Saudi Arabia



Saudi Arabia (Arabic: السعودية, as-Suʿūdīyah) is a large kingdom covering a significant portion of the Arabian peninsula.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest cities — Mecca and Medina — both of which attract Muslims from all over the world. Religious pilgrimages used to be the country's primary 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 travel destinations, if you count Muslims coming for the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage.

Saudi Arabia enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic (Sharia) law, requiring everyone, including visitors, to think, act, and behave in a way that's consistent with Islamic principles and guidelines. That being said, it appears that the government is trying to shed the country's conservative image and open up the country to the world.

You should not travel to Saudi Arabia if you are unprepared to accept strict limitations on your freedom of expression and behaviour.

Regions

[edit]

Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but here are the traditional divisions of the country.

Saudi Arabia regions - Color-coded map
  Asir
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.
  Hejaz
The birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the birthplace of Islam, and the home of trade and commerce. Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, are situated here and receive millions of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims from all over the world each year.
  Nejd
The birthplace of the House of Saud. Often regarded as the most conservative part of the country.
  North
Rarely visited, home to the Nabataean ruins of Madain Saleh.

Cities

[edit]
  • 1 Riyadh (الرياض) — the capital of and the largest city in the Kingdom
  • 2 Abha (أَبْهَا) — a summer tourist mountain resort city in the southwest near the Yemeni border
  • 3 Dhahran (الظهران) — the home of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest petroleum company
  • 4 Jeddah (جِدَّة) — a large metropolitan city on the Red Sea, known for its distinctive coral houses in the old town
  • 5 Jubail (الجبيل) — the largest industrial city in the kingdom
  • 6 Mecca (مكة) — the holiest city in Islam and commonly visited as part of the Hajj pilgrimage; off-limits to non-Muslims
  • 7 Medina (المدينة) — the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad, and the second holiest city in Islam
  • 8 Najran (نجران) — a Yemeni-influenced city with a remarkable fortress
  • 9 Ta'if (اَلطَّائِفُ‎) — the unofficial summer capital of the Kingdom

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 destinations

[edit]
  • 1 Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali) — one of the largest sand deserts on earth
  • 2 Hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
  • 3 Madain Saleh (Hegra) — Ruined Nabataean city similar to Petra

Understand

[edit]
Capital Riyadh
Currency Saudi riyal (SAR)
Population 33 million (2018)
Electricity 220 volt / 60 hertz and 230 volt / 60 hertz (BS 1363)
Country code +966
Time zone UTC+03:00, Asia/Riyadh
Emergencies 112, +966911 (emergency medical services), 999 (police), 911
Driving side right

Etymology

[edit]

Saudi Arabia is officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ( المملكة العربية السعودية, al-Mamlakah al-ʿArabīyah as-Suʿūdīyah).

The country takes its name from the House of Saud, the ruling royal family that has dominated the country's political landscape for more than three centuries.

When most of the Arabian peninsula was unified by the House of Saud, Abdulaziz bin Saud named the newly unified country "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia".

Government

[edit]

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy governed by the House of Saud.

The King of Saudi Arabia, officially known as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" since 1986, is the country's head of state and wields enormous political power. The Saudi king is the head of the House of Saud, the head of the government, the supreme commander-in-chief of the Saudi military, has the authority to appoint a Crown Prince, and can bestow state awards and honours to civilians and foreigners. All of the subsequent kings of Saudi Arabia are sons of Abdulaziz bin Saud, the kingdom's founder and first king.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the country's second-most important political position, is the designated successor to the King of Saudi Arabia and assists him with his duties.

The government of Saudi Arabia is made up of 22 government ministries.

History

[edit]

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 neighboring 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 spent the next 30 years trying 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. 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.

Economy

[edit]

Saudi Arabia is an enormously wealthy country, thanks to its massive, plentiful oil and gas reserves: wealthiest in the Middle East, with one of the largest economies in the world. It is a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), where it has a leading role, and it is a member of the G20 forum.

