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BURAYDAH, SAUDI ARABIA – Due to conflict in the region, a recent and long-awaited trip to the Middle East had to be rearranged. I was traveling with my adult daughter, Nicky, for the first time in many years, and we had a lot of work making several last minute adjustments to locations, accommodation, and some flights. My favorite motto when traveling is “Expect the unexpected.”
After traveling through Türkiye and Jordan, we spent our last days in Saudi Arabia. Being able to go there was exciting, as it didn’t seem possible a few years ago. The eVisa application for Canadians was relatively simple, but at $200 it is probably one of the most expensive visas in the world. After reading about the two main cities, Riyadh, the capital, and Jeddah, the main port city, we decided to visit each briefly.
We were looking for an experience and perspective that was unusual, unique and fun. That’s when we stumbled upon Buraydah: a smaller city of about 700,000 people about 350 kilometers north of Riyadh, and home to the largest camel market in the world. Every morning, starting at 6 a.m., thousands of camels are bought and sold on the outskirts of the city. For two people with a passion for all things animals, this opportunity was too interesting to pass up!
We rented a car at the airport for the trip to and from Buraidah. This was no ordinary car trip; The road signs were often only in Arabic and we encountered a sandstorm (quite unusual at this time of year), which was quickly followed by an intense thunderstorm. I thought it almost never rained in Saudi Arabia!
We relied heavily on our maps app for driving in the city and it saved the day when we arrived in Buraidah. Our hotel was perfect, and the city center was walkable and very different to the megacities of Riyadh and Jeddah. In the morning we woke up early to make the ten-minute drive to our destination, the Al Qassim camel market.
We were stunned by what we saw: around a thousand or more camels of different colors were being bought and sold by men dressed in their traditional Arab abayas. These white robes always look spotlessly clean and pressed… even in a dusty, smelly camel market.
We dressed appropriately and the locals were welcoming and didn’t mind us taking photos of the morning’s activities. In the few hours we spent in the market we didn’t see any other Westerners and, as far as we could tell, Nicky was the only woman there.
Arabian camels have only one hump and are purchased for many reasons: racing, transportation and for their milk, meat and leather. They are also considered a prestigious asset and are often purchased for breeding. Seeing the camels hooked to a winch to be loaded onto transport trucks at the time of purchase is an unforgettable sight, as was the general friendly atmosphere in the buying and selling process. The camels were treated well and for some people the whole market seemed more like a social occasion than an early start to their workday.
Saudi Arabia is going through a transition in many ways right now. Change often takes time and as a traveler I think it’s important to go to new places with an open mind and without preconceived notions about how things should be compared to the country where we live.
By necessity, the world and the Saudi economy must pivot to rely less on oil and gas revenues in the future and look towards tourism as a new opportunity. This will also open up the country to people like us who a few years ago would not have been able to experience sights like the ones we saw at the Buraidah camel market.