Am I right in thinking that most Americans would not think of Saudi Arabia as a place with gorgeous beaches? Maybe it’s just me, but I have never heard word one about the natural beauty of the Persian Gulf. Have you?
In a way, it’s odd that more hasn’t been said in the west about this region’s natural beauty, since many Americans (myself included) tend to be quick to decry industrial pollution and the environmental ravages of war. In the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88, each country attacked the other’s oil tankers in the waters of the Gulf, resulting in catastrophic environmental damage. And there were inevitable spillages during the Gulf War in the early 90s. I don’t know what environmental destruction is happening thanks to the current military operations, but I’m sure it can’t be good for the region’s ecology.
I had always had a mental picture of the Persian Gulf as brown and muddy, crowded with oil tankers and battleships, smelling like an industrial accident and surrounded by barbed wire fences. When I watched the news and heard about aircraft carriers and bombers criss-crossing the waters of the Gulf, maybe my brain fabricated that grim and threatening image because I didn’t want to think about how war affects real, and in this case spectacularly beautiful, places. I don’t know.
Let me tell you that the beach we went to, Ras Tanura on Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf coast, was the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in my life. (I have had the pleasure of wiggling my toes in the sand on beaches in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, central and southern California, the Gulf and Pacific coasts of Mexico, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Spain. So, I’m not the world’s expert, but I have seen a few!) Ras Tanura’s beach had silky, pristine white sand, fringed with tropical foliage and shaded with palm frond umbrellas. The water was a startling, vivid turquoise, and crystal clear. The temperature (it’s November, remember) was in the mid 80s, with a gentle breeze, and the sky a pale, clear blue.
Michael and I bobbed around for about an hour in the comfortably warm, briny water, gazing out at a few ships on the horizon and diving down through the clean, clear water to pick up shells and the occasional piece of driftwood from the bottom. The water was calm, and there were no waves to speak of.
Other than the lifeguards, we were the only ones on the beach—it was a workday for most people in this gated community, and the children were still in school. As we dried off under a huge, frondy sunshade, two Muslim women and a little boy ventured onto the beach. The boy stripped down to his shorts and threw himself into the water with glee. The women, wearing abayas and headscarves, hung back on the sand and watched him. After a while, though, both women hiked up their billowing black robes, revealing modest pairs of shorts, and waded into the sea. I have heard that sometimes women go swimming while wearing their abayas, which I think would feel like jumping into the ocean while wearing a trench coat. Perhaps the presence on the beach of my husband, a very tall, very western-looking white guy, was deemed non-threatening enough for them to relax a bit. Also, because this was a private beach, the standards of behavior are different here than elsewhere in the country.
I am well aware that our afternoon swim was a treat reserved only for those fortunate enough to have access to this private, corporately owned piece of shoreline paradise. On any public beach in this country, there is no way I could have gotten away with being seen even in the simple one-piece bathing suit I wore. I must don an abaya whenever I set foot outside the western-style compound where I live. I recognize the absurdly sexist injustice of this. That said, it was a treat to see those two women playing in the water with that little boy. Pieces of simple joy like that are worthy of celebration, no matter how modest they seem to westerners.
Eye-opening experiences like this Persian Gulf beach outing were just the sort of thing I was hoping for when I left the familiarity of the United States less than one month ago. There’s a truism that says something like, “there are things that you don’t even know you don’t know.” Indeed, there is so much about this planet that I don’t even know I don’t know. But now there’s one thing I do know: Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Coast has spectacular beaches.