TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO SAUDI ARABIA IN 2020: AN INSIDER GUIDE
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an unknown territory and visiting may be a bit intimidating to many. We hope that our insider guide to traveling to Saudi Arabia in 2020 will help you overcome some of the fears and clarify some questions you may have.
SAUDI TOURIST VISAS
Saudi Arabia is undergoing major changes and one of the biggest changes has been opening its doors to tourism when the e-tourist visa was launched on September 28, 2019. Citizens of 49 counties can now obtain the Saudi tourist visa online or on arrival at the four major airports in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Medina. According to the Saudi Gazette, almost 24,000 tourist visas were issued in the first 10 days, mostly to citizens of China and the UK.
Check Saudi Arabia visa requirements and apply here: https://visa.visitsaudi.com/
The most important advise to those who are traveling to Saudi Arabia is that you should come with an open mind and ready to adapt and adjust. Tourism industry in Saudi is still almost non-existent—the infrastructure is not there yet, finding tours and getting around may be difficult and online information about the tourist sites is often unreliable. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is authentic and has not been spoiled by tourism. Saudis are incredibly friendly and welcoming, the kingdom is exotic even for a seasoned traveler, and tourists are sure to have a good time when visiting this fascinating country.
Here are some insider tips for traveling to Saudi Arabia and things to expect while in the country.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SAUDI ARABIA
The best time to visit Saudi Arabia is between October and March; January and February being the coolest months. It is brutally hot in the summer, even though the dry heat makes it easier to tolerate than humid air. With temperatures above 40 C (104 F) in the summer it feels like someone is blowing hot air into your face and being outside in this heat is unhealthy. Temperatures start cooling down in October when it is in the low 30s C (90s F). It can occasionally rain in the winter but the showers are short. When it rains, water tends to sit on the ground causing flooding on the roads.
WHAT TO WEAR IN SAUDI ARABIA
Foreigners are expected to dress modestly, or they may face fines for improper attire. While local women are covered in black abayas and men wear long white thobes, foreign visitors are now free to choose modest clothing and foreign women do not need to cover themselves with an abaya in Saudi Arabia. Also, there is no requirement to cover the hair for foreign women.
DRESS CODE FOR FOREIGN WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA
According to the official guidelines, foreign women are required to cover their shoulders and knees in public. However, we would not recommend wearing short sleeves and short skirts. The guidelines may allow it, but many local Saudis may feel offended since the rules are still very new. Long dresses and skirts (at least 3/4 length) and pants are the safest choices for women with at least 3/4-length sleeves.
We also recommend darker colors for women, so you are less noticeable among Saudi women who are wearing black. That said, you do not have to be concerned about catcalling because it is just not the culture in Saudi Arabia...and it is very refreshing.
DRESS CODE FOR FOREIGN MEN IN SAUDI ARABIA
For men, the best advice is to wear long-sleeved shirts or t-shirts and long pants. The majority of Saudi men wear thobes. If it is not a thobe, then designer sweat pants, t-shirt and a baseball cap seems to be the choice "du jour." Foreign men can wear thobes but it may not be the most convenient choice of clothing if you are not used to it.
If you want to buy a thobe, bisht (a festive cloak for men) or abaya as a souvenir, you can find them in souk. In Riyadh, the best place is Souk-al-Zal, also known as Deira souk. Read more here: SOUK AL-ZAL: THINGS TO BUY IN RIYADH’S OLDEST MARKET
If you are visiting Saudi Arabia in the winter months, be sure to pack a light coat because it can get cold at night.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN THE CITIES IN SAUDI ARABIA
As mentioned before, Saudi Arabia does not have the infrastructure needed for supporting tourism yet. Getting around is difficult if you do not have a host in the country. The cities are not walkable. Tourist sites are spread out and there are hardly any pedestrian areas. The distances are huge between the cities and the roads are not the safest because of the way people drive.
HIRE A DRIVER
If you are staying in a luxury hotel, they probably work with some private drivers that can take you around. This is the safest option. Also, some car rental companies rent cars with drivers.
Do yourself a favor and do not drive yourself. The traffic is horrible, not only because of the traffic jams but mostly because of the driving habits of Saudi drivers. Almost everyone is speeding, on the phone, texting, watching whatever they need to watch when driving, weaving between lanes. Drivers are impatient, distracted, and cut through only millimeters from your car, across several lines, without turning on the blinkers. It's insane. Besides, many traffic signs are only in Arabic and the GPS devices cannot keep up with the constant traffic diversions. Insurance is expensive and in case of an accident, you as a foreigner may not have a favorable position in the eyes of the traffic police.
TAXES, UBER, CAREEM
As for the taxis, Uber, and Careem in Saudi Arabia, not all drivers speak English, the cars are small and not that comfortable, and some drivers do not drive safely. Just beware. A safer option is to hire a private driver.
There is no good public transportation option in the major cities and in Riyadh the metro is still under construction, causing traffic jams and diversions.
