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Saudi Arabia

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Red Sea Palace Hotel
Red Sea Palace Hotel - dream vacation

P O Box 824, King Abdul Aziz Street, Balad, Jeddah

Rosewood Jeddah
Rosewood Jeddah - dream vacation

Cornich Road Po Box 48122, Jeddah

Mercure Jeddah Al Hamra
Mercure Jeddah Al Hamra - dream vacation

Alexandria Street, Al Hamra District,, Jeddah

Movenpick Hotel Jeddah
Movenpick Hotel Jeddah - dream vacation

Madina Road, In front of Ministry of Interior, Jeddah

Saudi Arabia is a Middle Eastern country that occupies most of the Arabian peninsula and has coastlines on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Neighbouring countries include Jordan to the northwest, Iraq and Kuwait to the northeast, Bahrain and Qatar to the east, the United Arab Emirates to the southeast, and Oman and Yemen to the south.

Saudi Arabia contains the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (Madinah), to which all physically and financially able Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage at least once if possible (see Hajj). Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering these two cities per sharia law.

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.

Cities

  • Riyadh - the capital and "dead center" of the Kingdom
  • Abha - a summer tourist mountain resort city in the southwest near the Yemeni border
  • Dhahran - the home of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest petroleum company
  • Jeddah (Jiddah) - a large metropolitan city on the Red Sea, and the gateway to Makkah and Madinah
  • Jubail - the largest industrial city in the kingdom
  • Mecca (Makkah) - the holiest city of Islam
  • Medina (Madinah) - the site of the Prophet's Mosque
  • Najran - a Yemeni-influenced city with a remarkable fortress
  • Taif - a moderate-sized mountain town and popular resort area

Expect significant variations in the English spellings of place names in schedules and even road signs: Al Wajh and Wedjh are the same place. In particular, Q/G, E/I, and E/A are interchanged freely (Qassim/Gassim, Mecca/Makkah, Jeddah/Jiddah), H/A sometimes swap places (Al-Ahsa/Al-Hasa) and the definite article al- can be left on or off (Medina/Almadinah, Riyadh/Arriyadh).

Other destinations

  • Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali) - one of the largest sand deserts on earth
  • Hajj - the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
  • Madain Saleh - Ruined Nabataean city similar to Petra

Understand

History

Saudi Arabia is one of two countries named after their royal families, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The family were sheikhs of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, but were driven out by a neighbouring dynasty, hiding with their relatives, the emirs of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and a few dozen lads rode out to raid their home territory. As it turned out, the invaders had been ruling badly, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured Riyadh, but much of the surrounding territory.

After that, Abdul Aziz set out on a 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.

In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its sand for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.

Economy

Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of petroleum in the world (26% of the proven reserves), ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 25% of GDP comes from the private sector.

Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy - for example, in the oil and service sectors.

In 1999 the government announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies, which follows the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. The government is expected to continue calling for private sector growth to lessen the kingdom's dependence on oil and increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. Shortages of water and rapid population growth will constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.

Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. While part of this can be explained by Saudi reluctance to take many types of work, it is also true that Saudi citizens are forced to compete with multitudes of imported labor, which is often much cheaper than that of the locals.

Geography

Terrain 

Saudi Arabia covers approximately four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping eastwards till reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.

The main topographical features are as follows:

The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range runs parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As one moves further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as 'Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Makkah, and approximately 400 km north of Makkah in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Madinah.

West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country's second largest city, Jidda, is located.

East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow platau running 800 km from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criscrossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.

Further east from the Tuwaig plataeu and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100 km) corridor of red sand dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the "Central Region" or "Najd" from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large "seas" of sand dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior, and the southern is known as "the Empty Quarter," so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three "seas of sand" make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin almost never attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.

North of the Nufud desert lies a vaste desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins with the exception of a few oasis such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.

The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of DammamDhahran and Al-Khobar.

Elevation extremes  lowest point: Persian Gulf (locally called "Arabian Gulf") 0 m (0 ft)highest point: Jabal Sawda' 3,133 m (10,279 ft) Natural resources  petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, copper Land use  arable land: 1.72%permanent crops: 0.06%other: 98.22% (1998 est.)

Climate

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 would be absolutely 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 a surprisingly different story. 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.

Religion

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law specifically requires Saudi citizens or passport holders to be Muslim, public observance and proselytism of religions other than Islam are forbidden, and it is illegal to display non-Quranic forms of scripture in public.

There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia of any kind. However, some Filipino workers report the presence of churches inside some gated communities. The small number of Saudi Arabian Christians meet in Internet chat rooms, and foreign Christians may meet at church meetings held at one of several embassies after registering and showing their passport, to prove foreign nationality, or by private assemblies in school gyms located in gated communities on Aramco grounds. They can also hold services in each other's houses. Although the niqab is the norm for Saudi women, Muslim women from outside the country are allowed to wear a hijab.

Prayer times

Everything in Saudi Arabia is regulated by the five daily prayers. All shops and offices close during each prayer for a period of at least 20-30 minutes, and the religious police patrol some streets and pack loiterers off to the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports do stay open (but with all shops inside the shopping malls closed) and taxis and other public transport continue to run normally.

The first prayer is fajr, early in the morning before the first glint of light at dawn, and the call to prayer for fajr will be your wake-up call in the Kingdom. After fajr, some people eat breakfast and head to work, with shops opening up.

The second prayer is dhuhr, held after true noon in the middle of the day. The Friday noon prayer (jummah) is the most important one of the week, when even less observant Muslims usually make the effort to go to the mosque. After dhuhr, people head for lunch, while many shops choose to stay closed and snooze away the heat of the day.

Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (one and a half to two hours before sunset), with many shops opening again afterwards. Maghrib prayers are held at sunset and mark the end of the work day in much of the private sector. The last prayer is isha'a, held around 45min-1h after sunset, after which locals head for dinner. Expats refer to the time between maghrib and isha'a as the "prayer window", during which you can hit the supermarket and buy your groceries if you time it right.

Prayer times change daily according to the seasons and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the day's times in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a handy on-line prayer time service.

Holidays

Like most of the Middle East, the weekend in Saudi Arabia is Friday and Saturday, with Sunday a normal working day. (Until 2013, it was Thursday & Friday.)

The Saudi interpretation of Islam tends to view non-Muslim holidays as sacrilegious, and the public observance of Christmas, New Years, Valentine's Day, Halloween etc. is prohibited. Public holidays are granted only for Eid ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, some 70 days after Ramadan.

There is also one secular holiday: Unification of the Kingdom Day, on September 23rd. Strictly speaking, it's not a public holiday or a festival, although it's treated like one anyway. In fact, many local youths celebrate it more zealously than either Islamic Eid.

During Ramadan, visitors are required to abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during the daylight hours. Some better hotels will be able to quietly supply room service during the day, but otherwise you'll have to do your preparations. All restaurants in the Kingdom are closed during the day, and while some offices stay open with limited hours, the pace of business slows down to a torpor. After evening prayer, though, all the restaurants in the bazaar open up and do a roaring trade until the small hours of the morning. Most of the shops are open as well, and the cool of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop. A visitor can have a fine time joining in on these evenings, though having a stash in your hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten will suit most visitors better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast.

Get in

My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out. -- King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, c. 1930

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—esp. nurses, teachers, maids—and possible for anyone if your sponsor has enough connections.

Tourist visas, previously available for groups of at least four on guided tours, were "suspended" in late 2010 with vague promises of being reinstated at an unspecified later date; check with a tour company for the latest scoop. 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 legally physically present in an adjacent country 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.

The fun doesn't end when you get the visa, since 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 need to use the Islamic calendar to figure out the length: a three-month visa issued on "29/02/22" (22 Safar 1429, 1 March 2008) is valid until 29/05/22 (22 Jumada al-Awwal 1429, 28 May 2008), not until 1 June 2008! Depending on 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 them 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. Note that Western families driving through on a valid transit visa are generally waved through the customs inspection with a cursory glance.

By plane

Saudi Arabia has 4 international airports at RiyadhJeddah, Madinah, and Dammam . The airport at Dhahran is now closed to civil traffic, so passengers to the Eastern Region now fly into Dammam, or into nearby Bahrain (which is much better connected) and then cross into Saudi Arabia by car.

Saudi Arabia is served by the national airline Saudia. Saudia has a reasonable safety record, but many of their planes are on the old side and the quality of service, inflight entertainment, etc., tends to be low. Virtually all Gulf airlines and most major European airlines fly into Saudi.

During the Hajj, numerous charter flights supplement the scheduled airlines. Foreigners living in Saudi Arabia can often get sensational discounts on outbound flights during the Hajj. Airlines from Muslim countries are flying in many loads of pilgrims, and do not want to go back empty.

By bus

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

Probably the most popular service is between Dammam/Khobar and Bahrain, operated by the separate Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company (SABTCO). There are five services daily at a cost of SR50/5 Bahraini dinars and the trip across the King Fahd Causeway takes around two hours on a good day; see Bahrain for details.

By car

Automobile crossings exist on nearly all the borders, although those into Iraq are closed. The eastern crossings to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE are heavily used, all others rather less so. There were plans to open a land border crossing with Oman by the end of 2012.

By train

There are no railroads connecting Saudi Arabia with other countries, although in the North, you can still find bits and pieces of the Hejaz Railway that once led to Damascus.

By boat

Infrequent passenger ferries run once a week or less from Egypt and Sudan to ports in western Saudi Arabia. (The service to Eritrea has stopped running.) Slow, uncomfortable and not particularly cheap, these are of interest primarily if you absolutely need to take your car across. An unofficial ban on Western travellers may still apply.

Get 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 bus

The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) [1] 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 located several kilometers away from the city center. 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 center-to-city center services, plush seating and a meal on-board -- all in all, quite good value, if the sparse schedules match your plans.

By train

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

The trains are operated by Saudi Railways Organization and have 3 classes: Second, First and the delightfully named Rehab. First and Second classes are very similar, with aircon and two-by-two seating, but First has a few inches of extra legroom. Rehab (VIP) class, on the other hand, has plush leather seats, roof-mounted flat-panel TVs showing Arabic entertainment, and slick waiting lounges at stations. There are no reserved seats, so show up early to claim yours, and beware that most carriages reserve the forward-facing seats at the front of each carriage for families. Trains have a cafeteria car serving up drinks and snacks, as well as push-trolley service.

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

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.

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.

At the present time, access to car rentals is limited to males 21 and older. Women cannot drive on public roads or ride bicycles.

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.

Talk

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 and speak some English, although markedly less well than in, say, the UAE or Qatar. 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.

See

  • The best known sites in Saudi Arabia are likely the two holy cities of Islam; Mecca and Medina. However it's prohibited for non-Muslims to enter these cities.
  • There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, both inscribed in 2008. These are the Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih) in Hejaz and the At-Turaif District in Diriyah.
  • The old town of Jeddah.
  • Old and ultra-modern architecture in the capital of Riyadh.
  • A whole lot of desert - the Arabian Desert makes up most of the country.

