No country in the world is as misunderstood as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And yet, perhaps no other country is as worthy of a visit. Many imagine nothing more than a harsh desert, but in reality Saudi Arabia contains areas of beautiful oases and dramatic mountaintops, beaches, and rivers. The sands themselves are wondrous, especially the Empty Quarter, a beautiful expanse of undulating dunes unlike anywhere in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, Saudi Arabia is a country rich in culture and heritage.

In the west of the country you’ll find untamed stretches of Red Sea coast, and southwestern mountain towns such as Taif are definitely worth a look. The ancient history in the north is perhaps one of the country’s greatest draws, where the town of Al Ula serves as the gateway to Medain Saleh, a collection of stone dwellings as magnificent as Petra in Jordan.

Then there are the cosmopolitan city centres of Jeddah, the Red Sea port, as well as Riyadh, the throbbing central capital, and Gulf-side Dammam, the large city in the east. All enjoy a lively cafe culture and top-notch restaurants. Saudi Arabians have a reputation for shopping and there are stores galore, from traditional souks to glittering malls with all the latest fashions. Hotels are being built at a rapid pace, and each seems to feature a chef of ever-increasing pedigree.

Few other countries are as rich in historical sites as Saudi Arabia. As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, it is home to nothing less than the two holiest sites in Islam: The Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, with millions visiting both every year (although these are off-limits to non-Muslims). The Saudis take pride in protecting the integrity of this holy land and Islamic laws are strictly enforced by the Mutaween (religious police).

To a novice visitor, Saudi Arabia can seem like a daunting place for a vacation, and it certainly pays to swot up on cultural rules (such as women not being allowed to drive) before you arrive. But for the intrepid traveller, this is a beautiful country with much to offer.

Area:

2,149,690 sq km (830,000 sq miles).

Population:

32,157,974 (UN estimate 2016).

Population density:

15 per sq km.

Capital:

Riyadh.

Government:

Absolute monarchy.

Head of state:

King and Prime Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud since 2015.

Head of government:

King and Prime Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud since 2015.

Electricity:

220 volts AC, 60Hz. Two-pin plugs (flat and round pins) and British-style plugs with three square pins are used.