The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but few enter as tourists. This conservative country connecting Africa and mainland Asia contains the spiritual centre of the Islamic world, Mecca, and the sacred city of Medina, making most of the visitors are pilgrims, permitted on special religious visas.
Others come to this oil-rich nation on sponsored business trips, generally finding little time or facility for leisure and pleasure. Saudi Arabia is intent on keeping its traditions, culture, and religious heritage from prying western eyes. Its cities, however, are not backwaters but modern and bustling centres which can be thoroughly enjoyed by those who visit the country. The Royal capital, Riyadh, offers a multitude of sights to see and explore. The historical city of Jeddah is also a popular spot where people can enjoy a unique seaside experience alongside the locals who often frequent it for a break-away. If looking for leisure, with the right amount of research, it can be found in Saudi Arabia.
Occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula, and bordered by no fewer than eight Middle-Eastern states, Saudi Arabia manages its highly-controlled religious society alongside the onslaught of modernity through the oil-boom industry. It must be noted that the kingdom's strategic position both geographically and culturally at the centre of the Arab world has made it a potentially very unsafe place for westerners, and those who do visit are advised to plan thoroughly and be fully informed. If informed, Saudi Arabia can make for a memorable, cultural, and unique holiday experience.
Although not especially celebrated for its tourism opportunities, Saudi Arabia has some wonderfully enriching sites making it a memorable destination. Apart from the religious pilgrimages, there is growth in Saudi Arabia's leisure tourism sector, promising for those hoping to visit the country on holiday.
The cities are bustling and vibrant. Riyadh offers excellent hotels and some breath-taking sights, including the Al Faisaliah golden geodesic dome, one of the tallest buildings in the region and the Al Musmak Castle, an important landmark and heritage site.
The historic city of Jeddah is certainly worth the visit. The preserved ancient city is listed as a 'tourist site', as it is the city's seafront corniche, a popular spot with the air of a British seaside resort that draws the country's own domestic holidaymakers. Among it all, the magic of Arabia shines through in the (markets) where vendors enthusiastically tout everything from carpets to camel milk.
Rules and regulations can sometimes make sightseeing difficult for foreigners wanting to travel independently, so booking tours is the safest and most stress-free option. However, sites like the ruins of 15th-century Dir'aiyah (the nation's first capital) and trips to the world's largest camel market make for one-of-a-kind experiences which make some sightseeing a must in this somewhat enigmatic country.
The place to see and be seen in Riyadh is at the remarkable Kingdom Centre, the fifth tallest building in Saudi Arabia, owned by a Saudi prince and built to an unusual elliptical award-winning design. The 99-storey colossus is the world's third largest building with a hole that visitors can walk across on the sky-bridge on the highest floor.
Besides containing modern offices, apartments, the Four Seasons Hotel and a fitness club, the Kingdom Centre also houses a state-of-the art three-level shopping mall with more than 160 stores, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Debenhams department stores. The centre also boasts dozens of world-class international restaurants.
This museum, chief among the numerous museums in Riyadh, is truly worth visiting. Incorporating local art, religion, and culture that explore the diverse and intriguing history of the Arabian 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 most attractions in Riyadh, the museum charges a small entrance fee.
Other city museums worth visiting are the King Abdulaziz Military Museum and the Museum of Antiquities and Folklore.
The clay and mud brick fort of the Masmak Fort is an important landmark and heritage site in the centre of Riyadh. Built around 1865, the site is associated with the foundation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom as the original stronghold of King Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Rasheed. The castle was the setting of the Idn Saud's legendary raid in 1902, where a spear was hurled at the main entrance with such force that the head is still intact in the main arch. Visitors can explore its impressive rooms, pillared mosque, gate, watchtowers, and well.
Just outside the original city walls, is the spectacular Al Murabba'a Historical Palace. Built in the early 1900s, the palace originally functioned as the private accommodation for the king of Saudi Arabia.
Now a principal component of the King Abdulaziz Darat, an institute and library devoted to preserving Arabian history, the palace has been preserved as a living example of Arabian royal life in days gone by and is a site history lovers enjoy year after year. On the ground floor are the guard's room and storerooms, 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) northwest of Riyadh city centre, provide an interesting excursion. The city, originally the stronghold of the powerful Saud family, was the site of an important Islamic reform movement in around 1745, when two influential imams called for the people to return to the true faith and abandon heresy, polytheism, and superstition. In its heyday, the city was the biggest in the Arab Peninsula, but was overtaken by Riyadh after being destroyed by the Turks in the early 19th century. The ruins of many of the mud-brick buildings remain to be explored.
