Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest cities — Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (Madinah) — both of which attract Muslims from all over the world. Religious pilgrimages used to be the country's main source of income before oil was discovered in the 1930s.
With over 16 million visitors annually, Saudi Arabia is one of the world's most popular destinations, primarily attracting tourists for the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage. Although leisure tourism is still in its infancy, visitors to Saudi Arabia have the opportunity to explore one of the most conservative nations globally, featured prominently in Islam's holy book, the Qu'ran.
The country enforces a very strict interpretation of Islamic (Sharia) law, though minor relaxations have been implemented since the late 2010s. Visitors to Saudi Arabia are generally required to comply with local customs and Islamic principles, and some areas are off-limits to non-Muslims.
You should not travel to Saudi Arabia if you are not prepared to accept strict limitations on your personal freedom, movement, and behaviour.
Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but here are the traditional divisions of the country.
Southwestern highlands with a temperate climate and strong Yemeni influence.
|Eastern Province |
Covering the Gulf coast, the center of Saudi oil production, and the heart of Saudi Arabia's Shi'a minority.
Home to Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and the home of trade and commerce. Pilgrims from all over the world flock here for either the Hajj or the Umrah.
The central highlands centered on the capital Riyadh, and the birthplace of the Saud family. Widely regarded as the most conservative part of the country.
Rarely visited, home to the Nabataean ruins of Madain Saleh.
- 1 Riyadh — the capital and "dead center" of the Kingdom
- 2 Abha — a summer tourist mountain resort city in the southwest near the Yemeni border
- 3 Dhahran — the home of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest petroleum company
- 4 Jeddah (Jiddah) — a large metropolitan city on the Red Sea, known for the distinctive traditional coral houses in its old town, and the gateway to Makkah and Madinah
- 5 Jubail — the largest industrial city in the kingdom
- 6 Mecca (Makkah) — the holiest city of Islam, off-limits to non-Muslims
- 7 Medina (Madinah) — home to the Prophet's Mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad was buried, and second holiest city in Islam
- 8 Najran — a Yemeni-influenced city with a remarkable fortress
- 9 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).
- 1 Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali) — one of the largest sand deserts on earth
- 2 Hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
- 3 Madain Saleh — a ruined Nabataean city similar to Petra
|Currency||Saudi riyal (SAR)|
|Population||33 million (2018)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 60 hertz and 230 volt / 60 hertz (BS 1363)|
|Time zone||UTC+03:00, Asia/Riyadh|
|Emergencies||112, +966911 (emergency medical services), 999 (police), 911|
|edit on Wikidata|
The first Saudi state was founded by Muhammad bin Saud Al Muqrin in 1727, in the town of Diriyah, today on the northwest outskirts of the capital Riyadh. In 1744, Muhammad bin Saud formed a political alliance with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, in which Wahhabi Islam was made the state religion, in exchange for the religious endorsement of the Saud family's right to rule by al-Wahhab and his descendants.
The Saud 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, and Saudi Arabia became a key U.S. ally in the Middle East in 1933. Saudi Arabia's oil wealth was instrumental to the Allied victory in World War II, as the Saudis were able to keep the American military well-stocked with fuel. 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 soil 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.
Relations with neighboring Iran have been tense ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, due in part to historical tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, with Saudi Arabia often seen as the unofficial leader of the Sunni world, and Iran often seen as the unofficial leader of the Shia world. Both countries have often supported opposing sides in various proxy wars in the Middle East, most notably in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and relations had been especially tense since the Saudi government executed a prominent Shia cleric in 2016, and Iranian protesters responded by storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
After decades of stagnation under ossified octogenarian kings, the Saudi political scene underwent an earthquake in 2017 when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, universally known as MBS and only 32 years old at the time, became the country's de facto ruler and started shaking things up. On one hand, societal mores loosened up with the religious police put on a tight leash, women allowed to drive, cinemas allowed to open and tourist visas now granted easily. On the other hand, repression of political opponents has tightened with billions extracted from various oligarchs, critics sentenced to years in jail and, most notoriously, journalist Jamal Khashoggi assassinated and dismembered with a bone saw. Oil wealth has been plowed into megaprojects like Neom. MBS has also pivoted Saudi Arabia's foreign relations away from the United States, its traditional ally, towards China, and invited Chinese investment in numerous infrastructure projects as part of their Belt and Road Initiative. It remains to be seen how far he can continue to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy away from oil before the oil money inevitably runs out.
