Saudi Arabia

Photo © krautarsch

Travel Guide Middle East Saudi Arabia

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Introduction

Dusk at Sea

Dusk at Sea

© andyjberks

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 too 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.

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Brief History

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.

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Geography

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.

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Regions

Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but the traditional divisions of the country are more useful for making sense of it.

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

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Cities

  • Riyadh - the capital of the Kingdom.
  • Abha - a summer tourist mountain resort city in the southwest near the Yemeni border.
  • Buraidah - the capital of Al-Qassim Region in northcentral Saudi Arabia in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Dammam - gateway to the east of the country.
  • Dhahran - the home of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest petroleum company.
  • Ha'il - city in northwestern Saudi Arabia. It is the capital of Ha'il Region,
  • Hofuf - major urban center in the Al-Ahsa Oasis in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It is also known for being one of the largest date producers in the world, and for its old souks and palaces.
  • Jeddah - a large metropolitan city on the Red Sea, and the gateway to Makkah and Madinah.
  • Jubail - the largest industrial city in the kingdom.
  • Mecca - the holiest city of Islam.
  • Medina - the site of the Prophet's Mosque.
  • Najran - a Yemeni-influenced city with a remarkable fortress.
  • Tabuk - in the northwest of the country.
  • Taif - a moderate-sized mountain town and popular resort area.
  • Yanbu - major Red Sea port in the Al Madinah Province of western Saudi Arabia.

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Sights and Activities

Empty Quarter

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.

Diving and Snorkelling

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

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.

Other sights and activities

  • Mecca and Medina - only if you are muslim (either doing Hajj or not)
  • Rough mountain scenery - Abha is a major mountain resort area

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Events and Festivals

Janadriyah National Festival

Saudi Arabia’s biggest folk and cultural festival takes place for two weeks each February in Janadriyah, about 50 kilometres from Riyadh. Thrilling horse and camel races are among the highlights of what may be Saudi Arabia’s liveliest non-religious public gathering. Artisans from across the country sell and display their crafts, while some of Saudi Arabia’s most talented poets recite their latest compositions.

Milad al-Nabi

All Saudi Muslims celebrate the birthday of their Prophet, Mohammad, by elaborately decorating their homes and mosques. Children recite poems about the Prophet, while older Saudis tell stories about Mohammad’s life and accomplishments. Large feasts and street processions are among Milad al-Nabi’s other traditional activities. The date of Milad al-Nabi varies from year to year according to the Islamic calendar.

Jeddah Festival

Perhaps no other Saudi festival is as tourist-friendly as the one which takes place in the port city of Jeddah between June and July. The first Jeddah Festival was held in 2000 to attract more tourists to Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, but the festival has now grown to include over 200 exciting events. Visitors can sample traditional Saudi dishes, purchase local handicrafts, or watch the opening fireworks display over Jeddah’s stunning Corniche.

Unification of the Kingdom Day

The country’s only secular public holiday takes place each September 23 on the anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s 1932 founding. Although many Saudis still choose to quietly celebrate this formerly low-key holiday at home, growing numbers of young Saudis have chosen to express their national pride more overtly by singing, dancing, honking car horns, and waving Saudi flags.

Eid ul-Fitr

Like their Muslim counterparts in other nations, Saudis mark the final day of the fasting month of Ramadan with this three-day religious festival. Eid ul-Fitr begins with a small morning meal and quiet prayers, and continues with larger feasts and livelier celebrations among family and friends. Saudi children receive money and elaborately decorated gift bags from adults, several shopkeepers add free gifts to all purchases, and Saudi men secretly leave large bags of food on strangers’ doorsteps during this festive time of year.

Eid al-Adha

This important Muslim festival lasts four days and marks the moment when Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice Ismael, his son, for Allah. Today, most Saudi families celebrate Eid al-Adha by dressing up in their finest clothing, saying special prayers, and slaughtering lambs to share their meat with everyone.

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Weather

People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an expanse of scorchingly hot desert punctuated with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country, they are right. From May to September, the country (basically everything except the southwestern mountains) bakes in temperatures that average 42 °C and regularly exceed 50 °C in the shade. In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country and work slows down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38 °C, but at the price of extreme humidity (85-100%), which many find even more uncomfortable than the dry heat of the interior, especially at night. Only the elevated mountainous regions stay cool(er), with the summer resort city of Taif rarely topping 35 °C and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet.

In winter, though, it's surprisingly different. Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 21 °C, and temperatures can easily fall below zero at night, occasionally even resulting in a sprinkling of snow in the southern mountains. The winter can also bring rains to all or most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two torrential outbursts. The end of spring (April and May) is also a rainy season for much of the country. In the south, though, this pattern is reversed, with most rain falling during the Indian Ocean's monsoon season between May and October.