Saudi Arabia's oil reserves and production are managed by Saudi Aramco, a state-owned corporation that is the second-largest corporation in the world. Saudi Arabia is believed to have the second-largest oil reserves in the world, and the Saudi oil and gas sector accounts for 87% of Saudi budget revenues, 90% of export earnings, and 42% of Saudi Arabia's GDP. For these reasons, Saudi Arabia is considered an "energy superpower".

Many people have moved to Saudi Arabia in search of work opportunities. There are more than 13.4 million foreigners (40% of the total population) living and working in Saudi Arabia. The bulk of foreign workers come from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ethiopia.

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 Saudis has long been a problem successive governments have dealt with. While the situation is showing signs of improvement, Saudi Arabia's youth − 60% of Saudi people are under the age of 30 − is generally reluctant to take on menial jobs and is often forced to compete with imported labour.

Like its oil-rich neighbours, the Saudi government has been trying to reduce its dependence on oil and gas reserves. This has been accompanied by a slight easing of the country's notoriously strict interpretation of Islam and opening up the country's economy to foreign investors.

Due to its enormous oil wealth, Saudi Arabia provides its citizens with one of the world's most comprehensive welfare states despite not levying an income tax on them. This does not, however, extend to the immigrant workers, most of whom are also poorly paid.

Geography

[edit]

Saudi Arabia covers an area of 2,150,000 square kilometres (830,120 sq mi), making it the world's twelfth-largest country and the second-largest Muslim-majority country in the world. It is about the same size as Mexico and almost four times the size of France.

Terrain

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 Mecca 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 vast 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.

Climate

[edit]
The Kaaba in Mecca

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.

People

[edit]

Saudi Arabia is a relatively homogenous country, if only citizens are counted. However, about 38% of Saudi Arabia's population is comprised of foreigners, mostly poorly-paid migrant workers from Africa and other parts of Asia. Of Saudi citizens roughly 90% are ethnically Arab and the remaining 10% mostly Afro-Arabs, the descendants of sub-Saharan Africans who settled in the Arabian Peninsula and assimilated into Arab culture over the generations.

Religion

[edit]

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.

Prayer times

[edit]

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.

Holidays

[edit]

Ramadan

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.

  • 11 March – 9 April 2024 (1445 AH)
  • 1 March – 29 March 2025 (1446 AH)
  • 18 February – 19 March 2026 (1447 AH)
  • 8 February – 8 March 2027 (1448 AH)

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 10:00 will suit most visitors better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast.

Visitor information

[edit]

Talk

[edit]
See also: Arabic phrasebook

The official language of Saudi Arabia 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.

All Saudi people learn Modern Standard Arabic at school, so you should have no problems communicating in any of the major cities.

Many Saudis understand and speak English. Many road signs are in English and Arabic.

Saudi Arabia has one of the largest migrant populations in the world; you can find a speaker of almost any language in the world in Saudi Arabia. The most commonly spoken languages by migrants, in no particular order, are Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Tagalog, Malayalam, and Indonesian.

Get in

[edit]
Caution Note:

Saudi Arabia has very strict import rules. If you are unsure if what you're bringing in may offend local customs, Islamic sentiments, or both, it would be better to not bring it with you.

Saudi Arabia takes drug offences extremely seriously and the death penalty is statutory for those convicted of drug trafficking. Don't help people with their bags and make sure not to let random people put anything in your pocket. If you plan to bring prescription drugs into the country, please refer to this link.

Do not bring alcoholic beverages, pork products, non-Islamic religious materials, or pornographic materials into Saudi Arabia. They will be confiscated on sight and you may be fined or jailed.

Computers, phones, books, magazines, and electronic gadgets may be inspected by the authorities.

(Information last updated 26 Dec 2023)
Travel Warning Visa restrictions:
Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel.
Visa policy of Saudi Arabia
  Saudi Arabia
  Freedom of movement
  Visa on arrival or eVisa
  Visa required in advance
  Entry denied

Entry requirements

[edit]

Saudi Arabia used to be nearly impossible to visit except for work or pilgrimage, but tourist visas were introduced in 2019. If you are flying in and out with either Saudia or Flynas, you may also be eligible for a free 96-hour transit visa; this must be applied for directly from the flight booking site.

Citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries ― Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates ― enjoy freedom of movement in Saudi Arabia. They can enter the country with their national ID cards. Non-citizen residents of these countries (with a valid residence permit with at least three months' validity) are eligible for e-visas - note that this is not the same link as the e-visas available for citizens of certain countries mentioned below (and is often what search engines show up) - this can be confusing. 1-year multiple entry visa, 90 days stay. Note that a passport is required; unlike citizens, national ID cards cannot be used for entry.

e-Visas are available online for citizens of member states of the European Union, and of Albania, Andorra, Australia, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Canada, China (mainland), Georgia, Hong Kong, Iceland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uzbekistan. These are valid for one year and are multi-entry, with a maximum 90-day stay on any single visit. They are valid for tourism, business, receiving medical treatment and performing Umrah but not for Hajj. In 2024 these cost SR494.

Other citizens may obtain e-visas if they are long-term residents of a GCC country, the United States, the United Kingdom or any EU member state, or if they hold a valid tourist or business visa for the U.S., UK or the Schengen Area that has been used at least once.

Visa waivers are available (via the same e-portal) to the same citizens for the same purposes. These are single-entry with a maximum stay of 180 days, and cost SR150.

(Sharek was formerly a visa system to attend events such as Formula One motor-racing. But as visa waivers are practically the same thing, this system has lapsed.)

Transit visas are available to citizens of all countries except Israel, and are valid for 96 hours for the same purposes. Apply through the same e-portal, and they're granted within a couple of minutes. Expect to pay SAR 100: this visa is nominally free but includes overnight accommodation and medical insurance. It cannot be extended.

If you're not eligible for any of the above, you must apply for a visa at a Saudi diplomatic mission. Tasheer visa application centres (handled by VFS) are also available in some countries.

Visa application requirements

[edit]

If you're required to apply for a Saudi visa before travelling to the country, you usually have to submit the following documents to a Saudi diplomatic mission to apply for a Saudi visa:

  • A completed visa application form
  • A copy of your passport (must have a validity of more than six months)
  • Proof of employment
  • Proof of accommodation for your entire period of stay
  • Bank statement(s)
  • Confirmed roundtrip ticket
  • A copy of your travel itinerary

Note: You must purchase health insurance from an insurance provider in Saudi Arabia. Embassies and consulates can assist with the process.

Pilgrimage
[edit]
See also: Hajj

Hajj visas are only issued to Hajj pilgrims and are only valid within Mecca and Medina and for that season. No other type of visa allows you to perform Hajj. Many pilgrims travel in a group with a specialized travel company, but individuals can use the Nusak portal, which handles the extra documentation and bookings. This service is available to citizens of over 100 countries: check their list. Those not included have substantial long-established Muslim populations (for instance India and Pakistan) and their citizens must apply through the local governing body of Islam.

Hajj pilgrims must be immunized against meningitis, using Quad (ACYW) vaccine, not less than ten days before arrival to give it time to act, and not more than five years ago if the standard conjugate vaccine is used. You also need immunization against COVID-19, and against polio or yellow fever if coming from an affected region. Seasonal flu immunization is recommended but not compulsory.

Umrah visas allow you to visit the holy sites for pilgrimage outside the Hajj season. They are single-entry visas that permit you to stay in Saudi Arabia until 3 months after the date of issue, and like the Hajj equivalent, are only valid within Mecca and Medina. However, they are not necessary, as you can perform Umrah on a visa waiver, e-visa or regular tourist visa, which have fewer restrictions. You do need extra documentation to enter the Holy Places, at a set time. Nusak is the KSA state portal for organizing this.

By plane

[edit]

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, its low-cost subsidiary Flyadeal, and independent LCC Flynas. 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 Arabia.

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.

By bus

[edit]

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.

By car

[edit]

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.

By train

[edit]

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.

For those travelling to and from Jordan, Saudi Arabia Railway operates passenger services between Riyadh and Qurayyat, right at the border.

By boat

[edit]
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.

Get around

[edit]
Camels at the Janadriyah festival — no longer a viable means of long-distance transport

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.

