Wednesday, November 16, 2022
Saudi Arabia travel guide - Travel S helper

Saudi Arabia

travel guide

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.

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Saudi Arabia - Info Card

Population

34,218,000

Currency

Saudi riyal (SR) (SAR)

Time zone

UTC+3 (AST)

Area

2,149,690 km2 (830,000 sq mi)

Calling code

+966

Official language

Arabic

Saudi Arabia | Introduction

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 42° C and frequently over 50° C in the shade. Especially in July and August, those who can flee the country and work slow down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly tempered by the sea, which normally keeps temperatures below 38 ° C – but at the price of extreme humidity (85-100%), which many, especially at night, find even more unpleasant than the dry heat of the interior . Only the high mountain regions remain cool (er), with the summer holiday town of Taif rarely above 35 ° C and the mountain region of Asir is even cooler.

However, in winter it is surprisingly a different story. The daily highs in Riyadh in December average only 21 ° C, and temperatures can drop slightly below zero at night, which occasionally even leads to snow streaks in the southern mountains. Winter can also bring rain to all or most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two violent eruptions. For a large part of the country, the end of spring ( from April to May) is actually also a rainy season. In the south, however, this pattern is reversed, as most rain falls during the monsoon season in the Indian Ocean between May and October.

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.

Language 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 some English, although much less well than in the UAE or Qatar, for example. Hindi, Urdu and Bengali are used extensively in the markets and by expatriates from the subcontinent. All major languages are spoken in the markets of Makkah. There is also a significant Tagalog-speaking minority among expatriates.

Almost all road signs are in both English and Arabic, although the vast majority of speed limit signs use only Arabic numerals.

Internet & Communications in Saudi Arabia

Phone

Useful numbers

  • Police: 999
  • Car accidents: 993
  • Outpatient clinic: 997
  • Fire: 998
  • Telephone directory (chargeable): 905

The 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 SIM and talk time starts at around SR 75, and you can sign up at almost any major mobile phone shop (bring your passport). Local calls cost less than SR 0.5/minute, international calls are around or less than SR 2/min.

And yes, you can bring your own phone: Despite the clamour of the clergy, both camera phones and multimedia messaging (MMS) are now legal.

Internet

Internet cafés abound in major Saudi cities, and many shopping malls have one or two gaming parlours. Prices are around SR5/hour.

The internet in Saudi Arabia is blocked by a filter, but this primarily targets pornography, non-Islamic religious and domestic political sites in Arabic and is (from the traveller’s point of view) nowhere near as strict as in China, for example. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, all major webmail providers etc. are all accessible.

Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia may not be as strict as in other Middle Eastern countries. This is because social sites like Facebook and Twitter are not banned in the country. Although Skype is also allowed, the Saudi government has banned the smartphone app Viber. Banned sites include pornographic websites, of course, as well as sites containing homosexuality, illegal gambling and criticism of their religion and government.

Mail

Saudi Post has a good network of post offices throughout the country, but the offices are closed on Thursday and Friday. Stamps for postcards all over the world cost SR4. The bigger problem is finding postcards at all, as the Mutawwa regularly cracks down on the celebration of non-Islamic holidays like Valentine’s Day, Christmas or even birthdays, causing all cards of any kind to disappear from bookstores! Your best bet is therefore the gift shops in the big hotels. Mail coming into the country from abroad is notoriously unreliable. There are many stories of things arriving months after being sent, or not arriving at all. There are branches of DHL, FedEx and UPS all over the Kingdom, so it’s a good rule of thumb to send anything important through these channels.

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.

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.

Entry Requirements For Saudi Arabia

Visa & Passport for Saudi Arabia

Visa restrictions
Entry 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 Council states. Also exempt from the visa requirement are foreigners staying at an airport for less than 18 hours, but many other entry requirements, such as the dress code and restrictions on unaccompanied women, still apply. Nationals of Israel and those who can be shown to have visited Israel are denied visas, although merely being Jewish is not in and of itself an exclusion criterion. (There are, however, anecdotal reports of would-be visitors ticking the “Jewish” or “Atheist” box on their visa application and getting into trouble). The Saudis prefer not to grant visas to unaccompanied women, but work permits are common in some areas – e.g. nurses, teachers, maids – and possible for anyone if your sponsor has enough connections.

Tourist visas, previously available to groups of at least four for guided tours, were “suspended” at the end of 2010, with a vague promise to be reinstated at an unspecified later date; check with a tour operator for the latest status. Transit visas are limited to some long-haul truck drivers and for air travel, but are generally issued free of charge. However, it is relatively easy to obtain a transit visa to travel through Saudi Arabia if you are legally in a neighbouring country and can prove that you need to travel through Saudi Arabia to another neighbouring country. Hajj visas (pilgrimage visas) are issued by the Saudi government through Saudi embassies around the world in cooperation with local mosques. Hajjis and people on transit visas are not allowed to travel freely through the Kingdom, and it tends to be more difficult to get a visa during the Hajj season. Most short-term Western visitors to Saudi Arabia enter on a business visa, which requires an invitation from a local sponsor approved by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce. Once this invitation is secured and authenticated, the actual process of issuing the visa is relatively quick and painless, taking between one day and two weeks. Rumour has it that the “new visas” (electronically generated) are only available through agencies in your country of residence. Applying for a work visa is much more complicated, but usually your employer takes care of most of the paperwork.

The fun doesn’t stop when you get the visa, because there is no exact expiry date on the visas. While the validity is given in months, they are not western months, but lunar months, and you have to use the Islamic calendar to figure out the length: a three-month visa issued on “29/02/22” (22 Safar 1429, 1 March 2008) is valid until 29/05/22 (22 Jumada al-Awwal 1429, 28 May 2008), not until 1 June 2008! Depending on the visa type, validity can start from the date of issue or the date of first entry, and multiple-entry visas can also have restrictions on how many days in a row are allowed (usually 28 days per visit) and/or how many days in total are allowed during the validity period. This all leads to fantastic confusion and it is not uncommon to get different answers from an embassy, from your employer and from immigration!

