Relaxing in tented camp after a day in the desert, 2019.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Brid Beeler, a pioneer of inbound adventure desert tourism to Saudi Arabia. Back in the 1990s, when she founded her own travel company Worlds Apart Expeditions, she opened the doors to the largely unexplored and mystical Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as the Sultanate of Oman, Yemen and Iran. In her travels to the Kingdom, she has guided tourists through the desert realm exploring treasure troves of gems such as Mada’in Saleh, the historic Al-‘Ula, the Empty Quarter of the Rub-Al-Khali, as well as many more.
Brid harbors a wealth of destination knowledge, experience and expertise in managing expeditions and cultural tours. Her knowledge of the Kingdom’s history, wildlife, geography, and culture is unmatched. She has worked with diplomats, royalty, government officials, foreign delegations, celebrities, the media (including the Discovery Channel), business leaders, as well as university travel alumni programs and adventure travel companies like MT Sobek. Via her tours, Brid is committed to providing meaningful cross-cultural understanding, supporting local craftsmen and women in the regions she explores, enriching travel experiences by interactions with locals, enhancing the sentiments of discovery in remote archeological sites, and creating educational components.
Richard Bangs on tour with Brid at Mada'in Saleh (Al Hegra) in 2016 with Mountain Sobek group from the US.
In 1989, Brid went to live in Riyadh thinking she would be "in and out of there in eighteen months," as she told her husband. As it turns out, she fell in love with the place and stayed for nine more years.
To learn more about how Brid went from humble beginnings in Ireland to this mystical region of the world, continue reading. In the two hours we spoke, we discussed her journey beginning with the overland trip she made from London to Kathmandu, followed by how she started her own adventure travel company taking clients to the Kingdom using a vast desert network before the advent of digital communication, then on to topics such as how she adapted to the uncertainty of the Gulf War and the security risks that stemmed from a bombing in Riyadh, and culminating in what she wishes others would know about the Kingdom, with much more spice and glitter packed in between.
If you would like to learn more about her story and mission, visit Brid Beeler Travel. In the meantime, enjoy this interview. I certainly did.
Beginnings: From Ireland to Saudi Arabia
I understand that around 30 years ago, you went to live in Riyadh and stayed for ten years. I would love to learn a little bit about your background. How did you get from rural Ireland all the way to Saudi Arabia?
I was born in Ireland, and ever since I was a young child, my family always traveled. Every year after the harvest, we would go on a trip somewhere in Ireland. As I got older, my parents, brother and I started to travel outside the borders of Ireland and to other countries in Europe. I always knew I wanted to travel the world. When I was in boarding school, whenever someone would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would always answer that I wanted to travel the world. That was my passion.
I left Ireland in 1984 and moved to San Francisco, CA. I had a wonderful job at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), where the Dublin Horse Show has been held annually since 1864 and where I also worked on exhibitions and trade shows. My objective at the time was to save money and travel the world. After three and a half years, I achieved my goal, traveling the world as part of a group on an overland trip. I flew back to London and then traveled from London to Kathmandu by road. That was my first real introduction to the Middle East, but mind you, not the Gulf. It was an introduction to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and eventually Afghanistan, Pakistan, and onto India, Kashmir and Nepal.
In Nepal, the group split up, but I continued on with another friend from the trip and the two of us went to Bangkok together. On the flight, we got upgraded to business class and that’s actually how I met my husband. He was traveling back to the United States and was sitting in the seat in front of us. He had been working in Saudi Arabia for two years for JECOR - the US-Saudi Joint Economic Commission Office Riyadh - that was administered by the US Treasury Department. Our chance meeting was the blossoming of a relationship that went on for 18 months before we finally got married and I joined him in Saudi Arabia. We were married early in 1989 in San Francisco and then, after a honeymoon on the Nile, we went to Riyadh.
What was your initial impression of the Kingdom in 1989? Was your family supportive?
My mother was very adventurous too, she’s also traveled the world. She just said I would be a fool not to go for it.
The first six weeks after my arrival in March of 1989 were very difficult because we didn’t have a house. We were living in an apartment directly above the JECOR administrative offices - the commission had been in existence for twenty-five years and there were around 500 families in total in Saudi working for different JECOR projects. As well, Ramadan had begun and it was my first time experiencing this religious observance. Still, after just a few short weeks of my arrival in Kingdom, we were heading off on what was to be my first big desert adventure.