By plane

[edit]

Saudi Arabia is a large country, which makes flying the only comfortable means of long-distance travel. Flag 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 SR280. Low-cost competitors Flynas and Flyadeal 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.

By bus

[edit]
A standard-issue SAPTCO bus

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 kilometres 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.

By train

[edit]
First class on a Saudi train

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 (East), Al-Hofuf and Dammam has been complemented by a new north-south line between Riyadh (North), Buraydah and Al Qurayyat near the Jordanian border, with both lines operated by Saudi Arabian Railways.

In 2018, a new high speed link, the Haramain Highspeed Railway connecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina via Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City, opened.

Online tickets are available for all services. It is advisable to buy tickets in advance as the trains are often sold out (though a waiting list option exists), but dynamic pricing doesn't seem to be used all that much.

The standard is high with all passenger services offering both second (economy) and business classes, with the former in a 2+2 layout and the latter in a 2+1 layout. All classes offer power sockets. 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. Keep in mind that unlike some other countries, buying a business class or private cabin fare does not guarantee you food or a lounge - there's two types of fares available, and only the more expensive one offers a meal and a lounge (food is otherwise buy-on-board). On the flip side, the cost for adding lounge access is relatively cheap (30 SR online or 50 SR at the station); you can expect a few hot dishes, cold sandwiches which you can take to the train, packed juices and a hot drink. Functional, but nowhere of a typical airline lounge. Lounges are available at all stations except at Abqaiq.

Wi-Fi does not appear to work in the train (from Riyadh to Dammam at least, though mobile data is mostly available throughout the line), and you can expect more noise from passengers than comparable trains in many other countries (though the engines themselves are quiet). Also, change/cancellation fares can be rather high (as a percentage) on the cheapest fare class, as only the most expensive fare class for Business offers free ticket changes. On the flip side, unless you're on the cheapest fare class, and in contrast with many other countries, you are usually eligible to get a portion of the fare back in case of a no-show (defined as a cancellation 24 hours before or after the train departs).

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 2024, a metro system is almost ready in the capital Riyadh, while systems have been proposed for Jeddah, Dammam and Medina.

By car

[edit]

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. 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. Similarly, portions of highways have little to none in lane markings.

Car rental is available and petrol 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.

By taxi

[edit]

Within cities, taxis are the only practical means of transportation. Standardised 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. Another option, easy to use, is to use an app like Uber or Careem - should be about SR 30-35/15 km in Riyadh. Many of the taxi drivers know only Arabic, though some can converse in English or Urdu.

Ride-hailing is available in Saudi Arabia and the following are the most anticipated providers:

  • Bolt. Works in Dammam, Jazan, Jeddah, Medina and Riyadh.
  • Uber. Uber covers the whole of Saudi Arabia.
  • Careem

See

[edit]

There is an abundance of things to see and explore in Saudi Arabia, from ancient ruins to stunning natural landscapes.

Museums and landmarks

[edit]
Masmak fort in Riyadh

From cultural museums to historical museums, there are plenty of opportunities for you to learn more about Saudi history, culture, and customs. As in any other country, some museums allow you to enter for free, while others do not.

One of the best known museums and sites in Saudi Arabia is Masmak Fort, which is located in Riyadh, the capital city. Built during the 14th century and the site of the Battle of Riyadh, one of the most important events in Saudi history, the fort was turned into a museum in the mid-1990s.

World heritage sites

[edit]
Mada'in Salih

Saudi Arabia has numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites.

  • 4 Madain Saleh — a large, Nabataean archaeological site in Northern Saudi Arabia. It's very similar to Petra in neighbouring Jordan, and it might perhaps be the country's best known world heritage site.
  • 5 Al-Ahsa Oasis Al-Ahsa Oasis on Wikipedia — the world's largest oasis, situated in Eastern Saudi Arabia. It has nearly 2.5 million date palms, gardens, canals, springs, historical buildings, as well as archaeological sites.
  • 6 At-Turaif District At-Turaif District on Wikipedia — the original home of the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia's first capital, situated a few kilometers away from the capital city, Riyadh. Has an impressive collection of Najdi architecture.
  • Historic Jeddah — Historic Jeddah was as a major port for Indian Ocean trade routes. To this day, Jeddah still is one of Saudi Arabia's most important trading cities.
  • 7 Rock Art in the Ha'il Region Rock Art in the Ha'il Region on Wikipedia — ancestors of the Arabs left petroglyphs and inscriptions on several rocks here about 10,000 years ago. Close to Jubbah, a city in Northern Saudi Arabia.
  • 8 Bir Hima Bir Hima Rock Petroglyphs and Inscriptions on Wikipedia — a rock art site close to Najran and the Saudi border with Yemen. Ancestors of the Arabs left inscriptions on several rocks here about 7,000 years ago.