If you have a work visa, an exit visa is required to leave the country. (Business, tourism, transit or Hajj visas do not require an exit permit). You cannot get an exit visa without a signature from your employer, and there have been cases where people have been unable to leave due to controversies with employers or even clients. For example, if a foreign company in Saudi Arabia is sued for non-payment of debts and you are considered its representative, an exit visa may be denied until the case is resolved in court.

Saudi Arabia has very strict rules on what can be imported: alcoholic beverages, pork, non-Sunni Islamic religious materials and pornography (very broadly defined) are all banned. Computers, video cassettes and DVDs have been confiscated from time to time for inspection by the authorities. If you are not sure whether the film you are watching or the video game you are playing is considered un-Islamic, assume that it is: it would probably be best not to bring it into the Kingdom. In general, however, checks are not quite as thorough as they used to be, and although bags are still x-rayed, tiny searches are the exception rather than the rule. Note that Western families entering on a valid transit visa are generally waved through customs with a cursory glance.

How To Travel To Saudi Arabia

Get In - By plane

Saudi 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 served by the national carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines, which has recently been rebranded to its Arabic name Saudia. Saudia has a reasonable safety record, but many of its aircraft are outdated and the quality of service, in-flight entertainment, etc. tends to be low. Virtually all Gulf airlines and most major European airlines fly to 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 Hajj. Airlines from Muslim countries fly in many loads of pilgrims and do not want to fly back empty.

Get In - By bus

SAPTCO operates cross-border bus services to most of Saudi Arabia’s neighbouring countries and even beyond, e.g. to Cairo.

Probably the most popular connection is between Dammam/Khobar and Bahrain, operated by the separate Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company (SABTCO). There are five daily connections at a fare of SAR 50/BHD5 and the journey across the King Fahd Causeway takes about two hours on a good day.

Get In - By car

There are car crossings at almost all borders, although those into Iraq are currently closed. The eastern crossings to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE are heavily used, all others rather less so. There is currently no land border crossing with Oman.

Get In - By train

There are no railway lines connecting Saudi Arabia with other countries, although in the north one can still find parts of the Hejaz railway, which once led to Damascus.

Get In - By boat

Rare passenger ferries run once a week or less from Egypt and Sudan to ports in western Saudi Arabia. (Service to Eritrea has been discontinued.) Slow, uncomfortable and not particularly cheap, these are of interest mainly if you absolutely must get your car across. An unofficial ban on Western travellers may still apply.

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 you should apply for them at least one week in advance.
  • The area around Makkah and Madinah is off-limits to non-Muslims; conversely, those on a Hajj visa are forbidden to leave the area (and transit points such as Jeddah). The restricted zone is well signposted.
  • Some remote areas, especially on the Iraqi and Yemeni borders, are restricted military areas. It is extremely unlikely that you will stumble into these areas by chance.

Get Around - By plane

Saudi Arabia is a large country, which makes flying the only convenient means of long-distance travel. State-owned airline Saudia has the best schedules, with almost hourly flights on the busy Riyadh-Jeddah route (90 minutes) and a cheap one-way fare of SAR 280 (280 Saudi riyals or about US$75 or USD75). Low-cost competitor Nas can be even cheaper if you book in advance, but their schedules are sparser, changes cost money and there is no meal on board.

Get Around - By train

The railway network in Saudi Arabia is severely underdeveloped. There is only one line running between Riyadh, Al-Hofuf and Dammam, but it is still the only passenger train connection in the entire Gulf. There are plans to extend the network to Jeddah and to build a Makkah-Madinah connection in the next few years.

The trains are operated by the Saudi Railways Organization and have 3 classes: Second, First and the delightfully named Rehab. The first and second classes are very similar, with air-conditioning and two-person seating, but the first has a few centimetres more legroom. Rehab (VIP) class, on the other hand, has plush leather seats, flat-screen TVs on the roof showing Arabic entertainment, and fancy waiting lounges at stations. There are no reserved seats, so arrive early to get yours, and be aware that in most carriages, the forward-facing seats at the front of the carriage are reserved for families. The trains have a cafeteria car that serves drinks and snacks, as well as a push trolley service.

A ticket from Riyadh to Dammam costs SR60/75/120 in Second/First/Rehab. There are four trains per day in both directions and the journey takes 4-5 hours. (Note that the timetables on the SRO website are out of date (as of May 2008)). It is advisable to buy tickets in advance as the trains are often sold out. You can reserve tickets by calling the service centre in Dammam (+966 3 827 4000) and then pick them up at the nearest station 24 hours before departure.

Get Around - By car

Car rental is available and petrol is one of the cheapest in the world. The quality of motorways varies greatly, except for those connecting major cities, which are generally excellent. However, there are important reasons to think twice about car rental. The country has some of the highest accident rates in the world. Accidents are not uncommon, and if a visitor is involved in an accident, they are exposed to the extremely punitive Saudi legal system; see the warnings about this elsewhere on this page. Note also that any accident involving a foreigner and a Saudi national is automatically considered the fault of the foreigner under Saudi law, regardless of whose fault it actually is.

If you are involved in a car accident, everyone involved must stay where they are and wait for the traffic police (call 993) to show up, which can take up to four hours. It is unlikely that the police will speak English, even in big cities, so try to use the waiting time to arrange for a translator. The police will issue an accident report, which you must take to the traffic police station and have stamped several times in different queues (this takes almost the whole morning). Only then can any damage to the car be repaired, as the insurance companies will not pay for any bodywork without this report.

It is not uncommon for the traffic police to settle the incident on the spot by determining who was at fault and setting a compensation. So if it is your fault, the police will ask you to pay an amount to the other party – but you are not obliged to do so.

Currently, access to car rental services is restricted to men aged 21 and over. Women cannot drive or cycle on public roads.

