Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opened his country up to tourism in 2019 when he launched the electronic tourist visa. With this came a relaxation of certain laws for foreigners visiting Saudi Arabia, including those prohibiting cinemas, gender-mixed concerts, and sporting extravaganzas. Alcohol regulations remain pretty much in line with existing rules. What has seen a marked relaxation is the restrictions on women in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, notably foreign female tourists.
Curious to know more? Before proceeding to the article, do not forget that you’ll need an electronic travel permit to Travel to Saudi Arabia – eVisa.
Is it safe to travel to Saudi Arabia alone as a woman?
An indubitable yes! It is safe for women to travel to Saudi Arabia alone. By looking and behaving as much like the locals as possible, unaccompanied women should blend naturally into the mix and not draw unwanted attention.
As with traveling anywhere in the world, it is advisable to take care and reasonably adhere to logical dos and don’ts. The times they are a-changin’!
Cultural norms will likely fade away all the more with time and exposure to foreign visitors, with much change already in the offing over the last 3 years. The expectation of women accompanied by guardians, for example, has always been a cultural more rather than a law.
Precautions to take
- When greeting, saying salaam aleikum, a simple nod of the head, or placing a hand over the heart are all acceptable. What is not acceptable are women shaking hands with men.
- Big no-nos are discussing politics or the royal family with strangers, as well as any form of criticism of Islam.
- Possession of drugs and alcohol is a punishable offense. While these substances are illegal in Saudi Arabia, alcohol is commonplace here among elite or foreign circles especially. It is advisable to arrive in the country sober.
- Drug smugglers face the possibility of the death penalty.
- Taking photos of the locals is not a great idea and it is prohibited to photograph palaces, government buildings, and military installations. In fact, videoing and photographing at all without permission is not allowed. Binoculars brought into the country could very well be confiscated at the port of entry.
- Pornographic material or images of scantily dressed people, especially women, is prohibited.
- Customs may screen electronic devices on arrival and departure.
- Women may as of June 2018 legally obtain a license to drive a car, motorbike, and scooter.
- Some mosques do not allow non-Muslim men or women entry. These include the mosques of Mecca and Medina.
- Homosexual or extra-marital sexual relations and adultery are illegal as is being transgender.
- Medication brought into the country must be accompanied by a doctor’s prescription.
- Individuals have been detained, prosecuted, and/or convicted for posting material such as videos and photographs online that criticize the Saudi government, or abuse, ridicule, or disparage the country or its authorities.
- Travelers in possession of 2 passports will be in breach of the law and the second passport if discovered by the immigration authorities will be confiscated.
- Carry a photocopy of your passport for identification and ensure emergency contact details are included.
- The Saudi legal system allows for suspects to be held without charge and quick access to legal representation is not always forthcoming.
Restrictions on women
Female tourists in Saudi Arabia are not held to the same strict and stringent laws as the country’s female citizens. Foreign women are allowed to make their own hotel bookings and hire a car without a guardian. Women and men visiting the country are subject to the same laws. Remember that when common sense and respect for others prevail, you will be more likely to avoid trouble, no matter where or who you are.
Since gender segregation has always been prominent in Saudi Arabia, keep an eye out for ladies-only areas. This issue in particular has been turned around since 2019 as far as restaurants are concerned. Restaurants are no longer required to provide separate entrances and dining areas for men and women.
As a woman visiting, it was accepted that family sections and take-outs were the only options to taking meals at home or in the hotel room. Luckily this has changed for restaurants to some extent although women may still not sit in the men’s sections.
The family section is indicated by a family icon and also by an opaque side entrance into the restaurant. Segregation is still a thing in various public places, hospital waiting rooms, airport security, and some workplaces being points of fact.
Females need not wear the traditional abaya as this is not expected of travelers visiting the country, nor is the wearing of a headscarf. It is however suggested that women should show the courtesy of wearing a headscarf when heading to the local mosques.
Women who keep their shoulders and knees covered in public and dress modestly should not have anything to fear when visiting Saudi Arabia.
Modesty includes the wearing of natural or non-garish makeup, not exposing cleavage, and steering clear of tight-fitting clothes or any items of clothing depicting profane language or images.
Generally, foreign women with long trousers and sleeves, as well as those showing no cleavage should be fine in Saudi Arabia.
To be more specific, though, the Saudi government has this to say:
Foreigners are not expected to wear the traditional black gown or abaya that Saudi women are expected to wear in public.
The hijab and niqab are options for visiting women wanting to be sure they are dressed modestly enough, ensuring that knees and shoulders are covered, and that fabric is not see-through. Abayas must be worn when entering mosques, to show the necessary respect for the Muslim culture. In the same vein, a headscarf is required in certain places, particularly in Riyadh.
The following are strictly prohibited: short dresses, miniskirts, short bottoms, sleeveless shirts, loose tops, and crop tops. Use discretion as to clothing that is inappropriate in public such as sleepwear and undergarments. On that note, bikinis are taboo, even on Saudi beaches.
Footwear must be removed when going into religious institutions. There are no restrictions on the type or style of footwear or shoes that can be worn, and sandals, heels, trainers, and open-toed shoes are all okay.
Jewelry representing any religion but Islam can be worn as long as it is not visible.