Natural scenery and landmarks

[edit]
Jabal Sawda, of Saudi Arabia's many beautiful mountains

Saudi Arabia is more than just a barren, flat, hot desert country, as many people assume. From vast, hot, baking deserts to mesmerising jacaranda trees in settlements near the Yemeni border and to lush, green forests along the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia has a beautiful and diverse array of natural scenery.

The Empty Quarter covers an area of over 655,000 square kilometres (252,897 sq mi), covering most of the southern Arabian Peninsula. It is the largest continuous body of sand. One may be tempted to call it "no man's land", but that's not entirely accurate ― the Empty Quarter has plenty of flora and fauna, and various tribes live in the Empty Quarter. It's a great place to experience the Arabian peninsula's deserts; however, you are strongly recommended not to visit it alone.

The Asir region, which is close to Yemen, possesses numerous mountains. One of the highest mountains in the region and the country is Jabal Sawda, which is 3,015 metres (9,892 ft) above sea level. The Midian mountain range, situated in the North, is part of the larger Hijaz mountains, which extend along the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Some mountains can be easily accessed by cable cars; check beforehand if you plan to see one of Saudi Arabia's many mountains.

Beaches and islands

[edit]
The coast of the Farasan Islands. How beautiful is that?

Saudi Arabia is home to a number of islands, beaches, and coastal areas that offer a variety of natural and cultural attractions. The Red Sea has a lot to offer.

Approximately 40–50 km away from Jizan you'll find the Farasan Islands, a small group of serene, idyllic coral islands. The Farasan Islands are about 5,408 square kilometres (2,088 sq mi) large, and the Saudi Wildlife Authority has declared it as a protected area.

Another notable nature reserve is the Umm Al-Qamari Islands, located southwest of the city of Al-Qanfat. It consists of two islands: Umm Al-Qamari Al-Barani and Umm Al-Qamari Al-Fawqaniyah. Both islands have white coastal sand, impressive coral reefs, and are home to a variety of birdlife. Like the Farasan Islands, the Umm Al-Qamari Islands are considered a protected area by the Saudi Wildlife Authority.

Religious sites

[edit]
Pilgrims circling around the Kaaba in the Masjid al-Haram

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam − the Prophet Muhammad was born and raised in Mecca, and the holiest sites in Islam are domiciled in Saudi Arabia. Religious pilgrimages are the main reason why millions of people visit Saudi Arabia each year. After all, it's an obligation for every Muslim around the world to perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, if they can.

In accordance with Saudi law, non-Muslims are not permitted entry to Mecca. Don't let that discourage you, because you have plenty of opportunities to deepen your curiosity about Islam. In particular, you may now visit Medina, which was opened to non-Muslim tourists in 2021.

The country's best-known attraction is the Masjid al-Haram, also known as the Grand Mosque or the Great Mosque of Mecca. It is the holiest site in Islam and the main setting for the Hajj pilgrimage. Muslims all over the world pray facing the Kaaba ― a cube-shaped structure at the centre of the mosque, which is believed by Muslims to be the house of Allah (God).

According to Islamic tradition, the Al-Shaibi family, one of the most influential Saudi families, has been chosen by Allah (God) to protect the Kaaba. The family has held the keys to the Kaaba for nearly 16 centuries. In theory, any Muslim can enter the Kaaba, but access to it is highly restricted; unless you are a foreign dignitary, have connections in the Saudi government, or personally know someone from the Al-Shaibi family, it's highly unlikely that you'll be allowed to enter the Kaaba. It's important to consider that the Kaaba holds immense importance in Islam and it is not easy to properly maintain it.

