly and welcoming and, should they perceive you to be in need, you can be sure that someone will offer you assistance. That said, as when traveling anywhere—even the US—you should be mindful of your surroundings and let people know where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing. As Saudi’s the largest country in the Middle East, exploring the region just might lead you to some pretty remote areas with spotty network coverage where even a breakdown could prove dangerous during the hotter months. Just a special note for birders packing long-lens cameras—watch where you’re pointing those things! The Gulf countries take national and industrial security very seriously and folks have found themselves in trouble with the law for taking pictures in restricted areas. Along the same lines, plane spotting is not a thing here unless you prefer a unique cultural experience from the inside of a jail cell!

Honestly though, as my colleague put it, about the most dangerous thing you can do in Saudi is get into a car. This simply can’t be overstated. As this data visualization of the WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety for 2018 shows, Saudi Arabia has some of the most dangerous roads in the world. This is a combination of unpredictable road conditions and terrible driving—honestly the worst I’ve ever seen—but thankfully recent measures enacted by the government have improved the situation a bit. As another colleague joked, when it comes to driving, it is not “expect the unexpected”; it’s “expect the expected”—in Saudi, bad driving’s the rule, not the exception.

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