Traveling in public transport tips
You will not be wanting to walk in Saudi Arabia so let us take a gander at transport options.
Taxis are very safe and plentiful in major cities and are all equipped with a fare meter. Records of all taxis are kept with a regulatory body despite the fact that they are privately owned and operated.
Driver’s photo and the operator’s number are displayed in the cars. Taxis are visible outside supermarkets, malls, parks, and anywhere that attracts many people. Wave them down in the streets when wanting to hail a taxi.
To avoid communication and language problems, have an address and relevant landmarks ready at hand, and ask before departing whether the driver has understood your directive.
Uber and Careem
Uber and Careem are popular among expats in Saudi Arabia.
Download the application and register for the taxi service to make use of this transport option available in all the major cities. The service is safe and popular, especially among women, and you can be sure that all drivers are officially registered.
GPS on the app gives peace of mind as far as communicating your destination goes. The cost for the service is also determined by the app before you engage with the driver so there is really nothing to worry about when it comes to possible language barriers and misunderstandings.
Foreigner travelers wanting to travel by rail in Saudi Arabia are required to produce their Iqama. To secure a seat, book at least 24 hours ahead of the scheduled departure date. Purchase tickets three hours or more before departure to avoid a surcharge of 10%.
Rail is somewhat limited as a transport option in Saudi Arabia for the moment with only 2 railway firms operating three routes:
Saudi Railway Company operates the Riyadh-Qurayyat Line with night trains linking Riyadh with Ḥaʼil, Sakākā, Al-Qassim, Al Majma’ah, and Qurayyat;
Saudi Railways Organization runs the Intercity line linking Riyadh with Abqaiq, Hofuf, and Dammam;
Express line operated by Saudi Railways Organization linking Mecca, Rabigh, Jeddah, and Medina.
The railway system is, however, developing with the addition of rail lines in the pipeline. Non-Muslim travelers may not access the Mecca train station, but this does not apply to the Medina station since it lies outside the city center.
Heads up for first-time train users in Saudi Arabia: luggage is checked by X-ray scan and travel documents are verified by local police. Passengers must be at the train station an hour before the departure time. The passengers will be allowed to board the train no later than five minutes prior departure.
SAPTCO – Saudi Coach Bus is a countrywide service that connects smaller towns and villages to biggest cities such as Riyadh, Mecca, Madinah, Gaseem, Jeddah, Hail, Abha Tabuk, Taif, and Dammam. Buses typically have a toilet and air conditioning.
First-class buses offering extra amenities, comfortable seating, extra legroom, and a meal are an option on certain routes and do cost more than regular buses.
Women traveling solo should use the buses during the hours of daylight rather than at night in light of the conservative nature of the country’s society.
Saudia is the state carrier and Flynas is the local low-cost airliner. The two offer many flights daily within the country.
Can I wear a bikini on the beach in Saudi Arabia?
Women cannot wear bikinis on any of the public beaches in Saudi Arabia. Bikinis are however permitted on boat trips and on private beaches that are accessible at a fee.
Can I go out on a date in Saudi Arabia?
Romance is possible in Saudi Arabia, but no one said it would be easy bearing in mind also that public displays of affection aren’t tolerated.
Romance, dating, and sex are taboo here and dating is carried out covertly, creatively, and carefully. Saudis do not date since it is not only immoral but also illegal for two people who are not related or married to one another to be doing such things.
Marriage involves parents making decisions on appropriate matches with the couple only having a final say in a less traditional family dynamic.
To have a chance at romance among ex-pats, get-togethers are usually confined to compounds. But now that coffee shops and a good few public restaurants have moved away from gender separation, opportunities for pseudo-typical socializing among members of the opposite sex have widened somewhat. Compound living is as much like life in the expats’ home country as it gets and is really the best option for getting together with members of the opposite sex.
Dating behavior in Saudi Arabia
Doing it covertly, as mentioned, makes dating possible, if not a proverbial walk in the park. Subtle. That’s the word to remember when considering dating in Saudi Arabia. There are risks to dating in this conservating setting where morals are strictly upheld. Dress appropriately to the laws and regulations and avoid any and all public displays of affection.
Western-accepted dating rituals that are not even second-guessed are not necessarily readily acceptable in Saudia Arabia where unmarried couples cannot legally be in a shared space. Driving the woman to and from home, bringing gifts, and hugging are risky behaviors. A woman offering to contribute to the bill on a date will be considered behaving offensively, too.
Dress formally when going out, just to avoid problems, making sure all the moral mores are covered.
Saudis don’t marry non-Saudis. Not typically anyway. It is not as rare as one would hope for a married Saudi man to date an unsuspecting woman, hiding his marital status all the while. A Saudi man will rarely introduce a foreign woman to his family since it shows his intent to marry.
A foreign man dating a Saudi woman is taking a great risk doing so without the consent of her family. The Saudi woman dating outside of her culture risks her honor and that of her family, and the man risks imprisonment or deportation.
Moving into a relationship in Saudi Arabia
Sex outside of marriage is a criminal offense as is cohabitating as an unmarried couple. The importance of intimate aspects of a relationship cannot be overstressed as a way of life in Saudi Arabia. Couples may date somewhat covertly for a long time, abiding by the country’s laws and societal expectations. Couples may also marry soon after starting a relationship in order to be transparent and open about the liaison.