The vast deserts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) dominate the Arabian Peninsula. Since the discovery of oil there in the 1930s, the country has become a major exporter. Today its economy is thoroughly oil-based and it is home to a large number of migrant workers for this reason.
Previously highly restrictive, the Saudi government is now promoting tourism and entry to the country no longer requires a sponsor. However, visas are still required for both entering and leaving and customs controls are very stringent.
The Saudi Arabian lifestyle may surprise 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. (Although temporary migrants may be of other religions, public expression of these is forbidden.) Jews are not allowed into the country at all and insulting Islam can result in harsh punishments
The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely spoken as everyone learns it at school. It is also used in business. Note that Arabic has a number of sounds that may be completely unfamiliar to the native English speaker.
Marhaba – helloMin fadlak – please Na'am – YesLaa – NoIsmee... – my name is...Bikam...? – how much is...?
Currency in Saudi Arabia is the Riyal, which is pegged to the US dollar. At the time of writing (August 2006):US $1 : 3.75 SR (fixed)UK £1 : 7.07 SR€1 = 4.81 SR
Banknotes are issued in denominations of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1 riyals; coins come in denominations of 100, 50, 25, 10 and 5 hallalahs.
Most of Saudi Arabia is harsh, arid desert. The country is one of the hottest on earth; in the summer months, temperatures of 50oC are not uncommon. Heatstroke is a real danger for the unprepared traveller. Even in spring and autumn, 30oC is average. At night, the temperature falls sharply to more comfortable levels. Coastal areas are cooler but very humid. Mountainous regions are generally cooler and wetter.
Rainfall is light and very unpredictable – it is possible for the entire year's rain to fall in one or two sudden storms. In the southwest, Asir is subject to monsoons.
For Muslims, the most important place to visit will be Mecca (Makkah in Arabic), some 45 miles east of Jeddah. As the holiest site of Islam, every Muslim who is capable is required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. However, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter. Medina, the second holiest city, is also forbidden to non-Muslims.
The coastal city of Jeddah is considered to be the most culturally diverse and tolerant in KSA, largely due to the number of oil-workers and other migrants. Efforts to make the city more attractive to 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.
Enormous Western-style shopping malls have sprung up around Saudi, selling almost anything you would expect to find in the US or UK. Elsewhere, the shops are more traditional. In the suqs (bazaars) you will be able to find Bedouin jewellery, camel-hair rugs and other local crafts and souvenirs. Bargain hard: it is part of the culture.
Nightlife in Saudi Arabia is, to be charitable, limited. Alcohol is completely forbidden and there are no bars or clubs and very little public entertainment. Visiting restaurants and cafés or going shopping are the main leisure activities. Your best bet may be to find a friendly ex-pat and try to secure a dinner invitation.
Although the standard of the roads is generally good in Saudi, the standard of driving is notoriously bad: the country has one of the worst accident rates in the world. It is not a legal requirement to insure your vehicle, and consequently many drivers do not bother. Some driving offences are punishable by mandatory imprisonment or corporal punishment. As alcohol is banned in KSA, drink-driving is very heavily frowned upon. Visitors are advised to drive with caution.
You will be able to drive with your existing licence for 3 months (if accompanied by an official translation), 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. Note that, at present, women are not permitted to drive and are not issued with licences. Neither is it permissible for a woman to travel with a man who is not a member of her family.
Drive on the right. Petrol is extremely cheap in Saudi Arabia (around 20% of the UK price), hardly a surprise for a major oil-producing nation. The minimum age to hire a car is 25.
Food and Drink
Hospitality is highly valued in Saudi Arabia. If you are invited into someone's home for a meal, you will likely face more food than it is possible to eat. Use only the right hand for eating – the left is considered unclean under Islamic law as it is used for personal hygiene. When eating out, there are separate areas for single/alone men and for women/families.
Islamic law also forbids pork and alcohol, which you will not legally find anywhere. Grilled lamb and chicken are common and flat bread is eaten at most meals. Instead of alcohol, a range of fruit cocktails are drunk, as well as strong Arabic coffee. Accept this if you are offered – it is considered rude to decline. Tap water is not safe to drink, but bottled water is readily available.
All car hire locations in Saudi Arabia
- Abha Regional Airport
- Ad Dammām
- Al Jubayl
- Al Kharj
- Al Khubar
- Gassim Airport
- Hail Airport
- Jizan Regional Airport
- King Abdulaziz Air Base Airport
- King Abdulaziz International Airport
- King Fahd International Airport
- King Khaled International Airport
- Nejran Airport
- Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz Airport
- Tabuk Airport
- Yanbu‘ Al Baḩr
- Yenbo Airport