Every year in late winter/early spring outside the city of Riyadh there is a two-week cultural festival that is a combination of living history, military air show, world’s fair, and celebration of all things Saudi. This is Al Janadriyah.
Started in 1985 and sponsored by the Saudi National Guard, the festival features a variety of activities, sports (including camel racing), dancing (almost unheard of in the kingdom), arts, living history, falconry, traditional arts and crafts, and is a showcase for government institutions and services, both Saudi and international. It is also a chance to see the Saudi people let their hair down, so to speak.
Each province of the kingdom is represented with its own pavilion, usually a recreation of local architecture. Visitors stroll through the pavilions looking at local arts and crafts and representatives eager to talk about the history and wonders of their particular region. Food is plentiful as one can eat his or her way across the varied cuisines of the Arabian peninsula or grab a quick shwarma from stand. No visit is complete without taking part in a tea service featuring Saudi “coffee” (cardamom coffee), a sweet hot mint tea, and dates.
Also on display are pavilions hosted by various Saudi government agencies, most notably the military. However, each year, there is usually a pavilion hosted by a foreign government, focusing on relations with the Saudi kingdom and investments made there.
Janadriyah isn’t all local color and government showcases. Like any fair, it has it’s silly souvenirs and lighted toys demanded by children everywhere and tossed aside when they get home. It is not uncommon (and very strange) to see Saudi women wearing cowboy hats on top of their abayas.
If you happen to be in the country around this time, it is worth a visit to this unique and wonderful display of culture and history.
Know Before You Go
You will need to arrange transportation to and from as currently, there is no public transit to the festival site outside of Riyadh. The Festival is open from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 4 pm to 12 midnight. Visit http://sauditourism.sa/en/Events/Pages/Janadriah.aspx for the next upcoming dates and to arrange tours. It is best to visit on the "family" day where men and women can go in mixed company, but only if they are going with a family. Otherwise, men who are not part of a family (i.e. not married) cannot attend during the "family" dates. Western women can go by themselves, however it is best to travel in a small group.