Saudi Arabia Islamic Travel
“My Saudi Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.” — King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, ca. 1930
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom which geographically dominates the Arabian peninsula, with coastlines on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It borders Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia contains Islam’s holiest cities — Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (Madinah) — to where Muslim pilgrims throng during the Virtual Hajj July 29, 2020. The Hajj, along with a few crops that grow well in oases, such as medjool dates, used to be the country’s main source of income before oil was discovered less than 100 years ago.
The kingdom strongly enforces a very strict interpretation of Islamic law, though minor relaxations have been adopted in the last few years, the most prevalent being the allowance for women to drive.
Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but the traditional divisions of the country are more useful for making sense of it.
- Eastern Province
- Riyadh- the capital and “dead center” of the Kingdom
- Abha – a summer tourist mountain resort city in the southwest near the Yemeni border
- Dhahran – the home of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest petroleum company
- Jeddah (Jiddah) – a large metropolitan city on the Red Sea, and the gateway to Makkah and Madinah
- Jubail – the largest industrial city in the kingdom
- Mecca (Makkah) – the holiest city of Islam
- Medina (Madinah) – the site of the Prophet’s Mosque
- Najran – a Yemeni-influenced city with a remarkable fortress
- Ta’if – a moderate-sized mountain town and popular resort area
Expect significant variations in the English spellings of place names in schedules and even road signs: Al Wajh and Wedjh are the same place. In particular, Q/G, E/I, and E/A are interchanged freely (Qassim/Gassim, Mecca/Makkah, Jeddah/Jiddah), H/A sometimes swap places (Al-Ahsa/Al-Hasa) and the definite article al- can be left on or off (Medina/Almadinah, Riyadh/Arriyadh).
- Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali) – one of the largest sand deserts on earth
- Virtual Hajj July 29, 2020 – the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
- Madain Saleh – Ruined Nabataean city similar to Petra
History of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is one of three countries named after their royal families, along with the Principality of Liechtenstein and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The family were sheikhs of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, but were driven out by a neighbouring dynasty, hiding with their relatives, the emirs of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and a few dozen lads rode out to raid their home territory. As it turned out, the invaders had been ruling badly, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured Riyadh, but much of the surrounding territory.
After that, Abdul Aziz set out on a 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.
In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its sand for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.
Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of petroleum in the world (26% of the proven reserves), ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 25% of GDP comes from the private sector.
Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy – for example, in the oil and service sectors.
In 1999 the government announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies, which follows the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. The government is expected to continue calling for private sector growth to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil and increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. Shortages of water and rapid population growth will constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.
Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. While partly due to Saudi reluctance to take many types of work, it is also true that Saudi citizens are forced to compete with multitudes of imported labor, which is often much cheaper than that of the locals. That said, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth has allowed it provide its citizens with one of the world’s most comprehensive welfare states despite not levying any income tax on them.
Saudi Arabia covers approximately four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping eastwards till reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.
The main topographical features are as follows:
The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range runs parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As one moves further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as ‘Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Makkah, and approximately 400 km north of Makkah in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Madinah.
West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country’s second largest city, Jidda, is located.
East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow platau running 800 km from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criscrossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.
Further east from the Tuwaig plataeu and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100 km) corridor of red sand dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the “Central Region” or “Najd” from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large “seas” of sand dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior, and the southern is known as “the Empty Quarter,” so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three “seas of sand” make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin almost never attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.
North of the Nufud desert lies a vaste desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins with the exception of a few oasis such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.
The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.
People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an expanse of scorchingly hot desert punctuated with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country, they are right. From May to September, the country (basically everything except the southwestern mountains) bakes in temperatures that average 42°C and regularly exceed 50°C in the shade. In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country and work slows down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38°C, but at the price of extreme humidity (85-100%), which many find even more uncomfortable than the dry heat of the interior, especially at night. Only the elevated mountainous regions stay cool(er), with the summer resort city of Ta’if rarely topping 35°C and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet.
In winter, though, it’s surprisingly different. Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 21°C, and temperatures can easily fall below zero at night, occasionally even resulting in a sprinkling of snow in the southern mountains. The winter can also bring rains to all or most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two torrential outbursts. The end of spring (April and May) is also a rainy season for much of the country. In the south, though, this pattern is reversed, with most rain falling during the Indian Ocean’s monsoon season between May and October.
Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law specifically requires Saudi citizens to be Muslim, public observance and proselytism of religions other than Islam are forbidden, and it is illegal to display non-Quranic forms of scripture in public.
Everything in Saudi Arabia is regulated by the five daily prayers. All shops and offices close during each prayer for a period of at least 20-30 minutes, and the religious police patrol some streets and pack loiterers off to the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports do stay open (but with all shops inside the shopping malls closed) and taxis and other public transport continue to run normally.
The first prayer is fajr, early in the morning before the first glint of light at dawn, and the call to prayer for fajr will be your wake-up call in the Kingdom. After fajr, some people eat breakfast and head to work, with shops opening up.
The second prayer is dhuhr, held after true noon in the middle of the day. The Friday noon prayer (jummah) is the most important one of the week, when even less observant Muslims usually make the effort to go to the mosque. After dhuhr, people head for lunch, while many shops choose to stay closed and snooze away the heat of the day.
Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (one and a half to two hours before sunset), with many shops opening again afterwards. Maghrib prayers are held at sunset and mark the end of the work day in much of the private sector. The last prayer is isha’a, held around 45min-1h after sunset, after which locals head for dinner. Expats refer to the time between maghrib and isha’a as the “prayer window”, during which you can hit the supermarket and buy your groceries if you time it right.
Prayer times change daily according to the seasons and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the day’s times in any newspaper.
Like most of the Middle East, the weekend in Saudi Arabia is Friday and Saturday, with Sunday a normal working day. (Until 2013, it was Thursday & Friday.)
The Saudi interpretation of Islam tends to view non-Muslim holidays as sacrilegious, and the public observance of Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, Halloween etc. is prohibited. Public holidays are granted only for Eid ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, some 70 days after Ramadan.
There is also one secular holiday: Unification of the Kingdom Day, on 23 September. Whilst not an official public holiday or a festival, it’s treated like one. In fact, many local youths celebrate it more zealously than either Islamic Eid.
During Ramadan, visitors are required to abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during the daylight hours. Some better hotels will be able to quietly supply room service during the day, but otherwise you’ll have to do your preparations. All restaurants in the Kingdom are closed during the day, and while some offices stay open with limited hours, the pace of business slows down to a torpor. After evening prayer, though, all the restaurants in the bazaar open up and do a roaring trade until the small hours of the morning. Most of the shops are open as well, and the cool of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop. A visitor can have a fine time joining in on these evenings, though having a stash in your hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten will suit most visitors better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast.
Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and to those who show stamps and/or visas from Israel.
- “My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.” — King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, c. 1930
Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive travel policies in the world, and advance visas are required for all foreigners desiring to enter. The only significant exception is citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. Also exempt from visa requirements are foreigners transiting through airports for less than eighteen hours, but many other entry requirements, such as the dress code and restrictions on unaccompanied women, still apply.
Nationals of Israel and those with evidence of visiting Israel will be denied visas, although merely being Jewish in and of itself is not a disqualifying factor. (There are, however, anecdotal reports of would-be visitors who tick the “Jewish” or “Atheist” boxes on their visa application having trouble.) Saudis prefer not to grant visas to unaccompanied women, but work permits are common in some fields—esp. nurses, teachers, maids—and possible for anyone if your sponsor has enough connections.
The easiest way to get into the country is to get an international events visa from Sharek (look at the top right for the English page option). Certain events are designated as “international”, which means that you can buy tickets and a 14-day e-visa. These events can be a bit rare, however, so plan in advance.
Transit visas are limited to some long-distance truck drivers and for plane trips, but are generally issued free of charge. However, it is relatively easy to obtain a transit visa to drive through Saudi if you are in an adjacent country legally, and demonstrate the need to drive through Saudi to another adjacent country.
Virtual Hajj July 29, 2020 (pilgrimage) visas are issued by the Saudi government through Saudi embassies around the world in cooperation with local mosques. Hajjis and those on transit visas are prohibited from traveling freely throughout the kingdom, and during Hajj season getting a visa of any kind tends to be more difficult.
Most short-term Western visitors to Saudi arrive on business visas, which require an invitation from a local sponsor which has been approved by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce. Once this invitation is secured and certified, the actual process of issuing the visa is relatively fast and painless, taking anything from one day to two weeks. Word has it that the “new visas” (electronically generated) are only available through agencies within your country of residence. Getting a work visa is considerably more complex, but usually your employer will handle most of the paperwork.