The oldest and most traditional market in Saudi Arabia, the Souq Al Alawi in Jeddah is a wonderful way to immerse oneself into local culture and see how shopping among traders and pilgrims is truly done in this unique part of the world.
Visitors will find anything from beautiful Islamic art, to one of a kind Arabic jewellery in this bustling market. Crowded and abuzz, the market has made a name for itself and is truly 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 his first revelation of the Quran, Mecca is the holiest city in the Muslim world and is the direction towards which the world's Muslims pray five times per day. The pilgrimage to Mecca as part of the Haj is the centrepiece of Islam's Five Pillars and a peak experience in the life of any devout Muslim. The city, unfortunately, cannot be visited by non-Muslims.
The key sites in Mecca are the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the world and can accommodate one million worshippers; Jabal Rahmah At Arafah, the tall white pillar marking the place where Adam and Eve met after 200 years of separation; and Muzdalifah, where pilgrims pray and collect stones to be used in the Haj rituals. Hira is another important landmark, a cave on the mountain Jabal Al-Nûr where Mohammed 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 globe has made it one of the most diverse in the Muslim world. The area is also considered an important archaeological site, with fossil discoveries nearly 30 million years old.
Located in the mountains near Mecca, Ta'if is a popular summer holiday resort in Saudi Arabia. One of the few places in the region that is open to non-Muslims, Ta'if is a lush region known for its rose farms, as well as grapes, pomegranates, and honey production; there are said to be more than 3,000 gardens in the area. The fragrant valleys are especially good for hiking, but for those less keen on a workout can take a cable car to the top 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 the rose 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 interesting rock formations and a small zoo. 25 miles (40km) to the north is the Rock Carving Site that was the site of a huge pre-Islamic souk or gathering places. Another interesting place is Wadi Mitna, the sanctuary for the Prophet Mohammed in the year 662. Visitors to Ta'if should also be sure to visit Al Shafa, a small village high in the mountains with incredible views.
Non-Muslim visitors to Ta'if should be aware that they will need to take the non-Muslim Bypass when driving from Jeddah, 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 days and 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, and August. The higher inland areas are cooler. Coastal cities are humid and hot year round. Sandstorms blow anywhere in the country, some lasting for days. The best time to visit is from November to April 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 and stay open into the evening, from 5pm to 8pm. All major credit cards are accepted at shops, hotels, and restaurants in Saudi Arabia. ATMs are widely available.
Arabic is the official language in Saudi Arabia, but English is widely understood.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 60Hz. Three-pin, flat-bladed plugs are in use, in addition to round/flat-bladed two-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 a minimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter Saudi Arabia.
Canadians require a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter Saudi Arabia.
Australians require a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter Saudi Arabia.
South Africans require a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter Saudi Arabia.
Irish passport holders require a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter Saudi 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 of six months from the date of arrival, and a visa to enter Saudi Arabia.
All visitors require a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, and visas are only granted to those with sponsorship in the country. Tourist visas are hard to get, granted only to selected groups on a limited basis. Everyone who enters the Kingdom should have a valid passport with at least six months validity in addition to the appropriate visa and a return ticket, with all necessary documents. Muslim women entering the Kingdom alone must be met by a sponsor or male relative and have confirmed accommodation for the duration of their stay. Entry may be refused to any visitor arriving in an intoxicated state, men wearing shorts, women in tight clothing or with legs and arms exposed, and to couples displaying affection in public. There are special requirements for pilgrims undertaking the Hajj or visiting holy sites. It is strongly recommended not to hold passports containing any Israeli visa or stamp when entering or transiting Saudi Arabia as entry may be refused.
Anyone arriving in Saudi Arabia from a country infected with yellow fever requires a vaccination certificate for entry. People travelling to perform Hajj and Umrah are required to be inoculated against meningitis before travel and must present a vaccination certificate on arrival. A meningococcal vaccine is recommended for all travellers. Respiratory infections are common among pilgrims during the Hajj and Ramadan season. Not compulsory, but definitely advisable, is vaccination against hepatitis A, polio, and typhoid fever.
