Going into the Red Zone of Saudi Arabia (and a camel race)

The Red Zone is the area – which according to the Dutch Foreign Service – is a no-go zone for travelers from The Netherlands and other Western countries. This negative travel advisory is also given by other countries. This is due to the civil war in Yemen and its spill over into the border area of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Following the news the last couple of months about the situation in Yemen and the border area of Saudi Arabia, we didn’t hear anything which would worry us. Besides that, we assumed that if we drove into “the Red Zone”, Saudi police or military would stop us and send us back if it was really too dangerous. The last thing Saudi Arabia wants, is that tourists run into problems, which could harm the image of Saudi Arabia as a safe tourist destination. We also know that foreign services of countries can be over concerned.

This sign said enough about our journey south towards the border with Yemen

So continuing our way over the tar road we entered the “red zone”. A large “caravan” of camels with Bedouin riding some of them, made us get off the road and stop to have a good look. A pick-up truck that was following the camels came to us and asked us the same questions as usual. I got invited into the pick-up to drive along with the caravan for a while. The guy played loud music while I was filming and he was filming me (and driving). When he turned back to our truck, he swung his arm backwards to the back seat and grabbed a AK47 (Russian machine gun). I thought, shi……, now I am getting kidnapped! I should have listened to the embassy advice! But he smiled and gave the gun to me, while he turned up the volume of the radio. He was singing and I was swinging on my seat with a machine gun in my hand. (Felt like being one of these Arab warriors).

Standard equipment of a camel Bedouin!

We returned to the truck and while Marja was expecting me to come back with camel milk, she saw me waving a machine gun. Then the driver took the gun back, took the magazine out, pointed the gun out of the window and fired a shot, showing the damn thing was loaded when I was playing with it! Welcome in the Red Zone! This was our welcome in an area which is off the beaten path, since no tourists come here. They either follow their governments advice or don’t go there, because not much is mentioned about this area on tourist information websites. It’s just part of the Empty Quarter. The reason why the Bedouin was armed, is that the region has an history of hostility between tribes, smugglers, and camel thieves (between Saudi Arabia and Yemen). I don’t know if the tribal Bedouin are allowed to carry such weapons or that the government just keep their eyes closed. Guns are a traditional thing in the Middle East (like we saw in Oman). Its like the USA (only here the people know better how to control the possessions and use of guns (no weekly mass shootings).

Still being on alert and driving with one eye on the road and one eye in the sky (the warning is about drone attacks and rockets), we moved on. Different scenarios went through my head, how I should react when I saw a drone or rocket coming my way, like, together jumping out of the truck while the truck was still riding. How we could get home without our paperwork etc. But luckily, the beauty of the landscape of the Empty Quarter got hold of my attention again. The large and only city in the southern region of the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia is Sharorah (or Sharurah). A couple of kilometers before we reached town, a driver in a pick-up signaled us to stop, which I did out of politeness. Knowing already what the questions were going to be, I was prepared. It was a very friendly gentlemen and indeed he asked us for lunch at his home. It was still early morning, but we agreed this time, also since this is such an interesting area.

We arrived at his big mansion style house, where first we were guided into a separate building in which there was a reception hall (carpet on the floor with cushions and a table). Not long after, Marja was guided out, because this room was actually only for men! She was brought to the main house, where she was received by the wife of the gentlemen who invited us. The lady was from the Emirates and spoke proper English, so that was nice for Marja. I was left with the lord of the house, Hammed. His little son of 5 years, joined us carrying a traditional Yemeni dagger (Jambiya), which is a symbol of social status. Coffee, tea, dates and fruit were served by Bangladesh servants. In the mean time more men came in (first brothers of Hammed) then other men. Some were of high status, which I could see by how they were greeted. There seems to be a strict order of where people sit in the room, with the most important people at the most prominent places. One brother was sitting next to me and was also handy (like me) with Google Translate, so he could explain some things to me. Greetings, over and over again, asking how you are, how your family is, was an ongoing thing whenever somebody came into the room. In the meantime, Marja was also joined by other women. The moment, the women are in the house, they throw off their Abayas and expose the most beautiful (and sometimes even sexy) dresses. It was the first time for Marja, in Saudi Arabia, to be with just women in a separate room and see women in such casual and relaxed atmosfeer.