Buy

The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal, denoted by the symbol "ريال" or "SR" (ISO code: SAR) It is a fixed at 3.75 riyals to the US dollar. 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 effectively 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.

Costs

Prices are generally fairly expensive: figure on US$50/100/200 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs.

Tipping is generally not expected, although service staff are always happy to receive them and taxi fares are often rounded up (or, not uncommonly, down). Expensive restaurants often slap on a 10% service charge, although due to lax regulation many employers simply usurp it (ask your waiters if they receive any of it or not if you would like to tip them). There are no sales taxes in Saudi, and for that matter, there aren't any income taxes either!

What to buy

Few local products are of interest to tourists. Locally grown dates are of high quality, and religious paraphernalia is widely available, but almost exclusively imported. Copies of the Qur'an are produced in a wide range of editions and sold at very low prices. Zam zam water is available throughout the Western Region and at all airports.

Carpets are a favorite purchase, most of these coming from nearby IranJeddah in particular has lots of carpets, many brought by pilgrims who sell them there to help finance their trip to Makkah.

Large gold and jewelry markets are prominent in all major cities. Bargaining is a norm in most small to medium sized stores. Makkah and Madinah offer a lot of variety in terms of luggage, clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense, and religious literature, audio, and paraphernalia.

Large, well maintained air-conditioned malls and grocery stores (eg Safeway, Geant, Carrefour) are scattered throughout the kingdom.

Do

Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is very family-oriented. There are few activities for just couples or singles. Single men are not allowed in family areas: family beaches are partitioned from the bachelor beaches, for example. Women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative in public, although single women may be admitted into family areas.

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

Scuba diving is popular on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast. Jeddah has a number of dive operators.

Amusement parks (many of them indoor) are often found near malls or beaches. Many large cities have public parks and small zoos. Horseback riding, camel riding, etc. are also available at horse-racing tracks and some popular beaches. Many upscale hotels provide light activities (especially hotels located along the beaches).

Movie theatres are banned in the Kingdom, but DVD shops abound, although the selections are often tame and/or censored. DVDs in Saudi Arabia are invariably Region 2, though bootleg DVDs (which are widely available in smaller video shops) are usually region-free, and often uncensored as well. Satellite TV and downloading entertainment from the Internet is thus very popular.

Video games are an eternal obsession of Saudi youth, and one which is capitalized upon rather well by local retailers. Video game shops are ubiquitous in all of the major cities. Authentic games are offered by most of the larger stores, as US or European imports for an average of ~SR270 (~US$70), while the smaller ones usually only offer bootlegs (which are illegal, but still lucrative enough that almost all sell them) at very low prices of SR10-15 ($2.5-$4). Wii and Xbox 360 bootlegs reign supreme, but certain stores offer Nintendo DS and PSP games as well, downloaded to a customer's removable media on request.

Eat

Eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Unlike other businesses which kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants will let diners hang around and eat behind closed doors through the prayer period. New customers are generally not allowed to enter until after prayer is over.

Fast food

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. Some local imitators worth checking out include:

  • Al-Baik - fried chicken- in JeddahMeccaMedina and Taif but not Riyadh
  • Baak - Pizza (thin crust and quite good), fried chicken, lasagna, sandwiches
  • Kudu. Saudi sandwich chain
  • Herfy Burger. Biggest fast food chain in the country, 100% Saudi owned
  • House of Donuts - "The Finest American Pastries" - a chain started by Saudi students who studied in America

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.

Local cuisine

See also: Middle Eastern cuisine

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.

  • Mandi — Chicken or mutton cooked with rice in a pot suspended above a fire.

Drink

With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated people of the opposite sex all banned, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.

Coffee shops

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).

Alcohol

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.

There is a local white lightning known among foreigners as "siddiqui" (Arabic for friend) or just as "sid". This is generally horrible-tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is a risk of inexpert distilling making it downright poisonous. The stuff is emphatically to be avoided.

Do not drink and drive! is good advice anywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident, or otherwise attract police attention, the consequences might be serious indeed.

Soft drinks

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!

Tap water

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. That said, in 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 1.5L bottle, so many visitors and residents choose to play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.

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).

Stay healthy

There are no major health risks for traveling in Saudi Arabia: water is generally drinkable and food is usually, but not always, hygienic. No vaccinations are required for general travel to the Kingdom, but for pilgrims joining the Hajj and its extraordinary concentrations of pilgrims from all corners of the globe, a comprehensive series of vaccinations is required as a condition for entry. See the Hajj article for details.

Smoking is the one sin that the mullahs haven't gotten around to banning yet, and consequently everybody smokes everywhere: hotel lobbies, airport lounges, shopping mall food courts, drivers in their taxis, etc. If this is a problem, be sure to request non-smoking rooms in hotels.

The Kingdom has a wide-reaching national health-care system, but the services provided by this program are quite basic. Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These facilities range from fairly rudimentary to very advanced and very expensive. Pharmacies are widely available and prescriptions are not required for most medications. Psychoactive medications are tightly controlled and available only through government pharmacies.

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

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 SR (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.

Stay safe

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 AbhaNajran 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.

Respect

Visitors to Saudi Arabia are required to respect local conventions, in particular regarding Islam. While first-timers in Saudi Arabia are often regaled with tales of beheadings, amputations and whippings, the full harshness of Saudi law is reserved for true criminals like drug smugglers. With a modicum of common sense you'll be just fine, and should a visitor accidentally cause some minor offense, the reaction will generally be amusement rather than anger.