Tourist visas were planned to be issued from 1 April 2018 with a reprocity scheme for countries that let in Saudi citizens, but as of early 2019 the visa scheme is still waiting for Saudi government approval, the latest in a string of proposed but not yet implemeted plans. They were available for groups of at least four on guided tours until 2010 when the scheme was suspended with vague promises of being reinstated later.
The fun doesn’t end when you get the visa, because visas do not state their exact expiry date. While the validity is noted in months, these are not Western months but lunar months, and you must use the Islamic calendar to figure out the length: a three-month visa issued on “29/02/22” (22 Safar 1429, 1 March 2008) is valid until 29/05/22 (22 Jumada al-Awwal 1429, 28 May 2008), not until 1 June 2008. Depending on visa type, the validity can start from the date of issue or the date of first entry, and multiple-entry visas may also have restrictions regarding how many days at a time are allowed (usually 28 days per visit) and/or how many days total are allowed during the validity period. This all results in fantastic confusion, and it’s not uncommon to get different answers from an embassy, from your employer and from Immigration.
If you have a work visa, exit visas are required to leave the country. (Business, tourism, transit, or Hajj visas do not require exit permits.) You cannot get an exit visa without a signature from your employer, and there have been cases of people unable to leave because of controversy with employers or even customers. For example, if a foreign company is sued in Saudi for non-payment of debts and you are considered its representative, an exit visa may be denied until the court case is sorted out.
Saudi Arabia has very strict rules for what may be imported: alcoholic beverages, pork, non- Sunni Islamic religious materials and pornography (very widely defined) are all prohibited. Computers, VCR tapes and DVDs have all been seized from time to time for inspection by the authorities. If you are unsure if the movie you watch or the video game you play is deemed un-Islamic, assume that it is: it would probably be best not to bring it with you to the kingdom. In general, though, inspections aren’t quite as thorough as they used to be and while bags are still x-rayed, minute searches are the exception rather than the rule. Western families driving through on a valid transit visa are generally waved through the customs inspection with a cursory glance.
Saudi Arabia has 4 international airports at Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, and Dammam . The airport at Dhahran is now closed to civil traffic, so passengers to the Eastern Region now fly into Dammam, or into nearby Bahrain (which is much better connected) and then cross into Saudi Arabia by car.
Saudi Arabia is served by the national airline Saudia. Saudia has a reasonable safety record, but many of their planes are on the old side, and the quality of service, inflight entertainment, etc., tends to be low. Virtually all Gulf airlines and most major European airlines fly into Saudi.
During the Hajj, numerous charter flights supplement the scheduled airlines. Foreigners living in Saudi Arabia can often get sensational discounts on outbound flights during the Hajj. Airlines from Muslim countries are flying in many loads of pilgrims, and do not want to go back empty.
SAPTCO operates cross-border bus services to most of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors and beyond, e.g. Cairo. Probably the most popular service is between Dammam/Khobar and Manama, Bahrain. There are several services daily at a cost of SR60 or 6 Bahraini dinars, and the trip across the King Fahd Causeway takes around 3 hours on a good day; see Bahrain for details.
Automobile crossings exist on nearly all the borders, although those into Iraq are closed. The eastern crossings to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE are heavily used, all others rather less so.
There are no railways connecting Saudi Arabia with other countries, although in the North, you can still find bits and pieces of the Hejaz Railway that once led to Damascus. However, a passenger service between Riyadh and Qurayyat, next to the Jordanian border is expected to launch during 2019.
Passenger ferries run once a week or less from Egypt and Sudan to ports in western Saudi Arabia. (The service to Eritrea has stopped running.) Slow, uncomfortable and not particularly cheap, these are of interest primarily if you need to take your car across. An unofficial ban of Westerners may still apply.
Internal travel permits are a thing of the past, so once you’ve gotten into Saudi, the country is your oyster. There are, however, three exceptions:
- Many archaeological sites around the country, e.g. Madain Saleh, require permits. The National Museum in Riyadh issues these free of charge, but you should apply at least a week in advance.
- The area around Mecca and Medina is off-limits to non-Muslims; conversely, those on Virtual Hajj July 29, 2020 visas are prohibited from leaving the area (and transit points like Jeddah). The exclusion zone is well signposted.
- Some remote areas, notably around the Iraqi and Yemeni borders, are restricted military zones. You’re exceedingly unlikely to stumble into them by accident.