Get Around - By taxi

Within the cities, taxis are the only practical means of transport. Standardized throughout the country, prices start at SR 5 and rise to SR 1.60/km, but outside Riyadh you often have to haggle over the price in advance. Solo travelers are expected to sit in the front next to the driver: This has the advantage that they sit right next to the air conditioning and it is easier to wave your hands to show the way.

Destinations in Saudi Arabia

Regions in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but the traditional divisions of the country are more useful to get an overview.

  • Asir
    Southwestern highlands with a temperate climate and strong Yemeni influence.
  • Eastern Province
    Includes the Gulf Coast, the centre of Saudi oil production
  • Hedjas
    On the Red Sea coast, site of Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and home to trade and commerce.
  • Nejd
    The central highlands centred in Riyadh, home of the Sauds and the most conservative part of the country.
  • North
    Rarely visited, home of the Nabataean ruins of Madain Saleh.

Cities in Saudi Arabia

  • Riyadh – the capital and “dead centre” of the Kingdom
  • Abha – a summer-tourist mountain town in the southwest near the Yemeni border
  • Dhahran – home of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company
  • Jeddah (Jiddah) – a large metropolis on the Red Sea and the gateway to Makkah and Madinah
  • Jubail – the largest industrial city in the Kingdom
  • Mecca (Makkah) – the holiest city of Islam
  • Medina (Madinah) – the site of the Prophet’s mosque
  • Najran – a Yemeni town with a remarkable fortress
  • Taif – a medium-sized mountain town and popular holiday destination

Expect significant variations in the English spelling of place names in timetables and even street signs: Al Wajh and Wedjh are the same place. In particular, Q/G, E/I and E/A are freely interchanged (Qassim/GassimMecca/MakkahJeddah/Jiddah), H/A sometimes swap places (Al-Ahsa/Al-Hasa) and the definite article al- can be added or omitted (Medina/AlmadinahRiyadh/Arriyadh).

Other destinations in Saudi Arabia

  • Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali) – one of the largest sand deserts on earth
  • Hajj – the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
  • Madain Saleh – ruined city of the Nabataeans, similar to Petra

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 for shigka-mafrooshas and small hotels are always highly negotiable. Smaller hotels only accept cash, usually in advance.

Larger, more expensive hotels are plentiful in all major cities. After the lull caused by the uprising in 2003, prices have risen again and you can expect to pay more than US$200 for a weekday night in a good hotel in one of the major Saudi cities. For that, you usually get excellent service and the ability to work around some restrictions (e.g. restaurants staying open during prayer times and room service during the day during Ramadan).

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 Sâlih) in Hejaz and the At-Turaif district in Diriyah.
  • The old city of Jeddah.
  • Ancient and ultra-modern architecture in the capital Riyadh.
  • A whole lot of desert – the Arabian Desert makes up most of the country.

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 allowed in family areas.

Desert excursions are particularly popular with local Arabs. There are few desert dune-bashing tour operators, if any, but ATV rentals are often found on the roadside on the outskirts of major cities and expats often arrange convoy trips into the desert. The Empty Quarter has the most impressive scenery – and requires the most preparation.

Diving is very popular on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia. There are a number of dive operators in Jeddah.

Amusement parks (many of them covered) are often located near shopping centres or beaches. Many large cities have public parks and small zoos. Horseback riding, camel rides, etc. are also offered at horse racing tracks and on some popular beaches. Many upscale hotels offer light activities (especially hotels located on beaches).

Cinemas are banned in the Kingdom, but DVD shops abound, although the selection is often tame and/or censored. DVDs in Saudi Arabia are invariably region 2, although bootleg DVDs (which are widely available in smaller video stores) are usually region-free and often uncensored. Satellite TV and downloading entertainment from the internet is therefore very popular.

Video games are an eternal obsession of Saudi youth, and one that local retailers exploit quite well. Video game shops are ubiquitous in all major cities. Authentic games are offered by most larger shops as US or European imports for an average of ~270SR (~$70), while the smaller shops usually only offer bootlegs (which are illegal but still lucrative enough that almost everyone sells them) at very low prices of 10-15SR ($2.5-$4). Wii and Xbox 360 bootlegs dominate, but some shops also offer Nintendo DS and PSP games that can be downloaded to the customer’s removable media on request.

Food & Drinks in Saudi Arabia

Food in Saudi Arabia

Eating 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 doors during prayer time. New customers are usually only allowed to enter after prayer has ended.

Fast food

Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and more than a few chains that hardly venture outside America (e.g. Hardee’s, Little Caesars). Meals, always served with fries and Coke, cost SR10-20. Some local imitators to look out for are:

  • Al-Baik – fried chicken- in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Taif, but not in Riyadh.
  • Baak – pizza (thin crust and pretty good), roast chicken, lasagne, sandwiches.
  • Kudu. Saudi sandwich chain
  • HerfyBurger. Largest fast food chain in the country, 100 % Saudi owned
  • House of Donuts – “The Finest American Pastries” – a chain founded by Saudi students who studied in America

Even cheaper are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia’s large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, serving large thali platters of subcontinental cuisine for under SR10. Just don’t expect bells and whistles like air-conditioning.

Local cuisine

The Middle Eastern staple shwarma (kebab) is widely available in dedicated small shops, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich. The Egyptian fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips such as hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad).

Finding restaurants that actually serve Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. Your local Saudi or foreign host may be able to show you some places or, if you are really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home.

Drinks in Saudi Arabia

Since alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and socialising with unrelated persons of the opposite sex are prohibited, it is fair to say that no one comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.

Coffee houses

Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serves not only coffee and tea, but also hookahs (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are a male-only domain. As part of the government’s efforts to restrict smoking in major cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh, establishments serving shisha are either relegated to the outskirts or offer outdoor seating only.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion of competitors have a firm foothold in the kingdom’s shopping centres. These generally welcome women, although there were several arrests of unmarried couples “mingling” in 2008.

As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, you should try mirra, which is prepared Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it is strong and tastes great, especially drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) is usually drunk with sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na’ana).

Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police usually turn a blind eye to foreign expat housing complexes where home-brewed wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling alcohol in large quantities, Saudi law applies, expat or not. A foreigner may not get the punishment a local would, but he can expect a few days or weeks in jail, public flogging and deportation.

There is a local white flash known among foreigners as “siddiqui” (Arabic for friend) or simply “sid”. This is generally terrible tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is the danger of it becoming downright poisonous through improper distillation. The stuff is to be avoided at all costs.

Don’t drink and drive! is good advice everywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident or otherwise attract the attention of the police, the consequences can be serious indeed.

Soft drinks

As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of different 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 juice bubbly, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, i.e. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often heavily flavoured with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences. You can even get apple-flavoured Budweiser!

Tap water

Tap water in the larger cities is generally considered safe, although it is not always particularly tasty and can be very hot in summer. In winter, however, flood water can enter the tanks. In a major flood in January 2011, an estimated 70 % of the storage tanks in Jeddah were affected and some cases of dysentery were reported.

Bottled water is readily available and cheap at SR2 or less for a 1.5 litre bottle, so many visitors and residents play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.

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 riyal and chances are you will never see halala coins. Notes come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 riyals, with two different series in circulation.

The riyal is also pegged to the Bahraini dinar at a ratio of 10:1. If you are considering travelling to Bahrain, virtually all shops in Bahrain accept the riyal, but the dinar is not as easily convertible in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society, and credit card acceptance is surprisingly low outside luxury hotels and shopping malls. ATMs are ubiquitous, although the ATMs of many smaller banks do not accept foreign cards; Samba, SABB and ANB are probably your best bet. Money changers are available in the souks, but are otherwise rare. Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by traders.

Prices in Saudi Arabia

Prices tend to be quite expensive: expect USD50/100/200 for budget, mid-range and splurge-level daily travel costs.

Tipping is generally not expected, although service staff are always happy to accept it and taxi fares are often rounded up (or, not infrequently, rounded down). In expensive restaurants, a 10% service charge is regularly added, although due to lax regulation, many employers simply usurp it (ask your waiters whether they get any of it if you want to tip them). There is no sales tax in Saudi Arabia, and no income tax either!

What you should buy in Saudi Arabia

Only a few local products are of interest to tourists. Locally grown dates are of high quality, and religious utensils are widely available but almost exclusively imported. Copies of the Koran are produced in a variety of editions and sold at very low prices. Zam Zam water is available throughout the western region and at all airports.

Carpets are a popular purchase, most of them coming from nearby Iran. Especially in Jeddah, there are many carpets, many of them brought by pilgrims who sell them there to finance their journey to Mecca.

Large gold and jewellery markets can be found in all major cities. Haggling is the norm in most small to medium sized shops. Makkah and Madinah offer a wide variety of luggage, clothing, jewellery, knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense and religious literature, audio and paraphernalia.

Large, well-maintained, air-conditioned shopping centers and grocery shops (e.g. Safeway, Geant, Carrefour) are scattered throughout the Kingdom.

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 Day, Halloween, etc. is forbidden. Public holidays are only granted for Eid ul-Fitr, the festival at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, about 70 days after Ramadan.

There is also a secular holiday: Kingdom Unification Day, on 23 September. Strictly speaking, it is not a holiday or a festival, although it is treated as one nonetheless. In fact, it is celebrated more eagerly by many local youth than the Islamic Eid.

During Ramadan itself, visitors must abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during daylight hours. Some better hotels will be able to provide quiet room service during the day, but otherwise you will need to make your arrangements. All restaurants in the Kingdom are closed during the day, and while some offices remain open with limited hours, the pace of business slows to a standstill. After evening prayers, however, all restaurants in the bazaar open and do a brisk trade until the early hours of the morning. Most of the shops are also open, and the coolness of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop. A visitor can have a good time on these evenings, although for most visitors it is better to have a stash in the hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten o’clock than to get up at four to enjoy a big Saudi breakfast before dawn.

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 sense, you will be fine, and should a visitor accidentally commit a minor offense, the reaction will usually be amusement rather than anger.

Taking pictures is probably the easiest way for a visitor to accidentally get into trouble. Do not photograph government-related buildings (ministries, airports, military installations, etc.) or buildings that might be, or you risk being jailed for espionage. Since the strict Wahhabi faith forbids photographing any living thing and Saudis place great value on privacy, do not photograph Saudi men without permission and do not even point your camera in the general direction of women, period. Even government publications avoid pictures of people and often resort to mosaicking faces away if they must use one! However, photography in public places was declared legal by a royal decree in 2006, unless otherwise announced or a person’s wish not to be photographed is violated.

Playing music in public is also prohibited (although this doesn’t include playing music at a picnic in the desert, for example). Personal music players and listening to music in private are fine, however, and there are plenty of music stores in malls around the country if you don’t mind swiping permanent marker across Britney’s hem on the cover. It’s not uncommon to hear young Saudis cranking up the latest hip-hop music in their vehicles, at least when the Muttawa isn’t around.

Religious items for religions other than Islam, including Bibles, crucifixes, and any religious literature, are technically forbidden, although nowadays items for personal use are generally ignored. However, anything suggesting proselytism is treated very harshly, and the Muttawa often thwarts illegal church meetings and the like. Public professing of religions other than Islam is technically a crime in Saudi Arabia.

The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the Islamic creed, and desecration or other inappropriate use of the flag is considered an insult. Public criticism of the king, the royal family, or the government of Saudi Arabia in general is not tolerated.

Law and morality

The really important rules to follow are enshrined in written Saudi law, with criminals subject to the full rigors of the notorious Saudi penal system. In addition to obvious crimes such as murder (punishable by beheading) and theft (amputation of the hand for repeat offenders), serious crimes include adultery, homosexual acts and possession of alcohol or drugs.

