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Saudi Arabia travel guide - Travel S helper

Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia, formally known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is a Western Asian Arab kingdom that occupies the majority of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is the fifth-largest state in Asia and the second-largest in the Arab world after Algeria, with a land area of about 2,150,000 km2 (830,000 sq mi). Saudi Arabia is bounded to the north by Jordan and Iraq, to the northeast by Kuwait, to the east by Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, to the southeast by Oman, and to the south by Yemen. The Gulf of Aqaba separates it from Israel and Egypt. It is the only country having both a Red Sea and a Persian Gulf shoreline, and the majority of its topography is dry, harsh desert or desolate landforms. Saudi Arabia is the home of Arabs and Islam, and is often referred to as “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” in reference to the two holiest sites in Islam, Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (in Medina). In Saudi Arabia, Arabic is the only official language.

Historically, Saudi Arabia was divided into four different regions: Hejaz, Najd, and portions of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and Southern Arabia (‘Asir). Ibn Saud established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Through a series of victories that began in 1902 with the acquisition of Riyadh, the ancestral seat of his family, the House of Saud, he unified the four territories into a single state. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been an absolute monarchy, essentially a hereditary dictatorship ruled by Islamic principles. The Kingdom has a total population of 28.7 million people, including 20 million Saudis and 8 million foreigners.

Petroleum was found in 1938, and it was followed by many additional discoveries, mostly in the Eastern Province. Since then, Saudi Arabia has grown to become the world’s biggest oil producer and exporter, with the world’s second largest oil reserves and sixth greatest gas reserves. The kingdom is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank, with a high Human Development Index, and is the only Arab nation to be a member of the G-20 major economies. However, Saudi Arabia’s economy is the least diverse in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with no major service or manufacturing sectors (apart from the extraction of resources). Saudi Arabia, a monarchical monarchy, has the world’s fourth highest military spending, and SIPRI reported that Saudi Arabia was the world’s second biggest weapons importer in 2010–14. Saudi Arabia is regarded as a regional and middle-power power. It is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and OPEC, in addition to the GCC.

Geography of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia covers about four-fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau that gradually slopes eastward until it reaches sea level in the Persian Gulf.

The Sarawat or Sarat mountains run parallel to the Red Sea coast, starting near the Jordanian border and reaching the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in altitude in the south. It consists mainly of barren volcanic rocks, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but is also interspersed with old lava fields and fertile valleys. As you move further south towards Yemen, the dry landscape gradually gives way to lush green mountains and even forests, due to the fact that the monsoon is within reach. In Saudi Arabia, the area is commonly known as Hejaz, although the southernmost part of the area is known as ‘Aseer’. At the foot of Hejaz is the holy city of Mecca and about 400 km north of Mecca, in an oasis between two large lava fields, is the other holy city of Medina.

To the west of Sarawat or Hejaz Mountains lies a small coastal plateau that is known as the Tihama, which is the location of the second largest city in the country called Jidda.

To the east of Hejaz is the Najd plateau, a thinly settled part of desert steppe characterized by small volcanic mountains. East of Najd is the Tuwaig steep bank, a narrow plateau that stretches 800 km from north to south. The upper layer consists of limestone and the lower layer of sandstone. The Tuwaig Mountains and its immediate surroundings are historically rich in fresh groundwater and are crossed by numerous dry river beds (wadis). They are littered with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, embedded between a group of wadis, is the capital Ar-Riyadh.

Further east of the Tuwaig Plateau and parallel to it is a narrow corridor (20-100 km) of red sand dunes known as the Dahana Desert, which separates the “Central Region” or “Najd”. of the eastern province. The strong presence of iron oxides gives the sand its characteristic red appearance. Dahana Desert links two large “seas” of sandy dunes. The north is known as Nufuud, about the size of the Upper Lake, and the south is known as the “Empty Quarter”, so called because it covers a quarter of the peninsula. Although essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three “sand seas” are excellent pastures in spring, but even Bedouins have hardly ever tried to cross the empty quarter.

North of the Nufud Desert is a vast desert steppe, traditionally inhabited mainly by nomadic Bedouins, with the exception of some oases such as Al-Jof. This area is an adjacency of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts . After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can produce lush meadows and rich pastures.

The eastern province is largely barren, except that it contains two oases, which come from old fossil water sources. Al-Qateef’s oases are located on the Gulf Coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) is located further inland. Next to Qatif is the modern metropolitan region of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.