Saudi Arabia is a large country, which makes flying the only comfortable means of long-distance travel. State carrier Saudia has the best schedules, with near-hourly flights on the busy Riyadh-Jeddah sector (90 min) and walk-up one-way fares costing a reasonable 280 Saudi riyals (SR) (or about US$75). Low-cost competitor Nas can be even cheaper if you book in advance, but their schedules are sparser, changes will cost you money and there’s no meal on board.
The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) operates long-distance buses linking together all corners of the country. Buses are modern, air-conditioned and comfortable, but often slow, and the bus stations are more often than not several kilometers away from the city Centre. The Riyadh-Dammam service, for example, costs SR60 and takes around 6 hours.
Special “VIP” services operate on the Riyadh-Dammam and Riyadh-Bahrain sectors. For a surcharge of about 50%, you get a direct, non-stop city Centre-to-city Centre services, plush seating and a meal on-board. They are quite good value, if the sparse schedules match your plans.
The railway network in Saudi Arabia used to be underdeveloped, but there has been a major push to expand rail coverage. The older line running between Riyadh, Hofuf and Dammam has been complemented by a new north-south line between Riyadh, Buraydah and Al Qurayyat near the Jordanian border. In 2018, a new high speed link, the Haramain highspeed railway, connecting Jeddah with the holy cities of Mecca (45 min) and Medina (2 hours), opened.
Confusingly, each railway is operated by a different company. The classic line between Riyadh and Damman is operated by Saudi Railways Organization while Saudi Railway Company operates the north-south railway. Haramain Highspeed Railway operates its own website. Online tickets are available for all services. It is advisable to buy tickets in advance as the trains are often sold out.
The standard is very high with all passenger services offering both second and business classes, with plush leather seats and 2+1 seating. On trains between Riydah and Damman, business class is slightly less extravagant as it has an extra class, delightfully named Rehab, which compares to business on other services. For North-South services, private sleeper cabins are also available at a premium. Almost all trains have a cafeteria car serving up drinks and snacks, as well as push-trolley service and there are slick waiting lounges at stations. Also, beware that most carriages reserve the forward-facing seats at the front of each carriage for families.
Car rental is available and gasoline is some of the cheapest in the world. Highway quality is highly variable, except highways that connect major cities, which are generally excellent. However, there are important reasons to think twice about car rental. The country has some of the highest accident rates in the world. Accidents are common, and if a visitor is involved in one, they would be exposed to the extremely punitive Saudi legal system; see elsewhere on this page for the warnings about that. Also be aware that any accident involving a foreigner and a Saudi citizen is automatically regarded to be the foreigner’s fault under Saudi law, regardless of whose fault it actually is. Access to car rentals is limited to persons 21 and older.
If you are involved in a car accident all parties are required to stay where they are and wait for the Traffic Police (call 993) to turn up, which can take up to four hours. English is unlikely to be spoken by the police, even in big cities, so try to use the waiting time to arrange a translator. The police will issue an accident report, which you have to take to the traffic police station and get it stamped a few times in different queues (this takes most of a morning). Only then can any damage to the car be repaired, as insurance companies will not pay for any body work without this report.
It is not uncommon for the traffic police to resolve the incident there and then by determining the guilty party and deciding compensation. So, should it be your fault the Police will ask you to pay an amount to the other party, but you are not obligated to do so.
Notoriously, Saudi Arabia used to ban women from driving on public roads. However, the law changed in June 2018, and women are now allowed to drive in the kingdom, albeit only with permission from their male guardian.
Within cities, taxis are the only practical means of transportation. Standardized throughout the country, metered fares start at SR5 and tick up at SR1.60/km, but outside Riyadh you’ll often have to haggle the price in advance. Solo passengers are expected to sit up front next to the driver: this has the advantages of being next to the full blast of the air-con and making it easier to wave your hands to show the way.
Arabic phrasebook is the official language of the Kingdom. There are numerous dialects spoken around the country, but the most important are Hejazi Arabic, originating from the Hejaz around Jeddah and the effective lingua franca, and Najdi Arabic, spoken in the Nejd around Riyadh.
Many people understand and speak some English, although markedly less well than in, say, the UAE or Qatar. Hindi phrasebook, Urdu phrasebook, and Bengali phrasebook are extensively used in the marketplaces and by sub-continent expatriates. All major languages are spoken in the markets of Makkah. There is a significant Filipino phrasebook-speaking expatriate minority as well.
