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Cities in the Spotlight: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

Today we are continuing with our series of Cities in the Spotlight with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Riyadh City Information

Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia and the largest city on the Arabian Peninsula. Located in the center of the an-Nafud desert, on the eastern part of the Najd plateau, the city sits at an average of 600 meters (2,000 ft) above sea level, and receives around 5 million tourists each year, making it the forty-ninth most visited city in the world and the 6th in the Middle East. Riyadh had a population of 7.6 million people in 2019, making it the most-populous city in Saudi Arabia, 3rd most populous in the Middle East, and 38th most populous in Asia.


Riyadh Historical Significance

The first mentioning of the city by the name Riyadh was in 1590, by an early Arab chronicler. In 1737, Deham Ibn Dawwas, who was from the neighboring Manfuha, settled in and took control of the city. Deham built a wall around the city, and the best-known source of the name Riyadh is from this period, thought to be referring to the earlier oasis towns that predated the wall built by Ibn Dawwas. In 1744, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab formed an alliance with the Emir of Dir'iyah, Muhammad bin Saud, and in 1774, they took Riyadh from Deham. However their state, now known as the First Saudi State, came to a collapse in 1818. Turki ibn Abdullah founded the Second Saudi State in the early 19th century and made Riyadh his capital in 1825. However, his reign over the city was disrupted by a joint Ottoman–Rashidi alliance. Finally, in the early 20th century, 'Abdulaziz ibn Saud, known in the west simply as Ibn Saud, retrieved his ancestral kingdom of Najd in 1902 and consolidated his rule by 1926 with the final Saudi conquest of Hejaz. After this he named his kingdom Saudi Arabia in September 1932 with Riyadh as the capital.

Riyadh is the political and administrative center of Saudi Arabia. The Consultative Assembly (also known as the Shura or Shura Council), the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia, the King and the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia are all situated in the city. Alongside these four bodies that form the core of the legal system of Saudi Arabia, the headquarters of other major and minor governmental bodies are also located in Riyadh. The city hosts 112 foreign embassies, most of which are located in the as-Safarat district or Diplomatic Quarter in the western reaches of the city.

Riyadh also holds great economic significance, as it hosts the headquarters of many banks and major companies, such as the National Commercial Bank (NCB), Alinma Bank and the Saudi Arabian British Bank (SABB). Highway 65, known locally as the King Fahd Road, runs through some of these important centers in the city, including the King Abdullah Financial District, one of the world's largest financial districts, the Faisaliyah Center and the Kingdom Center. Riyadh is one of the world's fastest-growing cities in population and is home to many expatriates. Riyadh has been designated a global city.


Travel to Riyadh

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Welcome to one of the wealthiest cities in the world, home to Saudi Arabia's best museum, a World Heritage Site that relates the Kingdom's genesis story, and some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the country.

Once a walled, mud-brick way station along desert trading routes, Riyadh (meaning 'garden') from afar is a picture of soaring modern towers rising up above the surrounding desert. Up close, it can appear cautious and sober and feels more conservative than other Saudi cities like Jeddah. But the winds of change sweeping the nation are also affecting the capital. A long overdue metro system is on its way, as is a public bus service, and the atmosphere is far more liberal than it has ever felt before. Riyadh recently hosted the country's very first music festival, where a female singer performed live for the first time in Saudi history.


Must See Sites

Masmak Fortress; Surrounded by sand, this squat fortification was built around 1865 and is like a scene out of the movies: a big fortress representing an empire. It was the site of a daring 1902 raid by Ibn Saud, during which a spear was hurled at the main entrance door with such force that the head is still lodged in the doorway. Highlights among the exhibits include maps and fascinating photographs of Saudi Arabia dating from 1912 to 1937, in galleries converted from diwans (living rooms). The roofs are covered with painted palm-tree, taramic and ethel wood and exude an old-world charm that evokes an Arabian painting. Inside, the information panels and short, chest-thumping films on the storming of the fortress and the ‘reunification’ of Saudi Arabia are reverential towards the Al Sauds but worth watching nonetheless.

National Museum; This state-of-the-art museum is one of the finest in the Middle East. Encased within modernist architecture, its two floors contain eight well-designed and informative galleries covering Arabian prehistory, history, culture and art. The galleries beautifully display evocative rock carvings, engaging models and even a full-scale reconstruction of a Nabataean tomb from Madain Saleh. Films in English shown on 180-degree screens complement the exhibits, as do virtual visits to historical sites and other excellent interactive displays.

Globe Experience; The Globe Experience is a spectacular viewing platform inside an enormous glass ball that's 24m in diameter, made of 655 glass panels and suspended just below the top of Al Faisaliah Tower. The panoramic views of Riyadh from inside the Globe are most magical at sunset and early evening. Designed by British architect Norman Foster and built in 2000 by the Saudi Bin Laden construction company, the Al Faisaliah was the first of Riyadh’s major skyscrapers. The needlepoint pinnacle (with a crescent on the tip) sits 267m above the ground. The tower is off Olaya St.

