The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia receives hundreds ofthousands of visitors each year, but few enter as tourists. Thisconservative country connecting Africa and mainland Asia containsthe spiritual centre of the Islamic world, Mecca, and the sacredcity of Medina, making most of the visitors are pilgrims, permittedon special religious visas.
Others come to this oil-rich nation on sponsoredbusiness trips, generally finding little time or facility forleisure and pleasure. Saudi Arabia is intent on keeping itstraditions, culture, and religious heritage from prying westerneyes. Its cities, however, are not backwaters but modern andbustling centres which can be thoroughly enjoyed by those who visitthe country. The Royal capital, Riyadh, offers a multitude ofsights to see and explore. The historical city of Jeddah is also apopular spot where people can enjoy a unique seaside experiencealongside the locals who often frequent it for a break-away. Iflooking for leisure, with the right amount of research, it can befound in Saudi Arabia.
Occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula, andbordered by no fewer than eight Middle-Eastern states, Saudi Arabiamanages its highly-controlled religious society alongside theonslaught of modernity through the oil-boom industry. It must benoted that the kingdom's strategic position both geographically andculturally at the centre of the Arab world has made it apotentially very unsafe place for westerners, and those who dovisit are advised to plan thoroughly and be fully informed. Ifinformed, Saudi Arabia can make for a memorable, cultural, andunique holiday experience.
Although not especially celebrated for its tourismopportunities, Saudi Arabia has some wonderfully enriching sitesmaking it a memorable destination. Apart from the religiouspilgrimages, there is growth in Saudi Arabia's leisure tourismsector, promising for those hoping to visit the country onholiday.
The cities are bustling and vibrant. Riyadh offersexcellent hotels and some breath-taking sights, including the AlFaisaliah golden geodesic dome, one of the tallest buildings in theregion and the Al Musmak Castle, an important landmark and heritagesite.
The historic city of Jeddah is certainly worth thevisit. The preserved ancient city is listed as a 'tourist site', asit is the city's seafront corniche, a popular spot with the air ofa British seaside resort that draws the country's own domesticholidaymakers. Among it all, the magic of Arabia shines through inthe (markets) where vendors enthusiastically touteverything from carpets to camel milk.
Rules and regulations can sometimes make sightseeingdifficult for foreigners wanting to travel independently, sobooking tours is the safest and most stress-free option. However,sites like the ruins of 15th-century Dir'aiyah (the nation's firstcapital) and trips to the world's largest camel market make forone-of-a-kind experiences which make some sightseeing a must inthis somewhat enigmatic country.
The place to see and be seen in Riyadh is at theremarkable Kingdom Centre, the fifth tallest building in SaudiArabia, owned by a Saudi prince and built to an unusual ellipticalaward-winning design. The 99-storey colossus is the world's thirdlargest building with a hole that visitors can walk across on thesky-bridge on the highest floor.
Besides containing modern offices, apartments, theFour Seasons Hotel and a fitness club, the Kingdom Centre alsohouses a state-of-the art three-level shopping mall with more than160 stores, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Debenhams departmentstores. The centre also boasts dozens of world-class internationalrestaurants.
This museum, chief among the numerous museums inRiyadh, is truly worth visiting. Incorporating local art, religion,and culture that explore the diverse and intriguing history of theArabian kingdoms, the National Museum sees many visitors each year.Artefacts such as ancient documents, furniture, weapons and more,dating as far back as the Stone Age, are on display. Unlike mostattractions in Riyadh, the museum charges a small entrance fee.
Other city museums worth visiting are the KingAbdulaziz Military Museum and the Museum of Antiquities andFolklore.
The clay and mud brick fort of the Masmak Fort is an importantlandmark and heritage site in the centre of Riyadh. Built around1865, the site is associated with the foundation of the SaudiArabian kingdom as the original stronghold of King Mohammed binAbdullah bin Rasheed. The castle was the setting of the Idn Saud'slegendary raid in 1902, where a spear was hurled at the mainentrance with such force that the head is still intact in the mainarch. Visitors can explore its impressive rooms, pillared mosque,gate, watchtowers, and well.