Brid inside Prince Abdullah’s tent at the farm outside of Riyadh.
Brid riding Prince Abdullah’s camel at sunset outside Riyadh.
We departed Riyadh and headed north for Buraydah, which at the time was a very religious and conservative part of Saudi with a large mutawa presence. We stopped at the Buraydah souq where I went in search of Kleeja, a chewy bread stuffed with date paste. You could take Kleeja in lieu of bread to the desert as it lasted for up to three weeks, so it would sustain you.
Because of the Eid al-Fitr religious holiday, we knew everything would be closed for 3-4 days, so it was imperative we have the necessary provisions. We were headed for Ha'il and onward to Al-‘Ula and Mada’in Saleh, my first of many visits over the years. Among the highlights of this trip was when we drove right into the archaeological site Mada’in Saleh and camped inside overlooking Qasr al-Farid, the Lonely Castle, a tomb constructed around the 1st century CE. The sunsets and sunrises were magical. We had 3 nights here where we explored Mada’in Saleh’s tombs and the square chamber of Al Diwan. We climbed up high, overlooking the necropolis to watch the sunsets. It was fascinating and we pondered the existence of those who walked here before us and the history of the Nabataeans.
Camping on a dune in Ar Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter) in 2000 with a group from the USA.
After that trip, I lived for the desert. I would go every weekend that was feasible which was usually in the winter months, from September onwards, and occasionally in May although it was blistering hot then.
I cannot imagine camping in May in the desert, but that just speaks to how passionate you were about exploring the desert! What was your impression of Al-‘Ula?
In 1989, when you would walk through the ancient city of Al-‘Ula, you still saw pots and pans, clothing, where people would light fires in the old mud homes, it was as though you were stepping back in time.
Brid in Al Ula in 2013. The sandstone outcroppings in the background have been eroded by wind over millions of years.
My time in the desert exploring ancient landmarks changed my whole opinion of Saudi Arabia because as an outsider, all we hear about the country is how closed it is; you get in and you get out. Before moving, I made a deal with my husband that I would stay with him for the last eighteen months of his contract in Saudi. Funnily enough, I was the one who didn’t want to leave. And we hung on in the Kingdom for as long as we could... 12 years for him.
Before leaving the Kingdom in 1998, I remember saying to myself, this was not going to be the last time that I was going to be back in Saudi Arabia. I’ve been very fortunate because I have been going in and out of Saudi Arabia ever since.
It’s fascinating to learn how your perception of the Kingdom drastically changed — from making a pact that you’d only be there for 18 months to you being the one holding onto the Kingdom for 10 more years.
Gulf War: The Experience in Riyadh
Okay—so I’m curious— you arrive in Riyadh in 1989, you start exploring the Kingdom and the desert and then 1991 hits and the Middle East is in conflict with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. When I talked to the folks at the Aramco bases in the Eastern Province, they note that it was a scary time for a lot of people in the East since they were closer in proximity to Iraq. All the dependents of the employees were evacuated. I’m wondering, what was your experience like in Riyadh?
JECOR evacuated all the dependents, but I refused to go. There was also another lady who refused to go. In fact, my mother even visited me over Christmas and she stayed on through the war. In the midst of the war, which wasn’t very long anyway, she got out on a flight that was bringing in medical supplies from Belgium. It was on a C-130, which is a cargo plane with no proper seats, just netting behind your back along the sides of the plane. There wasn’t even a proper bathroom! The plane even lost an engine en route! But upon landing in Cyprus, the British RAF (Royal Air Force) was very good to the passengers, opening up the duty-free shop and extending much-needed hospitality.
Wow! So, she had no other way of leaving the Kingdom other than getting on a C-130 evacuation plane?
No, the airports were all closed to commercial traffic during the war. That was the only way out, on a plane bringing medical supplies.
But for you, living in Saudi then, was that scary?
The only night we were really concerned was the first night when the scud missiles started hitting Riyadh. We were particularly concerned about there being a possibility of a chemical attack. Nobody really knew what would happen. We were advised to seal up a room in which we’d have stocked water and some provisions if needed, which we did in the master bedroom. One thing that was scary was being in close proximity to the old airport, about a half-mile from it, which was (and still is) in the heart of Riyadh and it was the military airport. So, when the tankers took off to refuel the AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) at night, we would be in bed and the sound of the engines would feel so heavy that you would think the plane would come through the bedroom window. You’d think, “is it going to make it over the house?” The planes were flying so low. I didn’t like that part.