Nearly all road signs are in English as well as Arabic, although the vast majority of speed limit signs use only Arabian numerals.
- The best known sites in Saudi Arabia are likely the two holy cities of Islam; Mecca and Medina. However it’s prohibited for non-Muslims to enter these cities.
- There are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. They include the Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih) in Hejaz and the At-Turaif District in Diriyah.
- The old town of Jeddah.
- Old and ultra-modern architecture in the capital of Riyadh.
- A whole lot of desert – the Arabian Desert makes up most of the country.
The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal, denoted by the symbol “ريال” or “SR” (ISO code: SAR) It is a fixed at 3.75 riyals to the US dollar. The riyal is divided into 100 halalas, which are used to mark some prices, but, in practice, all payments are rounded to the nearest riyal and odds are you probably will never see any halala coins. Bills come in values of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 riyals, with two different series in circulation.
The riyal is effectively also pegged to the Bahraini dinar at a 10:1 ratio. If you are considering travelling to Bahrain, virtually all businesses in Bahrain will accept riyals, but the dinar is not as easily convertible in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society. Larger businesses will accept all cards, however most smaller businesses accept debit and credit cards but some will refuse if the amount is little. ATMs are ubiquitous, although those of many smaller banks do not accept foreign cards; Samba, SABB and ANB are probably your best bets. Money changers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere. Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by merchants.
Prices are generally fairly high: figure on US$50/100/200 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs.
Tipping is generally not expected, although service staff are always happy to receive them and taxi fares are often rounded up (or, not uncommonly, down). Expensive restaurants often slap on a 10% service charge, although due to lax regulation many employers simply usurp it (ask your waiters if they receive any of it or not if you would like to tip them). There are no sales taxes in Saudi, and for that matter, there aren’t any income taxes either.
What to buy
Few local products are of interest to tourists. Locally grown dates are of high quality, and religious paraphernalia is widely available, but almost exclusively imported. Copies of the Qur’an are produced in a wide range of editions and sold at very low prices. Zam zam water is available throughout the Western Region and at all airports.
Large gold and jewelry markets are prominent in all major cities. Bargaining is a norm in most small to medium sized stores. Makkah and Madinah offer a lot of variety in terms of luggage, clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense, and religious literature, audio and paraphernalia.
Large, well maintained air-conditioned malls and grocery stores (eg Safeway, Geant, Carrefour) are scattered throughout the kingdom.
Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is very family-oriented. There are few activities for just couples or singles. Single men are not allowed in family areas: family beaches are partitioned from the bachelor beaches, for example. Women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative in public, although single women may be admitted into family areas.
Desert excursions are particularly popular with the native Arabs. There are few desert dune bashing tour operators, if any, but ATV rentals are often found along the roadside on the outskirts of major cities and expats often arrange convoy trips into the desert. The Empty Quarter has the most stunning scenery, and requires the most preparation.
Scuba diving is popular on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Jeddah has a number of dive operators.
Amusement parks (many of them indoor) are often found near malls or beaches. Many large cities have public parks and small zoos. Horseback riding, camel riding, etc. are also available at horse-racing tracks and some popular beaches. Many upscale hotels provide light activities (especially hotels along the beaches).
After more than 30 years of near-total prohibition, movie theatres have begun opening again in the kingdom. In addition, DVD shops abound, although the selections are often tame and/or censored. DVDs in Saudi Arabia are invariably Region 2, though bootleg DVDs (which are widely available in smaller video shops) are usually region-free, and often uncensored as well. Satellite TV and downloading entertainment from the Internet is thus very popular.
Video games are an eternal obsession of Saudi youth, and one which is capitalized upon rather well by local retailers. Video game shops are ubiquitous in all of the major cities. Authentic games are offered by most of the larger stores, as US or European imports for an average of ~SR270 (~US$70), while the smaller ones usually only offer bootlegs (which are illegal, but still lucrative enough that almost all sell them) at very low prices of SR10-15 ($2.5-$4). Wii and Xbox 360 bootlegs reign supreme, but certain stores offer Nintendo DS and PSP games as well, downloaded to a customer’s removable media on request.
Eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Unlike other businesses which kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants will let diners hang around and eat behind closed doors through the prayer period. New customers are generally not allowed to enter until after prayer is over.
Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and not a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere (e.g. Hardee’s, Little Caesars). Meals invariably served with fries and Coke cost SR10-20. Some local imitators worth checking out include:
- Al-Baik – fried chicken- in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Taif but not Riyadh
- Baak – Pizza (thin crust and quite good), fried chicken, lasagna, sandwiches
- Kudu. Saudi sandwich chain, founded in 1988.
- Herfy Burger. Biggest fast food chain in the country, 100% Saudi-owned.
- House of Donuts – “The Finest American Pastries” – a chain started by Saudi students who studied in America
Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia’s large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SR10. Just don’t expect frills like air-conditioning.
The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich. The Egyptian mashed fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips like hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad).
Finding restaurants that serve actual Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places or, if you’re really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home.
- Mandi — Chicken or mutton cooked with rice in a pot suspended above a fire.
Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but water pipes (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are strictly a male domain. In a government effort to minimize smoking in major cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, establishments that offer shisha are either banished to the outskirts of towns, or offer exclusive outdoor seating arrangements.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom’s malls. These usually welcome women, although 2008 saw several arrests of unmarried couples “mingling”.
As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, try mirra, made in the Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it’s strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na’ana).
As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of various fruit juices, ranging from the ordinary (apple, orange) to the downright bizarre (banana-lemon-milk-walnut, anyone?).
Non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks are popular. Two of the most common are Saudi champagne, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, i.e. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences.
Where to stay in Saudi Arabia
Hotels of all types are available throughout the Kingdom. Most tourist cities (i.e. Makkah, Madinah, Taif, Al Abha) will also have very affordable and spacious shigka-maafroosha (short-term furnished rental apartments). Shigka-maafroosha owners generally loiter in hotel lobbies. Often, they will approach civilized-looking people (generally families) and make an offer. Prices for shigka-mafrooshas and small hotels are always negotiable to a great degree. Smaller hotels will only accept cash, normally in advance.
Larger, more expensive hotels are abundant in all major cities. After the lull caused by the insurgency in 2003, prices have been rising again, and you can expect to pay north of US$200 for a weekday night at a good hotel in any of the big Saudi cities. In exchange, you usually get excellent service and the ability to work around some restrictions (e.g. restaurants that stay open through prayer hours and daytime room service during Ramadan).
Stay healthy in Saudi Arabia
There are no major health risks for traveling in Saudi Arabia: water is generally drinkable and food is usually, but not always, hygienic. No vaccinations are required for general travel to the Kingdom, but for pilgrims joining the Hajj and its extraordinary concentrations of pilgrims from all corners of the globe, a comprehensive series of vaccinations is required as a condition for entry. See the Virtual Hajj July 29, 2020 article for details.
Smoking is the one sin that has not been banned, and consequently everybody smokes everywhere: hotel lobbies, airport lounges, shopping mall food courts, drivers in their taxis, etc. If this is a problem, be sure to request non-smoking rooms in hotels.
The Kingdom has a wide-reaching national health-care system, but the services provided by this program are quite basic. Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These facilities range from fairly rudimentary to very advanced and very expensive. Pharmacies are widely available and prescriptions are not required for most medications. Psychoactive medications are tightly controlled and available only through government pharmacies.
Water in the major cities is generally considered safe, although it’s not always particularly tasty, and in the summer can be very hot. In the winter floodwater can seep into tanks, with an estimated 70% of storage in Jeddah affected by major flooding in January 2011 and some cases of dysentery reported.
Bottled water is readily available and cheap at SR2 or less for a 1.5 litre bottle, so many visitors and residents choose to play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.
There are quite a few jobs for expatriates in Saudi Arabia.
To get a working visa, you must have a Saudi sponsor. Then to get an exit visa, you need your sponsor’s signature. This can lead to major problems. ESL teachers can find work in Saudi Arabia with a Bachelor`s Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers in Saudi Arabia can expect to earn 8,000 – 13,000 SR (monthly) and will usually teach 20 – 30 hours in a week. Contracts will usually include accommodations, airfare, and health care. Preference is usually given to male teachers, and previous ESL work experience may be required.
Stay safe and avoid Scams in Saudi Arabia
Realistically speaking, the biggest danger a visitor to Saudi Arabia faces is the lethal driving: drive or pick your drivers carefully and buckle up your seatbelt.
A low-level insurgency which targets foreigners in general and Westerners in particular continues to simmer. The wave of violence in 2003-2004 has been squashed by a brutal crackdown by Saudi security forces and there have been no major attacks in the cities for several years, security remains tight and it is prudent not to draw too much attention to yourself. Foreigners should register their presence with their embassy or consulate. Emergency alert systems using e-mail and cell phone messages are maintained by many governments for their guest workers.
