The appearance of accessible parking spots is about the extent of assistance provided in most Saudi cities to those with disabilities. High-end hotels can prepare ramps and offer one-to-one assistance if they are notified in advance. Contact your airline if you need additional support.
Bargaining is expected in most souqs and casual shopping areas. In the modern malls, prices tend to be fixed, although asking for a discount is not out of the question.
Dangers & Annoyances
Saudi Arabia feels remarkably safe, with very little visible crime. The area close to the Yemeni border has been considered off-limits to travellers given the ongoing war.
- Road checkpoints with armed soldiers can be intimidating for foreigners; always have the correct documents for your vehicle and yourself at all times.
- Driving in Saudi Arabia remains a terrifying experience. If you do take the wheel, drive defensively and with extreme caution.
- Often place names on maps and in guidebooks will not correlate with what locals know them by.
- Camels wandering into traffic is a common problem around the Kingdom. Look out for signs on roads and stay alert.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest incidents of road fatalities in the world. The coastal road that links Jeddah to Jazan (Road No 55) has the highest fatality rate in the Kingdom.
Buses and taxis can suddenly veer across the road to pick up or drop off passengers, and pick-up trucks can pull out unexpectedly at junctions or after petrol stations.
Some drivers outside towns at night drive with one light or no lights on. Vehicles can try to overtake on corners, and Saudi drivers expect you (and sometimes oncoming traffic) to pull over so that they can pass.
Stares, leers and obscene comments are sometimes reported by Western women travellers. It’s rarely more than this, however, and the social disgrace that comes from having touched a woman in public is one of the most effective weapons against this. If a harasser persists, report him to the police or security officers who can be found on most streets and in most malls in the Kingdom.
The more conservatively you dress, the more conservatively you will be treated, particularly if wearing a headscarf.
Security has been tight around residential compounds and embassies for more than a decade and shows no signs of relaxing. Nevertheless, security incidents still occur in the Kingdom and isolated attacks on foreigners have taken place in both the country's east and in Riyadh.
Simmering unrest in eastern Saudi Arabia and the ongoing war with Yemen mean that both the east and southwest of the country are best avoided for the foreseeable future. The biggest security concern at the time of research remains Islamist acts of terror against government installations and public gatherings. It pays to remain vigilant at all times. While in Saudi Arabia, you should register with your embassy and keep a close eye on warnings issued by via email or text message.
Embassies & Consulates
Emergency & Important Numbers
|Najm (nonemergency traffic accident team)||9200 00560|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Immigration is much quicker than it used to be (except during hajj and Ramadan, when you can expect long queues). All bags, including hand luggage, are X-rayed but are usually only opened when further investigation is warranted.
Note that departure security is vigorous and time consuming. You’re advised to arrive early – three hours before international flights.
If you’re arriving by land, procedures are similar, although expect long delays if you’re bringing your own car into the Kingdom.
Despite all warnings, some travellers continue to try to enter Saudi with alcohol. If you are caught with any amount, you will be returned home on the next flight. If you’re deemed to be in possession of a quantity that exceeds ‘personal consumption’, punishments are severe (they include flogging and even the death penalty if you're convicted of smuggling).
DVDs, videos or suspect-looking books are passed to Ministry of Information officials for inspection. Unfamiliar or suspect-looking items may be confiscated for further inspection for up to 48 hours. Receipts are issued for later collection once items have been inspected and passed. Laptops and computer media are not checked unless officials are suspicious.
Alongside business visas, at the time of research, visitor visas were also being issued to attend festivals and events in the Kingdom.
Hajj & Umrah Visas
For hajj visas, there’s a quota system of one visa for every 1000 Muslims in a country’s population. The system of administration varies from country to country but typically involves an application processed by a Saudi-authorised hajj and umrah travel agency. Every Saudi embassy has a list of authorised hajj and umrah travel agencies for that particular country.
Umrah (any pilgrimage to Mecca that is not hajj) visas are granted to any Muslim requesting one (in theory), although if you are not from a Muslim-majority country or don’t have an obviously Muslim name, you’ll be asked to provide an official document that lists Islam as your religion. Converts to Islam must provide a certificate from the mosque where they underwent their conversion ceremony.
Umrah and hajj visas are free but are valid only for travel to Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and the connecting roads.