There is a malaria risk in the south and parts of the western region of the country and visitors should take advice on anti-malarial precautions at least four weeks before leaving; an outbreak of cerebral malaria has occurred in Jizan. Rift Valley Fever has also occurred, mainly in the Jizan area. Dengue fever has been reported.
Food poisoning is a risk outside the good hotels. Visitors should only drink bottled water. The standard of medical care and facilities in Saudi Arabia is high, but treatment is expensive, therefore health insurance is strongly advised for all travellers.
Service charge is usually included in bills at hotels. Elsewhere a tip of 10 percent can be offered for services rendered. Taxi drivers can be given 10 percent of the fare.
Travel safety in Saudi Arabia is a concern. The US and British authorities believe terrorists may be planning further attacks against Westerners and in places associated with Westerners in Saudi Arabia following incidents in which foreign nationals were killed. 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 to the clashes along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Visitors who choose to risk entering the country should ensure they have individual security arrangements, remain vigilant, keep a low profile, and avoid public gatherings. Visitors should be particularly alert in public places frequented by foreigners such as shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels and in the desert outside Riyadh.
Pilgrims are increasingly being targeted by pickpockets in Mecca and Medina and are advised to take care of personal possessions. In recent years pilgrims have died due to overcrowding and stampedes at events during Haj. Religious police patrols rigorously enforce codes of behaviour and dress prescribed by Islamic law and visitors should respect these.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country in which Islamic law is strictly enforced. No alcohol, pork products, or religious books and artefacts not related to Islam are permitted in the country. There are no bars in Saudi Arabia, and alcohol is served nowhere to anyone of any religious persuasion.
Dress should be conservative at all times, and women should take particular care not to offend. Visitors are advised to familiarise themselves with behaviour and dress codes before entering the country. Homosexual behaviour and extra-marital sexual relations, including adultery are illegal and can carry the death penalty. It is also illegal to be transgender.
Photography of local people, government buildings, military installations, and palaces is not allowed. Religious customs should be respected, particularly during the month of Ramadan when eating, drinking, and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture. The right hand should be used for everything, including eating and the giving and receiving of things, as the left is considered unclean. It is illegal to hold two passports, and second passports will be confiscated if discovered by immigration authorities.
If you are looking to do business in Saudi Arabia, prepare yourself for a unique experience. The Saudi corporate world is perhaps the most foreign of any of the Gulf nations, and in all likelihood you are going to have to remain flexible and to learn new skills, in order to make a real success of your time in the country. It is vitally important to understand that Saudi society is 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 relationships between business associates - Saudi businessmen will always prefer to do business with people they are familiar with, or people who they feel they can trust, so it is worth putting in the time and effort to cultivate business relationships. In Saudi Arabia, business meetings will most likely be lengthy, and subject to numerous interruptions and personal digressions. You will be judged on your conduct in meetings, so treat them as necessary parts of the relationship-building process.
Despite the heat, business dress in Saudi Arabia is strictly smart, formal and conservative, especially for women, who must take extreme care not to wear anything too revealing. The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, though English is widely spoken and widely understood in the business world. Hours of business are generally from 8am to 12pm, and then 3pm to 6pm, from Saturday to Thursday.
The international dialling code for Saudi Arabia is +966. Mobile telephone coverage is extensive, even in remote parts of the country. Internet facilities are available in most towns and cities.
Travellers to Saudi Arabia do not have to pay duty on 600 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500g tobacco, perfume or cultured pearls for personal use, or goods up to the value SAR3,000. Duty is payable on cameras and other electronic goods, and refunds on these are available if the articles are re-exported within 90 days.
Strictly prohibited are pork, narcotics, alcoholic drinks, anti-Islamic goods and publications, gambling devices, weapons and ammunition, explosives, fireworks, unlabelled medication, goods which prominently display flags of another country, goods bearing names and pictures of celebrities, wild animal hides, counterfeit money. Other prohibited items include formula milk, natural sand, and natural pearls.
The Supreme Commission for Tourism, Riyadh: +966 (0)1 480 8855 or www.scta.gov.sa.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 342 3800.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7917 3000.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 237 4100.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa +27 (0)12 362 4230.
Saudi Arabian Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New 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.