Just outside the original city walls, is thespectacular Al Murabba'a Historical Palace. Built in the early1900s, the palace originally functioned as the privateaccommodation for the king of Saudi Arabia.
Now a principal component of the King AbdulazizDarat, an institute and library devoted to preserving Arabianhistory, the palace has been preserved as a living example ofArabian royal life in days gone by and is a site history loversenjoy year after year. On the ground floor are the guard's room andstorerooms, while upstairs visitors can view the reception salons,political offices, and private apartments.
The ruins of the historically significant city of Diriyah,statuesque and silent in the desert about 12 miles (20km) northwestof Riyadh city centre, provide an interesting excursion. The city,originally the stronghold of the powerful Saud family, was the siteof an important Islamic reform movement in around 1745, when twoinfluential imams called for the people to return to the true faithand abandon heresy, polytheism, and superstition. In its heyday,the city was the biggest in the Arab Peninsula, but was overtakenby Riyadh after being destroyed by the Turks in the early 19thcentury. The ruins of many of the mud-brick buildings remain to beexplored.
The oldest and most traditional market in SaudiArabia, the Souq Al Alawi in Jeddah is a wonderful way to immerseoneself into local culture and see how shopping among traders andpilgrims is truly done in this unique part of the world.
Visitors will find anything from beautiful Islamicart, to one of a kind Arabic jewellery in this bustling market.Crowded and abuzz, the market has made a name for itself and istruly a site to behold. Visitors are encouraged to bargain;haggling here is the name of the game.
As the birthplace of Muhammad and the site of hisfirst revelation of the Quran, Mecca is the holiest city in theMuslim world and is the direction towards which the world's Muslimspray five times per day. The pilgrimage to Mecca as part of the Hajis the centrepiece of Islam's Five Pillars and a peak experience inthe life of any devout Muslim. The city, unfortunately, cannot bevisited by non-Muslims.
The key sites in Mecca are the Masjid al-Haram, theGrand Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the world and canaccommodate one million worshippers; Jabal Rahmah At Arafah, thetall white pillar marking the place where Adam and Eve met after200 years of separation; and Muzdalifah, where pilgrims pray andcollect stones to be used in the Haj rituals. Hira is anotherimportant landmark, a cave on the mountain Jabal Al-Nûr whereMohammed received his first revelations from the angel Jibreel.
Mecca is located in the Sirat Mountains, 45 miles(72km) from Jeddah. The city's entire economy depends on the Haj,and the large number of pilgrim immigrants from all over the globehas made it one of the most diverse in the Muslim world. The areais also considered an important archaeological site, with fossildiscoveries nearly 30 million years old.
Located in the mountains near Mecca, Ta'if is apopular summer holiday resort in Saudi Arabia. One of the fewplaces in the region that is open to non-Muslims, Ta'if is a lushregion known for its rose farms, as well as grapes, pomegranates,and honey production; there are said to be more than 3,000 gardensin the area. The fragrant valleys are especially good for hiking,but for those less keen on a workout can take a cable car to thetop of the mountain in Al Hada.
There are some good restaurants and shops in Ta'if,and a popular souvenir is the rose water and perfume made from therose farms in the area.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Ta'if,such as the Al Rudaf Park, a large natural park with interestingrock formations and a small zoo. 25 miles (40km) to the north isthe Rock Carving Site that was the site of a huge pre-Islamic soukor gathering places. Another interesting place is Wadi Mitna, thesanctuary for the Prophet Mohammed in the year 662. Visitors toTa'if should also be sure to visit Al Shafa, a small village highin the mountains with incredible views.
Non-Muslim visitors to Ta'if should be aware thatthey will need to take the non-Muslim Bypass when driving fromJeddah, which adds a few miles to the journey.
Arabic Phrase Book
|as-salaam-alaikum||hello||ah sull aam ull ay coom|
|ma'assalama||goodbye||ehm ahss ahlama|
|shokran||thank you||shoh cran|
|men fadlak (male), men fadlik(female)||please||mein fadluk|
|ismi||my name is||iz me|
|bikam?||how much?||bee come|
|ana la afham||I don't understand||ana la ufhum|
|wahid, ithinin, talatha, arba'a,khamisa||one, two, three, four, five||wah-hid, eetineen, talata, arba,kaamissa|
Saudi Arabia has a typical desert climate of blistering hot daysand cool nights, and is one of the driest countries in the world.Summers can be extremely hot with temperatures rising to 130ºF(55ºC) in some areas, the hottest months are June, July, andAugust. The higher inland areas are cooler. Coastal cities arehumid and hot year round. Sandstorms blow anywhere in the country,some lasting for days. The best time to visit is from November toApril in the period between winter and spring.