Beyond that, it was fine. We’d get out of bed when the sirens would go off and we’d watch the scuds, we would watch how the Patriot missiles would go up and intercept the scuds, which would explode in the sky. And sometimes one would land not too far away. It’s eerie to think about that.
Did you have a bunker to go to when the sirens went off?
No bunker, just upstairs in the bedroom. Keep in mind, this is 1991. At that time, I believe the population of the Kingdom was only 15 million. Today, the population of the Kingdom is near 35 million—13 million of which are expats. So, Riyadh was a tiny, tiny place. In just 10 minutes, we could be anywhere in the city. Today to drive that same distance would take you an hour because of traffic. The population has mushroomed.
When you drove around during the buildup to the gulf war, Riyadh was empty, there was nobody on the streets.
One thing that came out of the war was I had plenty of time to read. There was no television for us other than news. We only had a television to play VHS tapes. And there was one Saudi channel all in Arabic. When the war began, we got satellite dishes into the compound, so we got CNN live from Atlanta airing what was going on literally outside our very own door! And of course, what was happening in Iraq and Kuwait.
So, while the war brought about a generally eerie feeling, it wasn’t too bad in Riyadh. The folks in the Eastern Province, in Dhahran and Dammam, had it worse. They were on the frontline. They were much closer to Iraq than Riyadh. Nobody thought the scuds would make it to Riyadh, but they did.
Wow, still, that’s brave of you, wanting to stay back, in spite of the uncertainty of how the war would work out.
I’m generally a pretty fearless person. It would take a lot to make me scared.
Yeah, I definitely get that vibe from you.
Carving Out the Desert Tourism Network
Okay, so moving on from the Gulf War, I’m curious to know, how did you acquire the regional knowledge needed to guide tours of Saudi Arabia?
When I was working in Saudi, I was working for the travel company Abercrombie and Kent, and I was doing marketing and sales in Saudi for African safaris— for Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Egypt for the Nile cruises. All of this was for the expatriate market. So, I got to travel a lot and build networks in these places.
For the Saudi desert trips, we had topographic maps which we brought in from Stanford’s in London. Maps were not available in Saudi. This was a new country, it was developing, and there was construction going on ALL the time. And everyone was in the same boat. It was unique for everyone, and we all faced the same challenges. Right after the gulf war, we also had a hand-held Garmin GPS unit, which we brought in. That meant if you were lost in the desert, it didn’t really matter, as long as you knew how to read a map and work the GPS. I also happened to have some Ministry of Defense maps. Those, combined, opened up the desert and we were able to explore the Kingdom at large.
Early map of the Arabian Peninsula. Photo captured by Brid.
There was no map available for a civilian to purchase at the time?
Not really. Those that were available were usually very old, in Arabic, and didn’t really cover the desert areas.
Encountering Bedouins of the Arabian Desert
I understand you worked with the Bedouin for your adventures into the desert. I am curious to know, how did you introduce yourself to them, and communicate with them?
In Saudi Arabia at the time, many people spoke English except for the Bedouin. I didn’t speak Arabic back then, and between all of us that were traveling in a group, we’d have a smattering of a dozen words and a couple of sentences that we could communicate with; that’d be it. But the Bedouin could not understand why we’d want to stay out camping in the desert. They wanted to bring us to their tent, and their hospitality was amazing, however, often, we didn’t want to go to their tent because you cannot imagine the kind of silence, the solitude and peace the desert offers - that's what we were seeking. The stars - I mean think of big sky Montana, or out in the ocean and all you have is water. That’s what the desert is about: it’s calming, and you become very aware of life, or the lack of life, around you. The lack of water! That was something to contemplate. How could plants survive? How could the oryx and gazelle manage to survive when there is no rain?
Group on a five-day desert camping trip in Ar Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter) in 1999.
In Ar Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter), the largest sand desert in the world, 1999.
The Bedouin needed water too, of course. Back then, they had big tanker trucks that could carry water to their camps, which could be in very remote places. The camels would eat during the day, and the men would often be out tending to them. So, in the tents in the day, it was often just the women alone with the children.