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Getting There

By Plane

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.

By Car

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.

By Bus

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, Al 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.

By Boat

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.

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Getting Around

Internal travel permits are a thing of the past, so once you've gotten into Saudi, the country is your oyster. There are, however, three exceptions:

Many archaeological sites around the country, e.g. Madain Saleh, require permits. The National Museum in Riyadh issues these free of charge, but you should apply at least a week in advance.
The area around Makkah and Madinah is off-limits to non-Muslims; conversely, those on Hajj visas are prohibited from leaving the area (and transit points like Jeddah). The exclusion zone is well signposted.
Some remote areas, notably around the Iraqi and Yemeni borders, are restricted military zones. You're exceedingly unlikely to stumble into them by accident.

By Plane

Saudi Arabia is a large country, which makes flying the only comfortable means of long-distance travel. State carrier Saudia has the best schedules, with near-hourly flights on the busy Riyadh-Jeddah sector (90 min) and walk-up one-way fares costing a reasonable 280 Saudi riyals (SR) (or about US$75). Low-cost competitor Nas can be even cheaper if you book in advance, but their schedules are sparser, changes will cost you money and there's no meal on board.

By Train

The railway network in Saudi Arabia used to be underdeveloped, but there has been a major push to expand rail coverage. The older line running between Riyadh, Al-Hofuf and Dammam has been complemented by a new north-south line between Riyadh, Buraydah and Al Qurayyat near the Jordanian border. In 2018, a new high speed link, the Haramain highspeed railway, connecting Jeddah with the holy cities of Mecca (45 min) and Medina (2 hours), opened.

Confusingly, each railway is operated by a different company. The classic line between Riyadh and Damman is operated by Saudi Railways Organization while Saudi Railway Company operates the north-south railway. Haramain Highspeed Railway operates its own website. Online tickets are available for all services. It is advisable to buy tickets in advance as the trains are often sold out.

The standard is very high with all passenger services offering both second and business classes, with plush leather seats and 2+1 seating. On trains between Riydah and Damman, business class is slightly less extravagant as it has an extra class, delightfully named Rehab, which compares to business on other services. For North-South services, private sleeper cabins are also available at a premium. Almost all trains have a cafeteria car serving up drinks and snacks, as well as push-trolley service and there are slick waiting lounges at stations. Also, beware that most carriages reserve the forward-facing seats at the front of each carriage for families.

By Car

Car rental is available and gasoline is some of the cheapest in the world. Highway quality is highly variable, except highways that connect 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 common, and if a visitor is involved in one, they would be exposed to the extremely punitive Saudi legal system; see elsewhere on this page for the warnings about that. Also be aware that any accident involving a foreigner and a Saudi citizen is automatically regarded to be the foreigner's fault under Saudi law, regardless of whose fault it actually is. Access to car rentals is limited to persons 21 and older.

If you are involved in a car accident all parties are required to stay where they are and wait for the Traffic Police (call 993) to turn up, which can take up to four hours. English is unlikely to be spoken by the police, even in big cities, so try to use the waiting time to arrange a translator. The police will issue an accident report, which you have to take to the traffic police station and get it stamped a few times in different queues (this takes most of a morning). Only then can any damage to the car be repaired, as insurance companies will not pay for any body work without this report.

It is not uncommon for the traffic police to resolve the incident there and then by determining the guilty party and deciding compensation. So, should it be your fault the Police will ask you to pay an amount to the other party, but you are not obligated to do so.

Notoriously, Saudi Arabia used to ban women from driving on public roads. However, the law changed in June 2018, and women are now allowed to drive in the kingdom, albeit only with permission from their male guardian.

By Taxi

Within cities, taxis are the only practical means of transportation. Standardized throughout the country, metered fares start at SR5 and tick up at SR1.60/km, but outside Riyadh you'll often have to haggle the price in advance. Solo passengers are expected to sit up front next to the driver: this has the advantages of being next to the full blast of the air-con and making it easier to wave your hands to show the way.

By Bus

The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) operates long-distance buses linking together all corners of the country. Buses are modern, air-conditioned and comfortable, but often slow, and the bus stations are more often than not several kilometers away from the city centre. The Riyadh-Dammam service, for example, costs SR60 and takes around 6 hours.

Special "VIP" services operate on the Riyadh-Dammam and Riyadh-Bahrain sectors. For a surcharge of about 50%, you get a direct, non-stop city centre-to-city centre services, plush seating and a meal on-board. They are quite good value, if the sparse schedules match your plans.

By Boat

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.

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Red Tape

Visa Restrictions: Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and to those who show stamps and/or visas from Israel.