In 2023, Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Iran in a landmark deal brokered by China. This rapprochement has raised hopes that the numerous proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East may soon be coming to an end.
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. 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.
The government has been trying to diversify the economy away from oil since the late 2010s. This has been accompanied by a slight easing of the country's notoriously strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law), and the introduction of tourist visas (foreigners could previously only visit for work or pilgrimage).
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 plateau 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 crisscrossed 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 plateau 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/107 °F and regularly exceed 50 °C/122 °F in the shade. In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country do so and work slows down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38 °C/100 °F, 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/95 °F and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet.
In winter, though, it's surprisingly different. Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 21 °C/70 °F, 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.
Saudi Arabia is a relatively homogenous country, with roughly 90% of Saudi citizens being ethnically Arab, and the remaining 10% being Afro-Arabs, the descendants of sub-Saharan Africans who settled in the Arabian Peninsula and assimilated into Arab culture over the generations. However, about 38% of Saudi Arabia's population is comprised of foreigners, mostly poorly-paid migrant workers from Africa and other parts of Asia.
Sunni 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. While most Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims, there is a Shi'a Muslim minority comprising about 10-15% of the Saudi population, with the highest concentration of them in the Eastern Province.
There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia of any kind. However, some Filipino workers report the presence of churches inside some gated communities. The small number of Saudi Arabian Christians meet in Internet chat rooms, and foreign Christians may meet at church meetings held at one of several embassies after registering and showing their passport, to prove foreign nationality, or by private assemblies in school gyms in gated communities on Aramco grounds. They can also hold services in each other's houses. Although the niqab is the norm for Saudi women, women from outside the country are allowed to wear a hijab.
Everything in Saudi Arabia is regulated by the five daily prayers. All shops and offices used to close during each prayer for a period of at least 20–30 minutes, but this has changed in the 2000s, and most shops will remain open. Shopping malls, hospitals and airports do stay open 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 ¾–1 hr 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, or consult an on-line prayer time service.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
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, and 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. Hotel restaurants often serve lavish iftar meals that are a popular way for locals to socialise, and non-Muslims are welcome to partake too, but make sure you reserve in advance due to their popularity. 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.
- See also: Arabic phrasebook
The official language of the kingdom is Arabic.
Najdi Arabic is the most widely known vernacular and it is spoken in the central and northern parts of the country.
Hejazi Arabic is spoken in the western part of the country.
Gulf Arabic is spoken in the eastern part of the country.
If you don't know any of these dialects, do not despair; all Saudi people learn Modern Standard Arabic at school, so you should have no problems communicating in any of the major cities.
Many people understand and speak English, so you should not have any problems getting around using only English. Nearly all road signs are in English and Arabic.
- "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 a reputation for being a challenging country to visit, but it has gradually eased its visa policy since the late 2010s. In accordance with Saudi law, visas are required for most foreigners desiring to enter the country.
Nationals of Israel will be denied entry, although merely being Jewish is not a disqualifying factor.
The long-awaited tourist visas were introduced in 2019. The tourist visa is valid for 90 days. Citizens of the following countries can obtain e-visas online for a fee prior to arrival or on arrival to Saudi Arabia: member states of the European Union, Andorra, Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Iceland, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, San Marino, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States. The visa fee is SR535 for e-visas and SR480 for visas on arrival (2022). E-visas include full health insurance for the duration of your stay in Saudi Arabia. Visitors are not allowed to perform the Hajj on a tourist visa; a separate Hajj visa (see below) is required for that. However, performing Umrah (minor pilgrimage) on a tourist visa is allowed outside the Hajj season.
Those not listed must apply at an embassy or consulate and provide additional documentation: proof of accommodation, proof of employment, proof of a return ticket, and a bank statement. In all cases your passport must have at least 6 months' validity remaining when you enter the country (except for US citizens, who are still allowed up to six months after the passport's expiration date).
Another easy way to get into the country is to get an international events visa from Sharek[dead link] (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. The procedure for applying for a Hajj visa differs significantly between countries; in some countries you can apply directly with the Saudi government, while in others you'll need to go through the local governing body for Islam.
Many 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.
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 Roman solar months but Arab 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, 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.
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. 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. The country is however once again investing massively in railways and a network connecting Saudi Arabia with other Gulf states are expected to become operational sometime in the 2030s.
