The sprawling deserts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) account for 80% of the Arabian Peninsula, though most of the country is uninhabited. Since the discovery of oil there in the 1930s, Saudi Arabia has become a major exporter. The wealth that this has brought is seen in the country’s ultra-modern cities. Today Saudi’s economy is almost entirely oil-based and it is home to a large number of migrant workers.
Saudi Arabian lifestyle may shock Western visitors as the country’s law and culture adhere to Islam very strictly. All citizens are required to be Muslim and there is no religious freedom. Conversion away from Islam can result in the death penalty. Temporary migrants may be of other religions, excluding Bahai and Jehovah’s Witness, but public expression of these is forbidden. Those with a connection to Israel are not allowed into the country at all. Insulting Islam or saying anything that might be perceived as offensive to the monarchy, the Saudi people or government can result in harsh punishments.
- Currency Saudi Riyal
- Time GMT +3
- Language Arabic
- Telephone Services +966
- Emergency Numbers Police 999, Ambulance 998 and Fire 997
Saudi Arabia consists of large areas of harsh, arid desert. However, there are pockets of more forgiving landscape; beaches and rivers, beautiful mountains and green oases in the desert. It is one of the hottest countries in the world and in the summer, temperatures of 50oC are common. Heatstroke is always a danger for unprepared travellers. In spring and autumn, the average temperature is 30oC. The winter months of November to February are the best time to visit. At night, temperatures quickly fall to more comfortable levels. Coastal areas are cooler but also very humid. Mountainous regions are usually cooler and wetter.
Rainfall in Saudi Arabia is infrequent and highly unpredictable. It is possible for the entire year’s rain to fall in one or two sudden downpours. Asir, in the southwest, is subject to monsoons.
Things to do and see
Tourists are usually attracted to coastal areas such as Jeddah in the west and Dammam and Alkhobar in the east. Areas of natural beauty include Taif, Al Baha and Abha. Other sites are well-known for their historic remains. Nabatean tombs can be found in Madain Salah. Hiking and camping in the country’s vast deserts are popular activities with many visitors.
Because of its large number of oil-workers and other migrants, Jeddah is the most culturally diverse and tolerant city in Saudi Arabia. Efforts to attract tourists and other visitors have led to numerous and often bizarre works of public art. The famous Jeddah Fountain and the Floating Mosque are also worth seeing. The coral reefs along the coast of the Red Sea are popular among divers. Jeddah has some excellent museums and one of the best souks (markets) in the country.
For Muslims, Mecca (Makkah in Arabic), 45 miles east of Jeddah, is the most important site to visit. As Islam’s holiest place, every able-bodied Muslim is required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Note that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter. Medina, the second holiest city, is also forbidden to non-Muslims.
Nightlife in Saudi Arabia is virtually non-existent. Alcohol is banned and there is almost no public entertainment, though there is a strong culture of caf�s and restaurants. The social life in expat compounds is generally slightly better.
The best way to get into Saudi Arabia is by plane. Saudi Airlines regularly fly from London. Women travelling alone must be met by their husband or a family member at the airport and are required to have confirmed accommodation for the duration of their visit. There are no rail links from Saudi Arabia to other countries. Car crossings can be found at every border, although the one with Iraq is currently closed. A ferry service operates from Egypt. The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company, SAPTCO, runs buses to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. SAPTCO also operate buses within and between Saudi’s cities.
Saudi Arabia has one of the worst driving accident rates in the world (dial 993 in case of accident). There is no requirement to insure your vehicle and many drivers simply do not bother. Alcohol is banned and drink-drivers will be severely punished. Some driving offences are punishable by mandatory imprisonment or corporal punishment. Others incur heavy fines. Visitors are advised to have insurance and drive extremely carefully, as blame for causing an accident may by default fall on the foreigner.
You will be able to drive with your existing licence for 3 months, after which you should obtain a Saudi one. Some licences, including those from the UK and US, can be converted without the need for another driving test. Women are currently not allowed to drive and are not issued with licences. Women are also not allowed to travel with men who are unrelated to them, unless they employ a driver.
Drive on the right. Petrol is extremely cheap in Saudi Arabia (around 20% of the UK price) as it is a major oil-producing nation. The minimum age to hire a car is 25.
The Saudi Arabian Youth Hostels Association has hostels throughout the country. Prices are between 15 and 20 SR per night (about �2-3). Membership cards and photo ID are required and the maximum stay is 10 days.
A wide variety of hotels is available throughout Saudi Arabia. Most tourist cities will also have furnished apartments for short-term lets, called shigka-maafroosha. Owners can often be found scouting for clients in hotel lobbies. Prices for these and for small hotels are negotiable; remember that bargaining is part of the culture! Prices for larger hotels are similar to those in the UK.
Health care issues
Health insurance is essential and you will need to have a variety of inoculations before you arrive. These are decided by the Ministry of Health. The regulations about these can change at short notice, so check in advance. They may also be different for those arriving for pilgrimage due to the large number of people of many nationalities packed together.
Saudi Arabia has an extensive public health system, although the services offered by this are limited. Private hospitals, often run with foreign assistance, offer a range of facilities. Pharmacies are common and prescriptions are not necessary for many types of medication (though some drugs are tightly controlled).
Tap water is not safe to drink. Bottled water is readily available (though famously, more expensive than petrol).
30 Charles Street
Tel: 020 7917 3000
Fax: 020 7917 3255
Saudi Travel and Tourist Bureau
Saudi Arabia Youth Hostel Association
Further Tourist Information