Lonely Planet is woeful when it comes to the Asir province in Saudi Arabia, only mentioning a couple of places. One of these places is Habalah, which literally means “rope.” With all the wonderful places to visit here, it’s a shame Lonely Planet chose this place to talk about over all others.
In the southwest of the Kingdom, just past Abha, Khamis Mushait, and Ahad Rafidah, we stopped in Wadien (two wadis) to check out the Friday market (souq al sha’abi – old market). There was a surprising amount of colorful abayas for women on sale, which seems to imply that they are still popular here, despite not wearing them out in the street. Women were also working in mixed areas, a more frequent sight when I’ve ventured to souqs out of bigger towns. We continued driving towards Habalah, past Ah-sahen (a dish shaped mountain used by the military to keep an eye on Yemen) and onto the cliff edge.
Originally, it’s thought that the people of Habalah fled from the Ottomans and set up shop on the cliff face, using ropes and pulleys to get themselves and their goods up and down. In the 90s, Habalah became a tourist attraction. The French photographer Thierry Mauger got here before this, the lucky devil. It’s difficult to stop yourself from lamenting over times gone by in Saudi Arabia. It’s a disservice to the people in the country today, but their history is so surprising and undiscovered it can’t be helped by an outsider looking in. It’s unclear to what extent the National Guard’s role in clearing out the local inhabitants was. It was during a time when people were flocking to bigger towns anyway, as can be seen by the fact that the old traditional way of life is extremely difficult to find anywhere. However, with a new resort and cable cars installed (the first in the Kingdom), there are stories of the locals being forcibly evicted in the name of tourism. Habalah is the clearest example yet of how modern Saudi Arabia is trying to come to grips with tourism. There really is very little tourism going on, especially from non-Saudi tourists. I don’t think my Saudi companions were pleased with my criticisms of the development here, as I thought Habalah illustrated the disastrous results poor tourism planning can cause. The country is family oriented, and this shows itself in the plastic picnic areas and needless restaurants in such a historical place.
On the plus side, there is a Ferris wheel there, and I can buy a burger if I want one.
Tourist monstrosity aside, it really is a remarkably spectacular view. The old houses are almost non-existent now, with just a few remaining. We jumped the fence and peered over the precipice, looking out to the Asir Mountains and the town of Tamnia perched over the valley on the other side, with falcons circling above us. If ever you thought Saudi Arabia was a barren desert land filled with camels and oil, you need to stand in Habalah and look out over the 3,000-meter-high Asir Mountains. It’s quite spectacular if you close one eye to hide the fairground.
A whole ten English pounds later, and we were at the bottom of the cable car to see some of the older buildings, hidden amongst the cafe and toilets. There are some nice houses here, but the development is hard to miss. In a region filled with delightful treasures dotted throughout regular functioning towns, it’s more than a bit confusing as to why Habalah has taken a tourism hit. I suppose you need somewhere comfortable to sit when taking in the grand view. It’s just a shame they chose to do it where there are also some historical gems clinging to the cliff.
Habalah is worth checking out simply for the view. If you want a secluded historic village untouched by time then try somewhere else. If you like cable cars and fairgrounds on a cliff edge overlooking mountains then this is the place for you!