My Madinah Mosque Misadventure
The Kaaba at al-Haram Mosque during the start of Hajj (file credit).

In the late 1990’s I was in Saudi Arabia on a consulting contract for a leading tourism company. I was to travel the Kingdom, putting together travel itineraries for the expatriate market. On this nearly month-long expedition, I was accompanied by Mohammed, my Saudi driver assigned to me, and Aarush, our Indian cook. After about three to four nights camping, we would usually stay in a local funduq (hotel), as a hot shower and comfortable bed were always welcome.

On this particular day, we planned to stay in Jeddah, but we were delayed by a sandstorm in the Hijaz. When it became obvious that we were not going to make Jeddah that night, Mohammed called the company’s office in Riyadh to ask them to cancel our hotel in Jeddah and book a hotel in Madinah for that night. We were all exhausted and covered in dust. My hair was full of sand and stood up punk-rock style. About an hour out from Madinah, Mohammed called the office again and they confirmed that the Hyatt had been booked. I could hardly wait to have a shower and get into a luxurious bed, cotton sheets and a duvet that one could snuggle up in. Five-star hotels in Saudi were truly over-the-top luxurious.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that this could not be right! As a non-Muslim, I could not possibly stay in Madinah in the Hyatt hotel. I could only stay in the Sheraton, which was located on the periphery of the city and designated for non-Muslims. Approaching Madinah, the highway divides with one sign directing the faithful in the direction of Al Haram for Muslims and the other sign clearly marked for non-Muslims. Non-Muslims do not venture into the Holy cities of Madinah or Makkah.

A heated discussion between Mohammed and myself ensued. I insisted that I could not stay inside the city. Mohammed disagreed.

“Only Makkah was forbidden to non-Muslims,” he said.

I began to second guess myself…was I wrong? Another call was made to Riyadh to double-check. No problem, the booking was made under my name, and had been accepted. So, we proceeded to Madinah, although I continued to question myself, wondering if there had been some rule change that I had missed.

As we drove along the wide boulevards of Madinah, Mohammad had to flag down a taxi to help direct him towards the Hyatt in the heart of the city. Suddenly, directly in front of us was Al Haram, lit up in all its glory. ‘Majestic’ is too small a word to describe the mosque. I couldn’t take my eyes off it as we zoomed past before turning onto backstreets to find the entrance to the Hyatt.

Stepping off the escalator that brought me up from street level to the main floor, I made a U-turn and saw the reception desk at the end of a long corridor. Between me and reception, on both sides, were seated at least 30 Saudi muttawah with their long beards and short thobes. I remember, taking a deep breath and saying to myself, “walk with purpose, walk quickly and do not make eye contact.” It was one of the longest walks of my life. I received a warm welcome at reception and breathed a little easier.

As I completed the registration card, I asked if I could have a room overlooking the mosque. I thought it would be so beautiful to take in its majesty and hear prayer call as I have always loved the call to prayer. Reception was happy to accommodate. Now, one of the questions always on hotel registration forms concerns religion. My husband would never put down his religion, but I always did. On this one occasion, I wish I followed his example. Mohammed and Aarush were minutes behind me having unloaded the bags and left the Nissan Patrol with valet parking. The bellman took my duffel and led me to my room overlooking Al Haram, sparkling in all its glory. It seemed like I could reach out and touch it.

First things first, I needed a bath as the bones and muscles ached. As I was about to hop into a deep bath full of bubbles, the phone rang. It was reception calling requesting that I come down immediately.

“No, I can’t because I am about to get into the bath,” I said.

“No, no, Mrs. Beeler, you must come to reception immediately, your presence is required,” he insisted.

I offered to come down after my bath, but he refused; it had to be now. I was furious, but I reluctantly got dressed and down I went.

The man at reception waiting for me was the duty manager for the hotel. He was Sudanese, very professional and extremely polite. He discreetly informed me in a hushed voice that I could not stay in the hotel.

“Why not? I asked.

He would not say but insisted that I had to leave immediately. Desperate to find a solution, I called a government official in Riyadh whom I knew and who could resolve this. From reception, I spoke with him and in turn he spoke to the duty manager. When the phone was returned to me, the official whom I knew well apologized profusely saying that there was nothing he could do. He said I had no choice but to leave and the hotel were going to escort me by car to the Sheraton and that the Hyatt was making all the necessary arrangements for my stay there. I knew then if the high-ranking official could not get them to make an exception, there was nothing else to be done.

We left the hotel, dejected, with no choice but to follow the car from the Hyatt through the narrow backstreets of Madinah. These were not the wide boulevards we had driven to get downtown. Shops were everywhere and people spilled out onto the street. Expatriate men working in the shops were stunned to see a blonde woman and pressed up against the window staring at me as we snaked our way through this extremely crowded area of the city. It was one of the few times I felt a little uneasy in the Kingdom. It took at least an hour to get to the Sheraton. Arriving at the Sheraton was something of a letdown after the luxury of the Hyatt. Don’t get me wrong, the Sheraton is a fine hotel, but a very different experience.

Back in Riyadh at the end of the trip, I told the story about what happened, and the Saudis thought it was wonderful that I got to see the Prophet’s Mosque. I consider myself very lucky…few non-Muslims can lay claim to accidentally ending up in Madinah overlooking Al Haram, the Prophet’s Mosque. Even if my hotel stay was only 20 to 30 minutes in my room, I still cherish those moments.

Camping with Camels: My Introduction to the Kingdom - Part I

About the Author: Brid Beeler first went to live in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and stayed for a decade. Her career then led her to live and work in Yemen and Oman and work for some of the world’s top travel companies. She currently heads Brid Beeler Travel ( and travels in and out of the Kingdom regularly on tour or collaborating on programs. She has traversed every corner of Arabia and is never happier than delving into the culture and treasures of the peninsula.

Brid began taking American travelers to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and, in addition to operating tours, she has trained guides, worked on award-winning documentaries, and written extensively on the region. In 2015, she was the Tour Director for the Smithsonian tour to Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, which followed their internationally acclaimed Roads of Arabia exhibit.

She has presented papers on eco-tourism in the Middle East region and was one of only a handful of women invited by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation & Development and the Supreme Commission for Tourism to speak at the first International Conference on Eco-Tourism in Saudi Arabia in 2002. She has written for Foreign Affairs and the Arab British Chamber of Commerce. In addition, she has published travel articles in Middle Eastern newspapers and spoken on Middle Eastern travel at embassy functions in Washington DC. A strong proponent of Middle Eastern art, culture and traditions, she has spoken on the ethnic silver jewelry of the Arabian Peninsula at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle.

Back home in Ireland, Brid enjoys walks on the beach with her latest saluki, Rishan.