- See also: Ferries in the Red Sea
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 Arabia, most of the country is your oyster. There are, however, some exceptions:
- The area around Mecca is off limits to non-Muslims; the exclusion zone is well signposted. The city center of Medina used to be off-limits to non-Muslims, but the rules were relaxed in 2021; outside of Hajj season, non-Muslims may now enter the city center of Medina up to the perimeter fence around the Prophet's Mosque and take photos from the outside, though entry into the mosque compound is still forbidden.
- Those on Hajj visas are prohibited from leaving the area around Mecca and Medina (and transit points like Jeddah).
- 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, Al-Hofuf and Dammam has been complemented by a new north-south line between Riyadh, Buraydah and Al Qurayyat near the Jordanian border, with both lines operated by Saudi Arabian Railways.
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 Riyadh 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.
Saudi Arabia's only operational metro system is in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, with a single line for transporting pilgrims between the various holy sites. As of 2023, a metro system is under construction in the capital Riyadh, while systems have been proposed for Jeddah, Dammam and Medina.
Highway quality is highly variable, except highways that connect major cities, which are generally excellent. The speed limits are usually either 120 km/h or 140 km/h, with a 10 and 4 km/h buffer respectively. Note that at night, some major highways are not streetlit, and hence driving may be challenging to those not used to night driving, as the only light you'll have would be from the cars and trucks themselves. Use a navigation system; it is not uncommon for road signs to be only in Arabic. Driving during the day is recommended. As with other countries, there are gas stations every 30 km or so.
It is uncommon for people to use the indicator (blinker) when changing lanes. In cities, note that (at least in Riyadh) you can go right at a traffic signal showing red ahead, but must stop and check for traffic before doing so.
Car rental is available and gasoline is some of the cheapest in the world. 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. 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.
Women have only been allowed to drive on public roads in Saudi Arabia since 2018.
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.
Ride-hailing is available in Saudi Arabia and the following are the most anticipated providers:
- 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 all of Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
- There are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. They include the Al-Hijr Archaeological Site at Madain Saleh 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.
Exchange rates for Saudi riyal
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
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. Coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 halalas, 1 and 2 riyals.
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 (e.g. 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.
This is 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 theaters have begun opening again in the kingdom, most popular being VOX Cinemas and AMC Cinemas. 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. The current crown prince is said to be an avid gamer and the government is very interested in investing in eSports.
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.
Saudi Arabia is the origin of camel racing, a sporting event, which remains a fundamental part of Bedouin lifestyle and is one of the most popular traditional pastimes in the world.
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.
Because Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country, pork is definitely taboo. Anyone who brings pork or eats it in the kingdom will be punished with fines and a jail sentence.
Like in other Middle Eastern countries, food is traditionally eaten by hand in Saudi Arabia. The most important thing to remember is to use only your right hand, as the left hand is reserved for handling dirty things.
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, Ta'if and 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.
- Hamburgini. Popular Saudi-owned Burger chain.
- House of Donuts - "The Finest American Pastries" - a chain started by Saudi students who studied in America
- Abo Zaed saudi traditional food
- Jan Burger
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.
- See also: Middle Eastern cuisine
The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 8-10 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. Most popular in the south near the Yemeni border.
- Kabsa — the national dish of Saudi Arabia, made with basmati rice, meat, vegetables and spices.
Like other Middle Easterners, Saudis love their desserts, with the baklava being an essential part of iftar meals during Ramadan. Like in the other countries of the Arabian peninsula, dates are traditionally grown in Saudi Arabia, and often served to guests at a majlis (traditional Arab gathering).
With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated people of the opposite sex all banned, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.
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. Usually 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).
Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside expat compounds, where homebrew wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling booze in quantity, then expat or not, Saudi law applies. A foreigner may not get the sentence a local would, but can expect a few days or weeks jail, public flogging, and deportation.
There is a local white lightning known among foreigners as "siddiqui" (Arabic for friend) or just as "sid". This is generally horrible-tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is a risk of inexpert distilling making it downright poisonous. The stuff is emphatically to be avoided.
Do not drink and drive is good advice anywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident, or otherwise attract police attention, the consequences might be serious indeed.
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.
Hotels of all types are available throughout the Kingdom. Most tourist cities (i.e. Makkah, Madinah, Ta'if, 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).
Work tends to pay quite well in Saudi Arabia. Salaries are not taxed, the standard of living is high, the cost of living is low (you can easily rent an apartment for $300-600/month in Riyadh), and it is very common for expats to hire drivers, maids, nannies, helpers, and gardeners.