The Bedouin were hospitable and always asked us to join them in their tent. They would invariably insist on slaughtering a goat or a lamb, and you’d be eating at one o'clock in the morning! And then you would be up all night drinking coffee and tea with sugar. You’d be wired from the coffee and the tea. You would be ravenous by the time you’d eat so late in the night, and then you would get no sleep. Because of that exhaustion, you would often have to decline their invitation.
Brid in Bir Hima with Saudi VIP's in Najran along with archaeologist, 2002. Bir Hima is now a designated UNESCO site.
A traditional majalis setting with all the accoutrements, including dallah (coffee pots), finjan (coffee cups), murbarrad (coffee box), mihmas (coffee roasting pans) and minfakh (bellow).
In the tent, as a woman, I would have to go over to the woman’s side, and I’d be with the woman of the house. Sometimes it could be two wives. And the children. It’d be SO difficult to communicate. They’d throw back their veils so you could see their faces. Sometimes they had tattoos. They had heavy kohl on their eyes. Kohl is this black charcoal that’s mixed with the fat from the tail of a sheep so it becomes an antiseptic; it’s sticky. In the desert, with the sand blowing and the wind, kohl keeps the sand from getting into the eyes.
On these desert trips, I used to wear my husband’s old shirts and the Bedouin women thought my fashion was horrendous! They’d want to dress me up in some of their flowing outfits. It was super interesting.
Overall, the Bedouin were absolutely wonderful, and if you were ever in trouble, they’d come to your rescue.
I had no idea that the use of heavy kohl served a survival purpose for the Bedouins in the desert! What a fascinating encounter you must’ve had under these tents.
Worlds Apart Expeditions
I read that you’ve traveled through 60 countries, worked in 20, and physically lived in 6. You’ve seen so much of the world! What, in your opinion, makes Saudi Arabia unique when compared to all the countries you’ve lived in?
Saudi was unique because it was a developing country and it was full of daily contrast. You could buy a Rolex watch, but you couldn’t buy hair color or a can of tuna. You could buy a Jaguar or a Rolls Royce, but something very ordinary you would not be able to buy because it wasn’t in the marketplace. Water—you couldn’t buy bottled water, it didn’t exist. We were supplied water in large bottles that sat on a cooler which I used for cooking. You could buy shampoo, but you didn’t have any choice. That has all changed dramatically.
The Kingdom was itself a huge construction site, and now the whole place is built up. Honestly, being able to explore a culture at that time was so unique and it being unknown to most of the world made it special. There was very little written about the place at the time. Being able to escape to the Rub-al-Khali and track the gazelle and oryx with the rangers of Uruq bani Ma’arid made it extra special. So was being able to see the heritage and culture, a culture for which there is very little written, except what is told to you from the locals. I’d like the world to see Saudi. It is a misunderstood country.
I’d love to learn a little bit about your career trajectory. Can you share your experience starting your own company, World Apart Expeditions, in the 1990s? How did it take off? Did every country you conducted your tours in present its own challenges? I understand you arranged/conducted tours to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen.
Every country had its own challenges.
Yemen’s tourism sector was fully developed. It was an incredible place to go on tour. The desert and the mountains are strikingly beautiful. For security, when you were crossing the desert, you traveled with Bedouin tribes that secured your passage. That was the only time you had to ensure that you had tribal people with you, and as long as you had them with you, you would not be kidnapped. Yemen was a magical place. It was not luxurious, but it was about adventure and an old culture and civilization.
Bringing Americans to Iran was not that easy. It was through my Iranian operator that we could arrange the visas and it was a long, involved process; months of work. But he was a fantastic operator in Tehran, and we always got the visas. It’s a wonderful country. I love Iran and the Persian culture - it’s magnificent - the food, people, cultural heritage, history and architecture are amazing. It is a treasure trove of antiques and rugs.
Oman was also a developing country, and a little tricky to get into. When we lived in Saudi, only those expats who lived in the Gulf and had iqamas (resident permits) could travel to Oman. When Oman finally opened up to tourism from the west, it was easier. So, in that respect, Oman was similar to Saudi because it was also newly developing and difficult to get into. It is a breathtakingly beautiful country with its coastline and majestic mountains.
Despite some of the challenges, the hospitality throughout all the countries was truly immense.
And I suspect that you had to develop these networks of translators and operators around these countries. Pre-digital communication, trying to carve out a desert network, I mean, that’s nothing short of amazing.
