From Halal Food & Travel
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 Hajj. 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.
An Introduction to the regions of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but the traditional divisions of the country are more useful for making sense of it.
Other Muslim friendly Cities in Saudi Arabia
- 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
- Taif - 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).
Other Muslim Friendly Destinations in Saudi Arabia
- Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali) - one of the largest sand deserts on earth
- Hajj - the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
- Madain Saleh - Ruined Nabataean city similar to Petra
Saudi Arabia Halal Travel Guide
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.
What is the Geography of Saudi Arabia
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.
How is the Climate in Saudi Arabia
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 Taif 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.
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 Muslims head for dinner.
Public Holidays in Saudi Arabia
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.
Travel as a Muslim to Saudi Arabia
- "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
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.
Hajj (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.
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.
Buy a Flight ticket to and from Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has 4 international airports at Riyadh, Jeddah, Madinah, 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.
Travel on a Bus in Saudi Arabia
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.
Muslim Friendly Rail Holidays in Saudi Arabia
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.
Book a Halal Cruise or Boat Tour in Saudi Arabia
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.
How to get around in Saudi Arabia
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 Makkah and Madinah is off-limits to non-Muslims; conversely, those on Hajj 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.
Buy a Flight ticket to and from Saudi Arabia
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.
Travel on a Bus in Saudi Arabia
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.
Muslim Friendly Rail Holidays in Saudi Arabia
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, Al-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.
Best way to travel in Saudi Arabia by a Taxi
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.
Local Language in Saudi Arabia
Arabic 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, Urdu, and Bengali 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 Tagalog -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.
What to see in Saudi Arabia
- 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.
Muslim Friendly Shopping in Saudi Arabia
Money Matters & ATM's in Saudi Arabia
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 options. Money changers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere. Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by merchants.
What is the living cost in Saudi Arabia
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.
Carpets are a favorite purchase, most of these coming from nearby Iran. Jeddah in particular has lots of carpets, many brought by pilgrims who sell them there to help finance their trip to Makkah.
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.
Best things to do in Saudi Arabia
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).
Halal Restaurants in Saudi Arabia
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.
also|Middle Eastern cuisine}} 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 affordable 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.
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?).
Muslim Friendly Hotels 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).
Medical Issues in Saudi Arabia
There are no major health risks for traveling in Saudi Arabia: water is generally drinkable. 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 Hajj Travel Guide for details.
Smoking is the one sin that is not banned in Saudi Arabia, 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.
Tap 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 affordable 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.
How to work legally in Saudi Arabia
There are quite a few jobs for expatriates in Saudi Arabia. While the pay is good, foreigners often find that the strictly Muslim society and the near-total lack of employees' rights makes the country a most difficult place to work and live.
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 as a Muslim 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.
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.