Letters From Saudi Arabia: The Hejaz City of Tabuk

This is the third part in series about travels in Saudi Arabia, along the line of the Hejaz railway.


Downtown Tabuk, a city in northwestern Saudi Arabia. For the most part, cities in Saudi Arabia are extended malls laced with multi-lane boulevards and highways. Those on foot are divided between the quick and the dead. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Late that afternoon in Aqaba, I went to the town beach and swam in the headwaters of the Red Sea, here called the Gulf of Aqaba. In many Lawrence biographies there are references to sharks in these waters, so I chose a stretch of beach where I took some comfort that others were swimming farther offshore.

I know Aqaba gets favorable reviews as a tourist mecca, but where I went swimming felt like Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

Another option at the beach was to board a glass-bottom tourist boat to see some of the nearby reefs. I was tempted to join one of the excursions, but grew weary of the hawkers following me up and down the beach, and decided I would rather read Robert Graves under a straw umbrella and drink mango juice bought from a vendor.

Lawrence and Allenby

Here’s how Graves describes an early meeting between Lawrence and his commanding general, Edmund Allenby:

Allenby sat in his chair looking at Lawrence, very much puzzled at this haggard little man, with silk robes and a face burned brick-red with the sun, explaining with a map a fantastic plan for raising the Eastern Syrians in revolt behind the enemy lines. He listened quietly, asking few questions and trying to make up his mind how far Lawrence was a charlatan and how far a real performer – a doubt that was also constantly in Lawrence’s own mind. He asked what help he wanted. Lawrence said, stores and arms and a fund of two hundred thousand pounds in gold to convince and control his converts. Allenby put up his chin at last, a well-known decisive gesture and said, ‘Well, I will do for you what I can.’ And meant it.

One of Lawrence’s many soldiering gifts (he began the war as a lieutenant and ended as a colonel) is that he spoke to generals and privates with the same tone of respect and engagement, and it allowed him carry out his operations with cooperation up and down the chain of command.

Gentlemen, Shut Off Your Engines!

The next morning, exactly at 8:30 a.m., I found Ahmed at the roundabout, with his brother in the driver’s seat of one of the gleaming white Saudi cars. They were ready for me to fork over $260 immediately and to head to the border and Tabuk.

Ahmed kept saying that if I dallied, I could be delayed at the border for several hours as it was a Sunday and people would be returning to work. Foolishly or not, I said I would only go when at least one other passenger turned up to share the cost. What followed was a standoff of wills that I knew I would lose, especially as the minutes passed and no one showed up looking for an international joy ride.

In the end, like a sulking child, I caved. I agreed to pay $100 up front and another $100 when I was delivered to my Tabuk hotel three hours down the road and across the desert.

Everyone in the negotiation circle—by now we were about five haggling under a shady tree—agreed to these terms. I paid the front money and was placed in the backseat of a Chevy that immediately set off for the border.

The Jordan – Saudi Arabia Border

Where I live in western Switzerland, local border crossings into France are invisible affairs with empty huts and a manual gate that is closed in the evening, but the Jordanian-Saudi border had Cold War dimensions.

Razor wire and concrete barriers lined the road for several kilometers even before we reached Jordanian immigration, and in the no-man’s land between the two countries there were sandbags and obstacles that slowed the Chevy to a crawl.

Although there were only a few cars and trucks at the border post when we pulled up, it still took close to an hour for us to navigate the procedures. At least my e-visa posed no problems.

On the Saudi side, I was sent to one hut for photographs and fingerprinting (all ten fingers pressed hard onto an electronic reader), and at another checkpoint my backpack and briefcase were scanned and searched.

Finally, the driver and I were ushered into a small waiting room—like that at a car wash—while the Chevy was attached to a conveyor belt and towed through an x-ray machine. I have no idea if they were searching for guns or drugs, or both, but I wasn’t temped to ask.

I spent my time watching vans and other cars dragged through the enormous scanner. Then we got back in the x-rayed car and presented our approved paperwork to not one last checkpoint but two—after which I was officially in Saudi Arabia.

A Desert Bait and Switch

I was glad that I was a passenger in a gleaming official car and had not tried to run the border in a gypsy cab. Now I looked forward to a three-hour drive across the desert to Tabuk. I celebrated the crossing with sips from my tea caddy and a few biscuits from breakfast, but no sooner had I settled back into my limo than it came to a halt in the parking lot of a frontier gas station, where with no explanation I sat for thirty minutes.

I figured the driver was having his breakfast, or the cigarette and coffee break that punctuates driving in the Middle East, but then Ahmed’s brother opened my back door and said I would be continuing my journey in another car—this one a broken-down sedan like some of my rental cars in Jordan from the 1980s.

The bait-and-switch of the white limo struck me as unfair, but at least the deal was that I would only pay the remaining $100 when I got to my hotel in Tabuk.

Ahmed’s brother whined a little about $200 being the fare, but since I was far from Tabuk, I refused to pay more, and in this standoff I was the winner. In the end the driver of the old sedan agreed to the transfer fee, and off we went to Tabuk, with my backpack in the trunk and my briefcase at my side.

Across the Saudi Desert

The three-hour ride across the desert to Tabuk was uneventful. The driver and I chatted some, but mostly I looked out the window at the desert, studied my many maps (I had a Lawrence map from 1917-18), and read Graves, although reading in cars is not a skill that I have acquired.

The desert through which we drove was more rocky lava than a sandy expanse, and here and there we drove through towns and villages, all of which were the concrete equivalent of Bedouin tent camps.