There has been a recent crackdown on hajj and umrah visa holders illegally staying on to work in the Kingdom, and security roadblocks for checking visa permits are common throughout the Hejaz region.
The closest thing to a tourist visa being issued at the time of research were visit visas attached to specific festivals and events. These visas are arranged through the organising body for the event. These visit visas suggest tourist visas for Saudi Arabia are not too far behind.
If you're planning to enter the country for a specific event or festival, it's best to allow the event organisers to arrange your visas. For a full list of possible visa types, see www.saudiembassy.net/services.
Business visas are arranged via an employer and a sponsoring Saudi partner for a specific business purpose. Depending on the Saudi embassy where you are applying (always phone ahead to double-check requirements), typically a visa application will require a letter from your employer or company outlining the nature of your business in Saudi Arabia, and a letter of support from your local chamber of commerce.
The Saudi sponsor (the individual or company) then applies to the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and Industry for approval. If this is granted, an invitation letter will be sent to you, or directly to the Saudi embassy in your home country. Note that you must make your visa application in your country of nationality or permanent residency.
Residence (Work) Visas
Residence (work) visas are arranged via a Saudi employer who is also an individual’s visa sponsor.
Visa categories can and do provide a major source of headaches for expat workers in Saudi Arabia, especially in relation to the nature of the stay offered to accompanying family members. The visa restrictions and length of stay in Saudi Arabia granted to each family member will often differ depending on gender and age. These details should not be assumed to be the same for younger children, teenagers or spouses and should be carefully checked before arrival in the Kingdom.
When planning your Saudi visa, keep the following in mind:
- A Saudi sponsor is necessary for any visit to the Kingdom, and they are legally responsible for the conduct and behaviour of visitors while in the Kingdom.
- Passports must be valid for a minimum of six months.
- When applying for a visa, women under 30 years old must be accompanied by either their brother or their husband, who must also arrive in and leave Saudi at the same time.
- Men and women are only allowed to travel together and are granted a visa to do so if they are married (with an official marriage licence) or form part of a group.
- It’s not permitted for an unmarried couple to travel alone together in Saudi Arabia and doing so runs the risk of arrest.
Israeli Passports & Stamps
At the top of the restricted list of travellers to Saudi Arabia remain citizens of Israel, but people of Jewish faith from other countries can also have trouble getting in. All visitors to Saudi must declare their religion – those declaring ‘Jewish’ or ‘none’ have been known to be refused a visa, though the changes sweeping the country suggest this will no longer be the case.
Any evidence of travel to and from Israel will result in refusal of entry into Saudi. If you have any evidence of travel to Israel in your passport and intend to travel to Saudi Arabia in the future, use a brand-new passport for your Saudi visa application.
- Dress Conservative dress is the rule of thumb in Saudi Arabia. Shorts in public are a big no-no (except for private beaches operated by some top-end hotels and expat compounds); if males wear shorts, they must reach over their knees, while women must cover themselves with the traditional abaya (robe-like dress).
- Greetings Greetings are considered to be extremely important. The most common greeting is salaam alaykum ('may peace be upon you'), to which the reply is wa alaykum as salaam ('and peace upon you too').
- Handshaking Shaking hands (between men) is an important gesture of mutual respect.
- In public Almost every institute, especially restaurants, have a male and 'family' section, which is essentially for women, and men can enter only with family. Sometimes there are also separate queues. When in public spaces, steer clear of getting too close to another family, especially when deciding where to sit.
Formally known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the mutawwa (religious police) used to have an infamous reputation as moral vigilantes out to enforce strict Islamic orthodoxy. Operating independently from other branches of the security services, the mutawwa were at their most authoritative (and hence not to be argued with) when accompanied by uniformed police.
These days their powers have been completely reduced, as has their visibility. You will not see them in any of the big cities and barely find them present, if at all, in some of the smaller, more conservative areas.
For Muslims, public observance of the fast is mandatory. Non-Muslims should avoid smoking, eating or drinking in public during Ramadan between the hours of sunrise and sunset as it can be seen as a serious offence punishable by law.
Most hotels and many restaurants and coffee houses have free wi-fi.
The internet is strictly policed, with more than 6000 sites blocked in Saudi Arabia at the time of research. Most are pornographic, but they also include sites discussing politics, health, women’s rights and education.
Saudi Arabia imposes strict Sharia (Islamic law), under which extremely harsh punishments can be imposed. For more information, consult your embassy.