Lastly, if you decide to drive outside the city, keep in mind that the facilities in the gas stations and mosques by the road may be the worst you have ever seen.
SIGHTSEEING IN SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia has been promoting their historic sites on foreign media channels. However, some of the major sights that are being advertised are still closed to the public. This includes the old mud village in Diriyah, Riyadh as authorities are work to restore it to its former glory, as well as Mada'in Saleh, the Saudi version of Petra, and the Al Ua Heritage Village, Al Deerah.
CLOSURES DURING PRAYER TIMES IN SAUDI ARABIA
Most restaurants and shops close during prayer times in Saudi Arabia, with very few exceptions. As a general guideline, the times that may affect you are Dhuhr around midday, Asr around 2.30-3pm, Maghrib around 5.30-6pm and Isha around 6.30-7pm. Google the prayer times as they change daily. Most places start closing about 10-15 minutes before prayer and stay closed for roughly 30 minutes. But, changes are happening in Saudi Arabia, and some restaurants are now staying open during prayer times.
SINGLE SECTIONS AND FAMILY SECTIONS IN SAUDI RESTAURANTS
As said, Saudi is going through some rapid changes, but many restaurants still have separate areas for men (single men and married men without female companions) and family sections (women as well as female/male mixed groups).
SHOPPING IN SAUDI ARABIA
You'll find everything from Harvey Nichols to the ubiquitous Victoria's Secret in Saudi Arabia. The latter, however, may only allow families (no single men) to enter. Most stores do not have dressing rooms. Savvy shoppers pay for the clothing, go to the restroom (there may be prayer rooms in the rest areas that one can use) and return the clothes if they do not fit. Pay in cash if you can, the shop assistants do not always know how to process credit card refunds.
The souks are fun places to visit and generally, they are specialized. There are find fabric souks, spice souks, date souks, gold souks etc in Saudi Arabia. They are not really markets as such, just alleys of shops selling similar products. Make sure to negotiate since the initial quoted prices tend to be higher for tourists. Shopkeepers are very friendly and nobody pushes you to buy anything. The souk experience in Saudi Arabia is definitely more pleasant than in Egypt or Morocco, or even Dubai.
One of the most popular items to buy in Saudi Arabia are boxes of dates which you can find at good prices in grocery stores. If you want a beautiful and quality gift box filled with dates, head to Café Bateel. Arabic coffee (traditional Saudi coffee is of golden color) is excellent with dates and the dallahs, or the Arabic coffee pots, make great souvenirs to take back home. You can find them in souks and even in larger grocery stores like Danube. Danube and Carrefour also sell ground Arabic coffee. If you are visiting Riyadh, head to Deira souk next to Masmak Fort for shopping. Read further and get some ideas of what to buy here:
SAUDI CITIES BECOME ALIVE AT NIGHT
The Saudis are night-owls! The sand-colored cities are lit in neon at night, the crowds stay out late and restaurants and malls stay open past midnight. If you are visiting any festivals, then most of the action takes places after the last prayer in the evening. And, how about a 2AM movie at a cinema?
FRIDAY IS A HOLY DAY IN SAUDIA ARABIA AND THE MUSLIM WORLD
The weekend is Friday and Saturday and Sunday is a regular workday. On Friday, locals gather for their most important prayer of the week, jumah. Muslim men are required to attend Friday prayers as long as they are not traveling, while women are given the option to attend. Some grocery stores and cafés are open on Friday morning until about 10 to 10.30am and then again after 1.30pm. Most stores and restaurants are closed until at least 4pm on Fridays. If you are staying in Riyadh, this is a good time to enjoy the brunch at the Ritz-Carlton when most other places are closed. Read further here:
PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION
PDA is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia. No kissing, no hand-holding in public.
PHOTOGRAPHY IN SAUDI ARABIA
It is illegal to take photos of people without their permission and violators can expect a SR1,000 ($266) fine if caught. At the same time, many Saudis are eager to take a photo with visitors and are generally curious where you come from and want to chat with you. Be especially careful about taking pictures of women and always ask. Taking pictures of government office buildings is illegal.
ALCOHOL IS ILLEGAL IN SAUDI ARABIA
The sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol are illegal in Saudi Arabia, as is bringing alcohol or drugs into the country. Check the ingredients if you a bringing chocolates or other food products that may contain alcohol. Often the luggage is x-rayed on arrival at the airport and may be subject to a thorough search. Differently from other Arabian countries, alcohol is not available even in hotels and restaurants.
INFORMATION IS UNRELIABLE ON THE INTERNET
Never rely on the information about opening times etc. published on the Internet. It is rarely accurate. Ability to adjust is the key in Saudi Arabia.
ALWAYS CARRY TISSUE WITH YOU
Saudi restrooms have water hoses but rarely is there paper available. Do not be shocked to find holes in the ground rather than toilet bowls, and be prepared to find the restrooms be very dirty.