Saudi desert offers respite from coronavirus lockdown


  • World
  • Sunday, 15 Mar 2020

Visitors sit in the garden of the King Fahd Library, following an outbreak of coronavirus, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 12, 2020. Picture taken March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri

JEBEL FIHRAYN, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - As Saudi Arabia suspended international flights and shuttered entertainment venues this weekend over coronavirus fears, locals and residents once again turned to wide-open desert spaces for recreation, including the breathtaking 'Edge of the World'.

The conservative kingdom only recently lifted bans on public entertainment, including cinemas and concerts, as part of social and economic reform efforts, but the virus's spread has prompted authorities to pause such activities again.

Getaways to the rugged desert just outside the capital Riyadh are witnessing a surge of interest, guides say.

Those seeking isolation away from home can make the two-hour drive northwest from the capital Riyadh to 'The Edge of the World' site, where 300-metre-high cliffs offer expansive desert vistas.

"I came to enjoy trail hiking because many places are closed: cinemas, public spaces and we cannot travel," Khalid al-Harbi, a Saudi from the Eastern Province, told Reuters.

Sarah, a Briton living in Riyadh, said the metropolis had gone quiet nowadays. "But here is an incredible place to come, lots of fresh air, you're outside. There are lots of people here but there's such a lot of space," she said.

Saudi Arabia has reported 103 coronavirus cases but no deaths. It suspended the Umrah pilgrimage and locked down its eastern Qatif region where many infections are located.

The authorities have shuttered sports, entertainment and wedding halls, asked people to avoid shaking hands, and urged the population of 30 million to limit their movements.

Buses and 4x4s transport families and young people to the desert site for a day of trekking and a campfire barbecue with music, dancing and waterpipes. The cliffs, officially known as Jebel Fihrayn, overlook ancient caravan trade routes.

"Corona is negative, but the positive is that this place is full of people," said Abdulrahman Edres, who knows the area well as a rescue volunteer.

(Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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