While this all sounds impressive, the strict Islamic society and the lack of labour rights make the country a very difficult place to adapt to.
Nepotism is common in the business world and it's not unusual for Saudis to hire their close friends and family members. Saudis do not consider this an unfair practice; rather, they consider it respectful to help others in need.
As is the case throughout the Arabian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is highly dependent on foreign labour. Many companies in the country are reluctant to hire Saudi nationals because they are often regarded as "lazy". The reality is that Saudis are reputation conscious and are generally reluctant to take up jobs that do not give them a good standing in society.
You usually cannot apply for a work visa directly; a Saudi sponsor must do it for you. To exit the country, you need to get an exit visa and this can only be obtained once you have permission from your sponsor. Although most sponsors are reasonable, there are some who may abuse their position, and there are stories about people who have been stuck in the country after protesting about bad treatment.
Rich individuals may apply for a scheme known as Premium Residency, allowing work in Saudi Arabia without a Saudi sponsor. In addition, individuals who qualify for the scheme may own real estate in the country, are entitled to various benefits and privileges, and do not require an exit visa to leave the country. This scheme offers two routes: Unlimited Duration (requires a one-time payment of SR800,000) and Limited Duration (requires you to pay SR100,000 yearly).
If you have a bachelor's degree and a TESOL certification, you can expect to earn SR8,000–13,000 a month. Preference is more towards male teachers, and previous ESL work experience may be required.
Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, owing to a notoriously harsh justice system. The system gives no leeway to non-Saudis, and embassies can provide only limited help in these situations. Saudi Arabia is considered by many to have one of the worst human rights records in the world. You need to watch what you say and do, always. As the saying goes, "If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all."
The biggest danger a visitor to Saudi Arabia faces is dangerous driving. Drivers typically tend to attack their art with an equal mix of aggressiveness and incompetence. Traffic laws and guidelines are lax and are rarely followed by the majority of Saudis.
The Saudi penal code penalises illegal substances severely. Convicted offenders can expect to be treated with no level of leniency.
If you secure employment in Saudi Arabia, you cannot leave the country or change jobs without permission from your sponsor. Although most sponsors are reasonable, there have been cases of sponsors mistreating foreign workers, confiscating passports of foreign workers, and refusing to let foreign workers leave the country.
Contractual problems are not uncommon; expatriate teachers have often complained about arbitary dismissals, unwanted reassignments, not being allowed to leave the country, and salary arrears.
If your sponsor has asked you to surrender your passport, do not do it; it is illegal for sponsors to do that. You should immediately notify the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.
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.
If you are married to a Saudi national, you are subject to Saudi marital laws and the mahram system.
- You and your children (if you have any) cannot leave the country or do just about anything (i.e. perform the Hajj, open a bank account, etc.) unless your husband or guardian approves. This system of guardianship can make it impossible for you, as a grown adult, to exercise control over your own life.
- In the unfortunate event that your Saudi spouse dies, someone else ends up becoming your mahram. This could be e.g. your son or brother.
- If you divorce a Saudi national, it is next-to impossible to leave the country with any children that were born during the marriage, even if you've been granted custody of them. Saudi courts rarely grant this privilege unless there's a compelling reason to do so. Divorces that have taken place in other countries are not recognised by Saudi Arabia.
- If your children visit your (former) husband from abroad, they will not be allowed to leave unless he approves. If you had the misfortune of being married to an abusive spouse and are not prepared to deal with the prospect of never seeing your children again, encourage them to not go in the first place.
The legal and cultural abhorrence against the LGBT community is far-reaching in Saudi Arabia. LGBT activities are illegal in Saudi Arabia, and they are punishable by death. If you fit in this category, it would be better to not visit Saudi Arabia at all.
A low-level insurgency which targets foreigners in general and Westerners in particular continues to simmer. The wave of violence in 2003–2004 was 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.
Due to Saudi Arabia's involvement in the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, there are occasional ballistic missile attacks against major Saudi cities and infrastructure. Follow the instructions of civil defense/emergency personnel if such attacks occur.
Compounds (officially called residential camps) are gated communities within a city or town designed and designated for expats (specifically westerners). Most are owned by either the Saudi oil giant Saudi Aramco or the US security giant Vinnell. Only foreigners are allowed to live in them. Any expat wishing to visit or live in a compound will immediately notice the difference in social norms and freedoms. While inside compounds, women are allowed to mingle with unrelated men. Inside compounds, all public places (including movie theaters, restaurants, pools, and international schools) aren't segregated. Alcohol is still banned; however, many expats home brew their own, and police usually turn a blind eye to this.