Proud Hammed and his sun. See the original Dagger

What was clear to me, is that this weekend was important for the town, since the annual camel races were organized. Some of the organizers were also present. So actually I was joining a meeting of the organizing committee of the camel races. They invited me to come to the races, which would cover the next two days (so we had to adjust our own program again, (luckily we do not really have one, anyways).

Then lunch was served in a separate room and I was invited to join. Knowing the drill from during our visit at the park rangers station, I knew what to expect. Well not completely. First of all Marja was not there, I had to share a huge plate with all the other men, sitting on the floor in a circle. Again I had to eat with my right hand (first I had to wash my hands which is obligatory). But when I saw the plate I almost had to throw up! On the plate on a bed of rice, pasta and vegetables, was a complete cooked goat, with head, body, legs and the fat. It was just as if he had only put off his coat.Now we all had to eat, take and pull meat from the goat, like hyenas swallowing a carcass from a deer, killed by a lion. Maybe I describe it a bit raw, but these were my first impressions. I had to accept that this was a traditional way of eating, it shows the way how people share what they have, with each other. Don’t know if this was a daily ritual, when they are with their own family at home (like with wife(s) and children). But also have to admit that the food was delicious! After lunch we chatted and then one by one the boys left. We were then asked by Hammed to follow him to the camel race track, which was a few kilometers out of town in the desert.

Interview with the local press
The room in Hammed’s house, where the men gather (no women allowed)
Lunch time in Hammed’s house with the “boys”. (Notice all men eating with their right hand)
The room where Marja gathered with the ladies (they had at least the comfortable couches)

Camel races and camel race tracks come in different categories and length, it has to do with the age of the camels. The camel race is a traditional event going back thousands of years. Sharorah camel races are held once a year and this is a very big happening here. Even the Royal family is visiting the race. Hammed has his own racing camels and nearby the camel track he has is Bedouin compound, where he keeps his camels. A large original Bedouin tent is set up at the center of his compound, which is surrounded by an earth wall (to give some protection from sand storms). The tent is open on one side and there a fire pit is made. A large carpet with cushions is in the tent. We were both invited (now Marja was allowed with me to go in this “men cave” which made the men present a bit nervous). In traditional islam, men don’t shake hands with a woman who is not his wife or other family member, something Marja can get very upset about (even though she realizes it is part of a different religion and culture). During our stay at Hammed’s compound many, many men came to greet Hammed and the other men. Young Saudi boys (sons of those present), serve coffee and tea to the men and the same rituals as at Hammed’s house were observed.

The Bedouin tent of Hammed at the camel race track grounds (shoes off)

Since we were also invited to have diner at Mubarack’s (one of the men present at Hammed’s house), Hammed guided us to Mubarack’s Bedouin tent, not far away from the one from Hammed. A huge flat desert sand area (where the camel race tracks are located), is also divided in blocks, which are bordered by sand dikes. Within these blocks camel owners have their set-ups (tent, storage, water tank, camel cages etc). Also here the same rituals within a set-up of the tent. Again being served tea, coffee and dates, struggling getting up from my knee bend positions, every time a new visitor comes in the tent, to greet him. (Would be so much more comfortable with some good lounge chairs). With my Google translate I could get get some conversations going. Mubarack, a real, tall and dark brown skinned Bedouin, with long black curly hair, a big black beard and dark brown intruding eyes (but as kind as a teddy beer), asked me some questions.

