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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Meet the tribes of Saudi Arabia: how Tamashee is taking tourists off the kingdom's beaten track

The founders of the Arabian footwear brand enable discerning travellers to be part of local customs as part of their experiential travel venture

Tamashee's first trip was to the 'city of roses', Taif, in the Makkah province of Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Abdulrahman Al Deghailby
Tamashee's first trip was to the 'city of roses', Taif, in the Makkah province of Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Abdulrahman Al Deghailby

A few months before Saudi Arabia made the historic decision to throw open its doors to foreign tourists in 2019, two entrepreneurs were already putting the finishing touches to a business plan that they hoped would take their high-end footwear brand to new heights.

Muneera Al Tamimi from Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Kazim from the UAE launched Tamashee Experience in 2018, a venture that offers guided tours to locations in the Arabian Peninsula.

The plan was to showcase little-known but culturally rich parts of the region, and link it back to their traditionally rooted footwear brand, Tamashee.

Muneera Al Tamimi, co-founder of Tamashee. Courtesy Mahra AlMehairi
Muneera Al Tamimi, co-founder of Tamashee. Courtesy Mahra AlMehairi

“We created our brand by redeveloping the traditional sandals of Arabia and reintroducing them in a contemporary context. So every collection was themed on concepts around the Arabian Peninsula that had been forgotten or had not been highlighted enough,” Kazim explains.

“As we were creating these collections and researching and travelling, people began asking us where we were from the pictures we posted, and wanted to join us. That’s how Tamashee Experience was born.”

Taif Rose Festival and beyond

Their first trip was to the Taif Rose Festival in the city of Taif in the Makkah Province of Saudi Arabia in April 2018. Known for its rose farms and year-round moderate weather, Taif is the country’s unofficial summer capital and proudly referred to by locals as “the city of roses”.

At the Rose Festival in Taif, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Abdulrahman Al Deghailby
Tribes gather at the Rose Festival in Taif. Courtesy Abdulrahman Al Deghailby

Kazim says their tours are deliberately curated to be different from typical tourist trails. “We take advantage of the contacts we make when we do our research. When we go visit a tribe and spend time with them and live with them, they start trusting us and open their doors to us.

We give people strict dos and don’ts, how to act and what to say, because each tribe will have different cultures and norms

Mohammed Kazim, co-founder, Tamashee

"That gives us an edge over most guiding companies who do sightseeing,” he says. “We actually take people into the families, and our visitors learn first-hand from them.”

Another important aspect of the tours is making sure the locals reap the benefits, too, says Al Tamimi. “We wanted to create a sustainable source of income for these villages. And when they realised we were not there to take advantage of them, they were more welcoming,” she says.

“In the beginning, it was a bit strange for them to have outsiders hear their stories, see what they do and how they live. But once they opened up, their faces just glowed when they saw people so interested and intrigued with their way of life.”

The trips enable visitors to interact with locals, visit their homes and partake in their customs. Courtesy Mahra AlMehairi
The trips enable visitors to interact with locals, visit their homes and partake in their customs. Courtesy Mahra AlMehairi

Al Jawf dates back to the Stone Age

The pair have conducted more than 14 trips with Tamashee Experience, including tours in Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. Their next one, to Al Jawf in the north of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, February 3, will be their third in the province.

Located on the border of Jordan, Al Jawf is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited places in the Arabian Peninsula and is known for its olive farms and ancient archaeological sites dating back to the Stone Age.

“Think lavender fields and olive oil. It’s really interesting to see the relationship between the tribes there because it’s so close to Jordan. You’ll meet a Saudi, but you’ll hear Jordanian,” Al Tamimi says.

While their first trip in 2018, with 15 people, was composed mostly of GCC visitors, the group has become more diverse since the lifting of visa restrictions in Saudi Arabia, says Kazim. And the numbers are growing.

For discerning travellers only

“We now have Americans, Romanians and all kinds of nationalities on our trips, besides those from the GCC,” he says. “There are no nationality restrictions, as long as they are allowed to travel to the regions we’re travelling to. And we have translators if they don’t speak Arabic.”

Mohammed Kazim, co-founder of Tamshee. Courtesy Obaid Al Budoor
Mohammed Kazim, co-founder of Tamshee. Courtesy Obaid Al Budoor

One of the biggest factors in the success of these trips is their strict vetting process for participants, says Al Tamimi. “It’s rare, but we filter out people if we find out they’re not really coming for the cultural experience,” she says.

“We also do a background check just to make sure they are aligned with the rest of the people in the group. This makes the trip more rewarding.”

We are looking at places in Kuwait, Bahrain and further into Oman. We’ve also been getting requests from people asking us about Arabs in Morocco and even in India

Muneera Al Tamimi, co-founder, Tamashee

Kazim says: “Our orientation is very important. We interview people and give them strict dos and don’ts, how to act and what to say, because each tribe will have different cultures and norms.

“For example, there was one place we visited very close to Makkah, a place called Bilad Tuareg. There, it’s considered rude if a woman shows her face. So when women come with us, we tell them the same thing and urge them to be part of the experience.

“When the tribes see that we only bring people who respect their guidelines and culture, and abide by it, then they are even more open to welcoming us. In general, Arabs are known for their hospitality. Once they perceive respect from you, they open everything they have for you.”

lf24 FEB tamashee 2 A trip to Asir in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Mahra AlMehairi
Visitors are apprised about the norms and values of the places they are visiting. Courtesy Mahra AlMehairi

Low margins, high returns

While the coronavirus pandemic has drastically dampened their plans, Kazim and Al Tamimi say they are busy researching new destinations and experiences.

“We had another trip to the Taif Rose Festival planned in April with 30 people, but we had to cancel it. Also, flights are more expensive as there are limited options,” says Al Tamimi. “We are looking at places in Kuwait, Bahrain and further into Oman. We’ve also been getting requests from people asking us about Arabs in Morocco and even in India. And we are curating mini experiences for private trips.”

The financial returns have been nominal, but Tamashee Experience was created for a bigger purpose, she says. “We don’t really benefit [financially] from it much. The only way we look at this is we consider it as advertising for the brand without really advertising. So it’s more organic, more like a marketing strategy.”

Kazim says: “Our margins are very low. But because people are more likely to share an experience than share a product, we get sales from new customers we’ve never seen before and people are getting to know us through these trips.

“Also, our trips are much costlier than other trips in the region – sometimes double or triple the price. This is because we are not taking you sightseeing. We are taking you into the tribes, and you’re helping these tribes by participating in the trip.”

The coming four-day trip to Al Jawf costs Dh4,577 per person, which does not include flights to Saudi Arabia, but covers accommodation, food, transportation and entry prices to attractions. Each visitor also receives accessories from Tamashee.

Founded in 2014 as a high-end footwear brand rooted in tradition but with a contemporary twist, Tamashee has since expanded its product line to include a range of leather accessories. Last week, it launched its first line of sandals at lower price points.

Footwear by Tamashee. Courtesy Abdulrahman Al Deghailby
Footwear by Tamashee. Courtesy Abdulrahman Al Deghailby

“Covid-19 pushed us in that direction. We are trying to cater to the times. We want to go more mass market while maintaining our quality and values,” says Kazim. Staying true to what the brand set out to do, he says, has been challenging but rewarding.

“We are lacking in sales because we are so dedicated to the causes we stand for. Anything we do, if it doesn’t fall under our values, we discard it, even if it’s commercially viable. But we are proud that we’ve been consistent in our messaging and want to make sure we continue doing what we promised to do.”

Published: February 1, 2021 07:47 AM

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