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina is the second holiest site in Islam and the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad, often visited as an add-on the Hajj. The mosque was erected nearly 14 centuries ago, and the Prophet Muhammad was personally involved in the construction of the mosque. The mosque's most notable feature is a green-coloured dome in the southeast corner of the mosque, which stands right above the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad. Non-Muslims are not allowed entry into the mosque, but they are more than welcome to take pictures of the mosque's exterior.

In Medina, you can find mosques in every corner of the city, some of which have been around for centuries. The Quba Mosque, located on the outskirts of Medina, is believed to be the first mosque in the world.

Do

[edit]

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

[edit]

These are very popular with Saudis. 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.

The red sand dunes outside Riyadh

Scuba diving

[edit]

Scuba diving is popular on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast. Jeddah has a number of dive operators.

Amusement parks

[edit]

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).

Theatres

[edit]

After more than 30 years of near-total prohibition, movie theatres 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.

Gaming

[edit]

Saudis are fanatically obsessed with video games. The current crown prince is said to be a fan of the Call of Duty series, and the Saudi government is keen on making the country an eSports hub.

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, 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. 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.

Camel racing

[edit]

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.

Buy

[edit]

Money

[edit]

Exchange rates for Saudi riyal

As of January 2024:

  • US$1 ≈ SR3.75 (fixed)
  • €1 ≈ SR4.1
  • UK£1 ≈ SR4.7

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 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.

Visitors bringing in more than SR60,000 or equivalent must fill out a declaration form.

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 small. 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.

Costs

[edit]

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 is a 15% sales tax in Saudi, but there aren't any income taxes.

What to buy

[edit]

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 favourite 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 jewellery 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.

Eat

[edit]

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 (see Home etiquette below).

Unlike other businesses that kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants 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.

Saudi cuisine

[edit]
Kabsa is the national dish of Saudi Arabia
See also: Middle Eastern cuisine

The Middle Eastern staple of shawarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR8-10 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).

Fast food

[edit]

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 roast chicken meal
  • Al-Baik — fried chicken, in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Taif 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
  • Taza
  • 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.

Drink

[edit]

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.

Coffee shops

[edit]

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 frappuccino, 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).

Alcohol

[edit]

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.

In 2024, the Saudi government announced plans to make alcohol available to non-Muslim foreign diplomats, with the restriction that they can only be consumed within diplomatic compounds.

Soft drinks

[edit]
In Saudi, this non-alcoholic apple-flavoured Bud's for you

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 flavoured with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences.

Sleep

[edit]

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).

Learn

[edit]

Saudi Arabia has many universities and institutions of higher learning and some conduct classes in English. Knowing Arabic can open many doors for you.

Schools

[edit]

There's an abundance of international schools in Saudi Arabia.

Universities

[edit]

Work

[edit]
Migrant labourers in Medina

Saudi Arabia depends a lot on foreign labour. Simply put, Saudi Arabia has a large youth population and Saudis generally prefer to take up jobs in the public sector, i.e., the Saudi government. Most menial jobs (construction workers, taxi drivers, and so on) are taken up by migrants from low-income countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia has a high standard of living; salaries are not taxed, the cost of living is low, and it is common for well-paid expatriates to hire drivers, maids, nannies, helpers, and gardeners.

While these facts sound impressive, working in Saudi Arabia is not simple; the strict, conservative Islamic society and the lack of labour rights make the country a very difficult place to adapt to. Non-Saudis are not allowed to own land, own property in Mecca and Medina, and work in certain sectors.

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; Arab society is very tribal, and people see it as it their duty to help their kinsmen in need.

You usually cannot apply for a work visa directly; a Saudi sponsor must do it for you (unless you can afford the Premium Residency scheme). 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 people have been stuck in the country after protesting about bad treatment.

Do not surrender your passport to your sponsor; it is illegal for sponsors to ask for that. You should immediately notify the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

Teaching English

[edit]

If you have a bachelor's degree and a TESOL/TEFL certification, you can expect to earn SR8000-13000 a month teaching English.