Security in all compounds is different than outside them. The regular and religious police are non-existent, and the Saudi National Guard patrols inside and around the outside of the compounds. Anyone, foreigner or not, who wishes to enter or exit a compound must have their ID with them, as well as be prepared to have their car and possessions inspected. Anyone who lives in the particular compound doesn't go through the checks, unlike those who don't live in the compound. Sneaking into a compound isn't the best idea to do: all compounds are walled in and surrounded by barbed wire and security cameras on the outside. The Saudi military acts as the official police of the compounds; they are heavily armed with automatic rifles and machine guns, and are ordered to shoot anyone attempting to illegally enter a compound.
However, living within compounds is expensive compared to living off them, with prices ranging from SAR100,000 to over 200,000 for a three bedroom villa.
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 Hajj article for details.
Smoking is the one sin that clerics haven't got around to banning yet, 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 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.
The best way to stay out of trouble is to respect local conventions. Although first-time visitors may be regaled with tales of various forms of capital punishment, the full harshness of Saudi law is reserved for criminals and repeat offenders. Should you accidentally cause offense, don't panic, because you are not expected to know every cultural nuance. With a modicum of common sense and respect, you will be fine. Remember the golden rule: If you don't know about something, just ask. People will be more than happy to explain.
As aforementioned, if you're not prepared to accept strict limitations on your behaviour and movement, you should not travel to Saudi Arabia. Travelling to Saudi Arabia is not for everyone.
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.
In practice, though, most visitors will be primarily concerned with the code of morality, involving things like not observing fasting times in public places during Ramadan, etc. These rules are enforced by the police now, instead of infamous muttawa (pl. mutawain), the volunteers from the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In practice, it is highly unlikely for non-Muslims to encounter any muttawa, as they are present mainly in old and traditional local districts. The muttawa no longer have the power to detain the suspects of un-Islamic conduct and they must hand detainee over to the police, and cannot implement judicial punishments.
Segregation by sex is practised in old and traditional districts to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of khulwa ("mingling"). Khulwa is 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 for a man to be accompanied anywhere by a woman who is not his wife or a family member.
- Single women. Women not accompanied by their families. Most of the facilities for families will admit single women, but they are not supposed to be allowed in the men's section. It is against the law for a woman to be accompanied anywhere by a man who is not her husband or a family member (except a hired driver or a taxi driver), but it is rarely enforced (particularly on foreigners) nowadays.
Typical examples of segregation include:
|Banks||Branch in old and traditional district only. Separate sections for men and women in same branch, but when a women's section is not available at a branch, women are allowed in the male branch.|
|Coffeeshops||Usually allow all visitors.|
|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||Usually allow all visitors.|
|Restaurants||Separate sections for families and men for the street side restaurants. Restaurants in new shopping malls are no longer practicing segregation.|
|Shopping malls||Usually allow all visitors.|
|Shops||Usually allow all visitors.|
As of 2021, there are signs that segregation is being phased out as part of the reforms being implemented by the government, as most restaurants nowadays are mixed and do not have separate seating areas for both sexes.
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. 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.
Homosexuality carries a punishment of death by stoning. It is common for Saudi men to walk hand in hand with brothers or close friends, as a sign of their friendship, but it would be unwise for foreign men to attempt the same. Sharing a hotel room as a way of cutting costs is normal, but don't even think about asking for one bed for two. Homosexuality still happens, only discreetly, and it's not uncommon for a foreign man to be approached by an amorous, young unmarried Saudi.
It is common for women to wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe, although this is no longer legally required. Women are not required to and increasingly commonly do not cover their face in public places, though they are still strongly advised to cover their hair with a hijab while in public.
Saudi law prohibits women from mingling with unrelated men but this is not usually enforced in major cities.
A woman can travel alone without any written permission from anyone. 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.
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 allow you to.
Social etiquette and breaches
- Saudis are indirect communicators. They are tempered by the need to save face and they will avoid saying anything that could be construed as judgemental or negative. One's point is expressed in a roundabout way.
- As is the case throughout the Middle East and North Africa, honour is an important part of Saudi culture and you can be prosecuted or deported for disparaging someone's honour, i.e, insulting, humiliating, making fun of, embarassing, or making defamatory statements about someone in public.