The fire place in the tent

I probably had said yes to something (sometimes you say yes or no when they speak Arabic to me, because they keep on talking), because I was now let out of the tent by Hammed towards a huge racing camel. I had to ride it!! Never done before, but you know, I always want to try everything. The camel was brought down, first his front legs then has back legs. Based on the grumbling sounds he made, he was not really in agreement with all of it, especially when he saw me. I spread my legs over the camel (behind his hump) and he started to get wild, I almost fell off and my pants tore almost in two! I jumped off, but Mubarack and his companions wanted me to try again, so I did. Now I was successful. The camel got up and I was sitting straight up high (it’s really quite an height). With a huge hole in my pants, I started riding the camel around the camp like Lawrence of Arabia! I now know why they call a camel the “Ship of the Desert”, it feels like you are in a boat, floating over the waves. After my little tour I had to get down and that didn’t go well. Front legs of the camel went down first and I went down with it, I had only a little belt tied to the camels shoulders, to hold on. It was really a nose dive and not the most elegant one, and that not once but twice! At least everybody in the compound were laughing their asses off!

My camel adventure (it’s pretty high up there)
A camel handler, warming up the camels for the races

After changing, we went back to Mubaracks tent and continued drinking coffee and tea and eating dates. Getting up and sitting down. Moved a couple of times because of the social ranking order, was struggling with my Google Translate and tried to convince everybody that I do not speak Arabic. In the meantime the wind had turned a bit and the campfire just in front of the tent, was smoking out the interior of tent. However, it seemed like nobody was bothered (except me), by the smoke. We had a translator by our side, a young man speaking English very well. He explained us many parts of the Arabian culture and why we saw things as they were happening around us. Marja asked him eg whether it would be better for her to leave the tent, as she had the strong impression she was not welcome by everyone. The translator explained this as follows. According to him most men were pretty nervous, because it is very unusual for them to be in the same space with a woman who is not a relative. When Marja said that she would, in that case, understand and leave, he laughed and said, “no way, just let them be nervous for a bit”.

Then there was movement and the men started to walk out of the tent. Two boys held bowls with water (one with soapy water and the other with just water), and all started washing their hands (so I followed the crowed). This was the sign that “diner” was ready. I was guest and together with some men of higher social status, was allowed to enter a separate building where the food was served. Well I think I had a deja-vu! In the middle of the room, a very large plate (bigger than the one from lunch in the afternoon) with a large goat (the lunch was a baby goat), in a “sfinx” like position. Luckily I had practiced two times by now, on how to eat with my right hand, sitting on the floor and digging in a carcass. At this point Marja was told it was enough, she was not allowed to eat together with the men, so she was “requested” to get in the camper and she would get “room-service”. A big plate with rice, some vegetable and a big piece of goat, enough for five people (the guys probably felt a bit guilty that she could not be at the “table” as well). The situation made quite an impression on Marja, she was speaking about it for days after the event.

Marja’s home delivered food plate

After diner, the men started to leave and we called it a day as well. The truck was within the compound, so we could jump in quickly. Nobody made it late, since the first race would start at 6.00 in the morning. When the alarm clock went off, it was 5 o’clock and still dark. There was already action in the compound (some men stayed behind last night and slept in the tent). Camels were ferried to the start of the short track. Today was the race for the young camels. Close to 150 camels would participate in sets of 10 to run 1 or 2 kilometers in a straight line (no riders). They have special saddles on which a kind of automatic whip has been mounted, which rotates during the run and hits the camel on his back top leg (leg if a rider would do it).

Early wake-up at Mubarack’s tent

The camels are selected in groups and then placed in front of a pneumatic gate. When gate is pulled up with speed, the camels are then yelled at and whipped, and start running, while the “automatic” whip is hitting them. What’s even more interesting, is that about 200/300 cars are driving with the camels, on both sides of the track, with the owners driving closest to the track to yel at their camels. The amount of car noise, screaming people and the whips, makes those camels run for their lives. The whole run does not take longer than two minutes, so it not extremely exhausting for the camels, who run only once. This goes on, until all camels did the run. Marja and I were in the big Toyota SUV from Hammed (who was part of the organizing committee), and drove in the first lane next to the track and had a great view on the races. Every time a run was finished, all the cars drove back fast for the next run and to make sure they had a good spot to start from. The driving of all these cars was already a spectacle on its own. Driving with the camels up and down in a huge cloud of dust (and no accidents happened). You wonder if it’s about the camels or the “rally” with the cars!