The Saudi currency is the Riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala.Foreign currency can be changed at banks and exchange bureaux.Banking hours are generally Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 12pm.Some banks also choose to open again later in the afternoon andstay open into the evening, from 5pm to 8pm. All major credit cardsare accepted at shops, hotels, and restaurants in Saudi Arabia.ATMs are widely available.
Arabic is the official language in Saudi Arabia, butEnglish is widely understood.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 60Hz. Three-pin,flat-bladed plugs are in use, in addition to round/flat-bladedtwo-pin plugs, as well as flat-bladed two-pin plugs with a third,round pin for grounding.
US citizens require a passport and visa to enter Saudi Arabia,and must be valid for the duration of their stay.
British passport holders require a passport that is valid for aminimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enterSaudi Arabia.
Canadians require a passport that is valid for a minimum of sixmonths from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter SaudiArabia.
Australians require a passport that is valid for a minimum ofsix months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter SaudiArabia.
South Africans require a passport that is valid for a minimum ofsix months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter SaudiArabia.
Irish passport holders require a passport that is valid for aminimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enterSaudi Arabia.
US citizens require a passport and visa to enter Saudi Arabia,and must be valid for the duration of their stay.
New Zealanders require a passport that is valid for a minimum ofsix months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter SaudiArabia.
All visitors require a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, and visas areonly granted to those with sponsorship in the country. Touristvisas are hard to get, granted only to selected groups on a limitedbasis. Everyone who enters the Kingdom should have a valid passportwith at least six months validity in addition to the appropriatevisa and a return ticket, with all necessary documents. Muslimwomen entering the Kingdom alone must be met by a sponsor or malerelative and have confirmed accommodation for the duration of theirstay. Entry may be refused to any visitor arriving in anintoxicated state, men wearing shorts, women in tight clothing orwith legs and arms exposed, and to couples displaying affection inpublic. There are special requirements for pilgrims undertaking theHajj or visiting holy sites. It is strongly recommended not to holdpassports containing any Israeli visa or stamp when entering ortransiting Saudi Arabia as entry may be refused.
Anyone arriving in Saudi Arabia from a country infected withyellow fever requires a vaccination certificate for entry. Peopletravelling to perform Hajj and Umrah are required to be inoculatedagainst meningitis before travel and must present a vaccinationcertificate on arrival. A meningococcal vaccine is recommended forall travellers. Respiratory infections are common among pilgrimsduring the Hajj and Ramadan season. Not compulsory, but definitelyadvisable, is vaccination against hepatitis A, polio, and typhoidfever.
There is a malaria risk in the south and parts of the westernregion of the country and visitors should take advice onanti-malarial precautions at least four weeks before leaving; anoutbreak of cerebral malaria has occurred in Jizan. Rift ValleyFever has also occurred, mainly in the Jizan area. Dengue fever hasbeen reported.
Food poisoning is a risk outside the good hotels. Visitorsshould only drink bottled water. The standard of medical care andfacilities in Saudi Arabia is high, but treatment is expensive,therefore health insurance is strongly advised for alltravellers.
Service charge is usually included in bills at hotels. Elsewherea tip of 10 percent can be offered for services rendered. Taxidrivers can be given 10 percent of the fare.
Travel safety in Saudi Arabia is a concern. The US and Britishauthorities believe terrorists may be planning further attacksagainst Westerners and in places associated with Westerners inSaudi Arabia following incidents in which foreign nationals werekilled. Aviation interests remain a possible terrorist target.Attacks in the past have included kidnappings, targeted shootings,and bombings of shopping areas, government offices and car bombs.All travel within 60 miles (100km) of the border with Yemen due tothe clashes along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Visitors who choose to risk entering the country should ensurethey have individual security arrangements, remain vigilant, keep alow profile, and avoid public gatherings. Visitors should beparticularly alert in public places frequented by foreigners suchas shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels and in the desertoutside Riyadh.