That’s why I focused on just four countries—Saudi, Oman, Iran, and Yemen. They were the four countries I knew in-depth, both culturally and historically. Pre-digital age, everything took weeks to finalize. Despite being located in the Gulf region, they are all vastly different from one another.
Discovery Channel Adventure Trips
I read that you were the Director of Discovery Channel Adventures—what were some of the most meaningful projects you undertook in that role?
When we left Saudi Arabia, we went to California where I took up my position with Discovery. This was in 1998. Discovery Channel Adventures was a joint venture between Discovery Communications and Mountain Travel Sobek (MT Sobek). It was adventure-based, but the difference was you were traveling with experts.
I designed eight international programs, and these eight programs had famous conservationists on board. For example, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the renowned conservationist was recruited for our Kenyan program because of his work with elephants; Joyce Poole from Tanzania was recruited as another elephant conservationist; Peter Stein from South Africa was recruited for our Botswana program in the Okavango Delta as an ornithologist.
Nigel Marven of the BBC who worked on the David Attenborough documentaries was one of our key people along with Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay who climbed Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. Each destination had an expert in their respective field onboard these programs that the travelers could travel with and engage with on tour in addition to local guides in-country and a tour leader accompanying the group from the US.
These trips set Discovery Channel Adventures apart from other organizations. The level of expertise onboard provided high-end programs for the discerning traveler who wanted to be in the company of these experts and gain in-depth insights into the destination.
Did these adventure trips not include the Middle East?
No, sadly not the Middle East. The attack in Luxor that killed 62 people, most of whom were foreigners had happened only a couple of months prior in 1997 and I couldn’t convince Discovery to go anywhere in the Middle East.
My time with Discovery Channel was monumental because I felt that if I can do this for Discovery Channel, I can do this for myself! And that’s how Worlds Apart Expeditions was born.
I’m sure it must have been so motivating for you to be in that environment. It gave you the encouragement and confidence to start your own company!
2001 was a turning point, however, in terms of the travel market to the Middle East. After 9/11, people who wanted to travel to the region were those who already had a greater understanding of the region. A lot of people had already been to Jordan, Israel, Syria and Egypt.
In 2004, I had the opportunity to take a contract in Yemen, where I worked for the Universal Group of Companies— who were the pioneers for inbound tourism to Yemen. I was based in Sana’a, and I was the Director of Marketing for the Group along with managing and meeting with foreign delegations and the History Channel’s documentary on the Queen of Sheba who filmed in Yemen. It was a fabulously rewarding job, and I loved every minute of it. At the same time, I kept my company Worlds Apart ticking along but in 2006, I decided to close the company because Saudi Arabia had closed its borders to root out terrorism and I could not get the necessary visas for a few years to take people on tour to the Kingdom.
Bombing in the Kingdom
Did you experience any specific security concerns regarding your tours in Kingdom?
I was on the ground in Saudi Arabia with a group in 2003 when there was a bombing in Riyadh. We were in Al-‘Ula at the time, staying in the Arac Hotel. We had been visiting Mada’in Saleh and Al-'Ula over the previous two days and had traveled from Tabuk camping along the Hijaz railway line over several days. A hot shower was badly needed, and a soft bed was most welcome.
We were due to depart Al-'Ula the next morning by road in a small bus as our Saudi drivers and guides who were part of my team would be returning to Al Jauf. It was my birthday, and in the early morning my Saudi guide came knocking on my door and said, “Have you heard?” And I said, “What?” He began to explain that there was a bombing in Riyadh at the time around the British school in one of the compounds, but he had no details other than the fact our hotel was completely surrounded by Saudi security.
In my head, I’m thinking, “You have to be kidding me. People are going to freak out if this gets out right now, in the middle of nowhere.”
The problem was that we would be traveling to Medina on a bus by road to catch our flight to Jeddah that afternoon. It is a long, bumpy ride where one is totally exposed.
I told the local guide, “Listen we have to resolve this. Don’t say anything to anyone in the group about Saudi security outside the hotel. I don’t want the group to be terrified on our journey all day because they will be. Let’s make a plan.”
We talked to the security and asked if they’d keep a distance from our bus as we traveled so as not to alarm anyone. They agreed, but they would be with us all the way to Jeddah.
It is a long and lonely road (at least in those days) to Medina and to Jeddah. Occasionally a car would pass us and I insisted that we keep the curtains closed to keep the sun out of the bus. When we pulled into gas stations, I wouldn’t let anyone out to use the bathroom. I’d say, “No, no, no it is not clean!” —which it wasn’t anyway. We would stop in the desert with men on one side of the road and women on the other, women using the culverts beneath the road for privacy.