Demographics of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s population in July 2013 was 26.9 million, of which between 5.5 million and 10 million are non-nationalized immigrants, though the population of Saudi Arabia has been difficult to estimate due to the historical tendency of Saudi officials to artificially increase the census. Since 1950, when it was estimated at approximately 3 million, the population of Saudi Arabia has increased rapidly and for many years maintained one of the highest birth rates in the world at about 3% per year.

Ethnically, 90% of Saudi nationals are Arab and the remaining 10% are Afro-Asian. The majority of Saudis live in Hejaz (35%), Najd (28%) as well as the Eastern Province (15%). Hejaz is the most populous region in Saudi Arabia.

In 1970, the majority of Saudis was still living in the rural provinces, however in the last quarter of the 20th century the kingdom has been rapidly urbanized. As of 2012, about 80 percent of the Saudis will live in urban agglomerations – especially in Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam.

The population is also quite young, with over half of the population under 25 years of age. A large proportion are foreigners. ( According to the CIA Factbook, in 2013 foreigners living in Saudi Arabia accounted for approximately 21% of the Saudi population).

Other estimates assume 30% or 33%).

In the early 1960s, the slave population in Saudi Arabia was estimated at 300,000. Slavery was officially abolished in 1962.

Religion in Saudi Arabia

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law explicitly stipulates that Saudi citizens or passport holders must be Muslims, public adherence to and proselytism of religions other than Islam is prohibited, and it is illegal to display non-Koranic written forms in public.

There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia. However, some Filipino workers report the presence of churches in some closed communities. Small numbers of Saudi- Arab Christians gather in Internet chat rooms, while foreign Christians can gather for Aramco purposes after having registered and provided their passports to prove they have foreign citizenship, or in private meetings organized in closed communities in one of several embassies. They can also hold services in each other’s homes. Although the niqab is the norm for Saudi women, Muslim women from outside the country may wear a hijab.

In Saudi Arabia, everything is determined by the 5 daily prayers. During each prayer, all of the stores and offices are closed for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes, and the religious police are patrolling the streets and loitering around the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports remain open (but all stores in the malls are closed), and cabs and other public transportation continue to operate normally.

The first prayer is Fajr, early in the morning before the first light of dawn, and the call to prayer for Fajr will be your wake-up call to the Kingdom. After fajr, some people have breakfast and go to work, with stores opening.

The second prayer is the Dhuhr, which takes place in the middle of the day after noon. The Friday prayer (Jummah) is the most important of the week, when even less attentive Muslims usually make an effort to go to the mosque. After the Dhuhr, people go to lunch, while many stores prefer to stay closed and sleep off the heat of the day.

Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (one and a half to two hours before sunset), and many stores reopen after that. While Maghrib prayers are held at sunset, they also mark the end of the working day in most of the private sector. The last prayer is Isha’a, which is held about 45 minutes to 1 hour after sunset. Afterwards the locals go out for dinner. Expats refer to the time between Maghriband Isha’a as a “prayer window”, where you can go to the supermarket and buy your food when you have the right time.

Prayer times change daily depending on the season and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the times of day in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a convenient online prayer time service.

Foreigners in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian Central Ministry of Statistics and Information estimated the foreign population at 33% (10.1 million) at the end of 2014. According to the CIA Factbook, in 2013 foreigners living in Saudi Arabia represented approximately 21% of the population. Other sources report different estimates. Indians: 1.3 million, Pakistanis: 1.5 million, Egyptians: 900,000, Yemenis: 800,000, Bangladeshis: 500,000, Philippians: 500,000, Jordanians / Palestinians: 260,000, Indonesians: 250,000, Sri Lanka: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrians: 100,000 and Turks : 100,000. There are approximately 100,000 Westerners living in Saudi Arabia, most of which live in buildings or closed communities.

Foreign Muslims who have lived in the Kingdom for ten years can apply for Saudi citizenship. (Holders of degrees in various scientific fields have priority, and exceptions are made for Palestinians who are excluded due to instructions from the Arab League, which denies Arab states the right to grant citizenship unless they are married to a Saudi national). Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is non-signatory of the 1951 UN Treaty on Refugees.

Since the Saudi population is constantly growing while oil export revenues are stagnating, there is increasing pressure for “Saudization” ( replacement of foreign workers by Saudis) so the Saudi authorities are hoping to decrease the number of foreigners in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 and erected a Saudi Yemen barrier against the influx of illegal immigrants and against the smuggling of drugs and weapons. Saudi Arabia expelled several thousand illegal Ethiopian residents from the Kingdom in November 2013. Various human rights organizations have criticized Saudi Arabia’s handling of the problem. Since 2013, over 500,000 undocumented migrant workers – mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen – have been arrested and deported.