The camels handlers have the next “batch” of camels ready, for the next race
The “automatic” whip mounted on the bag of the camels
In the comfortable SUV of Hammed, driving next to the camels during the race.
The camel race with the spectator cars driving next to the track, sheering up the camels (still print from video)

The moment the last race was done, everybody was gone in a minute. It was still early (9.30) so we went back to Hammed’s tent to drink so more tea and coffee and eat some “home-made” porridge for breakfast (again digging with one hand in a bowl). Since it was not clear what the rest of the program would be, we drove to town to find a laundry (we had three weeks of laundry collected). It’s always funny these packed little laundries (owned and operated by Indians, Pakistanis or Bengalis). I am always surprised by the amount of laundry they get done in a very nice and clean way, in such small places. It was afternoon now and we decided to take a break and drove back to the camel track and the compounds and drove further away into the desert behind it, to park the car, have lunch and do some paperwork. Even though we were far away, multiple people (camel guys) stopt near the truck to either make pictures of the truck (but often they want me to come outside and have a selfie with them), or to invite us to theit place to eat. All well meant, but we said thank you all the time. It became really tiresome, to get so much attention from nice people, who you can’t understand, it happens so often, that you wonder, if it is really a nice life for people to be famous…..

Not far enough to escape the crowd of SnapChat guys
Queen Marja with her fans

Since the races were spread over two days, we assumed that the next day would also start at 6.00 in the morning, so we woke up early again and drove out the desert towards the main race track. No action whatsoever when we arrived. The large tent overlooking the track near the finish line, was also still closed and no people walking around. So we parked the truck near the tent and made breakfast. Just see how things would develop.

Just after we had finished our breakfast an SUV stopped and two men came out, presenting ID batches to us, showing they were from the Security Services of the Royal Family. They asked the usual questions and they wanted to check our passports. They called with their radios to their supervisors. Then it was all ok. An hour later two military jeeps stopped and soldiers and an officier came out. They asked the same questions and said that we could stay unless their superiors would decide otherwise later during the day. After that more people passed by, just to have a chat and so we found out that the next race would start at around 15.00! Not only that, one of the high raking family members of the Saudi Royal Family was going to be present at the big race. (Hence all the security people).

Around 14.00 the military officier came back to us, informing us, that we had to move our truck, but not only that, His Highness Prince Jalawi bin eadb Aleaziz bin Musaeid Al Saeud, invited us to be his guests in the Royal spectator tent, to watch the camel race. Well that was an invitation we could not resist. We moved to the parking behind the tent, which was dedicated to the guest and the motorcade of the Prince. What we didn’t realize, was that during our waiting period in front of the tent at the finish line, a whole security cordon was laid around the tent. There was some confusion at the checkpoints when we arrived, since not all security personnel was informed of us being invited guests. That was all quickly resolved and we parked on our dedicated parking spot. Since we had time, we could take a quick shower and dress up nicely. The location of the tent and parking was on a little hill surrounded by an earth wall. Non-invited people tried to get over the earth wall to make pictures of our truck (and with us), but were chased away by police jeeps (everything goes by car here, also the chasing away of people). When we came out we saw a male dancing/singing group in traditional clothing (including the daggers), practicing near the entrance. We walked towards them to make some pictures. Spontaneously, they came to us, to make pictures of us instead and they even put a belt with dagger around my waste. This was probably too much fun for the police and two police jeeps came with flashing lights towards us. The policemen scanted something in Arabic via the speakers of the jeeps and our group (we and the dancers) were dispersed like if we were part of a riot or illegal protest. An army officer came running to the police officers, to tell them that we were guests of the Prince, oops!!