Contractual problems are not uncommon; expatriate teachers have often complained about arbitrary dismissals, unwanted reassignments, not being allowed to leave the country, and salary arrears.

Stay safe

[edit]
Travel Warning WARNING:

Saudi Arabia's cultural and legal systems view homosexuality and transgenderism with absolute abhorrence; LGBT activities are illegal in Saudi Arabia, and they are punishable by death. If you are LGBT, you are strongly advised not to visit Saudi Arabia.

Do not criticise, insult, or engage in anything that could be construed as disrespectful to Islam, the Saudi royal family, the Saudi government, Saudi citizens, or the country in general. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its very harsh punishments, and the death penalty is statuatory for many actions that are not crimes in other parts of the world, such as adultery, criticising religion, and fornication.

Government travel advisories

Saudi Arabia is a safe country crime-wise; the country has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and you are unlikely to encounter problems.

At first, being in a fundamentalist Muslim country with very strict laws may feel scary and intimidating. As a tourist, you're not expected to know every law and rule in Saudi Arabia. So long as you respect local customs, you should be able to cope.

Although first-time visitors may be regaled with tales of various forms of capital punishment, the full harshness of Saudi law is usually reserved for those actually seeking trouble.

For rules on clothing and mingling between sexes, see Respect below. Indecent clothing and mingling between unrelated men and women are criminal offences.

Driving

[edit]

The biggest danger a visitor to Saudi Arabia faces is dangerous driving. Traffic laws and guidelines are lax and are rarely followed by the majority of Saudis.

Drugs

[edit]

The death penalty is statutory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, possessing, importing or exporting drugs. This will be mentioned on your entry card. Once you've been accused of drug trafficking, there's no fighting your way out of it.

Be vigilant of your surroundings ― you can be charged with drug trafficking if someone plants drugs in your bags.

LGBT travellers

[edit]

Like many countries in the Middle East, Saudi society views homosexuality with absolute abhorrence. Keep in mind that it is a crime to be transgender in Saudi Arabia. If that applies to you, stay away from Saudi Arabia.

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.

Blasphemy

[edit]

Saudi Arabia has some very harsh blasphemy laws.

Apostasy and atheism are offences that carry the death penalty.

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.

Publicly practising a religion other than Islam is illegal, and anything hinting at proselytism (unless it's for Islam) is taken very seriously. Also promoting an interpretation of Islam other than Wahhabism is a crime in Saudi Arabia.

In other words, keep your religious views to yourself and do not discuss religion openly.

National symbols

[edit]

The Saudi royal family is protected by strict lèse–majesté laws; insulting, criticising, or questioning them will result in legal 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 considered blasphemous and will result in legal penalties.

Women travellers

[edit]

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.

Clothing is not only about respect towards the Saudi society: indecent clothing carries a fine.

Armed conflicts

[edit]

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 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 and emergency personnel if such attacks occur.

Compounds

[edit]

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 theatres, restaurants, pools, and international schools) are non-segregated. Alcohol is still banned, as is homosexuality and certain other offenses against morality; 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.

Living within compounds is expensive compared to living off them, with prices ranging from SR100,000 to over 200,000 for a three-bedroom villa.

Stay healthy

[edit]

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

[edit]

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.

Respect

[edit]
Please, think before you act.

Saudis, North Africans, and other Middle Eastern Arabs share a common culture; therefore, what is considered good manners in the Arab world is applicable to Saudi Arabia.

The best way to stay out of trouble is to respect local conventions. 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. 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

[edit]

The really important rules to beware of are enshrined in written Saudi law, with offenders 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 apostasy, 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 the infamous muttawa (pl. mutawain), the volunteers from the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In practice, non-Muslims rarely 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 cannot implement judicial punishments; they must hand the arrested over to the police.

Sex segregation

[edit]
See also: Sex segregation
No women at the hotel gym

Previously strictly enforced, as of 2021 legal segregation is being rapidly phased out as part of the reforms being implemented by the government. However, Saudi society remains very conservative and older, traditional districts continue to separate the sexes.