If you’re involved in a traffic accident, you must not call the police but an independent accident management team called Najm, on 9200 00560, as they handle all nonemergency traffic accidents. Don’t move your car and don’t leave the scene until they have arrived. The Najm officer, who is authorised by law, will carry out an assessment based on the testimony of both parties and then issue you with a report that should be taken to your car-hire company.
If you try to bring any of the following items into the country, the penalties range from confiscation for minor offences to imprisonment or deportation for more serious offences.
- Artwork considered un-Islamic or items bearing non-Islamic religious symbols
- Many books, DVDs and videos
- Firearms and explosives
- Illegal drugs, or medication without a doctor’s prescription
- Politically sensitive material and material overly critical of the government or royal family; this may include seemingly innocent newspaper articles
- Pork products
- Pornography or any publications containing pictorial representations of people (particularly women) in a less than conservative state of dress
- Symbols or books of other religions (including the Bible)
Homosexual acts and extra-marital sexual relations, including adultery, are illegal according to Saudi law and punishable by severe penalty. It is also illegal to be transgender in the Kingdom.
The best maps of Saudi Arabia are produced by Farsi Maps. Costing SR25 each, they’re available at branches of the Jarir Bookstore throughout the Kingdom. The series includes many general maps of most regions and excellent city maps for Riyadh, Jeddah, Yanbu, Taif, Mecca and Medina, among other locations.
The English-language dailies Arab News (www.arabnews.com) and Saudi Gazette (www.saudigazette.com.sa) are surprisingly frank, although they steer clear of any criticism of the royal family or Islam.
International newspapers (the Guardian, the Times, the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde) and magazines (Time and Newsweek) are available from any branch of the Jarir Bookstore, usually within three days of publication. Don’t expect your foreign newspaper to include all of its pages though – censors routinely extract articles about Saudi Arabia and any photographs considered vaguely risqué or controversial.
Jeddah Radio (96.2FM) broadcasts in English and French, while the BBC World Service (www.bbc.co.uk/worldserviceradio) is available online and on short-wave frequency (11.760kHz or 15.575kHz).
ATMs are widespread, and credit cards are widely accepted.
Most establishments in big cities will accept credit cards, however, outside of these areas even hotels may demand cash.
The unit of currency is the Saudi riyal (SR). One riyal (SR1) is divided into 100 halalas. Coins come in 25- and 50-halala denominations. Notes come in SR1, SR5, SR10, SR20, SR50, SR100, SR200 and SR500 denominations. The Saudi riyal is a hard currency, and there are no restrictions on its import or export.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
For the best rates, head to a money-exchange bureau, where all major currencies are exchanged and commission is not usually charged. Exchange desks at hotels offer poor rates.
Tipping is not a common practice in Saudi Arabia, except in the very cosmopolitan parts of Jeddah and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia's weekend is Friday and Saturday. Note that during prayer times – five times a day – everything shuts. In general, opening hours are as follows:
Banks 8.30am–noon and 4.30pm–8pm Sunday to Thursday (at airports, banks are open 24 hours)
Offices 7.30am–2.30pm Sunday to Thursday
Post Offices 7.30am–10pm Sunday to Thursday and 4.30pm–10pm Friday
Restaurants 7am–noon and 3pm–midnight (from 3pm on Friday)
Shopping Centres 9am–10pm (to midnight Friday and Saturday)
Shops and Souqs 8am–noon and 1pm–9pm Sunday to Thursday, from 1pm Friday
Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that requires all businesses to close during prayer five times each day: morning (fajr prayer), late morning (dhuhr), afternoon (asr), dusk (maghreb) and evening (isha).
Daily routines revolve around these prayer times, as all shops and government offices, except emergency services and hospitals, close for prayer – arrive at the wrong time and you'll be forced to wait outdoors in the heat for a shop or museum to open its doors. Strictly enforced, the closures can last for up to 30 minutes. If you’re already inside a restaurant and eating, you’ll usually be allowed to finish your meal (with the curtains drawn and door locked), but note that most places won’t let you in unless they think you can finish in time. In shops, banks and other places, you will usually be asked to leave to avoid problems with the mutawwa (religious police).
