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Saudi Arabia is the dusty, desert ridden heart of Islam, where Muhammad was born and where he pronounced Mecca and Medina to be holy cities. Predictably, it is a strict country where women are invisible behind veils, men wear ankle-length skirts, and alcohol and pigs are off-limits. Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, is entirely out of bounds for non-Muslims – do not try to pretend to be Muslim, either, because it won't be responded to warmly.
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia's wealth – courtesy of oil – has seen the emergence of a starkly modern aspect to some of the cities; most notably, perhaps, is Riyadh, where the glitzy modernity seems to rise up in an impressive shout of support for money and capitalism. But even here the heart of most Saudis remains Islam and the religion is still adhered to rigorously.
People of various cultures have lived in the peninsula over a span of more than 5,000 years. Except for a few major cities and oases, the harsh climate historically prevented much settlement of the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest known events in Arabian history are migrations from the peninsula into neighbouring areas. The religion of Islam began with Muhammad. Muhammad began preaching at Mecca before migrating to Medina, from where he united the tribes of Arabia into a singular Arab Muslim religious polity. With Muhammad (Sallah o Alaihe wa Aalihi Wasallam)'s death in 632, disagreement broke out over who would succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. Despite its spiritual importance, in political terms Arabia soon became a peripheral region of the Islamic world, in which the most important states were based at various times in such far away cities as Cairo, Damascus, Delhi, Esfahan, and Istanbul.
After a rebuilding period following the ending of the First Saudi State, the House of Saud returned to power in the Second Saudi State in 1824. The state lasted until 1891 when it succumbed to the Al Rashid dynasty of Ha'il. In 1902 Ibn Saud reconquered Riyadh, the first of a series of conquests leading to the creation of the modern nation state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The Third Saudi state was founded by the late King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. In 1902 Ibn Saud captured Riyadh, the Al-Saud dynasty's ancestral capital, from the rival Al-Rashid family. Boundaries with Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait were established by a series of treaties negotiated in the 1920s, with two "neutral zones" created, one with Iraq and the other with Kuwait.
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Saudi Arabia participated in the Arab oil boycott of the United States and Netherlands. A member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Saudi Arabia had joined other member countries in moderate oil price increases beginning in 1971. After the 1973 war, the price of oil rose substantially, dramatically increasing Saudi Arabia's wealth and political influence. The location and status of Saudi Arabia's boundary with the United Arab Emirates is not final; a de facto boundary reflects a 1974 agreement.
King Fahd played a key role before and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War: Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its soil for the liberation of Kuwait the following year.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, it became known that 15 of the 19 suspected hijackers were Saudi. Saudi Arabia became the focus of worldwide attention once again, as it was questioned whether the government was indeed cracking down on radicals. The Saudi government pledged their support to the War on Terror, and vowed to try to eliminate militant elements. However, in May 2003, an insurgency in Saudi Arabia began, believed to be conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates. This consisted mainly of attacks on foreigners in an attempt to expel them from the country and hurt the Saudi government. While the number of attacks dropped significantly in 2005, they exposed the vulnerability of the country. Concern was also voiced over the large number of Saudis fighting American soldiers in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
King Fahd died in July 2005. He was succeeded by his brother Crown Prince Abdullah, who had handled most of the day-to-day operations of the government.
Saudi Arabia shares international borders with Yemen, Oman, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian peninsula, lying between latitudes 16° and 33° N, and longitudes 34° and 56° E. Because the country's southern borders with the United Arab Emirates and Oman are not precisely defined or marked, the exact size of the country remains unknown, but is estimated at 2,250,000 km2. Saudi Arabia's geography is dominated by the Arabian Desert and associated semi-desert and shrubland (see satellite image to right). It is, in fact, a number of linked deserts and includes the 647,500 km2 Rub' al Khali ("Empty Quarter") in the southern part of the country, the world’s largest contiguous sand desert. There are virtually no rivers or lakes in the country, but wadis are numerous. The few fertile areas are to be found in the alluvial deposits in wadis, basins, and oases. The main topographical feature is the central plateau which rises abruptly from the Red Sea and gradually descends into the Nejd and toward the Persian Gulf. On the Red Sea coast, there is a narrow coastal plain, known as the Tihamah parallel to which runs an imposing escarpment. The southwest province of Asir is mountainous, and contains the 3,133 metres Mount Sawda, which is the highest point in the country.