I caught no glimpses of the Hejaz Railway, which had run farther inland (from Maan to Tabuk), but the ride enabled me to better understand Lawrence’s strategies during this stage of the war—which were to disrupt the railway with bombs and raids just enough to preoccupy the Turkish high command with keeping the line open.

Lawrence didn’t want to cut the rail line entirely and force the surrender of the Turkish garrison in Medina, as then the British and Arabs would have needed to feed a large number of Turkish prisoners and civilians.

Without the preoccupation of keeping the trains running to Medina, the Turks would have been free to re-take Aqaba or suppress the Arab revolt. Lawrence’s mission was to distract as large a number of Turkish soldiers as he could while the main British army, under General Allenby, advanced on the line from Gaza and Beersheba toward Jerusalem. In that campaign, Lawrence’s forces were to be an annoyance to the Turks, and they anchored Allenby’s right flank.

In Tabuk

I don’t want to make Tabuk sound like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I did enjoy being there. My Tabuk Ramada hotel was in the center, although still on a divided, six-lane boulevard that ruled out walking anywhere, but I could take all my meals in the dining room with a group of cheerful construction workers, doing their part for the Saudi building boom.

My first and only taxi ride proved frustrating—the driver was at a loss to find what I was looking for, the Hejaz Railway Museum—but when I discovered that Uber is alive and well in Tabuk, I took it everywhere, although occasionally friendly strangers offered me rides from one site to another.

On a Sunday afternoon (a work day in Saudi), I was free to wander around the small historic quarter, find the Mosque of the Prophet (Muhammed stopped in Tabuk and drank from a spring), and tour the old Turkish fortress, which doubles as a city museum.

It was in the fortress museum that I came upon this quote from the Arabist H. St. John Philby, who was not only a Lawrence contemporary and the British liaison officer to ibn Saud (the first Saudi king) but the father of Kim Philby, who from the 1930s to the 1950s betrayed Great Britain to the Soviets and eventually defected to Moscow. Father Philby wrote:

It is assured that the land of Tabuk, since times of old, [is] an excellent center on the road travelled by merchants on their way to the Mediterranean Basin…it is also the road travelled by pilgrims to the Holy cities.… And the state of Tabuk shows progression in all fields, for the number of the Tabuk metropolitan inhabitants according to 1951 censes has reached 2000 people, half of which are merchants and Government employees.

Now the city’s population is close to 700,000.

I never got the feeling that father Philby and Lawrence were particularly close, but it says something about the nature of military intelligence that both were what Baudelaire would have called “duplex men”.

The Pilgrim Local

Only the next morning did I get inside the Hejaz Railway Museum. It was closed on the Sunday, but would open on Monday at 8:00, giving me time to visit the station museum and still catch my Medina bus at 10:00.

I cannot say that the Tabuk Ramada breakfast was inspiring, but it filled me up, and Uber delivered me promptly at 8 a.m. to the museum, where an indolent security guard obsessed with his phone pointed me toward the museum hall, which is a wall of storyboards and several restored freight cars and engines. One of the billboards read:

On Sept. 1, 1906, a ceremony was held at Tabuk on the occasion of the arrival of the railway line. It was attended by an official delegation from Damascus, tribal shaykhs, nobles and merchants. After performing the morning prayer in the Mosque of the Prophet in Tabuk, all those in attendance proceeded to the tent set up for the inauguration ceremony. A number of speeches were delivered and animals were sacrificed, after which the special representative of Sultan Abdul Hamid read the telegram sent by the sultan on this occasion.

As it turned out, the Hejaz Railway opened just as the sun was setting on the Ottoman Empire. Less than two years later, the so-called Young Turks had overthrown the sultan, and only for about ten years would the Hejaz Railway connect Damascus to the holy cities.

In theory, the line operated to carry faithful hajj muslims on their way to Medina and Mecca, but that was a sentimental cover for something more geopolitical, which was the reinforcement of Ottoman rule in the strategically important Hejaz that runs along the Red Sea.

Lawrence and the Hejaz

Although the rail line did follow the pilgrim’s way from Syria and Palestine to Medina, it angered the Bedouin tribes along the route, as it cut into their profits earned (or stolen) along the holy trail.

For Lawrence the Hejaz Railway and its ribbon of narrow-gauge track across the desert was low-hanging fruit in the great game between Britain and the Arabs, on one side, and Turkey and Germany on the other. As another poster in the museum reads:

The Hejaz Railway did not survive for long; it was soon affected by the outbreak of the First World War (1914 – 1918). The revolt led by the Sharif with British support during the war brought in its wake the destruction of parts of the line between Amman and al-Madinah al-Munawwarah. Most of the bridges, equipment, and stations were ruined in actions in which the British colonel, T. E. Lawrence, played a major role.

As Graves makes clear in his biography, Lawrence saw the attacks on the line as stepping stones to bring his Arab constituents closer to Damascus, where he hoped they could declare their independence not just from the Ottomans but also from the colonial presence of Britain and France (who, to Lawrence’s shame, were his overlords).

Graves writes: “How to spread the Revolt up to Damascus over this chequerboard of communities, each divided against its neighbour naturally by geography and history, and artificially by Turkish intrigue, was a most baffling problem: which, however, Lawrence set himself to solve.” And he did it by staging numerous “coups de theatre” along the rail line.

Earlier installments can be found here. Next: the holy city of Medina.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.