Law and morality

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

In practice, though, most visitors will be primarily concerned with the code of morality, involving things like women not covering up properly, 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 formally known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Confusingly, the exact rules and their enforcement vary greatly both with time and from region to region, with the Nejd region around Riyadh being the most strict, the Eastern Province being the least strict, and the Hejaz around Jeddah being somewhere in the middle. However, 99% of the time, encounters with the muttawa (especially for non-Muslims) simply result in verbal warnings. The muttawa do have the power to detain those suspected of un-Islamic conduct, but — in theory — must hand them over to the police before interrogation, and neither can they apply judicial punishments like whipping without a trial. Reports of abuse and even deaths in muttawa custody are still alarmingly common.

Areas Off-limits to the Mutawwas

Surprisingly, certain areas are known to be "off-limits" to the mutawwas. These include the following:

  1. the Diplomatic Quarter (in Riyadh)
  2. the beach resort compounds north of Jeddah
  3. the premises of Saudi Aramco (in the eastern province)
  4. the city of Qatif in the eastern province
  5. expat compounds generally

Generally, the Mutawwa rarely enter hotels, if ever. This does not mean that one should flout Saudi social mores with impunity in such places, but the restrictions on mixing of genders and, in some areas, the dress-code are much looser.

Sex segregation

Many (perhaps most) areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of "mingling" (khulwa, a punishable crime). Under the rules of segregation, all people are divided into three groups:

  • Families. The basic unit of Saudi life, families consist of women accompanied by their mahrams (legal male guardians) — father, brother, husband, uncle, nephew — and children.
  • Single men (bachelors). Men not accompanied by their families. Despite common use of the word "bachelor", it is irrelevant whether the man is married or not; a husband will dine in the bachelor section at lunch when he is alone and in the family section at dinner when 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 religious police pay particular attention to interracial couples.
  • Single women. Women not accompanied by their families. This is by far the most restricted group. Most of the facilities for families will admit single women, but they are never supposed to be allowed in the men's section, and are subject to uncomfortable stares when they are: 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 taxi driver). The punishment will be worse for the man than for the woman. While the man is forced to sign a written oath not to repeat the offense and may be subject to lashing or prison, women are generally "returned" to their families, with a male family member signing on her behalf. The cultural value placed on "modesty" and "honor" makes the religious police reluctant to openly "out" an offending female and they will try to sweep the problem under the carpet, unless in more "egregious" cases.

Typical examples of segregation include:

Men

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

Men with long hair might want to consider a cut before entering the kingdom; although shoulder-length locks can be considered reasonable, anything longer can be considered as grounds for ejection from shopping malls and public places by the muttawa.

Homosexuality is (in theory) punishable by death, but in practice this 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 as a way of cutting costs is normal, but don't even think about asking for one bed for two. That said, homosexuality still happens, only discreetly, and it's not uncommon for a foreign man to be approached by an amorous, young unmarried Saudi.

Women

Women, be they local or foreign, are all required to wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe. While a headscarf is optional for non-Saudi women (particularly in Jeddah and Dammam), one should at least be brought along in order to avoid possible harassment from the religious police or to be used as a means of deflecting attention from potentially aggravating men.

Saudi law prohibits women from mingling with unrelated men. Some family restaurants will go further and will not (knowingly) allow a married couple to dine together with a single man. Women may not drive cars. In theory, women may not even be driven by unrelated people (e.g. taxi drivers), although this is widely ignored and rarely enforced.

A woman may travel alone. They may also stay alone in hotels, although hotels may require written permission on check-in unless the woman holds an official form of ID.

While all this legally applies to foreign women as well, in practice foreign women are not restrained by their families in the way that Saudi women are, and can have considerable leeway if they choose to take it. For example, a foreign woman and her boyfriend (or even male coworker) can simply claim to be husband and wife, and thus mingle freely — although, if caught doing so, they could sometimes be subject to a short stay in jail.

A single woman accosted by the police or the muttawa and requested to come with them does not have to (and, for their own safety, should not) go with them alone: you have the right to call your mahram and have them arrive, and you should use it. However, you may be required to surrender your ID, and you may not leave until the police/muttawa allow you to.

Other

Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Do not take pictures of any government-related building (ministries, airports, military facilities etc.) or any building that could possibly be one, or you risk being hauled off to jail for espionage. As strict Wahhabi belief prohibits making images of any living creature and Saudis place a high value on privacy, do not photograph any 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 mosaicing out faces if they have to use one! However, photography in public places was declared legal by royal decree in 2006 unless posted otherwise or violating an individual's desire not to be photographed.

Playing music in public is also prohibited (though this does not include playing music at a picnic in the desert for example). However, personal music players and listening to music in private is fine, and there are plenty of music shops in the country's shopping malls if you don't mind permanent marker over Britney's hemline on the cover. It is not uncommon to hear young Saudis blasting the latest hip-hop music in their vehicles, at least when the muttawa are not around.

Religious items for religions other than Islam, including Bibles, crucifixes and any religious literature, are technically forbidden, although these days items for personal use are generally ignored. However, anything that hints of proselytism is treated very harshly, and the muttawa often bust illicit church assemblies and the like. Public observance of religions other than Islam is technically a crime in Saudi Arabia.

The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the Islamic declaration of faith, and desecration or any other inappropriate use of the flag is considered insulting. Public criticism of the King, the royal family or Saudi Arabia's government in general is not tolerated.