The long-awaited tourist visas have finally arrived: the Saudi government plans to start issuing them in late September 2019. These are one-year multiple-entry visas allowing you to stay up to 90 days per entry. Citizens of 49 countries can get an e-visa online or get a visa on arrival. This applies to citizens of Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Those not listed must apply at an embassy or consulate and provide additional documentation: proof of accommodation, proof of employment, proof of a return ticket, and a bank statement. The visa fee is SR440 (2019). In all cases your passport must have at least 6 months validity remaining when you enter the country (except for US citizens, who are still allowed up to six months after the passport's expiration date).

The information below still applies to many other travellers from countries not under the visa scheme mentioned above.

Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive travel policies in the world, and advance visas are required for all foreigners desiring to enter. The only significant exception is citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. Also exempt from visa requirements are foreigners transiting through airports for less than eighteen hours, but many other entry requirements, such as the dress code and restrictions on unaccompanied women, still apply.

Nationals of Israel and those with evidence of visiting Israel will be denied visas, although merely being Jewish in and of itself is not a disqualifying factor. (There are, however, anecdotal reports of would-be visitors who tick the "Jewish" or "Atheist" boxes on their visa application having trouble.) Saudis prefer not to grant visas to unaccompanied women, but work permits are common in some fields - especially nurses, teachers, maids - and possible for anyone if your sponsor has enough connections.

The easiest way to get into the country is to get an international events visa from Sharek (look at the top right for the English page option). Certain events are designated as "international", which means that you can buy tickets and a 14-day e-visa. These events can be a bit rare, however, so plan in advance.

Transit visas are limited to some long-distance truck drivers and for plane trips, but are generally issued free of charge. However, it is relatively easy to obtain a transit visa to drive through Saudi if you are in an adjacent country legally, and demonstrate the need to drive through Saudi to another adjacent country.

Hajj (pilgrimage) visas are issued by the Saudi government through Saudi embassies around the world in cooperation with local mosques. Hajjis and those on transit visas are prohibited from traveling freely throughout the kingdom, and during Hajj season getting a visa of any kind tends to be more difficult.

Most short-term Western visitors to Saudi arrive on business visas, which require an invitation from a local sponsor which has been approved by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce. Once this invitation is secured and certified, the actual process of issuing the visa is relatively fast and painless, taking anything from one day to two weeks. Word has it that the "new visas" (electronically generated) are only available through agencies within your country of residence. Getting a work visa is considerably more complex, but usually your employer will handle most of the paperwork.

Tourist visas were planned to be issued from 1 April 2018 with a reprocity scheme for countries that let in Saudi citizens, but as of early 2019 the visa scheme is still waiting for Saudi government approval, the latest in a string of proposed but not yet implemeted plans. They were available for groups of at least four on guided tours until 2010 when the scheme was suspended with vague promises of being reinstated later.

The fun doesn't end when you get the visa, because visas do not state their exact expiry date. While the validity is noted in months, these are not Western months but lunar months, and you must 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 visa type, the validity can start from the date of issue or the date of first entry, and multiple-entry visas may also have restrictions regarding how many days at a time are allowed (usually 28 days per visit) and/or how many days total are allowed during the validity period. This all results in fantastic confusion, and it's not uncommon to get different answers from an embassy, from your employer and from Immigration.

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

Saudi Arabia has very strict rules for what may be imported: alcoholic beverages, pork, non- Sunni Islamic religious materials and pornography (very widely defined) are all prohibited. Computers, VCR tapes and DVDs have all been seized from time to time for inspection by the authorities. If you are unsure if the movie you watch or the video game you play is deemed un-Islamic, assume that it is: it would probably be best not to bring it with you to the kingdom. In general, though, inspections aren't quite as thorough as they used to be and while bags are still x-rayed, minute searches are the exception rather than the rule. Western families driving through on a valid transit visa are generally waved through the customs inspection with a cursory glance.

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Money

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.

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Work

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.

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Language

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.

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Eat

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.

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Sleep

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).

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Drink

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!

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Health

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.

Tap water in the major cities is generally considered safe, although it's not always particularly tasty, and in the summer can be very hot. In the winter floodwater can seep into tanks, with an estimated 70% of storage in Jeddah affected by major flooding in January 2011 and some cases of dysentery reported.

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

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Safety

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.

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Keep Connected

Internet

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.

Phone

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.

Post

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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Quick Facts

Saudi Arabia flag

Map of Saudi Arabia

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Capital
Riyadh
Population
24,294,000
Government
Monarchy
Religions
Islam
Languages
Arabic
Calling Code
+966
Nationality
Local name
Al Arabiyah as Suudiyah

Contributors

as well as Peter (1%), Hien (1%), arif_kool (<1%), Lavafalls (<1%)

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