Pilgrims are increasingly being targeted by pickpockets in Meccaand Medina and are advised to take care of personal possessions. Inrecent years pilgrims have died due to overcrowding and stampedesat events during Haj. Religious police patrols rigorously enforcecodes of behaviour and dress prescribed by Islamic law and visitorsshould respect these.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country in which Islamic law isstrictly enforced. No alcohol, pork products, or religious booksand artefacts not related to Islam are permitted in the country.There are no bars in Saudi Arabia, and alcohol is served nowhere toanyone of any religious persuasion.
Dress should be conservative at all times, and women should takeparticular care not to offend. Visitors are advised to familiarisethemselves with behaviour and dress codes before entering thecountry. Homosexual behaviour and extra-marital sexual relations,including adultery are illegal and can carry the death penalty. Itis also illegal to be transgender.
Photography of local people, government buildings, militaryinstallations, and palaces is not allowed. Religious customs shouldbe respected, particularly during the month of Ramadan when eating,drinking, and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet asit is forbidden by the Muslim culture. The right hand should beused for everything, including eating and the giving and receivingof things, as the left is considered unclean. It is illegal to holdtwo passports, and second passports will be confiscated ifdiscovered by immigration authorities.
If you are looking to do business in Saudi Arabia, prepareyourself for a unique experience. The Saudi corporate world isperhaps the most foreign of any of the Gulf nations, and in alllikelihood you are going to have to remain flexible and to learnnew skills, in order to make a real success of your time in thecountry. It is vitally important to understand that Saudi societyis underpinned by fervent belief in the tenets of Islam.
The business culture of Saudi Arabia is prototypically Arabic,in that a great emphasis is placed on personal relationshipsbetween business associates - Saudi businessmen will always preferto do business with people they are familiar with, or people whothey feel they can trust, so it is worth putting in the time andeffort to cultivate business relationships. In Saudi Arabia,business meetings will most likely be lengthy, and subject tonumerous interruptions and personal digressions. You will be judgedon your conduct in meetings, so treat them as necessary parts ofthe relationship-building process.
Despite the heat, business dress in Saudi Arabia is strictlysmart, formal and conservative, especially for women, who must takeextreme care not to wear anything too revealing. The officiallanguage of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, though English is widely spokenand widely understood in the business world. Hours of business aregenerally from 8am to 12pm, and then 3pm to 6pm, from Saturday toThursday.
The international dialling code for Saudi Arabia is +966. Mobiletelephone coverage is extensive, even in remote parts of thecountry. Internet facilities are available in most towns andcities.
Travellers to Saudi Arabia do not have to pay duty on600 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500g tobacco, perfume or culturedpearls for personal use, or goods up to the value SAR3,000. Duty ispayable on cameras and other electronic goods, and refunds on theseare available if the articles are re-exported within 90 days.
Strictly prohibited are pork, narcotics, alcoholicdrinks, anti-Islamic goods and publications, gambling devices,weapons and ammunition, explosives, fireworks, unlabelledmedication, goods which prominently display flags of anothercountry, goods bearing names and pictures of celebrities, wildanimal hides, counterfeit money. Other prohibited items includeformula milk, natural sand, and natural pearls.
The Supreme Commission for Tourism, Riyadh: +966 (0)1 480 8855or www.scta.gov.sa.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 3423800.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsiblefor Ireland): +44 (0)20 7917 3000.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 237 4100.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa +27 (0)12 3624230.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible forNew Zealand): +61 (0)2 6250 7000.
United States Embassy, Riyadh: +966 (0)1 488 3800.
British Embassy, Riyadh: +966 (0)11 481 9100.
Canadian Embassy, Riyadh: +966 (0)11 488 2288.
South African Embassy, Riyadh: + 966 (0)1 422 9716.
Australian Embassy, Riyadh: +966 (0)1 488 7788.
Irish Embassy, Riyadh: +966 (0)1 488 2300.
New Zealand Embassy, Riyadh: +966 (0)1 488 7988.