Four French tourists, part of a larger group that had been camping in the desert, were shot and killed by terrorists near Madain Saleh in early 2007. Due to this, mandatory police escorts — which can be an interesting experience, but can also be annoying, restrictive hassles — are sometimes provided for travel outside major cities, in areas like Abha, Najran and Madain Saleh.
While Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, a certain background level of non-violent opportunistic theft like pickpocketing and purse snatching does exist. Lock doors and keep valuables on your person.
Saudi society endeavours to keep men and women separate, but sexual harassment — leers, jeers and even being followed — is depressingly common. Raising a ruckus or simply loudly asking the harasser anta Muslim? (“are you Muslim?”) will usually suffice to scare them off. Women should keep in mind that under Saudi law, four independent male witnesses are required to testify in order for someone to be convicted of rape. Failure to produce the four male witnesses will result in the woman being found guilty of pre-marital sex or adultery (which are crimes under Saudi law) instead.
Violations of Saudi law can bring a visitor into contact with the local police and justice systems. The Saudi justice system is notoriously harsh and gives no leeway to non-Saudis, and embassies can provide only limited help in these situations. See Respect for how to stay out of trouble.
Visitors to Saudi Arabia are required to respect local conventions, in particular regarding Islam. While first-timers in Saudi Arabia are often regaled with tales of beheadings, amputations and whippings, the full harshness of Saudi law is reserved for the likes of drug smugglers. With a modicum of common sense you’ll be just fine, and should a visitor accidentally cause some minor offense, the reaction will generally be amusement rather than anger.
Law and morality
The really important rules to beware of are enshrined in written Saudi law, with criminals subject to the full strength of the infamous Saudi penal system. In addition to obvious crimes like murder (punishable by beheading) and theft (amputation of the hand for repeat offenders), acts considered serious crimes include adultery, homosexual activity and possession of alcohol or drugs.
Many (perhaps most) areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of “mingling” (khulwa, a punishable crime). Under the rules of segregation, all people are divided into three groups:
- Families. The basic unit of Saudi life, families consist of women accompanied by their mahrams (legal male guardians) — father, brother, husband, uncle, nephew — and children.
- Single men (bachelors). Men not accompanied by their families. Despite common use of the word “bachelor”, it is irrelevant whether the man is married or not; a husband will dine in the bachelor section at lunch when he is alone and in the family section at dinner when he is with his wife. It is against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a woman who is not your wife or a family member, and religious police pay particular attention to interracial couples.
- Single women. Women not accompanied by their families. This is by far the most restricted group. Most of the facilities for families will admit single women, but they are never supposed to be allowed in the men’s section, and are subject to uncomfortable stares when they are: it is against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a man who is not your husband or a family member (except a hired driver or a taxi driver). The punishment will be worse for the man than for the woman. While the man is forced to sign a written oath not to repeat the offense and may be subject to lashing or prison, women are generally “returned” to their families, with a male family member signing on her behalf. The cultural value placed on “modesty” and “honor” makes the religious police reluctant to openly “out” an offending female and they will try to sweep the problem under the carpet, unless in more “egregious” cases.
Typical examples of segregation include:
|Banks||Separate branches for men and women, but when a women’s section is not available at a branch, women are allowed in the male branch.|
|Coffeeshops||Mostly men only, although a few have family sections.|
|Hotels||Single women no longer require written permission to be allowed to check in, provided they have their own ID cards. Gyms, pools and spas are generally restricted to men only, but some female facilities are available.|
|Museums||Separate opening hours for families and men (“families” typically include single women).|
|Restaurants||Separate sections for families and men. The vast majority will allow single women into the family section.|
|Shopping malls||Allow all visitors, but often with evenings and weekends reserved for families and single women only.|
|Shops||Usually allow all visitors.|
Locals almost universally wear a thobe (white robe with sleeves) with a ghutra (headdress), but the standard dress code for foreign men in Saudi Arabia is long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. Short-sleeved shirts are unusual, although T-shirts are increasingly common among rebellious youth, while shorts are rarely seen outside the gym or beach.
Men with long hair might want to consider a cut before entering the kingdom; although shoulder-length locks can be considered reasonable, anything longer can be considered as grounds for ejection from shopping malls and public places by the muttawa.