Our flight was also cancelled from Medina to Jeddah while en route, so we were left with no choice but to drive all the way to Jeddah which took upwards of 8 hours. I did not tell the travelers of this change till we were an hour out from Medina, letting them know that we would continue by road.
Entering an old, traditional home in Jeddah in 2018.
When we were one hour away from Jeddah and our hotel, I told the group what had happened that morning in Riyadh. People were relieved I had waited to tell them as they would have been very anxious had they known all day, and understandably so. Can you imagine how they would have felt on the bus for eight hours with that information going around in their heads? Information trickled through to my Saudi guide that two more bombings went off that morning.
I had expected that maybe some people would want to immediately leave the Kingdom and not continue with their tour. But everyone continued, nobody wanted to go home. Some wanted to send an email to let family back in the States know they were safe, others wanted to call family and others said their families did not need to know.
I have to say, in my experience, security in Saudi Arabia was always excellent. We never had a safety issue because security forces knew where we were. It was standard operating procedure that you provided the necessary information to security on your travels in Kingdom and I was privileged to be allowed to operate these tours under my company Worlds Apart Expeditions. All these checkpoints on the road were there for a reason as far back as the 1980s. The security would be well aware if you did not pass through a checkpoint on a particular day. They’d think, “Hey, isn’t that group supposed to be traveling on that route today?” When we lived in the Kingdom, security was the last thing that crossed our minds. But we did have to always provide details of where we were traveling on weekends in the desert.
I completely agree with that assessment about safety in the Kingdom. It was so safe growing up there. Ok, yes, we had these larger threats from terrorism and volatile politics of the region, but when it came down to day-to-day safety, it wasn’t scary. I suspect it was because there were so many security forces in and around these expatriate compounds. They protected us. I remember waking up to airplane drills every weekend. It was annoying, but I felt safe knowing that an Air Force base was nearby.
Smithsonian Tour: 'Roads of Arabia' Exhibit
What was your experience like on the Smithsonian tour in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar?
It was very special. It came about on the heels of the Roads of Arabia exhibit which traveled worldwide for a number of years. I had seen many archaeological artifacts over the years and been on-site when discoveries were made at the Lihyan tombs in Al-'Ula. Saudi archaeologists had shared some very special finds which I never discussed. But the Roads of Arabia exhibit in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian simply took my breath away. The scale of the exhibit was truly phenomenal.
Brid with the Smithsonian group in Jeddah in 2013.
The Smithsonian tour was high level, involving members of all governments in Saudi, Oman and Qatar. In Saudi, Prince Sultan bin Salman, who was the first head of the Supreme Commission for Tourism established in 2000 and who was the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first Royal to go into space in 1985, flew to Jeddah to meet the group which included Board members and the Curator of the Sackler Gallery. They were thrilled to meet him. Our itinerary required frequent changes and on one occasion the Saudi government put us on a private plane to fly the group out of Al-'Ula as no commercial flights were available.
Besides visiting Mada’in Saleh and Al-'Ula, we visited museums in Jeddah, had a private viewing with the artist of an art exhibition on the Haj, had a private viewing of D’Iriyah which was closed at the time for ongoing archaeological work, and in Dhahran, we spent a day and a half with ARAMCO meeting with the heads for lunch and dinner that evening. The ARAMCO Command Center was like something out of a James Bond movie.
Saudi artist and Brid attending ATM (Arabian Travel Market) Dubai. The painting is the artist's depiction of Al Catt, the traditional form of decoration for homes in the Asir.
Saudi Arabia always dictates flexibility when on tour, you have to be ready for any eventuality, and this trip was no different. It was a fabulous tour, and we had a terrific time in Oman and Qatar also. I was responsible for managing the program on the ground and it was a real privilege to be on this tour.
Throughout your tenure in Saudi Arabia, as a female and expatriate explorer, what were some of the challenges and risks you encountered professionally? How did you overcome them?
As a foreign woman, you were respected at the highest level. As you walked to an office or a meeting, hardly a glance was thrown in your direction. Also, in the 80s, Saudi women were working in the government ministries, but in separate sections from the men. Women also worked in hospitals as doctors, and they were in the educational professions. Most Saudi women were not working back then, but the number of Saudi women currently working has increased markedly.
