How Saudi Arabia's young 'rawi' storytellers help visitors discover kingdom's culture

The tale of the young people taking control of their own narrative by becoming the country's first official 'storytellers'

An aerial view of the Khaybar oasis and forts. Mariam Nihal / The National
Powered by automated translation
Postcard from Khaybar

A decade ago, not many Saudis would have considered the role of storyteller a credible job, let alone an official one being taken up by young men and women in the kingdom.

But today, many graduates and also people from older generations are gleefully taking up role of rawi, or storyteller, as the country opens up to international tourism as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 push, set by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mohamed Aleshaiwy, 23, a fluent Spanish speaker from Riyadh, has become a rawi in Khaybar, Saudi Arabia's ancient oasis surrounded by lava fields.

Mohamed works with a young group of female and male rawis at the centre, who are making history as the first rawis to welcome tourists into the ancient city.

Donning a traditional crisp white thobe and red shemag (headscarf), Mohamed welcomes a group of local and international visitors at Khaybar's reception centre with a smile.

"In a way, I am an ambassador for my country because I am welcoming them to my country and telling them of its history and past civilisations," he tells The National.

"It means a lot to me to be a rawi. We represent our country, culture and traditions, in front of people from all over the world. We are here as a team, to represent our country and culture in the best way possible."

Mohamed studied at King Saud University in Riyadh and discovered a knack for learning new languages.

"I studied Spanish language and translation, graduated with honours," he says, adding that he wants to learn more languages starting with Latin ones "because of the ease of similarity".

"When I welcomed a group from Spain, they were so surprised at how fluent I was, and it made communicating with them much easier. We enjoyed the experience so much more," he says.

"I worked as a Spanish translator for King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology for six months and now I am an official rawi at the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU), as a rawi of Khaybar because I am interested in tourism."

Mohamed worked for RCU in AlUla for two months before his new post in Khaybar.

Mohamed spoke about Vision 2030 and how it is giving youth greater opportunities within the country though education, training and greater work flexibility.

With 70 per cent of the Saudi Arabian population under 30, Crown Prince Mohammed is aiming to create more jobs for women — from 22 per cent of the workforce to 30 per cent, create new opportunities for all genders and localise jobs, which overall aim to reduce the overall unemployment rate from 11.6 to 7 per cent by 2030.

Young Saudis are taking charge of their own narrative as they are given opportunities to lead and represent change in the kingdom.

It is important for Mohamed to be able to represent and share the story about his country, he says.

"I love having people discover Saudi Arabia and telling them about my country. I like seeing tourists having fun and welcoming people to our country. It's a pleasure for us and a service for our country.

"I am proud to be a part of Vision 2030 under the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammed for this vision. I would like to see Saudi Arabia as a worldwide destination, especially Khaybar as it has great history that goes back to thousands of years.

"Here we have the second oldest human remains that goes for over 200,000 years ago.

"Since Khaybar has just been launched as a tourist destination, we will see a lot of new events in the future," he adds.

Mohamed, who now lives in Khaybar, an ancient oasis 170km north of Madinah, says he loves his work and even though he misses his family, the city is quiet and peaceful, compared to his hometown.

"They have many activities now, for locals and tourists, including the helicopter ride or oasis trail. We like to set out on our own in our free time and explore the vast and undiscovered areas of Khaybar," he says.

Fascinated by culture and tourism, Mohamed says Khaybar is a paradox because it is a green oasis surrounded by black lava rocks.

"The paradox is," he explains, "that the oasis cannot exist without the lava rocks, because when it rains, the lava fields take all the water to the oasis, taking all the minerals like potassium and magnesium that help plant growth and crop cultivation, which helped the people of Khaybar flourish and makes it a great place to live."

Spending by international tourists in Saudi Arabia soared to 27 billion riyals ($7.2 billion) in the first six months of the year as tourist numbers surged to 46 million, according to Ministry of Investment.

The number of inbound tourists to Saudi Arabia in the second quarter of 2022 increased annually by 575.4 per cent to 3.6 million, with domestic tourists rising to 21.4 million.

He says the city "and the area in general, facing so many changes, as it's opening up."

"The people are so nice and it's a peaceful getaway from city noise and traffic," he says.

In his free time, Mohamed loves to play football and watch movies, calling himself a "film geek" with a love for classics.

He is also a "football lover" and a big Real Madrid fan. "That's why I loved and studied Spanish. I'm a Madridista," he says.

"I love Benzema, a striker for Real Madrid, but my favourite player is Ronaldo," he says. Recent reports have indicated the Portuguese star was offered a three-year contract worth €75 million ($79.7 million) per year by a Saudi football club, after his recent parting with Manchester United.

"As a Ronaldo fan I would like to see him in the Saudi league," says Mohamed.

Saudi Arabia's recent win against Argentina was celebrated by fans across the kingdom.

"They showed the world how we can play beautiful football. I would like to thank our players and especially the coach who helped give us this personality, we didn't have before," he says.

Mohamed says before graduation he thought of going abroad, but he chose to stay in the kingdom, as he wanted to stay close to his family.

"Now, thank God, I get the opportunity to represent my country as a rawi," he says.

Updated: December 16, 2022, 6:13 PM