In practice, however, most visitors will be primarily concerned with the moral code, which includes such things as not veiling women, not observing prayer or (during Ramadan) fasting times, etc. These rules are enforced by the infamous muttawa (pl. mutawain), the zealous volunteers of the religious police, officially known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Confusingly, the exact rules and their enforcement vary widely both over time and from region to region, with the Nejd region around Riyadh being the strictest, the Eastern Province the least strict, and the Hejaz around Jeddah somewhere in the middle. However, in 99% of cases, encounters with the Muttawa (especially for non-Muslims) end with only a verbal warning. While the muttawa have the authority to detain individuals suspected of un-Islamic behavior, they must – in theory – hand them over to the police before interrogating them, nor can they use judicial punishments such as lashing without trial. Reports of mistreatment and even deaths in Muttawa custody are still alarmingly common.

Areas that are off limits for the Mutawwas

Surprisingly, certain areas are known to be “off limits” for the Mutawwas. These include the following:

  1. the diplomatic quarter (in Riyadh)
  2. the beach resort connections north of Jeddah
  3. the site of Saudi Aramco (in the eastern province)
  4. the city of Qatif in the eastern province of
  5. Expat connections in general

In general, the Mutawwa rarely, if ever, enter hotels. This does not mean that Saudi customs can be flouted with impunity in such places, but the restrictions on mixing the sexes and, in some areas, the dress code are much looser.

Gender segregation

Many (perhaps most) areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by gender to ensure that unrelated men and women have no opportunity to “mix” (khulwa, a punishable crime). According to the rules of gender segregation, all people are divided into three groups:

  • Families. The family is the basic unit of Saudi life and consists of women accompanied by their mahrams (legal male guardians) – father, brother, husband, uncle, nephew – and children.
  • Single men (bachelors). Men who are not accompanied by their families. Despite the common usage of the word “bachelor,” it does not matter whether the man is married or not; a husband will dine in the bachelor section at lunch if he is alone, and in the family section at dinner if he is with his wife. It is against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a woman who is not your wife or a family member, and the religious police pay special attention to interracial couples.
  • Single women. Women who are not accompanied by their families. This is by far the most restricted group. Most facilities for families admit single women, but they are never allowed in the men’s section and are subject to unpleasant looks if they do: it is against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a man who is not your husband or a family member (except a hired driver or a cab driver). The penalty is worse for the man than for the woman. While the man is forced to sign a written oath not to repeat the offense and can be punished with lashes or imprisonment, women are usually “returned” to their families with a male family member signing on their behalf. The cultural value placed on “modesty” and “honor” makes the religious police reluctant to openly “out” a woman, and they will try to sweep the issue under the rug except in “egregious” cases.

Typical examples of segregation are:

Establishment Segregation
Banks Separate branches for men and women, but if there is no women’s department in a branch, women are allowed in the men’s branch.
Coffee shops Mostly men only, although a few have a family section.
Hotels Single women no longer need written permission to check in, as long as they have their own ID. Gyms, swimming pools and spas are usually only open to men, but there are some facilities for women.
Museums Separate hours for families and men (“families” typically include single women).
Restaurants Separate areas for families and men. The vast majority will let single women into the family area.
Shopping arcades All visitors are allowed, but often evenings and weekends are reserved only for families and single women.
Stores Normally all visitors are admitted.

Men

Locals almost universally wear a thobe (white robe with sleeves) with a ghutra (head covering), but the standard dress code for foreign men in Saudi Arabia is long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Short-sleeved shirts are uncommon, although T-shirts are increasingly common among rebellious youth, while shorts are rarely seen outside the gym or beach.

Men with long hair should consider a trim before entering the Kingdom; although shoulder-length locks may be considered appropriate, anything longer may be considered grounds for ejection from shopping malls and public places by the Muttawa.

Homosexuality is (theoretically) punishable by death, but in practice it is almost never applied, except in cases of rape or child abuse. It is common for Saudi men to walk hand in hand as a sign of friendship (or more), but it would be unwise for Western men to attempt the same. Sharing a hotel room to save money is normal, but don’t even think about asking for a bed for two. That being said, homosexuality still happens, just discreetly, and it is not uncommon for a foreign man to be approached by an amorous, young, unmarried Saudi.

Women

Women, whether local or foreign, must all wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe. While a headscarf is optional for non-Saudi women (especially in Jeddah and Dammam), it should at least be brought along to avoid possible harassment by religious police or as a means of distracting potentially pushy men.

Saudi law prohibits women from mixing with unrelated men. Some family restaurants go further and (knowingly) do not allow a married couple to dine together with a single man. Women are not allowed to drive. In theory, women are not even allowed to be driven by unrelated persons (e.g., cab drivers), although this is largely ignored and rarely enforced.

A woman may travel alone. You may also stay alone in hotels, although hotels may ask for written permission at check-in unless the woman has official identification.

While all of this applies legally to foreign women as well, in practice foreign women are not as restricted by their families as Saudi women are and have considerable leeway if they wish to use it. For example, a foreign woman and her boyfriend (or even a male associate) can simply claim to be husband and wife, and thus move about freely-although if caught, they can sometimes face a brief stint in jail.

A single woman who is approached by the police or the muttawa and asked to come along does not have to (and for her own safety should not) go alone: You have the right to call your mahram and have him come, and you should make use of it. However, you may be required to hand over your ID, and you may not leave until the police/muttawa allow you to.

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 Saudi culture.”

Religion in society

Saudi Arabia differs from other modern Muslim countries in that it is the only state “created by jihad, the only one that claims the Quran as its constitution,” and one of only four Muslim countries “to have escaped European imperialism.” Its Hejaz region and its cities of Mecca and Medina are the cradle of Islam, the destination of the Hajj pilgrimage, Islam’s two holiest sites.

