Well that escalated quickly… In less than 72 hours, we saw most of our options to get out of Saudi Arabia disappear. As travel bans were announced and borders shut nearly every hour, we suddenly realized that getting stuck in the Kingdom was a very real possibility.
At the end of February, the thought had already crossed our minds. Just before we left Egypt, the official number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country was still suspiciously low. While things were visibly taking a turn for the worse in Iran and Italy, we were relieved to get on our flight to Saudi. Sooner or later, we believed, the virus would interfere with our travel plans.
Fast forward just over two weeks later. After visiting a friend of Marie and his family in Dammam on the Persian Gulf, we headed to the South West to explore the mountain range towards the border with Yemen. Budget travel in Saudi Arabia is quite a challenge, forcing us to rely on a proven, albeit more expensive strategy: renting a car.
Camping for free is fortunately relatively straight forward. We spent most of our time in a beautiful park near Tanomah, amidst ancient terraces and next to a new sport climbing crag. The green, lush nature and mild temperatures were a pleasant surprise. The hordes of baboons, less so. And suddenly, the first troubling news started to appear on my Google news feed.
First, the causeway to Bahrain was shut. Our initial plan was to fly out to Istanbul from the island state at the end of March. But the virus, fueled by an influx of pilgrims returning from Iran, was spreading rapidly in Manama. Too bad, we thought, and changed our flights to depart from Dammam instead.
Shortly after, the whole city of Qatif, were Marie’s friend lives, was put under quarantine. A day later, the land border to the UAE was sealed, and more importantly flights to Bahrain, the UAE and Oman were suspended. The big nearby regional and international hubs were now off limits. Not good. Egypt was added to the list shortly after.
Schools and universities were next. Suddenly, large groups of young men came to the park in their pick-up trucks to party through the night. With not a single woman in sight, Marie didn’t exactly feel comfortable. Neither did they ever come and talk to us, something we have grown accustomed to in the Middle-East.
On the morning of our final day in Tanomah, flights to most European countries were cancelled, and most visas suspended. It was surreal, in less than 3 days our life went from being centered on climbing to obsessively following the news flow. More worryingly, many cases were reported from Germany. For the first time in my life, my German passport was threatening to become a liability.
Then, in the evening, Turkey made an unwelcome appearance on the Kingdom’s flight ban list. That only left us with Jordan, the UK, Azerbaijan or Pakistan as an “easy” way out. And first countries were starting to ban European nationals. It was time to leave ASAP.
The Saudi authorities were still allowing evacuation flights for another week. Trying hard to remain calm, we booked tickets on the next flight out of Dammam to Istanbul in two days. That left us enough time to cross the gigantic desert that covers most of the country, and return the rental.
Driving through the Saudi desert is exhausting. The roads are good, and that’s the problem. Suicidal drivers can overtake you at any time, with speeds in excess of 180 km/h. It’s your job as the slower vehicle to go on the hard shoulder to let Mr. Speedracer pass. In the context of an undivided highway, you have to anticipate both incoming and overtaking lunatics. The countless crushed wrecks by the side of the road are a sober reminder of what could happen would you get it wrong.
Big cities are not better. Cutting 3 lanes of traffic on the highway to take the exit is perfectly acceptable. But by the afternoon of our second day, we were finally nearing Dammam. Much to our surprise, we were greeted by swarms of desert locusts. The hungry beasts, affecting much of East Africa, had made it to the Gulf. We kept making nervous jokes about biblical plagues.
The next morning, our hearts skipped a beat. Saudi Arabia was suspending all international flights, indefinitely, as of the next day. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 2am, but hadn’t been cancelled so far. We got the car cleaned and drove the final kilometers to the airport, through an epic sandstorm. We still had 12 long hours to wait, anxiously scanning the news for updates.
The Saudi ban, we learned, was only due to start at 9am. There was still hope. But Turkey, which had so far maintained a very relaxed attitude towards the pandemic, suddenly went into full panic mode. Flights to several European countries were suspended, and worse, we read somewhere that German nationals were now banned as well.
Without being able to confirm the new Turkish policy, we kept waiting. When check-in finally opened, it was pure chaos. The staff turned us and many others around, on what was often nothing more than an arbitrary decision. With onward travel still possible only with the same company and time running out, we bought new flights on the spot. This time to Zurich via Istanbul.
But the man behind the counter turned us around, again. He had apparently decided to only let Turkish citizens through. For a second, we thought “game over”, and joined the growing crowd of lost-looking rejected passengers. But dealing with authorities in the Middle-East fortunately also teaches you a few unconventional tactics when warranted.
In a desperate final effort, we pressed through the crowd once more, all the way to the supervisor this time. I told him repeatedly that Switzerland is not on his long list of banned destinations. Marie inflated her belly, giving her best i-might-be-pregnant impression. This time, it worked. We clung in disbelief to our boarding passes, adrenaline still rushing through our veins.
But it wasn’t over. Boarding was delayed. A passenger fainted. And even when the plane was ready to go we had to wait for the same supervisor to check once more the Turkish residency documents of a few individuals. By the time we left, we were on what turned out to be the last international flight out of Dammam, and one of the very last to leave Saudi.
In Zurich, we were greeted by a friendly and smiling immigration agent. No masks, no gloves. The madness, it seemed, hadn’t reached that part of the world. Yet. My dad picked us up, and we swiftly crossed the border to Germany, where my parents live. The next day, the Swiss-German border was shut.
Our epic escape from Saudi barely happened two weeks ago, yet it seems like months have passed. Saudi put more big cities under quarantine, enforced a lockdown and of course shut all the parks. We have been very lucky. Many travelers are still stranded somewhere. And simply told to go “home”, a very vague concept for many long-term vagabonds like us.
Marie and I are now stuck in a small German village, in what seems like an eternal Sunday. Little traffic, people walking their dogs, quiet supermarkets. Not much to complain about so far. We’ll try to make the best out of this episode, tackling postponed projects and adopting a healthy routine. Let’s hope that, despite all the chaos and suffering, something positive will come out of this for all of us.