The basic idea is to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of khulwa ("mingling"). Khulwa is a punishable crime, although the prohibition is usually not enforced in major cities. 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 mahram (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:

Establishment Segregation
Banks Separate branches in old and traditional districts 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.

Men

[edit]

Saudi men 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.

Women

[edit]

It is common for women to wear a niqab or 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 you are still strongly advised to cover your hair with a hijab while in public.

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

[edit]
  • 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.
  • Honor (saving face) is an important part of Saudi culture. You can be prosecuted for disparaging someone's honour, i.e., insulting, humiliating, making fun of, embarrassing, or making defamatory statements about someone in public or on social media. If you have an issue with a Saudi person, talk to them privately.
  • Saudis respect their elders. Try not to do anything that would make an older person or an authority figure feel challenged, insulted, or embarrassed. Always address an older person respectfully.
  • Saudis tend to ask people personal questions. If you feel a question is too personal, give an indirect answer or state that you don't discuss certain matters.
  • Do not presume that Saudis are "closed off" or "fundamentalists"; levels of conservatism vary across the country. Generally, younger Saudis are more progressive and open-minded than their seniors.
  • Saudis are often stereotyped as "wealthy"; perpetuating this stereotype may cause offence.
  • Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Taking pictures of Saudi people without their permission will upset them and is punishable by a SR1000 fine, and you will be asked to delete the photographs you've taken.
  • Be mindful of your personal appearance. You can be fined or prosecuted for dressing up inappropriately.
  • Saudis often use the terms "brother" and "sister" to address people, even if they do not know them personally.
  • Do not joke about women, sexuality, religion, or the country; such humour is offensive and not appreciated in Saudi Arabia.
  • Do not use swear words when conversing with people; swearing is associated with uncultured behaviour.

Behaving in public

[edit]
  • Do not skip waiting lines in public; you will be fined SR50. Repeat offenders will be fined SR100.
  • Do not play your music during prayer times; you will be fined SR500. Repeat offenders will be fined SR1000.
  • Do not dress indecently; you will be fined for doing so.
  • Do not litter in public; you will be fined SR500. Repeat offenders will be fined SR1000.
  • Do not spit in public; you will be fined SR500. Repeat offenders will be fined SR1000.

Home etiquette

[edit]

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; 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.

Miscellaneous

[edit]
  • Women are considered inviolable in Saudi Arabia, and their privacy is respected and guarded. Some Saudi men do not tell the names of their female relatives to strangers. It is unacceptable to ask a Saudi man to show pictures of his wife or female relatives (even out of innocent curiosity) and for men to enter women-only establishments. If you're a man, do not physically contact a Saudi woman, even by accident. Physical contact between a man and a woman is frowned upon unless they're related or married. For similar reasons, do not sit next to a Saudi woman.
  • While it is discussed broadly in other parts of the world, sexuality is a taboo in Saudi society. Talking about it openly might be seen as an attempt to challenge Islamic and Saudi norms and values.
  • 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 discuss religion at all; apostasy and atheism are offences which carry the death penalty.
  • During Ramadan, you should refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and chewing in public during daylight hours. Not doing so would be seen as extremely disrespectful.

Connect

[edit]

By phone

[edit]

Useful numbers

  • Police: 999
  • Car Accidents: 993
  • Ambulance: 997
  • Fire: 998
  • Phone Directory (Fees Apply): 905

The four mobile operators in Saudi Arabia, incumbent Al Jawal, Emirati rival Mobily , Kuwaiti Zain (Vodafone Network) and STC newcomer Jawwy[dead link] 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.

By net

[edit]

The internet is widely used by Saudis. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, and all major webmail providers and social media platforms are accessible in the country. 30% of the Middle East's Twitter (now known as X) 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.

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 are banned in Saudi Arabia.

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.

By mail

[edit]

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.

This country travel guide to Saudi Arabia is an outline and may need more content. It has a template, but there is not enough information present. If there are Cities and Other destinations listed, they may not all be at usable status or there may not be a valid regional structure and a "Get in" section describing all of the typical ways to get here. Please plunge forward and help it grow!