Connect

By phone

The four mobile operators in Saudi, incumbent Al Jawal, Emirati rival Mobily , Kuwaiti Zain (Vodafone Network) and STC newcomer Jawwy are fiercely competitive, with good coverage (in populated areas) and good pricing. A starter pack with prepaid SIM and talktime starts from about SR75, and you can sign up in most any larger mobile shop (bring your passport). Local calls are under SR0.5/minute, while calls overseas are around or less than SR2/min.

And yes, you can bring in your own phone: despite grumblings from the clerics, camera phones and multimedia messaging (MMS) are now legal.

By net

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, and all major webmail providers are accessible.

Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia might not be as strict as other countries in the Middle East. This is because social sites such as Facebook and Twitter are not banned in the country. Although Skype is also allowed, the Saudi government has banned smartphone app Viber. Prohibited sites of course include pornographic websites, and sites that contain homosexuality, illegal gambling, and criticisms against their religion and government.

By mail

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.

Secrets Behind the Veil: Memoirs of an Expatriate Woman in Saudi Arabia

Ludmilla

Since the first coalition war with Iraq in 1990, the Middle East, specifically the largely inaccessible country of Saudi Arabia, has been the focus of intense media exposure and public interest. As an expatriate western woman working as director of nursing for a major hospital in Riyadh from 1995 through 2001, Ludmilla captures the reality of surviving as a woman in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are not a high priority or even a consideration You may have heard about the plight of women in this Kingdom, but now you can experience the reality through the words of someone who lived it day to day. Secrets Behind the Veil takes an uncompromising look at the realities of life in a strictly Islamic society, delving into every aspect of daily life while managing the restrictions imposed by Saudi society. From women spending time in jail for riding in the front seat of a taxi or the constant risk of getting blown up by a car bomb, life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia involves a great deal of culture shock for westerners, in particular western women. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the major oil producing countries in the world. The King and his brothers, along with a large number of extended family members, rule the country in such a manner that allows the average person a relatively affluent lifestyle.By most definitions Saudi is a “man’s country” where women are not allowed to drive a vehicle or ride a bicycle, must wear a full length black body covering, a scarf and full or partial veil covering the face. Men and women are discouraged from socializing together in any way unless they are related to each other. Most homes have two separate living rooms for this purpose.We hear generalized, global information about the Saudi culture, religion and traditions, while at the same time not internalizing the actual impact this has on the women who live there and the misfortunes born upon them through this ultra-restrictive culture. Should the Western World care about their plight or any forms of mental or physical torture they must endure?Many expatriates (people living in the kingdom for the purposes of work, but not Saudi citizens themselves) of different nationalities and religions were required to live and work together in a Kingdom where the belief in only Islam was accepted. The Religious Enlightenment Officers (Mutawa) were intolerant of and persecuted any person who was not following the laws, rules and customs of the Kingdom. Secrets Behind the Veil takes not a glance, but rather an uncompromising and persistent gaze behind the veil, exposing beauty, hypocrisy, misogynistic behavior, and vast cultural differences present for those who chose to live and work in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Nicolas Buchele

Culture Smart! provides essential information on attitudes, beliefs and behavior in different countries, ensuring that you arrive at your destination aware of basic manners, common courtesies, and sensitive issues. These concise guides tell you what to expect, how to behave, and how to establish a rapport with your hosts. This inside knowledge will enable you to steer clear of embarrassing gaffes and mistakes, feel confident in unfamiliar situations, and develop trust, friendships, and successful business relationships. Culture Smart! offers illuminating insights into the culture and society of a particular country. It will help you to turn your visit-whether on business or for pleasure-into a memorable and enriching experience. Contents include: * customs, values, and traditions * historical, religious, and political background * life at home * leisure, social, and cultural life * eating and drinking * do's, don'ts, and taboos * business practices * communication, spoken and unspoken

Paramedic to the Prince: An American Paramedic's Account of Life Inside the Mysterious World of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Patrick (Tom) Notestine

A Californian paramedic answers an advertisement for contract work at a military hospital in Saudi Arabia. So his adventure begins. This is a riveting, factual account of his ten years inside a country seldom seen by the outside world. Working on the private medical staff of King Abdullah, no western writer has ever been this close to the "House of Saud". The author takes you on a journey from the desert camps of the Bedouin to the highest echelons of the Saudi royal family. From meetings between King Abdullah and Yasser Arafat to the death of Edi Amin the author documents it all. Themes explored include the contrast of cultures and the rise of terrorism in a post 9/11 world. The author's unique and often humorous perspective provides a view of Saudi society that has never before been documented by any other book in this genre. The author gives an important insight to events that continue to affect the world today.

The Bro Code of Saudi Culture: 300 Rules on how the Human Body should Act Inside Arabia

