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.
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:
- the diplomatic quarter (in Riyadh)
- the beach resort connections north of Jeddah
- the site of Saudi Aramco (in the eastern province)
- the city of Qatif in the eastern province of
- 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.
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:
|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.|
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, 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.
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.