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, and the law requires that all citizens be Muslim. Neither Saudi citizens nor guest workers have the right to religious freedom. The official and predominant form of Islam in the kingdom-Wahhabism-emerged in the central region of Najd, in the 18th century. Proponents call the movement “Salafism” and believe its teachings purify the practice of Islam from innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of Muhammad and his companions. The Saudi government has often been viewed as an active oppressor of Shi’a Muslims because it funds Wahabbian ideology that denounces the Shi’a faith. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the United States, stated, “In the Middle East, the time is not far off when it will literally be ‘God help the Shiites.’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that has a “religious police” (known as Haia or Mutaween) that patrols the streets and “enjoins good and forbids wrong” by enforcing dress codes, strict separation of men and women, participation in prayer (salat) five times a day, prohibition of alcohol, and other aspects of Sharia (Islamic law). (In the privacy of the home, behavior can be far more relaxed, and reports from the Daily Mail and WikiLeaks suggest that the ruling Saudi royal family applies a different moral code for itself, indulging in partying, drugs, and sex. )

The kingdom uses the Islamic lunar calendar, not the international Gregorian calendar. Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Stores are closed three or four times a day for 30 to 45 minutes during business hours while employees and customers are sent to pray. The weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday, because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims. For many years, only two religious holidays were publicly recognized-ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā(ʿĪd al-Fiṭr is “the greatest” holiday, a three-day period of “feasting, gift-giving, and general letting go.”)

As of 2004, about half of the broadcasting time of Saudi state television was devoted to religious topics. 90 % of the books published in the kingdom deal with religious topics, and most of the doctorates awarded by universities were in Islamic studies. In the state school system, about half of the curriculum is religious. In contrast, the assigned reading in twelve years of primary and secondary school, which deals with the history, literature and culture of the non-Muslim world, totals about 40 pages.

“Fierce religious resistance” had to be overcome to allow such innovations as paper money (1951), women’s education (1964) and television (1965), and the abolition of slavery (1962). Public support for the kingdom’s traditional politico-religious structure is so strong that one researcher who surveyed Saudis found virtually no support for reforms to secularize the state.

Due to religious restrictions, Saudi culture lacks any diversity in religious expression, buildings, annual festivals, and public events. Celebration of other (non-Wahhabi) Islamic holidays, such as Muhammad’s birthday and the day of Ashura (an important holiday for the 10-25% of the population who are Shia), are only tolerated if they are celebrated locally and on a small scale. According to Human Rights Watch, Shiites are also systematically discriminated against in employment, education, and the judicial system. Non-Muslim celebrations such as Christmas and Easter are not tolerated at all, although there are nearly one million Christians among foreign workers, as well as Hindus and Buddhists. Churches, temples, or other non-Muslim places of worship are not allowed in the country. Proselytizing by non-Muslims and conversion by Muslims to another religion is illegal, and since 2014, distribution of “publications concerning a religious belief other than Islam” (such as Bibles) is reportedly punishable by death. In compensation trials (diyya), non-Muslims are awarded less than Muslims. Atheists are legally labeled terrorists. Saudis or foreign residents who “question the foundations of the Islamic religion on which this country is based” can be punished with up to 20 years in prison. And at least one religious minority, the Ahmadiyya Muslims, had their followers expelled because they are legally banned from entering the country.

Islamic cultural sites

Saudi Wahhabism rejects any reverence for historically or religiously significant sites, fearing that it could lead to “shirk” (idolatry), and the most significant historic Muslim sites (in Mecca and Medina) are in the western Saudi region of Hejaz. As a result, under Saudi rule, an estimated 95% of the historic buildings in Mecca, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished for religious reasons. Critics claim that 300 historical sites associated with Muhammad, his family, or his companions have been lost in the last 50 years, leaving less than 20 structures in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad. The destroyed structures include the mosque originally built by Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and other mosques founded by Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph), Umar (second caliph), Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law and fourth caliph), and Salman al-Farsi (another companion of Muhammad).

Dress code in Saudi Arabia

The traditional dress of men and women in Saudi Arabia follows the principles of modesty and is influenced by the traditional principles of the Abrahamic religions (see White Dress (Religious)). The predominantly loose and flowing but covering garments are adapted to the desert climate of Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, men wear an ankle-length robe of wool or cotton (known as a thawb), with a keffiyeh (a large plaid square of cotton held by an agal) or a ghutra (a plain white square of finer cotton also held by an agal) on the head. On rare, cool days, Saudi men wear an Arabic cardboard cloak known as a (bisht) over it. Women wear an abaya (usually black) or other modest garment in public that covers everything below the neck except the hands and feet, and some women optionally cover the head and face out of respect for their religion. This requirement also applies to non-Muslim women in public, especially in more conservative areas of the country, but in some neighborhoods known as ( Western Compounds ), women can wear any type of clothing. In addition, women can wear any type of clothing in some areas such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), some government offices, airports, diplomatic areas, private resorts on the Red Sea, some media areas, and places that are open only to women.

Women’s clothing is often decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metal threads and appliqués.

  • Ghutrah (Arabic: غتره) is a traditional head covering typically worn by Arab men. It consists of a square cloth (“scarf”), usually made of cotton, that is folded and wrapped around the head in various ways. It is usually worn in areas with dry climates to provide protection from direct sunlight and also protection of the mouth and eyes from blowing dust and sand.
  • Agal (Arabic: عقال) is an Arabic headgear consisting of a string that is fastened around the ghutrah to hold it in place. The agal is usually colored black.
  • Thawb (Arabic: ثوب) is the standard Arabic word for garment. It is ankle-length, usually with long sleeves. Thobe worn in summer are regularly white and made of cotton. Thobe worn in winter are usually darker in color and usually made of wool.
  • Bisht (Arabic: بشت) is a traditional Arabic men’s coat, usually worn only for prestige on special occasions such as weddings and official and business meetings.
  • Abaya (Arabic: عبائة) is a garment for women. It is a cloak (usually black) that loosely covers the entire body except the head. Some women choose to cover their face and head with a Niqāb, some do not. Abayas come in different cuts, colors, styles, and fabrics. Conservative women usually prefer the black version without fashionable expressions.