The security cordon around the Royal spectator tent
Dressing up for the Royal visit
One of the dance/sing group members let me show his dagger

To avoid being overrun by police jeeps, we moved to the tent. We then saw far on the entrance road this huge convoy of vehicles coming. I counted about 45 vehicles, of which four were big armored vehicles, two fire trucks, an ambulance, many police cars, black SUV’s with special agents and security personnel. This was not just the mayor of town coming to watch the show. Not only that, a drone was circling high in the sky to watch the area. When we reached the tent we were body checked and welcomed by a army general, thanking us for accepting the invite and welcoming us to the holy land of Saudi Arabia. Rows of heavily armed soldiers were positioned in and around the tent. We were given the seats and watched other dignitaries and guests coming in. The dance and sing group was also coming and started to sing for the arrival of the Prince. When the Prince and his entourage were seated, several speeches were given and then suddenly, the Prince took a gun and……….fired in the sky (can’t confirm if there was now a hole in the roof of the tent). About a kilometer away, the camels started to run and again were followed by many cars. The camel race for the big camels is 5 kilometers long and the course is like a half moon, from the start to the finish (where the tent was located). Then after about 15 minutes a second batch of camels started to run.

The heavily guarded Royal tent (outside and inside)
The Prince and his entourage is living (still print from video)

Quickly after the second race, the camel owners were called on the podium, where the Prince handed out the prices. The moment the last price was given, almost the entire audience in the tent, moved towards the Prince, see if they could give him a hand or make pictures of him. It was pretty chaotic and the security personnel lost control a bit. Quickly a cordon of police men, soldiers and security men was formed around the Prince as he walked back to his vehicle.Within a couple of minutes, on a chaotic parking lot, the vehicles of the convoy were put in some kind of order and started to move away in a big cloud of dust.

Then suddenly we were the centre point of attention of a lot of people who wanted to take pictures, selfies or videos from or with us. We wanted to go to the tent of Hammed, but it was difficult to sneak away. An older Bedouin guy (who was trying to get our attention the whole day already, wanting us to go with him for a week riding on camels through the Empty Quarter) had in the meantime laid a big carpet next to my cabin door, so I could not just jump in the truck. He took a big desert picnic bag from his pick-up and started to unpack it. A little gas burner with wind protector, bags with coffee, tea and dates, the usual coffee cans etc. He was going to make original Arabic coffee and Chai (tea). He wanted to show us how it would be if we would be with him in the desert. It’s was nice, but a bit too touristic to my liking, plus drinking Arabic coffee or tea and eating dates, we have done often since we arrived in Oman in September, so we were not triggered for a week “camel safari”. Though, this tea drinking here was a nice experience and the old man was very kind to us. In the meantime, it looked like everybody in the area knew about our “pop-up” coffee shop, so many cars came with families to make (again), photos and videos from us.

The “pop-up” coffee shop Bedouin style next to our truck with people from the area.
A little girl giving Marja a present

We managed to “escape” and drove to Hammed’s tent. There was a nice vibe, everybody was relaxed. The camel race event was over, so the excitement was gone. We took some more coffee and tea and we shared some of our Dutch sweets with the guys in the tent (who were now also more relaxed with Marja’s presence). One by one, the guys started to leave so we also left and this time we drove far, far away from the camels, the camel people and the race track, to find a quiet place to sleep.

Early morning a pick-up arrived, it was Mubarack. He found us (just followed our tracks….) and wanted to see us one more time and say goodbye. He also explained us about Snapchat, which we don’t use and also have no knowledge of. Now we also understand, why every time so many people show up to make videos from us. People post videos and pictures right away on SnapChat with that everybody in the area who is on Snapchat – and in Saudi Arabia that seems to be everybody – then knows where we are, and what we do. It looks like an invite to all other SnapChat users to go out and find us and make even more footage to post. I must say that it’s becoming a bit annoying and invasive. (Though I realize, for some people we are maybe the first western person they see in real life and then even with such a big camper truck.) We said goodbye to Mubarack and left Sharura town to go down further south to see how safe the area close to Yemen is.

Mubarack explaining how Snapchat works


  1. Your journey is like the dutch did in the 17e century Henk. I enjoy reading it while sitting for a short stay in the Egyptische sun. Good luck to Marja and you.

    1. Hi Harry, yes, it feels like that at times. Where you at the Gulf of Aqaba in Egypt? Enjoy your time in the sun and thanks for reading the blog.

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