What It’s Like to be a Female Tour Guide in Saudi Arabia

Fatimah Al Zimam likes to walk around in black leggings and casual tops, and she wears her curly hair loose and uncovered. She owns a silver GMC pickup truck, which she loves to take on solo drives across the Saudi desert. And she is passionate about her work: As a tour guide, she has introduced her country to visitors from the United States, France, Britain, Italy, China and beyond.

Ms. Al Zimam, 34, is a Saudi woman and she works for herself. She represents a profound transformation that’s underway in her home country, which has long been known as a deeply conservative place. Saudi Arabia’s opening to nonreligious tourists in 2019 is a major part of the ongoing shift, as are several important gains that women have been granted over the past half decade, though some restrictions remain.

But even with the recent changes, the country has continued to come under fire for its record on human rights, which may raise concerns among potential visitors. One travel index has ranked Saudi Arabia second-to-last in the world in terms of safety for L.G.B.T.Q. travelers.

But Saudi Arabia is betting big that tourists will come: The government is investing $1 trillion in the industry over 10 years, with the aim of attracting 100 million visitors annually by 2030. It’s all part of an effort to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“If there is no oil, we don’t have anything. So now there are a lot of projects to promote agriculture, solar energy production — and tourism, too,” Ms. Al Zimam said.

I first met Ms. Al Zimam on a recent solo trip to Saudi Arabia, when I hired her as my tour guide in Riyadh, the capital, and spent a day riding shotgun in her pickup truck. A few weeks later, I reached her on a video call at her apartment in Jeddah, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. She was eager to tell me about her favorite places to take first-time visitors, and how Saudi men react when they see her without a long robe, or abaya.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The vast majority of people in Saudi Arabia are very generous with tourists. I’ve seen this even in remote villages, where people tend to be very religious — they’re really helping tourists, especially hitchhikers and cyclists who sometimes just appear out of nowhere.

And look at a place like Al Ula, in the northwest, where you see so many tourists now. At first, some local people might have been skeptical about the crowds, the noise, the visitors. But then they started to see the jobs, the money, the extra work that they could find through tourism — they became aware of the opportunities. Now, they are very happy with tourism.

Al Ula is the best destination in the world for me. The Royal Commission has done a great job of developing the sites around there, and they’re still doing excavations, finding new things. Visitors love the ancient tombs in Mada’in Saleh, which is nearby. There’s so much else. Al Ula is full of rock inscriptions. Wherever you walk, you can find them.

And I love to bring people to Hail, also in the north. Hail is a historic area — Lawrence of Arabia spent a lot of time there — and the landscape is stunning. The sand dunes, the red mountains, and just the beautiful shapes of the rocks and rock inscriptions. You can be driving and driving, then suddenly you come across a small oasis, a cluster of palms between the mountains.

There are many, many female tour guides, and even more in training. In the class that I took to become a licensed guide, there were twice as many women as men, and I think that’s pretty common.

It was gradual for me. At first, I would still wear an abaya and hijab in the city, but not if I was out in the desert or in the mountains. But then I moved to Riyadh for work and I found myself more comfortable and happier without an abaya, as long as I was still dressed modestly. Now, I don’t wear an abaya or hijab. The only exceptions are if I’m going somewhere official — the courthouse or a police station — or if I’m going to a mosque. If I’m going to pray, I need a scarf.

Some people might stare because it’s still kind of a new thing to see, but they respect my choice. I once had an Uber driver in Al Jouf who told me: “Look at me, with my beard and my mustache. I’m a man, but I married the woman my mother chose for me. But look at you, without an abaya: You’re a woman, and you made your choice. You’re braver than me.”

Some Saudis will recommend that women visitors wear a scarf. But why? It’s OK not to. In rural areas, they might stare at you, but I find that, even there, most people are welcoming. And the people who aren’t welcoming won’t say anything because there is no longer a rule about it. I always feel safe, even though I travel alone and without an abaya. Come and I’ll take you to the Red Sea, and you’ll see — there, you can wear a bikini. The only exception is if you visit a mosque. There, it’s mandatory to cover your legs, and for women to wear long sleeves and a scarf.

I love traveling around Saudi Arabia, and I did it even before I started working as a tour guide. I’ve also been a rock climber since 2019, and I love going to Tanomah, which is where I first learned to climb.

I must admit that I do love the reactions of people seeing me driving. Sometimes in rural places, people follow me, just because they’re curious. “Is this really a woman? Is it not just a man with curly hair?” But then they see I’m a woman and they call me, “My daughter! My daughter!” And they ask if I’m a tourist.

I’ve traveled around the Gulf and to Jordan, but my first time outside the Middle East was last year, when I went to the U.K. and then to Switzerland with the Ministry of Tourism. On that trip, we spent one week at a tourism school in Montreux. The ministry sent thousands of people to the best tourism schools in Europe. I was in the last group.

Summer is the low season for tourists here. So I’m working on my book, which is both a memoir and a travel guide to Saudi Arabia. I’m planning to publish travel secrets about places around the country. I have it all in my head, and now I will write it down.

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