Saudi Arabia has finally opened its door to travelers keen to explore its many natural and historic wonders, which were long hidden behind a policy that made travel practically impossible. Now, with a huge tourism drive taking place, much-relaxed laws, and a more welcoming attitude, the kingdom is waiting to be discovered. From the likes of places such as the historic town of Al-Balad in Jeddah to the stunning tombs at Hegra, from true desert to astounding rock formations, and even Jordan, where it snows in the desert, there is much to see and do.
But like with all travel, there are plenty of tips and tricks that are good to know about before you embark on your first trip. I’ve lived in several countries across the Middle East for several years, and visited and revisited Saudi Arabia since it has opened up. Here, I have gathered some useful things to know about before you get on that flight to Saudi Arabia. Be they the simple how-tos or cultural differences to be taken into account, the lay of the land, or the need-to-knows about religious events or laws that are very much unlike your own.
Read on and start planning.
1. The Size And Geography Of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a vast land, a fifth the size of the U.S., 3.2 times larger than Texas, and believe it or not, a lot hotter and drier. Taking up the majority of the entire Saudi Arabian Peninsula — between the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf bordering Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Yemen — the country has a size of 829,999 square miles, a coastline of 1,640 miles, and is 95 percent made up of desert. The Rub Al Khali, the Empty Quarter, makes up a large part of Saudi Arabia’s desert and happens to be the largest sand desert in the world.
2. The Desert Climate
Not surprisingly, the prevalent climate is a desert climate, but in the southwest, it is a semi-arid one. There is occasional rainfall, mostly in late winter or early spring, and when it does rain, it tends to pour down torrentially for a few hours and then it stops again for a year. In the region of Tabruk to the north, it even snows on occasion, with a strange phenomenon evident at times of snow covering sand and then again sand covering snow.
But the main thing to know about the climate in Saudi is that it gets hot. Seriously hot. When you see online temperature graphs with maximum temperatures stating 100 degrees Fahrenheit, don’t believe it. In summer, it often rises above 130, and that is in the shade, if you can find some. Do not travel to Saudi Arabia between the end of May and later in October, but book early — because everybody else does. Secure yourself a spot in the winter months, when the temperatures reach an acceptable 75-ish during the day.
3. Easy Visa Application
Once you’ve settled on a date, it’s time to get your visa, and now, it’s never been easier. Citizens of 49 countries worldwide, including North America, most of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are eligible for this fast service. Get your flight and hotel details and your passport ready, hop onto the Visit Saudi Visa page, complete the details, pay a fee of around $150 per person, and within under an hour, you will receive your visa. And if you consider the fee quite high, this is a multiple entry visa lasting a full year from the date of travel.
Pro Tip: At the time of writing, there were still some COVID requirements in place, such as the need to either provide a negative PCR test or proof of vaccination (triple vaccination), pre-arrival registration, and the requirement to download the Tawakkalna app, proving your immunity. But the mask requirement in many public places has been dropped, and regulations are updated constantly, so please check before you fly.
4. Getting Around
Considering the size of the country, the terrain, and the climate, I strongly advise against undertaking longer road trips, unless you are either used to driving in the region or are accompanied by somebody who is. That said, if you are, for example, basing yourself in AlUla and want to explore, you are better off renting a car at the airport, making it much easier to get around. You can drive with your valid driving license and rent a car as long as you are above the age of 21. Driving is on the right in Saudi Arabia, with most cars being automatics.
Driving in Saudi Arabian cities requires a little je ne se quoi; a bit of a daredevil attitude as you will be confronted with utter recklessness and defiance of the strict rules, from speeding to signaling, to pushing in or bullying if you are too slow. It takes a little getting used to, but you will.
Between locations, say Jeddah and AlUla or Riyadh and Tabruk, there are regular domestic flights which are easy and frequent.
Many visitors come as part of a group, with tours already in place and usually organized back home, but you can also organize numerous tours when you are in the country already.
5. Respecting Local Sensitivities
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and as such there are a few cultural sensitivities to be heeded when visiting. While the need to cover up in an all-encompassing abaya — the traditional black robe — is no longer required, the dress code is simple: Both men and women should wear clothes that cover the shoulders and go below the knee. Swearing is not okay, nor are rude hand-signals, even if you might be tempted while being cut off on the road.
It always adds a lot of color to a photograph if you have locals in it, and there is no harm at all in taking pictures of locals, just please ask before you shoot. The older generation especially still has superstitions about having their image captured, and you do not want to upset people.
6. Female Travelers – Accompanied Or Alone
Things have changed so much, it is truly amazing. Gone is the need to cover up in a long abaya, nor do women need to cover their hair. That said, while respectful clothing can be worn without problems in larger cities such as Jeddah and Riyad, once you head further into the country, where life is still a lot less modern, maybe take an abaya just to make sure you don’t feel like a sore thumb sticking out. As a matter of fact, I rather like wearing an open, floaty abaya, it feels wonderful, and I immediately feel more respectful.
Even single women travelers can get a visa and travel around the country without problems. Now, you can rent a car and drive yourself, if you wish, and all in all, it feels very safe everywhere, with people being more interested in you out of true curiosity, rather than harassment. But obviously, normal common sense still applies as it does everywhere, because all you need is one bad individual for things to go badly wrong, and those individuals lurk in every country around the world.
7. The Holy Month Of Ramadan
The Holy Month of Ramadan falls on the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar and lasts around 10 days every year when compared to the Gregorian calendar. At the moment, Ramadan falls in April/March, moving closer toward the beginning of our year. This time period is the most important one for Muslims, who fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset, when they celebrate Iftar, the breaking of the fast.
During the day, many shops are closed, but instead stay open until late into the night, and restaurants in cities also remain closed. Eating, drinking, and smoking is frowned upon even for foreigners, but attitudes have softened remarkably in recent years.
Whether or not you visit during Ramadan, or even the following celebration of Eid-al-Fitr, is up to you. Yes, there are certain inconveniences, but on the other hand, you have a chance to witness the celebrations and traditions at first hand, and going out for Iftar in the local restaurant scene is always a true feast.
8. Alcohol, Or The Lack Thereof
Saudi Arabia is an alcohol-free country. You won’t get a beer or glass of wine anywhere, not on a plane if flying Saudia Airlines, not in any of the fancy five-star resorts, nor in the celebrity chef restaurants. You might have heard about Western expatriates brewing their own alcohol in some of the large, gated communities, but unless you are visiting a friend on one of those compounds, your vacation stay in Saudi Arabia will be a dry one.
Pro Tip: Please note that the laws against carrying, using, or distributing drugs are stringent, so, even for your prescription medication, bring a letter from your doctor just in case you get stopped at immigration.
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