I settled in last night to watch the BBC’s new travel series The Frankincense Trail, in which presenter Kate Humble lugs a sack of frankincense fresh from the tree in Dhofar, southern Oman, all the way along the ancient trade routes across Arabia to the Mediterranean port of Gaza (or tries to).
I had high hopes: it’s a nice idea, and Humble is a good choice. There were some great sequences – camel-jumping in Yemen (where young bloods try to leap over a row of dromedaries, Evel Knievel-style: see pic), a bit of imperial nostalgia in Aden, discussing capital punishment with the chief of the religious police in Riyadh’s “Chop-Chop Square”, and so on.
But what a wasted opportunity in Oman! As the source of frankincense, and the anchor of the whole trip, Oman was treated surprisingly shoddily – a scant five or ten minutes, focused entirely around Kate Humble fooling around on camelback like a package tourist at the Pyramids. Nothing of Dhofari culture, nothing of the amazing frankincense souk in Salalah, nothing of the extraordinarily evocative ruins of Sumharam at Khor Rori, nothing of Salalah’s state-of-the-art Museum of the Frankincense Lands… Oman was reduced to swarthy tribesmen dancing and shouting at camels a lot while blonde foreigner looks on in bemused hilarity. If I was part of the Omani team who fixed that particular shoot, or in the promotions unit of the Omani Ministry of Tourism, I would not be very happy today…
Then we got perhaps the most positive half-hour of prime-time TV coverage Yemen has had in years – genuinely interesting sequences of travel, well described, well shot and with good Q&A cultural insight between Humble and her Yemeni fixer – including a baby-blessing ceremony in a tower-house in Shibam, a wadi walk approaching Shabwa on the ancient frankincense route, some nice sequences in Sanaa, and more.
Because the Yemeni-Saudi border is closed, Kate then diverted onto a three-hour flight to Riyadh to continue the story. But why Riyadh? It has nothing to do with frankincense, and is miles off the route. Why not Jeddah – which is at least in the right direction – or, better still, a connecting flight back to Najran or Jizan, on the Saudi side of the border, to pick up the proper trail again?
My guess – and forgive my cynicism here (I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist) –is because this series came about not because of a desire to enlighten the world about frankincense – but, rather, because someone, somewhere, gained permission to film a travel documentary inside Saudi Arabia, perhaps after years of asking. Lots is changing inside KSA, and there is a strong desire there to gain screentime in the West that is both positive and focused well away from news. From the trailers, it looks like episode two sees Kate hosted by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for a high-life tour of Saudi in limos, supercars, private jets etc etc. So much for frankincense. I suspect that, having secured permission to film, the successful negotiator went away and developed a pitch which justified screening an hour of amazing scenery and memorable adventures inside KSA without it looking like a PR whitewash. Weaving KSA into a story about ancient trade routes is a brainwave. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Saudi promoted onscreen as a viable tourism destination.
It might work well: we’ve only had the first 15 minutes so far, at the end of episode one (of four) – though arrival in Riyadh was tragically, and brainlessly, heralded with the immortal voiceover from Kate Humble: “Saudi Arabia is a kingdom of contrasts”. Doh! Fire the scriptwriter!
And then, after dwelling on just how scarily different Kate thinks Saudi will be, with her tears flowing after trying on niqab in Sanaa (yes, it made her cry) and her nervousness about doing something wrong in Riyadh, when she finally arrived and was taken to a mall, all she could say – while looking around at Dunkin Donuts and shops selling, yes, skirts and T-shirts – was “It’s all so depressingly familiar”. Doh again! That felt like a microcosm of how Europeans have approached Arabia for generations: first it’s all thrillingly exotic, then the exoticism starts to feel threatening, then finally it’s not exotic enough. It’s the same mindset which results in Dubai tour operators laying on Ukrainian hoofers to stage a pastiche of Egyptian bellydance for groups on desert safaris – the reality is simply not enough to meet expectations.
But praise to the BBC for commissioning a four-part series about travelling across the Arabian Peninsula – that must be a first. Interesting that it was scheduled in the middle of Ramadan, as well.
However, this is the map the BBC have drawn to illustrate the route. That diamond at the top is the ancient port of Gaza – but, as I’m sure must be known to BBC TV executives, Gaza is not an Israeli city. A simple question: where on this map is Palestine?
UPDATE: Seems I might be wrong about that Saudi prince – possibly not Prince Alwaleed, but rather Prince Bandar. And the Daily Telegraph have pulled no punches in their review of this programme today…
UPDATE 2: For detailed travel notes about following in Kate’s footsteps, click here.