Art and entertainment in Saudi Arabia

In the 1970s, there were numerous cinemas in the kingdom, although they were considered to be in conflict with Wahhabi norms. During the Islamic revival movement in the 1980s and as a political response to a rise in Islamist activism, including the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the government closed all cinemas and theaters. However, with King Abdullah’s reforms beginning in 2005, some cinemas reopened, including one in KAUST.

Since the 18th century, Wahhabi fundamentalism discouraged artistic developments that were incompatible with its teachings. In addition, the Sunni Islamic prohibition on creating representations of people has restricted the visual arts, which tend to be dominated by geometric, floral, and abstract designs and by calligraphy. With the advent of oil wealth in the 20th century, external influences, such as Western styles of living, furniture, and clothing, were added. Music and dance have always been a part of Saudi life. Traditional music is generally associated with poetry and is sung collectively. Instruments include the rabābah, an instrument not unlike a three-stringed violin, and various types of percussion instruments, such as the ṭabl (drum) and the ṭār (tambourine). Of the native dances, the most popular is a martial row dance known as the ʿarḍah. It consists of rows of men, often armed with swords or rifles, dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines. Bedouin poetry, known as nabaṭī, is still very popular.

Censorship has limited the development of Saudi literature, although several Saudi novelists and poets have gained critical and popular recognition in the Arab world-even as they provoke official hostility in their home country. These include Ghazi Algosaibi, Abdelrahman Munif, Turki al-Hamad, and Rajaa al-Sanea.

Sports in Saudi Arabia

Soccer (soccer) is the national sport in Saudi Arabia. Scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing and basketball are also popular and played by both men and women. The Saudi Arabian national basketball team won bronze in the 1999 Asian Championship. More traditional sports, such as horse racing and camel racing, became more popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Camel races are held in a stadium in Riyadh during the winter. The annual King’s Camel Race, established in 1974, is one of the competitions in this sport, which attracts animals and riders from all over the region. Falconry, another traditional sport, is still practiced. Horse races are held at weekly intervals on Friday and Saturday. Arabian horse breeding is also popular in most regions of the Kingdom, and horse stables are common in the Kingdom.

The city of Ha’il is internationally known for breeding the best Arabian horses. It has 15 horse ranches that produce exceptional horses that are sold all over the world. Falconry is a popular sport and hobby in both northern and central Saudi Arabia. Falcons and Saluki dogs were used for hunting in the past to provide a source of food for the desert population. Then it became a hobby and sport that has many followers today. In addition, Saudi Arabia has participated in ten Summer Olympic Games. For the first time, they appeared in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. Dalma Rushdi Malhas, is the first Saudi woman to compete in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and won a bronze medal in equestrian. Hadi Soua’an Al-Somaily won the first Saudi silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In total, the country has produced 2 silver and 6 bronze medalists.

Cuisine in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian cuisine is similar to that of the surrounding countries of the Arabian Peninsula and has been influenced by Turkish, Indian, Persian and African cuisine. Islamic dietary laws are observed: Pork is not allowed and other animals are slaughtered according to halal principles. A dish consisting of a stuffed lamb, known as khūzī, is the traditional national dish. Kebabs are popular, as is shāwarmā (shawarma), a marinated grilled meat dish made from lamb, mutton, or chicken. As in other Arab countries of the Arabian Peninsula, machbūs (kabsa), a rice dish with fish or shrimp, is popular. Unleavened pita bread is part of almost every meal, as are dates and fresh fruit. Coffee, served Turkish style, is the traditional drink.

Social problems in Saudi Arabia

Saudi society’s goal of being a religious Islamic country, combined with economic difficulties, has led to a number of problems and tensions. A rare independent opinion poll published in 2010 showed that the biggest social concerns of Saudis were unemployment (at 10 % in 2010), corruption, and religious extremism.

Crime has not been a significant problem. On the other hand, juvenile delinquency is on the rise through practices such as tafheet (illegal racing), drug use and excessive alcohol consumption. High unemployment and a generation of young men filled with contempt for the royal family pose a significant threat to Saudi social stability. Some Saudis feel entitled to well-paying government jobs, and the government’s failure to satisfy this sense of entitlement has led to considerable discontent.

Child abuse

One in four children in Saudi Arabia is abused, according to a study by Dr. Nura Al-Suwaiyan, director of the Family Safety Program at the National Guard Hospital. The National Society for Human Rights reports that nearly 45% of the country’s children experience some form of abuse and domestic violence. In 2013, the government passed a law criminalizing domestic violence against children.

Human smuggling

It has been claimed that trafficking in women is a particular problem in Saudi Arabia, as the country has a large number of female foreign domestic workers and loopholes in the system result in many of them becoming victims of abuse and torture.

Youth Alienation

Like many Muslim countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has a high rate of population growth and a high percentage of the population under the age of 30, and significant changes in Saudi culture can be foreseen as this generation grows older. A number of factors indicate that the lives and levels of satisfaction of the young will be different from the generation before them:

  • While Saudis could expect undemanding, well-paying government jobs for decades, the failure of oil revenues to keep pace with population growth has driven up unemployment, and poor education limits private sector employment opportunities. Young people lack their parents’ appreciation of how much living standards have improved since the mid-20th century. The average age of the king and crown prince is 74, making them half a century older than most of the population.
  • Exposure to the youth’s lifestyle in the outside world, which clashes with the native Saudi culture of strict religious obedience and conformity.
  • The tendency of parents to leave child rearing to foreign servants who are unable to “pass on by example the core Islamic values and traditions that have always been the foundation of Saudi society.”

In a 2011 survey, 31% of Saudi youth agreed with the statement, “Traditional values are outdated and … I want to embrace modern values and beliefs” – the highest percentage in the ten Arab countries surveyed. The number who have confidence in their country’s direction dropped from 98% (in 2010) to 62%. While these numbers may seem unremarkable in most societies, in Saudi Arabia any rebellion against “the unquestioning acceptance … of previous generations.”