Women, be they local or foreign, are all required to wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe. While a headscarf is optional for non-Saudi women (particularly in Jeddah and Dammam), one should at least be brought along in order to avoid possible harassment from the religious police or to be used as a means of deflecting attention from potentially aggravating men.
Saudi law prohibits women from mingling with unrelated men. Some family restaurants will go further and will not (knowingly) allow a married couple to dine together with a single man.
A woman may travel alone provided she has written permission from her mahram. They may also stay alone in hotels, although hotels may require written permission on check-in unless the woman holds an official form of ID.
While all this legally applies to foreign women as well, in practice foreign women are not restrained by their families in the way that Saudi women are, and can have considerable leeway if they choose to take it. For example, a foreign woman and her boyfriend (or even male coworker) can simply claim to be husband and wife, and thus mingle freely — although, if caught doing so, they could sometimes be subject to a short stay in jail.
A single woman accosted by the police or the muttawa and requested to come with them does not have to (and, for their own safety, should not) go with them alone: you have the right to call your mahram and have them arrive, and you should use it. However, you may be required to surrender your ID, and you may not leave until the police/muttawa allow you to.
Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Do not take pictures of any government-related building (ministries, airports, military facilities etc.) or any building that could possibly be one, or you risk being hauled off to jail for espionage. As strict Wahhabi belief prohibits making images of any living creature and Saudis place a high value on privacy, do not photograph any Saudi men without permission and do not even point your camera in the general direction of women, period. Even government publications avoid pictures of people and often resort to mosaicing out faces if they have to use one! However, photography in public places was declared legal by royal decree in 2006 unless posted otherwise or violating an individual’s desire not to be photographed.
Playing music in public is also prohibited (though this does not include playing music at a picnic in the desert for example). However, personal music players and listening to music in private is fine, and there are plenty of music shops in the country’s shopping malls if you don’t mind permanent marker over Britney’s hemline on the cover. It is not uncommon to hear young Saudis blasting the latest hip-hop music in their vehicles, at least when the muttawa are not around.
Religious items for religions other than Islam, including Bibles, crucifixes and any religious literature, are forbidden, although these days items for personal use are generally ignored. However, anything that hints of proselytism is treated very harshly, and the muttawa often bust illicit church assemblies and the like. Public observance of religions other than Islam is a crime in Saudi Arabia.
The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the Islamic declaration of faith, and desecration or any other inappropriate use of the flag is considered insulting. Public criticism of the King, the royal family or Saudi Arabia’s government is not tolerated.
Telecommunications in Saudi Arabia
The four mobile operators in Saudi, incumbent Al Jawal, Emirati rival Mobily , Kuwaiti Zain (Vodafone Network) and STC newcomer Jawwy are fiercely competitive, with good coverage (in populated areas) and good prices. A starter pack with prepaid SIM and talktime starts from about SR75, and you can sign up in most any larger mobile shop (bring your passport). Local calls are under SR0.5/minute, while calls overseas are around or less than SR2/min.
And yes, you can bring in your own phone: despite grumblings from the clerics, camera phones and multimedia messaging (MMS) are now legal.
Internet cafes abound in major Saudi cities, and many shopping malls feature a gaming parlor or two. Rates are around SR5/hour.
While Internet in Saudi Arabia is cordoned off by a filter, it aims primarily at pornography, non-Islamic religious and domestic political sites in Arabic, and (from the traveller’s point of view) is nowhere near as strict as, say, China’s. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, and all major webmail providers are accessible.
Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia might not be as strict as other countries in the Middle East. This is because social sites such as Facebook and Twitter are not banned in the country. Although Skype is also allowed, the Saudi government has banned smartphone app Viber. Prohibited sites of course include pornographic websites, and sites that contain homosexuality, illegal gambling, and criticisms against their religion and government.
Saudi Post has a good network of postal offices around the country, but offices are closed Thursday and Friday. Stamps for postcards to anywhere in the world cost SR4. The bigger problem is actually finding postcards, as the mutawwa periodically crack down on the celebration of non-Islamic holidays like Valentine’s Day, Christmas or even birthdays, causing all cards of any sort to disappear from bookstores. Your best bet is gift shops in major hotels. Mail coming in to the country from overseas is notoriously unreliable. Stories abound of things arriving months after they were sent or never arriving at all. There are branches of DHL, FedEx and UPS operating throughout the kingdom, so a good rule of thumb is to have anything important sent through those channels.