Once upon a time…. this is how the exotic and enduring Arabian folk tales of the literary works of Arabian Nights begin. Once upon a time, many centuries on to the 27th September 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia embarks on welcoming tourists like never before, this is how tourism in Saudi Arabia started.
Yes! Saudi Arabia has launched its first-ever electronic tourist visa. Travelers are now freely able to experience first-hand the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s exceptional combination of magical, mystical, mythical, real and historical hitherto only read about in the book 1001 Nights. With this opportunity comes the need to learn a little more about the Kingdom before embarking on travel. Read on, Intrepid Voyagers…
Healthcare in Saudi Arabia is very good. It is also very expensive. You know better than anyone about your health and medical needs. If you have health issues, are especially at risk, or take prescribed medication, be mindful of these during the planning stages of your trip.
Steps in the weeks leading up to departure:
- Visit your doctor ideally a month or two before traveling;
- Check with the Saudi embassy regarding any restrictions to bringing medication across the borders, whether over the counter or prescribed. You may well need to produce the doctor’s prescription for any meds you simply must take with on your travels;
- Purchase travel insurance. If you paid for your flights using a credit card, check the extent to which you are covered for travel insurance under your particular bank’s credit card cover
Risks to be aware of
- Malaria and Dengue fever are mosquito-borne tropical diseases for which no vaccination is available. Saudi Arabia is home to the mosquitoes which are the cause of these particular nasty diseases. Taking the necessary precautions while in the country is actually quite simple. Wear clothing that covers the skin as thoroughly as possible, especially after sunset. Insect repellents can be applied to exposed areas of skin and a mosquito net draped effectively over sleeping spaces is an excellent and unobtrusive deterrent.
- Bilharzia is also a parasitic infection transmitted through contact with contaminated water through the skin. To avoid falling foul of this debilitating sickness, just avoid dipping yourself in fresh water lakes and streams.
Depending on the country you are traveling from, different requirements are in place as far as vaccinations and immunisations go. Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV)
Primary courses and boosters should be current and up to date before embarking on holiday to the land of 1001 Nights. Among these to be considered are:
- seasonal flu vaccine, and
- MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella)
Booster shots are especially important when visiting Saudi regions where treatment may not be easily accessible, notably:
- Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B
- Meningococcal Meningitis
You have packed your electric shaver and her electric hair-styler, but that UK plug just does not work in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia operates on a 230V supply voltage and 60Hz. When in Saudi Arabia, use a G-type plug. G-type plugs have a triangular pattern with three rectangular pins. It’s as easy as packing a travel adaptor which converts your UK fitted plug to the local G-type. Having one or two of these useful little contraptions allows for personal electrical appliances to be plugged into a foreign electrical socket.
Saudi Arabia’s local currency is known as the Saudi Arabian Riyal (SAR). The notes come in denominations of SAR500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. Currency exchange rate fluctuates, and as at October 2019 the SAR is at 4.73 to the British Pound. SAR500 should currently cost you around GBP107. Credit cards are gladly accepted throughout the country, and ATMS are widely available. Local vendors will also happily accept Euros, British Pounds, and US dollars.
Banks operate from Saturday to Thursday. Banking hours are typically between 8 and 12 noon Saturday to Thursday, and again 5pm to 8pm Saturday to Wednesday.
Car rental and driving
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a great country for a driving holiday. Traveling through a country such as Saudi Arabia by road allows for a deeper understanding, and a more enriching experience of landscape, culture and the people. You will not find it difficult to find any of the better-known car rental companies. They are to be found at the international airports.
Driving in Saudi Arabia
The benefits of a road tripping holiday are numerous, and we will touch on just a few.
- Fuel is pleasantly inexpensive (varying to around one-tenth of the UK price).
- The roads linking the major cities and tourist attractions are excellent, as is the country’s infrastructure overall.
- Chauffeur services are offered by certain of the larger car rental companies for those visitors who are nervous, unable or unwilling to drive in Saudi Arabia.
- UK drivers may use their UK driver’s licence for up to 3 months after their arrival in Saudi Arabia, after which they will need to convert to a local driving licence.
- Stick to the major roads. If you want to use the rural, less travelled roads, do so only in convoy and during the daylight hours.
Local Rules of the Road
As with any country, it is important to obey the national rules of the road and regulations when driving in Saudi Arabia. A few basics to remember when driving:
- Keep to the right, pass on the left.
- The speed limit on motorways is between 50mph and 74mph (80 and 120km/h), and 28mph(45km/h) in built-up areas.
- Seat belts must be worn by driver and passengers at all times.
- Do not be tempted to chat on your mobile phone, or text while driving. You will be fined as this is illegal.
- Women holding a travel Visa may drive with a valid Driver’s Licence issued in their own country as well as an International Driving Licence.
- Those travellers on a Haj or Umrah visit may NOT rent a car.
- Child Safety and Baby Car Seats are not a requirement but are a really good idea for those travelling with children or babies. Baby Seats and Child Safety Seats can be arranged through car rental agencies.
Car rental companies have their own specific regulations and procedures in place. These vary to a great extent, and if you are interested in hiring a vehicle, please check with your selected rental company.
