Build it, and they will come: The dream of King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.

Out of Eden Walk: Paul Salopek traverses the Arabian Peninsula via Saudi Arabia

The World’s host Carolyn Beeler talked with National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek about his experiences walking through different parts of Saudi Arabia as a part of his “Out of Eden Walk” project.

The World

Paul Salopek has been walking the path of human migration for 11 years.

On the very first day of that walk, as the National Geographic Explorer crossed out of Africa, the sounds of the desert were pastoral, just children laughing and cows mooing.

But when he crossed the Red Sea and resumed his walk in Saudi Arabia, traffic noises drowned out Paul’s footsteps. 

The World has been catching up with Paul about his journey, which will eventually take him to the southern tip of South America.

Host Carolyn Beeler recently focused on his walk through Saudi Arabia back in 2013.

Carolyn Beeler: So, what was that like going from the desert of Ethiopia, where you began your journey, to this concrete cityscape of the city of Jeddah?
Paul Salopek: It was surreal because, on the one hand, I’m walking through the same ecosystem, right? And walking through two deserts. One is the Ethiopian desert in the Horn of Africa. And then I had to take a camel boat across the Red sea and disembarked in another great desert, the desert of the Hijaz, along the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. And whereas the natural landscape might look even, kind of, if you squint, vaguely similar: ultra-arid, sand, sky, heat, the economics and culture changed dramatically, drastically from one that was mainly a camel pastoral economy in Ethiopia and Djibouti to one of ultramodern development thanks to the world’s most massive oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, where there was a lot of poured concrete suddenly to walk on.
Due north into the Hijaz. Award Omran with Seema and Fares. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.
Due north into the Hijaz. Award Omran with Seema and Fares. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, a lot of poured concrete is obviously a whole different picture than when our first human ancestors were crossing the Arabian Peninsula on foot. I know you’ve done your reading on this. How did it look back then?
It was much wetter. It was, if you will, a green Arabia and what archeologists and anthropologists are surprised to find, as they begin opening up new digs and new exploration in Saudi Arabia, is it kind of look like the savannahs of modern day Serengeti. You know, this kind of paradisiacal landscape of waving grasslands, lots of surface water, these jewel-like lakes, open woodlands and large herds of animals. So, that is kind of the prevailing hypothesis right now. Why did we walk out of Africa way back then, back in the Pleistocene [epoch] [because] we were being drawn by resources. As big droughts happened in our African cradle, people fled hunger and went where the protein, where the goods were, which is in what’s modern-day Saudi Arabia.
Banounah updates his journal, mostly a list of official phone numbers. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.
Banounah updates his journal, mostly a list of official phone numbers. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So now, of course, it is a very arid place. And as we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking, how do you navigate that heat and that sun walking all across this peninsula?
Yeah, sometimes at night we had to walk after hours because it simply got to be too hot, well above 100, 110, 115 degrees Fahrenheit, with very little water. As you mentioned, we’re walking well to well. And, often cases, they were very ancient wells because we were walking these ancestral pathways of pilgrims to Mecca, right, the the holiest city of Islam, which is located in that part of Saudi Arabia.
Construction engineers from Pakistan are among the thousands of workers building a metropolis in the desert. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.
Construction engineers from Pakistan are among the thousands of workers building a metropolis in the desert. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
Paul, when you were walking through the Arabian Peninsula, you saw the very beginnings of King Abdullah City, which was heavily promoted by its Saudi creators. What did the construction site look like when you were there back in 2013?
Well, to be frank, a lot of big billboards. There was not much built other than kind of a visitor center and a grid of roads carved into the desert, awaiting investment to turn this place into kind of a new Venice, a 21st century economic Venice in the middle of the Hijaz desert of Arabia. What I’ve heard since is that King Abdullah Economic City still hasn’t quite taken off. Instead of a couple million people living there, I think it’s just still thousands.
En route again — pausing to water the camels at a Chinese laborers’ camp on the trail north. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.
En route again — pausing to water the camels at a Chinese laborers’ camp on the trail north. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
I’m curious — who a traveler is really impacts how they experience a place. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there are traditionally male spaces and traditionally female spaces. And I wonder if you have any thoughts on how who you are, or maybe, more specifically, your gender, impacted who you were able to spend time with and what you experienced there?
I think I would have to be in a coma to not be sensible to that enormous divide. And in Saudi Arabia, there are surface manifestations of gender inequality and gender divides, the obvious ones, the way women wear coverings, what public spaces women occupy verses that men dominate. And it struck me very hard long before I first set foot in Saudi Arabia how the world is divided along gender lines.
In Riyadh, Banounah prepares to load his gear into his support vehicle. The gilt frame stayed behind, but only just. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.
In Riyadh, Banounah prepares to load his gear into his support vehicle. The gilt frame stayed behind, but only just. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, how did you see that when you were on your walk? What did that look like?
Now, Saudi cities are as cosmopolitan in many ways as any city in the world. So, Saudi women living in big cities have more access to power, political, economic, etcetera, than women might be living in rural spaces. But what I had to do to interview a woman teacher in a small town was I couldn’t go directly to her to talk to her. She was an art teacher, and she was kind of considered a community leader, a beacon of the community, a good soul, a good person, a strong person. I had to go to her husband to talk to her and get his permission first. And when he, to his credit, agreed, when I went to their home, she would talk to me through a closed door. So, we conducted an interview where there was a locked, closed door between us, and her husband was sitting next to me in the living room sofa. So, that is, on the one hand, kind of a stereotypical encounter with a rural Saudi woman. But on the other hand, Saudi women who I’ve interviewed in cities, including one who walked with me, said, “Hey, that’s also a bit unfair because you are applying these Western cultural standards to us. And, in some ways, if we’re not careful, also abusing us by also saying you guys are inferior, you’re victimized, etcetera.” When the woman who walked with me said, “I’m proud of wearing an abaya. My mother wore it, my grandmother wore it. It’s a source of power. We feel comfortable with it, etcetera.” Right? And it’s not the Stockholm syndrome. It’s what feels good to you. If you live as a woman in that society, you have to have a right to talk about yourself and identify yourself in terms of what would empower you or not. And I think having outsiders come and kind of point their finger may not always be helpful, right? It’s very complicated.
Prince Sultan shares a story with his entourage. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.
Prince Sultan shares a story with his entourage. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
Final question, Paul, this walk up the Arabian Peninsula brought you into contact with all kinds of people, from Saudi officials to Bedouin communities. When you look back on this leg of your journey, what’s one thing that really sticks with you?
At the time and place that I walked through Saudi Arabia, it was an enormous sense of privilege. I don’t know that too many other outsiders who traversed this amazing desert landscape with these 1,500-year-old pilgrim trails cutting across mountains carved by millions of camel-pad feet as pilgrims went to Mecca. In my memory, it lingers as one of the highlights of my global walk because of the kind of rare access to a hidden landscape, such as the desert of Hijaz.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Writer and National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has embarked on a 24,000-mile storytelling trek across the world called the Out of Eden Walk. The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Salopek and the project since 2013. Explore the project here. Follow the journey on X at @PaulSalopek, @outofedenwalk and also at @InsideNatGeo.

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