The Empty Quarter is the largest unbroken sand sea in the world and one of the most hostile environments one can think of. It is located in three countries, but Saudi Arabia has the largest part which contains large parts of the southeast of the country and over the borders into the United Arab Emirates and Oman. As most of it is unreachable and travelling around the country in general is already hard, not many people find themselves here as the modern Lawrence of Arabia. It is said that government forbids travelling here and theoretically only a small part, reachable from the UAE Liwa Oasis (sea the United Arab Emirates article) can be reached by 4wd.
As the largest coastal area of the Red Sea belongs to Saudi Arabia, diving and snorkelling are increasinly popular ways of visiting the country and there are several package tourists from Europe who make their way to find some of the most unspoilt areas here, with numerous species of fish and fine coral reefs. Most people fly directly to Jeddah which is the best getaway for a week of beaching, diving and snorkelling. Nearby are Mecca and Medina, but unfortunately off limits to others than muslims.
Madain Saleh is the Petra of Saudi Arabia, being a Nabataean city hewed out of rock in the same style as Jordan's top tourist destination. If it wasn't for the strict visitors regulations in the country, this would be a top tourist draw. The closest city from where you can get to Madain Saleh is Al Wajh, with Medina being a bit further away. Still, access to the site by others than tours is difficult if not impossible and in fact many Muslims themselves refuse to enter the area due to a section in the Koran often interpreted as a curse against it.
Saudi Arabia has a hot and arid desert climate in most parts of the country. Although this applies to most of the country, temperatures in winter can be relatively low and the mountainous areas in the west (Asir for example) rarely get real hot. In summer (June to September) most of the country is like an oven with temperatures usually hitting 40 °C to 45 °C on most days and over 50 °C is not uncommon, even along the coast of the Persian Gulf. In winter, the capital Riyadh can have night temperatures just above zero, while along the coast of the Red Sea it might be 30 °C during the day. Obviously, winter (November to March) is the best time for a visit to most of the country, except the higher mountain areas.
Saudi Arabian Airlines is the main national airlines of Saudi Arabia and is based at King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) near Jeddah at the Red Sea. From there, it has numerous flights to countries within the region of the Middle East and further away to Dakar, Jakarta, New York, London and Frankfurt, among others. Other airlines are mainly from countries within the region although Air France has flights to and from Paris. King Khalid International Airport (RUH) near the capital Riyadh and King Fahd International Airport (DMM) near Dammam in the east are other main international airports with less flights but still enough within the region. A few other airlines like Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and BMI have flights to either or both of them.
Mostly, only citizens of the Middle Eastern countries travel by car to and from Saudi Arabia. Sometimes, however, 3 to 7 day transit visas are issued if you have your own car and want to travel for example between Jordan and Oman or UAE to Kuwait. You will only get one if you own the car and there is not other way of getting to reach your finale destination. You are more likely to get one when you travel to the north (Jordan for example) than travelling to the south (Oman for example). If you get one, border crossings are relatively hassle free and efficient and roads are good and tarred. Have your documentation, driving permit and insurance in order.
The Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company offers the best connections, mainly in the eastern part of the peninsula. Neighbouring countries have good transport companies as well. The main cities served from other countries are Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah. Destinations from Riyadh include Amman, Kuwait, Aden, Sana'a, Doha, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Cairo, Khartoum and Damascus. From Jeddah the same destinations are served including services to Beirut. For Doha and Manama, you have to switch buses in Dammam. From Dammam, buses also go to Sjarjah in the UAE and Aqaba in Jordan. For Oman, you have to switch buses in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Turkey, Iraq and Iran are currently not served from Saudi Arabia.
There are a number of connections between the Arabian Peninsula and countries in the northwest of Africa. For example, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia is linked to Suez in Egypt, Port Sudan in Sudan and Musawwa in Eritrea. Check the Al Blagha company's website for more details.
Several ferries and fast catamarans travel between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Connections include and Bushehr to Dammam in the east of Saudi Arabia. Check the Iran Traveling Center for more details about schedules and prices.
Note: Travelling around independently in Saudi Arabia is only possible when you have a business visa, which you can get when a local person, organisation or company invites you to the country. Otherwise, you will be limited to travel around in a group with a local or foreign travel agency. Generally speaking, tourist numbers are extemely low.
Saudi Arabian Airlines provides all domestic flights in the country. Prices are relatively low and services reliable and frequent. Destinations include Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran on the east coast.