- Minimum age of car renter may be 21, 23 or 25.
- Drivers may be required to hold a valid driver’s licence for longer than a year, issued in their own country, if not longer for certain rental companies.
- Certain rented vehicles from certain rental companies may not be permitted to cross borders.
Eating Out and About in Saudi Restaurants
Saudi locals have a generous nature and are eager to be gracious hosts to guests visiting their country. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has an interesting dining and café culture all its own with a selection of fine restaurants that will leave you spoilt for choice. This should not be surprising in a country with such a rich heritage and a wealth of cultural influences.
Food is central and integral to Saudi life, and every effort is made to please guests. The country also has some very specific and strictly enforced cultural and religious expectations surrounding dining and food. Pork and alcohol are nowhere to be seen on menus. Neither are served in Saudi Arabia, in line with strict Islamic law.
Wash your hands at meal times! Restaurants will provide convenient areas for you to wash hands and you should make use of this facility before and after every meal.
The left hand is considered to be unclean and only the right hand may be used for eating. Feel free to request a fork or a spoon if you would rather not eat with your hand.
Conversation during meals is not expected and may be in short supply. Silence while dining is seen as an indication that you are enjoying the meal.
When eating a meal served to you while you are seated on the floor, either kneel on one knee or sit cross-legged. Avoid allowing your feet to touch the cloth. When sitting cross legged, be very careful not to show the soles of your feet or shoes. It has long been an insult in the Arab culture to show the sole of the shoe or the sole of the foot.
Western food outlets and franchises are to be found, specifically in the larger Saudi cities, but dining etiquette remains wholly Saudi Arabian nonetheless.
Saudi hospitality revolves around generosity and ensuring guests experience abundance. Do not be taken aback if you are served more food than you can possibly be expected to eat. Try a little of everything you are offered or a taste of whatever is served to you.
You might be considered an honoured guest, and as such you may be offered select delicacies. Be prepared then to come face to face with such dishes as a prepared sheep’s head.
Saudi restaurants do often still display a section for “singles,” which actually means men, and one for “families,” denoting women, children, and close male relatives such as husbands. Rest assured that a very noticeable flailing of arms by staff members will be more than apparent should the unversed enter the wrong section.
If you are traveling with members of the opposite sex and you have been anxious about a having to eat meals separately, don’t be. Historically, gender segregation in restaurants has caused some concern but the laws separating unrelated men and women in restaurants has been eased under the Prince’s Vision 2030 reforms.
For some time already the implementation of gender segregation laws in restaurants has been very relaxed. Hotels catering to tourists do not have any such segregation. Those restaurants which do still apply these rules will have private sections for ‘families’ in which men and women may dine together.
Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan. It is an interesting time to visit Saudi Arabia, but tourists are expected to be suitably respectful and avoid eating or drinking and even smoking in public during the day.
Restaurants cater to all tastes. Tourists can delight in eating out, partaking in the spicy, the exotic, and the international – particularly in the larger cities and centres. Jeddah is one such larger city, situated alluringly on the coast and known as the ‘Bride of the Red Sea’, with seafood as its speciality.
Traditional staple foods include dates, bread, cheese, ghee, certain vegetables, herbs and grains, and goat and camel. Meat is always halal, in accordance with Islamic law.
Three meals a day are eaten: breakfast, lunch and supper. Lunches are long and languid, while dinners are served in the late evening, usually around 10-ish. Saudi’s most renowned local dish is ‘Kapsa’, and this is eaten every day. It is made with rice and roasted lamb, chicken or camel meat.
Speciality foods include rice, lentils, hummus, burghul, and kultra (skewered meat). Kebabs are often served with soup and vegetables. Mezze, the local answer to a hors d’oeuvre, is a culinary delight for anyone who enjoys a finger meal and may include as many as 40 dishes.
Coffee culture in Saudi Arabia is quite unique and Arabic coffee is enjoyed throughout the day. Because of the absence of alcoholic drinks on offer, Arabic coffee is that much more enjoyed in this the birthplace of Islam. Local cafés and baristas strive to serve only authentic coffee. In a culture which strives to be welcoming, coffee is offered often and with enthusiasm.
Visitors to Saudi Arabia should make the effort to ensconce themselves in the local trend of coffee drinking and sit down to a ‘dallah’ (traditional Arabic coffee pot) at least once every day. The ‘dallah’ is held by the server in the left hand, while the ‘finjan’ (Arabic coffee cup) is handed over with the right. The server stays nearby while the first cup is being enjoyed – with some pressure to drink it quickly. You are quite welcome to have more than one cup of coffee, shaking the finjan to indicate when you have had your fill.
Coffee has always been a major part of Arab culture, however with western influence comes specialty coffees. While the countrymen embrace the newish western style coffees, Arabic coffee is proudly preserved.
Packing for a Trip to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is quite an extensive country with climates varying according to region. What you can count on though is that it will be hot during the day, and usually much cooler at night. Indoors are typically airconditioned. All these conditions must be taken into account when packing for your time in the country.
The good news is that decency laws for tourists have been relaxed enough to not expect women tourists to wear the traditional abaaya. Women should pack clothes which allow for the covering of all of the body bar the face and hands. Women should dress so as not to show their curves, in clothes that hang loosely on the body.