Abdul Al Lily

This work sets out a series of rules meant as guidelines to live by and behave properly among Saudis and/or to understand their culture. Most of these rules have long been unwritten and only verbally communicated among Saudis. As a result, visitors to Saudi Arabia have been unable to follow these rules appropriately. Those interested in Saudis or their civilisation have reported neither understanding nor recognising these rules. For such reasons, these rules need to be spelled out in bold print. This publication has been written to respond to this need, as well as to inform a broad audience on the nature of gender roles and relations in this country. Every culture is governed by an internal code of conduct, and this work offers the first written code of Saudi society. It is the product of close observations of daily activities and more than 2,000 interviews with nationals and residents, over the past four years. This code shows 2030 tweet-sized (often previously unrecorded) explanations of how the human body acts in Saudi Arabia. It covers everything from top to bottom; the face, eyes, ears, mouth, waist, extremities and genitals. This code must be carefully considered if one wishes to stay within the circle of Saudis. This book is the first English-language piece to talk about Saudi culture in a purely descriptive (and thus non-judgemental and unbiased) manner and to deliver the voices of working-class and lower-middle-class Saudi men and women who are normally disregarded by the global media (which have a bias towards the opinions of Saudi activists and elites). It is the first English-language piece to be written by a qualitative and therefore detail-oriented researcher, providing both in-depth and broad views into the various elements of Saudi culture, covering small details within Saudis’ public and private lives. This book is the first English-language piece to be written by a male Saudi who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, who is still based in this country, who is a former formally-recognised imam and who comes from a working-class family—yet has travelled the world, is married to a non-Muslim European, studied in Oxford, published with the largest international academic publishers and hence has the ability to communicate with foreign mentalities. This book is the first English-language piece to present Saudi values and norms in the form of a bullet-pointed list, and to analyse and set out the internal code of conduct that governs those living in Saudi society (considering that every culture is governed by an internal code of conduct). It is the first English-language piece to have both academic and non-academic elements, in the sense that, although it is based on academic research and follows academic conventions, its findings are presented in a simplified way and in plain language.

Working and Living in Saudi Arabia

Grace Edwards

‘Working and Living in Saudi Arabia’ provides valuable cultural and practical business information necessary for all professionals working and travelling to Saudi Arabia, including those who may be working and living in other Middle East countries. It also addresses the many changes and opportunities of particular interest to businesswomen and for men who will be working with women, both Saudi and expatriate.

Essential reading for all business executives working in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia & Kuwait Travel Reference Map 1:1,750,000/1:390,000

ITMB Publishing LTD

Saudi Arabia remains a unique entity in today's world, steadfastly governing itself in splendid isolation and fighting hard to keep 'modern' influences at bay. However, it has modern trappings such as an excellent road system, even though women aren't allowed to drive, and modern cities, even though women won't be allowed to vote in local elections until 2015. The cities of Medina and Mecca are closed to infidels. Kuwait, its immediate neighbour to the north is an open society and is included on this map as a very large inset, with a separate inset of Kuwait City. Central Riyadh is also included as an inset map, showing mosques, hotels, banks, and shopping areas.

Culture Shock! Saudi Arabia: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Culture Shock! Guides)

Peter North

Culture Shock! Saudi Arabia: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Culture Shock! Guides)

SAUDI ARABIA Country Studies: A brief, comprehensive study of Saudi Arabia

CIA

A brief yet detailed report on the country of Saudi Arabia with updated information on the map, flag, history, people, economics, political conditions in government, foreign affairs, and U.S. relations.

Exercise a high degree of caution

The decision to travel is your responsibility. You are also responsible for your personal safety abroad. The purpose of this Travel Advice is to provide up-to-date information to enable you to make well-informed decisions.

Terrorism

There is a terrorist threat throughout Saudi Arabia. Although no attacks have occurred since 2009, reports emerge periodically that terrorists plan to attack specific locations. These are typically accompanied by a visible increase in the presence of security forces. Targets could include government buildings, public areas, areas frequented by tourists and Western interests. Heightened security measures are currently in place and may be reinforced on short notice.

Security incidents occur in the southern province of Jizan, near the Yemeni border.

Maintain a high level of vigilance and personal security awareness at all times. Register with and carefully follow messages issued through the Registration of Canadians Abroad service.

Kidnapping

There is a general threat of kidnapping in Saudi Arabia. Maintain a high level of vigilance at all times.

Demonstrations

Demonstrations, although illegal in Saudi Arabia, have been occurring more frequently since 2011 and have the potential to suddenly turn violent. They can also lead to significant disruptions to traffic and public transportation. Avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local media.

Crime

The crime rate is low. Petty crime, such as pickpocketing and purse snatching, occurs, especially in crowded areas and at holy sites. To reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim, do not show signs of affluence and ensure that your personal belongings and passports and other travel documents are secure at all times.

Women’s safety

Assaults against foreign women have occurred recently. Consult our publication entitled Her Own Way: A Woman’s Safe-Travel Guide for travel safety information for Canadian women.

Consult Laws & Culture for more information.

Road travel

Saudi Arabia is one of the most dangerous places to drive because of poor driving habits, a complete disregard for traffic laws and road markings, and excessive speed—which are all common causes of accidents. Only use pre-arranged, licensed taxis. Avoid shared or service taxis.

If you are involved in an accident, do not disturb the scene until the traffic patrol arrives, do not make any financial arrangement with the other drivers and immediately contact your visa sponsor and the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh or the Consulate of Canada in Jeddah. In a traffic accident resulting in personal injury, regardless of fault, drivers may be held for several days until responsibility is determined and restitution is made. If severe injuries or death occur, compensation must be paid to the family for the injuries or loss of life.

Some Saudi cities have implemented an automated traffic ticketing system. All fines issued through this system must be paid before leaving the country. Payment can be made at the airport during regular Saudi office hours.

Do not drive off-road unless you are in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles and with an experienced guide. Ensure you are well prepared with a sufficient supply of gasoline, water and food, and a cell phone. Leave your travel itinerary with a relative or friend.

Sea travel

Exercise caution if travelling by sea, including for recreational purposes, in the Persian Gulf, particularly around the disputed islands of Abu Musa and Tunbs. Iran and the United Arab Emirates each claim sovereignty over the islands.

Pirate attacks occur in coastal waters and, in some cases, farther out at sea. Mariners should take appropriate precautions. For additional information, consult the Live Piracy Report published by the International Chamber of Commerce.