In terms of the challenges when living there, for the most part I faced the pedestrian challenges everyone else faced. If the water went out, how do you rinse your hair? If the electricity went out, what do you do? I knew Saudis who grew up living without water and electricity. The challenges were the same whether you were in the desert or in the town driving to a grocery store looking for a can of tuna.
Challenges Exploring the Desert
When I went into the desert to explore, there were some serious logistical challenges. Going into the desert was not easy. Finding the right people that you can trust has been the biggest challenge.
A man from the Al-Murrah tribe has accompanied me into the desert for years. He is instrumental in all my desert tours. He is someone I’d never go into the desert without because the Al-Murrah tribe are noted for their skill in tracking. He once guided me to a place I wanted to go, a route he had never traveled before. I was convinced he was wrong based on the desert track. He touched his nose pointing in the distance. While I was a little skeptical and anxious, hours later, we arrived at our destination. I never questioned him after that.
Brid driving in the desert.
When going into the desert, you have to be prepared, how much gasoline are you carrying for the trip, or where can you arrange to get gasoline when in the desert? Do you have sufficient water? If you break down, do you have the tools to do repairs, and do you have skilled Saudi drivers who know how to drive in the sand? It is a skill and an art. The driver that does not get stuck in the desert is the true skilled Saudi desert driver. Getting stuck may be part of the fun, but believe you me, it is no fun when you are in the desert for days on end in temperatures that don’t even cool off to 30°C at night.
Have you sufficient provisions like dates to sustain you? Have you sand ladders, wenches, extra tires - as in a 6th tire for each vehicle? You have to think about how much weight your vehicle can carry. How much weight can you have on a roof rack which causes another dynamic in driving in the sands? How do you pack the vehicle in the event of a sudden sandstorm, ensuring you can sit it out? What if a vehicle was to roll over (which thankfully has never happened in 32 years of desert travel)? Are you prepared to get someone who becomes seriously ill out of the desert? Again, thankfully, that has never happened.
Brid pictured north of Jeddah towards Khayber with a group in 2019.
The cost of insurance for off-road driving in desert conditions is extremely high which makes these trips very expensive. The repair work to vehicles after a trip in the desert for each vehicle can run upwards of $1,000 per vehicle to clean out all the sand from the engine and do the necessary work to ensure it is safe and ready to go on its next journey.
Trying to find vehicles that were fully equipped was always challenging. Walkie-talkies were forbidden for a while because they would interfere with other networks and the national guard would pick up radio transmissions.
Additionally, the country wasn’t developed for tourism, so any tour operator that was making money was making money on Haj, Umrah, expatriate flights and Saudis traveling in and out of the Kingdom. Tour operators, airlines and travel agencies made their money arranging flights and hotels for both the local and expat market traveling to international destinations. That was the nature of the tourism business in the Kingdom and the last thing they wanted to deal with was someone like me coming in and wanting to do something like adventure tourism. But I did it anyway!
What do you wish people knew about Saudi Arabia?
The media generally tends to portray Saudi Arabia in a bad light. It always has. The focus is always on terrorism or corruption. I think a lot of westerners have a closed mind and have already come to their own preconceived conclusions. I think people can benefit from being more open to the reality of modern Saudi Arabia. Because at the end of the day, we’re all the same. We share the same goals, concern for our families, for educating our children, for putting food on the table...and doing the right thing, like being kind and hospitable to others. And that is the fundamental basis of what we’re all about, our shared humanity. We may have differences in opinions, but we’re entitled to that. We may have different political dispositions, but we’re entitled to that. We’re entitled to building our own economies, and looking to the future. I maintain, and I hope I see it, with global warming, Saudi Arabia will become the leader in green technology because it is a new country. It’s got the money from oil and gas, but it is off-setting so much in carbon footprint. We will be the laggards in the West.
Rijal Alma resident in his traditional dress.
I would encourage people to travel to Saudi Arabia, to learn about their heritage, their culture, their way of dress, their customs. Their home will always be there, and they’ll return home after 10 days, but they’ll have a changed perspective and a more balanced view. I’m always completely blown away at the end of a tour by how people’s perception of Saudi Arabia has changed as it did mine all the way back in 1989!