- Saudis respect their elders. You are expected to act politely around someone older than you, and it would be seen as rude manners if you attempt to challenge someone older than you. If you come across someone who is older than you, give up your seat on public transportation for them. If you're waiting for a taxi, allow someone older to take your spot. If you're in a business meeting, stand up to greet the senior person.
- Direct personal questions are commonly asked. It's completely normal for Saudis to ask about your lifestyle, and should not be taken in a negative light. If you feel a question is too personal, simply give an indirect answer or state that you don't discuss certain matters.
- Do not presume that Saudis are "closed off" or "fundamentalists"; it is very rude. Levels of conservatism vary across the country and many Saudis have been exposed to different lifestyles.
- Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Do not take pictures of anything of strategic importance (government buildings, airports, etc) or else you could be arrested by the authorities. Saudis place a high value on personal privacy and they will react with anger if you take their picture/record them without their permission. Also, do not point your camera in the direction of a woman.
Hospitality is highly valued in Saudi culture and the Saudis will go to great lengths to ensure that you feel welcome. The following tips will come in handy.
- If you've been invited to an Saudi home, do not show up empty-handed. Saudis almost always bring gifts for friends and family when they travel. Bring your hosts a small gift as a form of respect. Simple gifts will suffice. Very expensive or extravagant gifts might embarrass your host. Gifts with romantic connotations (e.g. flowers) won't be well received.
- It's considered unacceptable for a man to give an individual woman a gift, and vice versa.
- Don't gift gold items or silk; those materials are against local interpretations of Islamic customs. Silver would be a better choice.
- You'll often be encouraged by your hosts to take second helpings ad infinitum. If so, take it as a form of respect as it may leave a good impression on your hosts.
- Sample everything on the table; not doing so will offend your host(s) and could get them to believe that you do not appreciate their hospitality or that the food was bad.
- Do not speak badly of or criticize Saudi cuisine; Saudis are proud of their food and they strive to leave a lasting impression on guests and visitors. Criticisms or suggestions for improvement are not appreciated.
- Don't eat unless you've been told to eat; it is very rude manners. As a general rule of thumb, the oldest person usually starts eating first.
- Utensils are not used when eating. People tend to eat with their right hands. The left hand is considered unclean.
- Saudis generally prefer to socialize and mingle before a meal. Once a meal has been finished, people leave.
Things to avoid
Saudis will understand that you are not fully aware of what's considered appropriate/inappropriate in their country, and they will usually be tolerant of your blunders. This said, there are some things which will be met with disapproval and you should avoid doing the following during your stay in the country.
- Criticism of the Saudi royal family or the government is unacceptable in any way, shape, or form. This carries heavy penalties.
- The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the Islamic declaration of faith. Because of this, the flag is rarely printed on shirts or other items. Inappropriately using the flag (even flying it at half-mast) is tantamount to blasphemy in Saudi Arabia and is a punishable offence. If you're a flag collector and are thinking of adding a Saudi flag to your collection, be sure to always treat it well. The flag is an important representation of Saudi nationality and Islam, and is widely respected.
- This is a fundamentalist Islamic country, which means Saudi Arabia has some very harsh blasphemy laws. You can very easily elicit strong responses by speaking negatively about religion, especially from an agnostic point of view. It would be wise to not have a discussion about religion at all; apostasy and atheism are offences which carry the death penalty. In 2016, a young man was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for criticising Islam on Twitter.
- 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. Public observance of religions other than Islam is a crime in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, promoting an interpretation of Islam other than Wahhabism is a crime in Saudi Arabia.
- During Ramadan, you should refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and chewing in public. Not doing so would be seen as extremely disrespectful.
The four mobile operators in Saudi Arabia, 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.
The internet is widely used by Saudis. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, and all major webmail providers and social media platforms are accessible in the country. You would be surprised to find out that 30% of the Middle East's Twitter users are from Saudi Arabia.
Although that sounds impressive, the Saudi authorities regularly monitor websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. It's strongly recommended to eschew from saying anything negative about the country or portraying the country in a negative light during your stay.
The following kinds of websites are blocked in Saudi Arabia: pornographic websites, websites critical of the Saudi government and the country, websites critical of Islam, human rights websites, websites promoting religions other than Islam, LGBT websites, gambling websites, dirty humour websites, and websites promoting Israel.
It is illegal to operate a blog, forum, an online news outlet, or a chat room without a special license from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information. If you operate either one of these, exercise restraint.
Saudi Post[dead link] has a good network of post 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.