Prayers are set according to the lunar calendar, so they can vary by a minute or two from day to day. The first is performed before sunrise, then the noon prayer falls between noon and 1pm, followed by the mid-afternoon prayer between 3.30pm and 4.30pm. The next is the sunset prayer, followed by the last prayer of the day about an hour or two after this. Consult local daily newspapers (eg page 2 or 3 of the Arab News) for exact timings.
Due to security concerns, photography is off-limits in certain areas – government buildings, embassies, airports, sea ports, desalination and electricity plants, oil rigs, royal palaces and police stations, or anything vaguely connected with the military or security services. Don’t photograph people without their permission, and never photograph women (even in a general street scene).
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography is full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.
Any internationally addressed parcel must first be taken to the post office unwrapped so that Saudi customs can inspect it. If a parcel includes DVDs, they may be viewed by customs before you can mail them.
Saudi Arabia observes the Eid Al Fitr (dates vary), Eid Al Adha (dates vary) and National Day (23 September) as public holidays.
- Smoking Banned in most public spaces, including restaurants, coffeeshops and shopping malls.
The main mobile phone providers are STC (www.stc.com.sa), Zain (www.zain.com) and Mobily (www.mobily.com.sa).
SIM cards can be bought at airports and at any of the retail outlets for the main providers. To acquire one you will need to provide your national ID.
Saudi Arabia observes Arabia Standard Time (GMT/UTC plus three hours) all year; there are no daylight saving time changes.
Squat toilets are still very common all over Saudi Arabia outside of the big cities. When booking accommodation in smaller towns, including places like Al Ula, it is worth asking what type of toilets the rooms have.
Saudi Arabia's Tourism website is www.sauditoursim.sa. There are no tourist offices in the country except for one in the town of Abha; however, Saudi Arabia has set up a tourism helpline, which is 19988 from inside the Kingdom (otherwise it's +96611 261 4750). Besides this, concierges at high-end hotels and local guides are the best sources of tourist information.
Travel with Children
Although Saudis are family oriented, the country is not particularly friendly for travelling with children. There are almost no areas dedicated to baby changing, and most restaurants do not offer a children's menu, unless it is a fast-food joint. Also, in most places around the Kingdom, the pavements are not suited for pushchairs.
That is not to say Saudi Arabia is not a place for children – far from it. Children are welcome everywhere and many venues offer discounts for child entry. Almost every mall has a children's amusement or play area built into it, and increasingly waterfront paths up and down the country are integrating more play parks and child-friendly features, such as Jeddah's Corniche.
Specific sights suited to children include the Riyadh Zoo, which is home to a host of exotic animals and birds that will keep little ones entertained, as will the mini train they can ride. There's also Al Hukair Funland in Mecca, which has a host of gentle rides for little ones, but the standout children's entertainment venue has to be Ithra in Dammam, which has a children's museum and cinema and hosts numerous interactive workshops and events throughout the year, from telescope making with recycled materials to storytelling sessions.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Saudi Arabia uses the metric system.
Saudi Arabia is rightly considered one of the most difficult countries in which to travel if you're a woman by yourself. The strict segregation of the sexes and the need for a male chaperone leads to obvious limitations on freedom of movement.
The fact that women can now drive has improved things, albeit marginally, but the reality is that a woman cannot move around Saudi Arabia alone without attracting unwanted attention. Furthermore, it would be impossible to find places to eat or sleep, as most restaurants outside of big towns are men-only affairs, and hotels in these areas will be reluctant to rent a room to a woman by herself.
Changes in legislation do not necessarily mean long-held social norms will disappear overnight. While Saudi Arabia is becoming far more comfortable for Saudi women, there is still a long way to go before the same can be said for female travellers to the country.
Accessing anywhere that does not have a separate 'family' entrance is impossible for a woman. In most big cities, such places are common, but in rural areas, smaller towns and villages there are rarely restaurants with 'family' sections, making it impossible to eat in for a woman by herself.
Museums and some sights, such as Riyadh Zoo, have special family-only hours, and some banks have ‘ladies’ branches’.
What to Wear
By law, women must wear an abaya (full-length robe). Though a headscarf is not compulsory, it's best to have one on hand in more conservative areas.
The only way for foreigners to work in the Kingdom is to arrange a residence (work) visa via a Saudi employer, who is also the employee’s sponsor, before leaving their home nation.
Websites including www.gulftalent.com and www.edarabia.com have regular listings of jobs in the Kingdom.