Human rights in Saudi Arabia

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to condemn not only the Saudi criminal justice system but also the severity of its punishments. Saudi Arabia has no judicial system, and the courts observe only a few formalities. Human Rights Watch noted in a 2008 report that a code of criminal procedure was first introduced in 2002, but it did not provide basic protection and was routinely ignored by judges. Those arrested are often not informed about the crime they are accused of or are given access to a lawyer. They are abused and tortured if they do not confess. There is a presumption of guilt at trial and the accused is often unable to examine witnesses and evidence or present a legal defense. Most trials are kept secret. One example of a conviction is that the 74-year-old British pensioner and cancer victim Karl Andree had 360 lashes for drinking at home. He was later released due to an intervention of the British government.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is broadly criticized by many to have perhaps one of the worst human rights records in the world. Among the most criticized human rights issues are the extremely disadvantaged position of women, the death penalty for homosexuality, religious discrimination, lack of religious freedom and the activities of the religious police (see religion below). From 1996 to 2000 Saudi Arabia signed up to four UN human rights conventions, while in 2004 the government allowed the establishment of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), an organisation staffed by government officials to monitor its implementation. So far, NSHR’s activities have been limited, and doubts remain about its neutrality and independence.

Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries in the world that does not accept the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to ongoing criticism of its human rights record, the Saudi government points to the country’s particular Islamic character and claims that this justifies a different social and political order. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom has failed to encourage President Barack Obama to raise human rights concerns with King Abdullah during his visit to the Kingdom in March 2014, especially in regard to the imprisonment of Sultan Hamid Marzooq al-Enezi, Saud Falih Awad al-Enezi and Raif Badawi.

Furthermore, each year Saudi Arabia carries out numerous executions, predominantly for murder and drug smuggling, although some people have been executed for abandoning Islam and for crimes committed against the Faisal bin Musaid. These executions are usually carried out by public beheading. For example, Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 when he was 17 years old for taking part in anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring. In May 2014, Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to public decapitation and crucifixion.

In 2013, the government deported thousands of non-Saudis, many of whom were working illegally in the country or had exceeded their visas. There are many reports of foreign workers being tortured either by employers or others. As a result, many basic utilities suffered from labor shortages, as many Saudi Arabian citizens are not interested in working in labor jobs.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is running a “Program to Combat Radicalization”, which has the goal of ” fighting the spread of extremist ideologies and their ability to attract extremists among the general population” and “teaching them the true values of the Islamic religion including tolerance and moderation”. This “tolerance and moderation” was challenged by the Baltimore Sun, based on Amnesty International’s reports on Raif Badawi and in the case of a man from Hafr al-Batin who was sentenced to death for rejecting Islam. In September 2015, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, was elected Chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which appoints independent experts. In January 2016 Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr, who had called for demonstrations for democracy and free elections in Saudi Arabia.

Economy of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong state control over important economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves (26% of proven oil reserves), is the largest oil exporter and plays a leading role in OPEC. About 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP and 90% of export income are attributable to the oil industry. Approximately 25% of GDP is generated by the private sector.

Approximately 4 million foreign employees are playing an essential role in the Saudis economy – for instance in the oil and service-based sectors.

During 1999, the Saudi government has announced plans to start the privatization of the electricity companies, following an ongoing process of privatization in the telecommunications company. It is expected that the government will continue to call for private sector growth to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil and improve employment opportunities for the growing Saudi population. Water shortages and rapid population growth will limit the government’s efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.

Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. Although part of this can be explained by Saudis’ unwillingness to accept many kinds of work, it is also true that Saudis are being forced to compete with a large number of foreign workers, many of whom are considerably cheaper than the locals.

How To Travel To Saudi Arabia

By planeSaudi Arabia has 4 international airports in Riyadh, Jeddah, Madinah and Dammam. The airport in Dhahran is now closed to civilian traffic, so passengers to the eastern region now fly to Dammam or nearby Bahrain (which is much better connected) and then drive to Saudi Arabia.Saudi Arabia is...

How To Travel Around Saudi Arabia

Internal travel permits are a thing of the past. So once you arrive in Saudi Arabia, the country is open to you. However, there are three exceptions:Many archaeological sites around the country, such as Madain Saleh, require permits. The National Museum in Riyadh issues these free of charge, but...