Marriages

The marriage rate between first and second cousins in Saudi Arabia is one of the highest in the world. Traditionally considered a means of “securing inter-tribal relations and preserving family wealth,” the practice is cited as a factor in higher rates of serious genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis or thalassemia, a blood disorder, type 2 diabetes (affecting about 32% of adult Saudis), hypertension (affecting 33%), sickle cell anemia, spinal muscular atrophy, deafness and muteness.

Poverty

Estimates of the number of Saudis below the poverty line vary from 12.7% to 25% Press reports and private estimates from 2013 “suggest that between 2 million and 4 million” of local Saudis live on “less than about $530 a month” – about $17 a day – which is considered the poverty line in Saudi Arabia. By contrast, Forbes magazine estimates King Abdullah’s personal wealth at $18 billion.

Women

Women do not have the same rights as men in the kingdom. The State Department considers discrimination against women by the Saudi government to be a “significant problem” in Saudi Arabia and notes that women have few political rights because of the government’s discriminatory policies. The report of the World Economic Forum 2010 on the global divide between the sexes occupied in relation to gender equality to 129. Place of Saudi Arabia among 134 countries. Other sources complained about the lack of laws criminalizing violence against women.

In August 2013, a law criminalized domestic violence against women. The ban includes 12 months’ imprisonment and fines of up to 50,000 rials ($ 13,000).

According to Saudi law, every adult woman must have a male parent as a “guardian”, for whom she must have permission to travel, study or work.

According to well-known Saudi feminist and journalist Wajeha al- Huwaider, “regardless of their status, Saudi women are weak, even those who are” pampered “among them because they have no laws to protect them from attack by anyone.

Women face discrimination in court when one man’s testimony matches that of two women on family and inheritance matters. Polygamy is allowed for men and men have the unilateral right to divorce their wives (talaq) without the need for a legal justification. A woman can only divorce with her husband’s consent or in court if her husband has harmed her. In practice, it is very difficult for a Saudi woman to get a legal divorce. With regard to the right of inheritance that the Koran gives to fixed parts of the estate of the deceased must be left Koranic heirs and generally the heiresses receive half the share of the male heirs.                            

The average age of first marriage for Saudi women in Saudi Arabia is 25 years, although child marriage is no longer common. In 2015, Saudi women made up 13% of the country’s indigenous workforce, compared with 51% of all college graduates. The literacy rate for women is estimated at 81%, lower than that for men.         

Obesity is a problem among the Saudis of the middle and upper classes , who are at home in the traditional work but are allowed to drive, thus limiting are able to leave their homes. Since April 2014, the Shura Council has asked the Saudi authorities at the Ministry of Education to consider lifting the ban on public school sports for girls, provided that all sports comply with the rules of Sharia clothing and gender segregation, according to the official SPA. Press agency.                       

The religious police, known as Mutawa puts women in Saudi Arabia in public many restrictions on , including the obligation , in separate, specially designated family departments to sit in restaurants, to wear an abaya and to cover themselves. the hair. Women are also not allowed to drive.               

Although Saudi Arabia women using the religious police nationwide imposed a strict dress code , are facilitators who work for the Al-Arabia news network that partially son Prince Abdulaziz belongs prohibited. of the late King Fahad to wear a veil and be encouraged to adopt a western dress code.

Some Saudi women have reached the top of the medical profession; Dr. For example, Ghada Al- Mutairi runs a medical research center in California, and Dr. Salwa Al- Hazzaa is the head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh and was the late King Fahad’s personal ophthalmologist.

On September 25, 2011, King Abdullah announced that Saudi women would be given the right to vote (and the right to vote) in local elections, provided a male guardian gives permission. On December 12, 2015 women were finally allowed to vote.

Stay Safe & Healthy in Saudi Arabia

Stay safe in Saudi Arabia

Realistically 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 was put down by brutal crackdowns by the Saudi security forces. There have been no major attacks in cities for several years. Security remains strict and it is advisable not to attract too much attention to yourself. Foreigners have their presence at their embassy or consulate login . Emergency alert systems using email and cell phone messaging are maintained by many governments for their migrant workers.

Four French tourists who are part of a larger group camping in the desert were shot dead by terrorists near Madain Saleh in early 2007 . Because of this, police escorts are mandatory – which can be an interesting experience, but can also be boring. Restrictive problems – are sometimes travel outside of large cities in regions such as Abha , Najran and Madain Saleh provided .

While Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world , there is a background level of nonviolent opportunistic theft such as pickpocketing and purse theft. Lock the doors and keep your valuables with you.          

Saudi society strives to keep men and women separate, but sexual harassment – whining, ridiculing, and even obeying – is widespread. Interrupting or just asking the stalker Anta Muslim out loud (“Are you a Muslim?”) Will usually be enough to scare them.                

Violations of Saudi law can bring a visitor into contact with the local police and judiciary. The Saudi judicial system is notoriously harsh, leaving no room for maneuver for non-Saudis, and embassies can only provide limited help in these situations.

WARNING! 
Drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia carries the death penalty.

Stay healthy in Saudi Arabia

There are no major health risks when traveling to Saudi Arabia: the water is generally potable and the food is generally, but not always, hygienic. No vaccinations are required for general travel to the Kingdom, but a full set of vaccinations is required as an entry requirement for pilgrims joining the Hajj and its exceptional concentration of pilgrims from all over the world.

Smoking is the only sin the mullahs don’t want to ban yet, and as a result everyone smokes everywhere: hotel lobbies, airport lounges, food courts in shopping malls, drivers in their taxis, etc. If this is a problem, be sure to ask about non-smoking rooms in hotels.   

The Kingdom has a large national health system, but the services in this program are fairly simple. Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These installations range from fairly rudimentary to very advanced and very expensive. Pharmacies are widespread and most drugs do not require a prescription. Psychotropic drugs are strictly controlled and are only available in government pharmacies.

Bottled water is readily available and, as they say, more expensive than gasoline.

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