Men can buy a thawb once they are in Saudi Arabia if they want to dress like a local. The thawb is a loose-fitting Arab garment that hangs down to the ankles and is pleasant to wear.
When visiting Saudi Arabia, check the weather for specific regions and seasons, and pack accordingly. It is mostly hot, and modesty and decency are imperative:
- Insect repellent to be applied to exposed skin
- High SPF Sunscreen
- Comfortable footwear. Sandals and Slipslops are best but walking shoes are also a must
- Loose fitting clothing
- Baggy Tops
- Lightweight long-sleeved shirts/blouses
- Modest Jeans and trousers/maxi-dresses
- Full-piece swimming costume for women OR shorts type swimming trunks for men
- Although shorts extending below the knee are allowed for men, it’s best to rather wear loose fitting trousers
- Clothes which completely cover tattoos
- Headscarf for women
- Light jacket or jumper for airconditioned indoors
- Warm jacket for evening wear when temperatures drop
- Easy to carry, smallish backpack for day trips and to hold water, jacket, hat, scarf, etc
- During winter a coat, scarf, hat, and a raincoat or umbrella.
Good to Know and Be Aware Of
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As a guest in a foreign country, always respect the local culture, religion, and laws. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and Islamic law, or Sharia, is strictly enforced by the general police and the mutawa, an organization of volunteers and officers.
- Prayer five times a day are strictly observed. During prayers, music must be turned off in public places and shops close for a brief time. Do not worry if you are locked inside a shop for this time or are asked to leave before public places are temporarily closed for prayers.
- Priority seats and utilities for the elderly and disabled are strictly controlled by law. Look out for warning signs.
- It is forbidden to scare or endanger women and children.
- Public practice of any religion other than Islam is not allowed. Feel free to observe your own religion in private, though. It is advisable not to admit being an atheist, as this is considered blasphemy. If questioned rather say that you belong to the dominant religion of your own country.
- Public displays of affection and use of profane language or gestures is prohibited.
- Dress must be modest, avoiding tight-fitting clothes, or clothes which display rude images or language.
- Homosexuality, transgenders and adultery are illegal. It is advisable to be aware of advice for the LGBT community before traveling to Saudi Arabia.
- Women must cover their shoulders and knees in public and wear loose clothing, but they are not obliged to wear the traditional robe or abaaya.
- Women cannot fit clothes in the shops or in public places, not even in a designated store fitting room.
- Women may not enter cemeteries or read uncensored fashion magazines.
- Always keep a copy of your passport or your ID available, as authorities may ask for identification at any time.
- The dance move known as dabbing is prohibited because of its association with drug culture.
- Jumping queues is an illegal offence.
- Lese Majeste laws forbid public criticism, even on social media, of the King, royal family, government, or flag of Saudi Arabia.
- St Valentine’s Day may not be publicly recognised for religious reasons, even as far as disallowing publicly wearing red on the day.
- Pork may not be brought into the country.
- Do not to arrive in the country under the influence of alcohol.
- Customs officials may well check your electronic devices for contraband on arrival and departure. Pornographic material is not allowed, even down to images of skimpily clad people.
- Drug smuggling is subject to the death penalty.
- Travelers may not hold two passports and if discovered, one of the documents will be confiscated by immigration officials.
- Binoculars may be confiscated at immigration.
- Photographing locals is not permitted without explicit permission. Palaces, government and military buildings may not be photographed or video recorded.
- Women may not swim in front of men on public beaches. Many resorts permit bathing without restrictions, but always make sure before taking the step.
- Gyms and swimming pools are strictly segregated, and women and men are not permitted to share the facilities. Vision 2030 has seen many of these restrictions relaxed but possible restrictions should be checked beforehand.
- Travel Insurance is recommended as health care may prove expensive in Saudi Arabia.
- Try not to get on the wrong side of the Saudi legal system or become inadvertently involved in any situation, even down to a minor car accident.
- If you are not a Muslim, you are not permitted to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Tourists can expect some interesting cultural experiences during the holy month of Ramadan, a month-long festival in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This is a time of spiritual discipline, prayer, deep contemplation of the relationship with God, and heightened generosity and charity.
Muslims follow a lunar calendar and for this reason Ramadan does not fall on the same date every year.
The days become languid and the nights are lively and celebratory. Bazaars are often open until after midnight during, and night owls will especially enjoy the unusual social aspect. Some bigger cities may encounter drummers on the streets, waking locals well before dawn. You might want to use those ear plugs during the pre-dawn hours, just in case.
It’s illegal to eat or drink in a public areas during daylight, so stock up on food and drink to eat in the privacy of your room. Smoking and chewing gum in public is also prohibited between dusk and dawn. Restaurants and businesses may be closed during the day. Bare arms, legs and shoulders, and hair that is uncovered are particularly offensive during this month of fasting.
Thanks to the Saudi tourism initiative, travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is now simply simpler. As long as you observe the guidelines there is no reason not to have a uniquely wonderful holiday; a chance at your very own adventurous 1001 Nights Experience….