Visa & Passport Requirements for Saudi Arabia

Visa restrictionsEntry is denied to Israeli citizens and those presenting stamps and/or visas from Israel.Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive travel regulations in the world, and a visa is required in advance for all foreigners wishing to enter. The only notable exception is citizens of Gulf Cooperation...

Destinations in Saudi Arabia

Regions in Saudi ArabiaSaudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but the traditional divisions of the country are more useful to get an overview.AsirSouthwestern highlands with a temperate climate and strong Yemeni influence.Eastern ProvinceIncludes the Gulf Coast, the centre of Saudi oil productionHedjasOn the Red Sea coast,...

Accommodation & Hotels in Saudi Arabia

Hotels of all types are available throughout the Kingdom. Most tourist cities (i.e. Makkah, Madinah, Taif, Al Abha) will also have very affordable and spacious shigka-maafroosha (short-term furnished rental accommodation). Shigka-maafroosha owners generally loiter in hotel lobbies. They often approach civilised-looking people (usually families) and make an offer. Prices...

Things To See in Saudi Arabia

The most famous sites in Saudi Arabia are probably the two holy cities of Islam; Mecca and Medina. However, it is forbidden for non-Muslims to enter these cities.There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, both inscribed in 2008. These are the archaeological site of Al-Hijr (Madâin...

Things To Do in Saudi Arabia

Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is very family-oriented. There are few activities for couples-only or singles. Single men are not allowed in family areas: family beaches are separate from bachelor beaches, for example. Women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative in public, although single women may be...

Food & Drinks in Saudi Arabia

Food in Saudi ArabiaEating is one of the few pleasures allowed in Saudi Arabia, and obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Unlike other businesses that kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants allow their patrons to sit and eat behind closed...

Money & Shopping in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal (ريال, SAR), which has traded at a fixed rate of 3.75 riyals to the US dollar since 1986. The riyal is divided into 100 halalas, which are used to mark some prices, but in practice all payments are rounded to the nearest...

Festivals & Events in Saudi Arabia

As in most Middle Eastern countries, the weekend in Saudi Arabia is Friday and Saturday, with Sunday being a normal working day. (Until 2013, it was Thursday and Friday).The Saudi interpretation of Islam tends to regard non-Muslim holidays as blasphemous, and the public observance of Christmas, New Year, Valentine's...

Internet & Communications in Saudi Arabia

PhoneUseful numbersPolice: 999Car accidents: 993Outpatient clinic: 997Fire: 998Telephone directory (chargeable): 905The four mobile operators in Saudi Arabia, the incumbent AlJawal, Emirati rival Mobily, Kuwait's Zain (Vodafone Network) and STC newcomer Jawwy are fiercely competitive, have good network coverage (in populated areas) and good prices. A starter package with prepaid...

Language & Phrasebook in Saudi Arabia

Arabic is the official language of the Kingdom. There are numerous dialects spoken throughout the country, but the most important are Hejazi Arabic, which originated in the Hejaz around Jeddah and is the effective lingua franca, and Najdi Arabic, spoken in the Nejd around Riyadh.Many people understand and speak...

Traditions & Customs in Saudi Arabia

Visitors to Saudi Arabia must respect local customs, especially when it comes to Islam. While first-time visitors to Saudi Arabia are often regaled with tales of beheadings, amputations, and lashings, the full rigors of Saudi law are reserved for real criminals like drug smugglers. With a modicum of common...

Culture Of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has centuries-old attitudes and traditions, many of which stem from Arab civilization. This culture has been heavily influenced by the strict puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam that emerged in the eighteenth century and prevails in the country today. Wahhabi Islam has been called "the dominant feature of...

Weather & Climate in Saudi Arabia

People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an area of hot desert with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country they would be absolutely right. Between May and September, most of the country (practically everywhere except the southwestern mountains) has temperatures averaging...

History Of Saudi Arabia

Al-Magar civilizationAl-Magar is a prehistoric civilization that was founded in, the center of the Arabian Peninsula, mostly in Najd. Al-Magar is the cradle of the first domestication of animals, especially the horse, in the Neolithic.Dilmun civilizationDilmun is one of the oldest and oldest civilizations in the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. It was a center of trade main at its...

Stay Safe & Healthy in Saudi Arabia

Stay safe in Saudi ArabiaRealistically speaking, the greatest danger to a visitor to Saudi Arabia is fatal driving - drive or carefully select your driver and fasten your seat belt.A low-level insurrection, directed against foreigners in general and Westerners in particular, continues to bubble. The wave of violence in 2003-2004...

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