Go to Saudi Arabia to see the real Kingdom. With the Vision 2030 initiatives and the availability of tourist visas, it is much easier to travel to Saudi Arabia without all the red tape we had in the past. It is a no-brainer.
One very special thing about living in Saudi is the network of people you encounter. It is so unique and special. In San Francisco in 1989, you’d have Whites, Asians, African Americans, and a smattering of other nationalities. But you go to Saudi, and you have 120 different nationalities, all coalesced in this expat bubble. You didn’t look at someone in pecking order, they became friends, irrespective of what country they came from. There was a strong sense of unity, regardless of the differences, and that’s what made it so special.
I love that perspective.
Projects in the Pipeline
What is next in the pipeline for you, are you working on current travel projects?
Worldwide, tourism has been damaged by the pandemic and it will take time to recover. For example, I was training guides for the national tour guide training program with one of the colleges in Ireland. That came to a halt on March 11, 2020. Not much of a demand for tour guides during the past 18 months!
The Kingdom, on August 1st, has just reopened to 49 countries for tourist visas to those fully vaccinated with negative PCR nasal swab tests. I would hope to be back in Kingdom when travel begins to move internationally in the region.
Many have suggested that I write a book about my experiences in Saudi Arabia because they are so unique. I haven’t done that, yet.
Right now, I’m appreciating the time to reflect on memories of life in Saudi, and that has inspired my writing for Aramco Expats, for example. I have also gone a bit crazy finding the photographs I have from my travels. I have so many photos... and most are slides! I have really enjoyed writing for Aramco ExPats because there is an audience that appreciates my stories, as they are either former ExPats or are still living in the Kingdom. So, I hope that my stories take readers back to their fond memories or inspire the current ExPats to see a new part of the Kingdom they haven’t already explored.
Brid’s story doesn’t just encapsulate her knowledge of the Kingdom and the Gulf’s enchantment, it’s also a story of hope and aspiration. Think about the Kingdom in the 1990s, when much of it was developing and nascent. For expats, there was red tape around for many simple procedures, as there is for any outsider in a foreign country. The tourism market in the country didn’t even include inbound adventure desert tourism at the time.
Despite these hurdles, Brid's love of the vast desert, for the discovery of the riches of the region, from archaeological artifacts to the discovery of ancient towns to interacting with the Bedouins and locals, led her to start her own travel company Worlds Apart Expeditions in the uncharted Gulf.
Marshaling the knowledge that she acquired during her tenure in Riyadh, her trips into all corners of the Gulf, she created a desert network of locals, translators, guides, facilitators, and operators that made her trips to Oman, Yemen, Iran, and the Kingdom possible - all before the advent of the internet and digital communications. None of these feats could have been achieved without the strength of her will to explore, discover, share, and enchant.
I also invite you to think about the fact that she was one of two dependents in her compound of 500 people that chose to remain during the Gulf War when it was unclear what kind of war it would turn out to be. Would there be a chemical attack? Would there be bombings? What if the Kingdom couldn’t be defended? There was a lot of speculation going around.
As someone who was in the Kingdom during volatile times for the region, I can attest to the fact that the psychological impact of tensions in the region was nothing to brush over. Even if the threats that journalists and experts posited and debated over didn’t actualize, the possibility of it happening is enough to wrack someone into a paralyzed state of fear. I hold the utmost regard for Brid, for her courage, which she exhibited once again in Al-‘Ula when she tactfully managed to avert panic in her travel group in light of the bombing in Riyadh. She didn’t allow fear to dominate the spirit of the trip, where she was showing the travelers the gems of the Kingdom.
The talismans and the keepsakes of her travels in the Kingdom and the rest of the Gulf shine a light on a perspective of the region that is often absent in the regular discourse presented in the media, and I hope that you agree with that assessment.
Talking to her inspired a spark in me that has been undoubtedly suppressed because of the pandemic — to be able to travel again internationally. I suspect that wanderlust to explore the terrains of the unknown, the unlikely finds, the gleamy troves, is harbored by all of us. But hopefully, the collective physical, economic, social and logistical nightmare of the pandemic ends soon, and we can act on that wanderlust again. Inshallah.
I really hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did. If you are interested in reading her enchanting articles, see some of the beautiful pictures she’s taken over the years in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and dive deeper into her travel company, please consider visiting Brid Beeler Travel.
About the Author: Anushka is a Graduate Student at Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, religion, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the third culture kid experience. Dhahran holds a big place in her heart.