King's Forest; This verdant swath about an hour outside the city is a worthwhile day trip for hikers and birdwatchers. Camping is allowed, so overnighters have the option to rent a Bedouin-style tent or pitch their own. Local vendors sell supplies suited for day trippers or campers, including food, firewood and bedrolls. The fenced area is for the exclusive use of the Saudi sovereign and is off limits. However, the ‘spill forest’ extends for miles beyond the royals-only perimeter and is accessible to all.

Sky Bridge; Not for the faint-hearted or sufferers of vertigo, here high-speed lifts fly you at 180km/h to the 99th-floor Sky Bridge, inside the Kingdom Centre. The views from the highest place in Riyadh are truly breathtaking.


Must Try Food & Drink

Shawarma; Marinated and spit-roasted, shawarma is a delicious Middle Eastern meat treat whose origins can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire era, while its name stems from the Arabic pronunciation of the Turkish word çevirme (lit. to turn; turning), and refers to the rotating skewer on which the meat is cooked. Shawarmas are made with either lamb, turkey, chicken, beef, or a mix of different meats which are slow-cooked for hours and basted in their own juices and fat, gaining an incomparable succulence, but the real secret to a perfect shawarma is in the marinade. Depending on the variety, the meat must be marinated for at least a day, preferably two, especially when using beef. These marinades are either yogurt or vinegar-based and typically include spices and flavorings such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, allspice, dried lime, spicy paprika, garlic, ginger, lemon, bay leaf, and sometimes even orange slices. Shawarma is traditionally served either on its own or enjoyed tucked inside a warm flatbread such as pita or lavash. However, what really sets it apart from the Turkish döner kebab, Greek gyros, or other similar foods is the extent of garnishes and condiments offered with it. For example, Israeli shawarmas are typically topped with tahini and come with generous servings of hummus and pickled mango slices, while in other countries, shawarma is often complemented with garlic mayo or a zesty toumaia garlic sauce, both fresh and pickled vegetables, salads like tabbouleh or fattoush, and amba sauce–a tangy chili and mango pickle dip. Once a common staple of the Middle Eastern working man, shawarma has today become the ultimate Arabic street food, found not only in Arabia and Levant but in virtually any nook and corner of the globe.

Kabsa; Kabsa is a rice dish that is enjoyed throughout the Gulf States of the Arabian Peninsula. Heavily influenced by Persian and Indian biryanis, kabsa makes use of the water that was used to cook fish or meat and re-using it to cook the spiced, long-grain rice in it, perfectly blending all the flavors and spices.The dish can be made with chicken, lamb, camel meat, fish, or even shrimps. The meat or fish is usually placed on top of the rice, and the whole dish is served on a large platter, meant to be shared and eaten by hands. Although it originated in Yemen, this traditional combination of rice and meat is incredibly popular in Saudi Arabia, where it is considered a national dish. Across the Arabian Peninsula, kabsa is also known as machboos.

Tharīd; This traditional Arabian dish is most often described as a spicy lamb stew thickened with barley bread, though the word tharīd also refers to a large earthenware bowl. According to legend and several Hadith teachings, tharīd was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite dishes, even though its origins are said to date back to the pre-Islamic times. Today, this satisfying dish is prepared with a variety of halāl meats which are stewed with vegetables and ladled over thin, unleavened bread. In Islamic countries, tharīd is typically enjoyed for al'iiftar, the evening meal served at sunset when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast.

Ma'amoul; Ma'amoul is an ancient cookie filled with fruits and nuts such as dates, walnuts, and pistachios. The cookies are traditionally prepared for Easter, festivals, and celebrations, and they are typically shaped into balls or domes. In order to differentiate the cookies, the walnut version is usually shaped into a dome with a round top, the date ma'amoul is shaped into a dome with a flat top, while the pistachio ma'amoul has an elongated, oval shape. It is not uncommon for the cookies to be topped with powdered sugar for extra sweetness, and they are often served with coffee or tea during the day in many Middle Eastern households.

Arabic Coffee; Made by brewing Arabica coffee beans, Arabic coffee is a traditional beverage with Middle Eastern origins. It has played a pivotal role in Arabian social life since the 15th century. The beverage is characterized by its dark color and a uniquely strong and bitter flavor and odor. Although it is usually served plain, without sugar, cardamom is often added to provide the coffee with a somewhat lighter taste. For the Arabs, Arabic coffee represents a symbol of generosity, pride, and hospitality, and is traditionally served during Ramadan, but also at weddings, holidays, and funerals. Arabic coffee is considered a digestif and is typically served in the morning after a meal, in a small cup called finjan, often accompanied by sweet dates which complement its bitterness.

Gursan; Gursan is one of Saudi Arabian national dishes made by placing dry, paper-thin sheets of bread atop meat and vegetables in a broth until the bread pieces soak up all of the flavorful juices. The final result is not soupy, but thick, nourishing, and hearty, which is why the dish is loved throughout the country.


Travel Guides

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