Air travel

Consult our Transportation Safety page in order to verify if national airlines meet safety standards.

General safety information

Carry identification documents, including your residency permit (iqama), at all times. Leave your passport in a safe place and carry a photocopy for identification purposes.

If you are stopped by the Mutawa (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice); consult the Laws & Culture tab for more information), offer to accompany them to the nearest police station and do not hand over identification documents. Inform your sponsors if the police retain your documents.

Emergency services

Dial 999 for police, 998 for firefighters and 997 for an ambulance.

Health

Related Travel Health Notices
Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.
Vaccines

Routine Vaccines

Be sure that your routine vaccines are up-to-date regardless of your travel destination.

Vaccines to Consider

You may be at risk for these vaccine-preventable diseases while travelling in this country. Talk to your travel health provider about which ones are right for you.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a disease of the liver spread by contaminated food or water. All those travelling to regions with a risk of hepatitis A infection should get vaccinated.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver spread through blood or other bodily fluids. Travellers who may be exposed (e.g., through sexual contact, medical treatment or occupational exposure) should get vaccinated.

Influenza

Seasonal influenza occurs worldwide. The flu season usually runs from November to April in the northern hemisphere, between April and October in the southern hemisphere and year round in the tropics. Influenza (flu) is caused by a virus spread from person to person when they cough or sneeze or through personal contact with unwashed hands. Get the flu shot.

Measles

Measles occurs worldwide but is a common disease in developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. Measles is a highly contagious disease. Be sure your vaccination against measles is up-to-date regardless of the travel destination.
 

Meningitis, Hajj and Umrah requirement

Meningococcal disease (meningitis) is a serious and sometimes fatal infection of the tissue around the brain and the spinal cord. Crowded events or mass gatherings increase risk of transmission. Vaccination against four strains of bacteria that cause meningococcal disease is required by the Saudi Arabian government to participate in the Hajj and Umrah.

Polio, Hajj requirement

Travellers must be vaccinated against polio to participate in the Hajj. (Proof of vaccination is required for all those attending the Hajj when entering Saudi Arabia.)

Rabies

Rabies is a disease that attacks the central nervous system spread to humans through a bite, scratch or lick from a rabid animal. Vaccination should be considered for travellers going to areas where rabies exists and who have a high risk of exposure (i.e., close contact with animals, occupational risk, and children).

Typhoid

Typhoid is a bacterial infection spread by contaminated food or water. Risk is higher among travellers going to rural areas, visiting friends and relatives, or with weakened immune systems. Travellers visiting regions with typhoid risk, especially those exposed to places with poor sanitation should consider getting vaccinated.

Yellow Fever Vaccination

Yellow fever is a disease caused by the bite of an infected mosquito.

Travellers get vaccinated either because it is required to enter a country or because it is recommended for their protection.

* It is important to note that country entry requirements may not reflect your risk of yellow fever at your destination. It is recommended that you contact the nearest diplomatic or consular office of the destination(s) you will be visiting to verify any additional entry requirements.
Risk
  • There is no risk of yellow fever in this country.
Country Entry Requirement*
  • Proof of yellow fever vaccination is required if you are coming from a country where yellow fever occurs.
Recommendation
  • Vaccination is not recommended.
  • Discuss travel plans, activities, and destinations with a health care provider.
Food/Water

Food and Water-borne Diseases

Travellers to any destination in the world can develop travellers' diarrhea from consuming contaminated water or food.

In some areas in Western Asia, food and water can also carry diseases like cholera, hepatitis A, schistosomiasis and typhoid. Practise safe food and water precautions while travelling in Western Asia. Remember: Boil it, cook it, peel it, or leave it!

Schistosomiasis

Schistosomiasis is caused by blood flukes (tiny worms) spread to humans through contaminated water. The eggs of the worms can cause stomach illnesses like diarrhea and cramps or urinary problems. Risk is generally low for most travellers. Avoid swimming in contaminated water. There is no vaccine available for schistosomiasis.


Insects

Insects and Illness

In some areas in Western Asia, certain insects carry and spread diseases like chikungunya, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, dengue fever, leishmaniasis, malaria, Rift Valley fever, and West Nile virus.

Travellers are advised to take precautions against bites.

Dengue fever
  • Dengue fever occurs in this country. Dengue fever is a viral disease that can cause severe flu-like symptoms. In some cases it leads to dengue haemorrhagic fever, which can be fatal.  
  • Mosquitoes carrying dengue bite during the daytime. They breed in standing water and are often found in urban areas.
  • Protect yourself from mosquito bites. There is no vaccine available for dengue fever.
Leishmaniasis, cutaneous and mucosal

Cutaneous and mucosal leishmaniasis causes skin sores and ulcers. It is caused by a parasite spread through the bite of a female sandfly. Risk is generally low for most travellers. Protect yourself from sandfly bites, which typically occur after sunset in rural and forested areas and in some urban centres. There is no vaccine available for leishmaniasis.


Malaria

Malaria

  • There is a risk of malaria in certain areas and/or during a certain time of year in this country.
  • Malaria is a serious and occasionally fatal disease that is spread by mosquitoes. There is no vaccine against malaria.
  • Protect yourself from mosquito bites. This includes covering up, using insect repellent and staying in well-screened, air-conditioned accommodations. You may also consider sleeping under an insecticide-treated bed net or pre-treating travel gear with insecticides.
  • Antimalarial medication may be recommended depending on your itinerary and the time of year you are travelling. See a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic, preferably six weeks before you travel to discuss your options.