Saudi Railways operates a limited number of train links in the country. Destinations along the Riyadh - Dammam line include Dhahran, Abqaiq, Hofuf, Harad and Al Kharj. There is a daily service in aircon trains which also have a dining car. An additional line links Riyadh with Hofuf.
The roads in Saudi Arabia are of the highest quality and so are rental cars. The local driving skills, unfortunately, are not and you will be surprised how fast some cars actually drive; 200 km/hour is not uncommon.
International rental companies have offices in most bigger cities. A national driver's licence, translated into Arabic, is required. You also need to be 25 years old at least and be a man!
Note that you can not enter Mekka and there are special road signs to make sure you won't.
New bus links are introduced all the times to provide aircon services between most major cities and towns. SAPTCO is the main bus company. Minibuses ply the same routes and leave when full.
Other than chartering a traditional dhow or luxury yacht there are no options of getting around by boat. International diving trips provide luxury boats as well.
Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and to those who show stamps and/or visas from Israel.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most difficult countries in the world for visitors to get a visa. That is, if you want to travel independently. Workers, travellers on guided tours and travellers in transit (but rules apply as well) can get visas but other than that it is impossible. Unaccompanied women are denied visas as well. If you want a transit visa you have to state that there is no other way of getting from one country to another without transiting through Saudi Arabia. Usually this will mean you have your own vehicle and transit visas are for 3-5 days only, so visiting any places is almost impossible as well. If you have an Israeli pasport or prove in your pasport that you have been to Israel, you will be denied acces as well.
Citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council nationals (GCC: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman) do not need visas to enter Saudi Arabia.
See also Money Matters
The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal (ريال, SAR), which has traded at a fixed 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 odds are you probably will never see any halala coins. Bills come in values of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 riyals, with two different series in circulation.
The riyal is also pegged to the Bahraini dinar at a 10:1 ratio. If you are considering travelling to Bahrain, virtually all businesses in Bahrain will accept riyals, but the dinar is not as easily convertible in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society, and credit card acceptance is surprisingly poor outside luxury hotels and malls. ATMs are ubiquitous, although those of many smaller banks do not accept foreign cards; Samba, SABB and ANB are probably your best bets. Money changers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere. Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by merchants.
There are quite a few jobs for expatriates in Saudi Arabia. While the pay is good, foreigners often find that the strictly Muslim society and the near-total lack of employees' rights makes the country a most difficult place to work and live.
To get a working visa, you must have a Saudi sponsor. Then to get an exit visa, you need your sponsor's signature. This can lead to major problems. ESL teachers can find work in Saudi Arabia with a Bachelor`s Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers in Saudi Arabia can expect to earn 8,000 - 13,000 SAR (monthly) and will usually teach 20 – 30 hours in a week. Contracts will usually include accommodations, airfare, and health care. Preference is usually given to male teachers, and previous ESL work experience may be required.
Arabic is the official language of the Kingdom. There are numerous dialects spoken around the country, but the most important are Hejazi Arabic, originating from the Hejaz around Jeddah and the effective lingua franca, and Najdi Arabic, spoken in the Nejd around Riyadh.
Many people understand some English, although markedly less well than in, say, the UAE. Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali are extensively used in the marketplaces and by sub-continent expatriates. All major languages are spoken in the markets of Makkah. There is a significant Tagalog-speaking expatriate minority as well.
Nearly all road signs are in English as well as Arabic, although the vast majority of speed limit signs use only Arabian numerals.
The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich. The Egyptian mashed fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips like hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad).
Finding restaurants that serve actual Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places or, if you're really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home.
Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and not a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere (e.g. Hardee's, Little Caesars). Meals invariably served with fries and Coke cost SR10-20.
Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia's large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SR10. Just don't expect frills like air-conditioning.
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 apartments). Shigka-maafroosha owners generally loiter in hotel lobbies. Often, they will approach civilized-looking people (generally families) and make an offer. Prices for shigka-mafrooshas and small hotels are always negotiable to a great degree. Smaller hotels will only accept cash, normally in advance.
Larger, more expensive hotels are abundant in all major cities. After the lull caused by the insurgency in 2003, prices have been rising again, and you can expect to pay north of US$200 for a weekday night at a good hotel in any of the big Saudi cities. In exchange, you usually get excellent service and the ability to work around some restrictions (e.g. restaurants that stay open through prayer hours and daytime room service during Ramadan).
Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but water pipes (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are strictly a male domain. In a government effort to minimize smoking in major cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, establishments that offer shisha are either banished to the outskirts of town, or offer exclusive outdoor seating arrangements.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom's malls. These usually welcome women, although 2008 saw several arrests of unmarried couples "mingling".
As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, try mirra, made in the Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it's strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na'ana).
Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expats, where homebrew wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling booze in quantity, then expat or not, Saudi law applies. A foreigner may not get the sentence a local would, but can expect a few days or weeks jail, public flogging, and deportation.
As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of various fruit juices, ranging from the ordinary (apple, orange) to the downright bizarre (banana-lemon-milk-walnut, anyone?).
Non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks are popular. Two of the most common are Saudi champagne, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, i.e. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences. You can even get apple-flavored Budweiser!
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Saudi Arabia. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Saudi Arabia) where that disease is widely prevalent.
For people making the Hadj and Umrah, a meningitis vaccination is also required. This also applies to seasonal workers entering the country.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Saudi Arabia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B and rabies are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
In some parts of the country, malaria is prevalent. It is recommend to take malaria pills when going to these regions. Dengue occurs as well, so take other general precautions as well, including sleeping under a mosquito net and using repellant (50% DEET).
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Realistically speaking, the biggest danger a visitor to Saudi Arabia faces is the lethal driving - drive or pick your drivers carefully and buckle up your seatbelt.
A low-level insurgency which targets foreigners in general and Westerners in particular continues to bubble. The wave of violence in 2003-2004 has been squashed by a brutal crackdown by Saudi security forces and there have been no major attacks in the cities for several years, security remains tight and it is prudent not to draw too much attention to yourself. Foreigners should register their presence with their embassy or consulate. Emergency alert systems using e-mail and cell phone messages are maintained by many governments for their guest workers.
Four French tourists, part of a larger group that had been camping in the desert, were shot and killed by terrorists near Madain Saleh in early 2007. Due to this, mandatory police escorts - which can be an interesting experience, but can also be annoying, restrictive hassles — are sometimes provided for travel outside major cities, in areas like Abha, Najran and Madain Saleh.
While Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, a certain background level of non-violent opportunistic theft like pickpocketing and purse snatching does exist. Lock doors and keep valuables on your person.
Saudi society endeavours to keep men and women separate, but sexual harassment - leers, jeers and even being followed — is depressingly common. Raising a ruckus or simply loudly asking the harasser anta Muslim? ("are you Muslim?") will usually suffice to scare them off.
Violations of Saudi law can bring a visitor into contact with the local police and justice systems. The Saudi justice system is notoriously harsh and gives no leeway to non-Saudis, and embassies can provide only limited help in these situations. See Respect for how to stay out of trouble.
Homosexuals should note that they are in high danger in Saudi Arabia if attempting sexual activities or express love in public (for example kissing), for homosexuality is a crime in Saudi Arabia which carries a sentence of death by stoning. See also the paragraph 'Respect' below.
Internet cafes abound in major Saudi cities, and many shopping malls feature a gaming parlor or two. Rates are around SR5/hour.
While Internet in Saudi Arabia is cordoned off by a filter, it aims primarily at pornography, non-Islamic religious and domestic political sites in Arabic, and (from the traveller's point of view) is nowhere near as strict as, say, China's. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, all major webmail providers etc. are all accessible.
See also International Telephone Calls
The three mobile operators in Saudi, incumbent Al Jawal, Emirati rival Mobily and Kuwaiti newcomer Zain (Vodafone Network) are fiercely competitive, with good coverage (in populated areas) and good pricing. A starter pack with prepaid SIM and talktime starts from about SR 75, and you can sign up in most any larger mobile shop (bring your passport). Local calls are under SR 0.5/minute, while calls overseas are around or less than SR 2/min.
And yes, you can bring in your own phone: despite grumblings from the clerics, both camera phones and multimedia messaging (MMS) are now legal.
Saudi Post has a good network of post offices around the country, but offices are closed Thursday and Friday. Stamps for postcards to anywhere in the world cost SR4. The bigger problem is actually finding postcards, as the mutawwa periodically crack down on the celebration of non-Islamic holidays like Valentine's Day, Christmas or even birthdays, causing all cards of any sort to disappear from bookstores! Your best bet is thus gift shops in major hotels. Mail coming in to the country from overseas is notoriously unreliable. Stories abound of things arriving months after they were sent or never arriving at all. There are branches of DHL, FedEx and UPS operating throughout the kingdom, so a good rule of thumb is to have anything important sent through those channels.
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