Animals

Animals and Illness

Travellers are cautioned to avoid contact with animals, including dogs, monkeys, snakes, rodents, birds, and bats. Certain infections found in some areas in Western Asia, like avian influenza and rabies, can be shared between humans and animals.


Person-to-Person

Person-to-Person Infections

Crowded conditions can increase your risk of certain illnesses. Remember to wash your hands often and practice proper cough and sneeze etiquette to avoid colds, the flu and other illnesses.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV are spread through blood and bodily fluids; practise safer sex.


Medical services and facilities

Medical services and facilities

Modern medical care is available in main cities. Adequate medical services are available in smaller cities. Immediate cash payment may be required.

Keep in Mind...

The decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the traveller. The traveller is also responsible for his or her own personal safety.

Be prepared. Do not expect medical services to be the same as in Canada. Pack a travel health kit, especially if you will be travelling away from major city centres.

You are subject to local laws. Consult our Arrest and Detention page for more information.

The work week is from Sunday to Thursday.

An International Driving Permit is required.

Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Mutawa)

The Mutawa, also known as the Religious Police, have been known to harass, pursue and assault foreigners who they perceive are disregarding strict Saudi standards of conduct and dress. Often, they will simply instruct women to cover their hair. The Mutawa carry special identification and are typically accompanied by a uniformed police officer. If you are stopped by the Mutawa, cooperate and ask them to verify their credentials.

Dress and behaviour

The country’s customs, laws and regulations adhere closely to Islamic practices and beliefs. Dress conservatively, behave discreetly and respect religious and social traditions in order to avoid offending local sensitivities, especially in holy cities (Mecca and Medina) and mosques.

Women should observe the strict Saudi dress code and wear conservative and loose-fitting clothes, including a full-length cloak (abbaya) and a head scarf. Men should not wear shorts in public or go without a shirt. Seek guidance concerning acceptable clothing before your arrival.

Women are not permitted to drive cars or ride bicycles. Women and men are not allowed to mingle in public unless the women are accompanied by other family members. A woman can be charged with prostitution if she is found associating with a man who is not a relative. Restaurants have two sections, one for men only and the family section where families, accompanied females and unaccompanied females are served. Consult our publication entitled Her Own Way: A Woman’s Safe-Travel Guide for travel safety information for Canadian women.

Illegal or restricted activities

Do not criticize the royal family or Islam.

Do not discuss political or religious issues.

Religious proselytizing is not permitted.

Common-law relationships, homosexual relations, adultery and prostitution are illegal and are subject to severe punishment, including the death penalty.

Avoid physical contact, such as holding hands, in public.

Dancing, music and movies are prohibited.

Imported and domestic audio-visual media and reading materials are censored.

Penalties for the import, manufacture, possession and consumption of alcohol, pork, illegal drugs or products containing their ingredients are severe. Saudi authorities practise zero tolerance and make no distinction with respect to soft or hard drugs, or between using and trafficking. Drug offenders are regularly sentenced to death.

It is forbidden to photograph official buildings (government, military institutions, etc.) and holy sites. Seek permission prior to photographing individuals.

Dual citizenship

Dual citizenship is not legally recognized, which may limit the ability of Canadian officials to provide consular services. You should travel using your Canadian passport and present yourself as Canadian to foreign authorities at all times. Consult our publication entitled Dual Citizenship: What You Need to Know for more information.

Family

Canadian women married to Saudi men and Canadians under 21 years of age with a Saudi father need the permission of the Saudi male head of the household to leave the country. Married women, no matter their husband’s citizenship, require their husband’s permission to leave the country, while all unmarried women, regardless of age, and unmarried men under the age of 21 require the permission of their father or male guardian to leave the country, irrespective of the father’s or guardian’s nationality.

A Saudi man who wishes to marry a foreign woman is required by law to seek the permission of Saudi authorities. He must also sign a document that gives irrevocable permission to his foreign wife and the children born of their union to travel in and out of the country without restrictions. This law has been in effect since February 20, 2008, and is not retroactive. Regardless of this law, the foreign spouse and their children may still have difficulty leaving Saudi Arabia whenever they wish.

Legal process

The Saudi judicial system is based on Sharia law. The legal process may be slow and cumbersome. Those suspected of and witnesses to offences may be held for lengthy periods without access to legal counsel or consular officials. If access is granted, it may be severely limited by Saudi authorities.

Business

Arabic is the only officially recognized language for business transactions.

Examine all conditions carefully and ensure that you fully understand them prior to accepting a job offer or signing a contract. Include oral understandings in the contract.

Obtain the services of an independent Saudi-based lawyer and ensure translation of all documents, especially the contract, in order to be fully aware of all conditions, limits and terms.

Seek legal advice from a Canadian or Saudi lawyer before signing any contract. If in doubt, seek advice from a lawyer in Canada. A list of local lawyers is available from the Embassy of Canada in Riyadh.

In case of a dispute, a Saudi complainant may prevent a foreigner from leaving the country until the dispute is settled.

Money

The currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR). Credit cards and traveller’s cheques are widely accepted, especially in main cities.

Climate

Although Saudi Arabia is one of the driest countries in the world, heavy rains occur from time to time and can result in major flooding. This can severely affect overland travel and reduce the provision of essential services. Exercise caution, monitor local news and weather reports, and follow the advice of local authorities.

Shamals, sand-laden winds from the northern deserts, occur most frequent in early summer and can blow at 40-48 kilometres per hour for days, creating difficult driving conditions.