This post will tell you everything you need to know about Saudi from a Saudi national! I was born and raised in Saudi and I can tell you the highlights to make your trip better especially now that Saudi has a tourism visa!
This post is a practical one about what you need to know if you decide to take an advantage of the new tourist visa.
Facts about Saudi
Saudi is BIG. It takes two hours flight from East to West. It also makes the majority of the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi is a Kingdom and it is ruled by a king. In my life time, I witnessed King Fahad, King Abdullah and now King Salman.
The language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is the second language and most people would speak it at least as a basic level since it is taught in school from 6th grade/year 6.
Saudi weather and best times to visit
As you would expect, the summer is unbearable and the temperature reaches 50 C and sometimes above. Just thinking of the heat gives me a headache! Everything would be indoors during the summer in all indoor spaces are air conditioned, so it doable if your trip only revolves around malls and restaurants.
Best time to visit Saudi is in the winter from November to February. You might get nice weather in March and April as well, but the second May hits then I would leave if I were you. In the winter, you will be able to see some dessert bloom and be able to enjoy the sea side.
The water does get cold in winter. If you want to do swimming and diving then October and April might be two good months for that when the water is still nice and warm.
Best flights to Saudi
Saudi has its own airlines: Saudia airlines and they are great if you are flying directly to Jeddah in the West of Saudi or if you are travelling to the capital Riyadh.
They are a little drama if you want to fly to the East of Saudi and I would recommend using Emirates or Etihad since the UAE is only an hour or two from the East of Saudi depending on where you land there. It is less of a hassle and I find it much easier. I am from East Saudi and that is where I head.
My favourite route is via Emirates or Etihad: London to Dubai, Dubai to Dammam
There is Gulf Air or British Airways that fly in Bahrain and it is only a one hour drive to East Saudi, but it really depends on the time you land because if you hit that traffic in the causeway between Saudi and Bahrain, you could be stuck there a few hours, but it is an option if you want to do two days or something in Bahrain on your way to Saudi.
The currency in Saudi is the Saudi Riyal. It is tied to the US dollar, so 1 SAR = USD 3.75. You can use cash, cards and contactless in most places. There are still places that only take cash, but payments with cards are really common.
There also ATM and cash points everywhere, so it is easy to get the money you need.
Saudi cash comes in paper format mostly. Now the one riyal comes in a coin format and you sometimes see the 50p, but not as much.
Holidays in Saudi
These four holidays below are not the same exact date every year since they use the Arabic/Hijri calendar, which is based on the moon movement. You can just Google when it will be the same year you visit or use this calendar converter to check.
Ramadan, the month of fast
I absolutely loving going back for the month of fast to Saudi to spend the month with my family. Practicing Muslims would also enjoy it I imagine with all the Iftar and Suhoors in restaurants and evening activities. If you are not a Muslim and just visiting without family members who live there then I am not sure you will enjoy it there.
You would not be allowed to eat in public, restaurants would not be serving food during the day and there are almost no activities during the day and the shop hours are always off. Not Just in Saudi, but also in the Gulf religion as well.
Eid Al Fitar
This is the celebration after Ramadan and it last from two days to a week long festivities. The traffic is INSANE and everyone is out trying to do something, so I am not sure you would want to be caught up in that. It can be fun, but risky cause most things will be sold out or really crowded.
If you are visiting West of Saudi, the Hajj time will really affect your trip. Over two million Muslims go there per year and and not only to Mecca, but they fly into Jeddah and sometimes stay around to explore, so I would avoid it.
Eid Al Adha
This Eid is the second major Islamic celebration and it celebrates the pilgrims and their spiritual time in Mecca. It is as busy as the first Eid though!
Saudi National Day | Al-Yaom-ul-Watany
September 23rd 1932. This is a National holiday celebrating Saudi and the formation of the Kingdom. This might be fun since there are so many fun and festive events happening. However, majority of the Saudis will be out to celebrate, so it is a busy time!
Getting around in Saudi Arabia
Saudi’s traffic and transport infrastructure is really not great. It is not bad in the capital and in rich neighbourhood, but in a lot of areas, the roads are a mess!!
There is also NO TRANSPORT system, buses or trams. There is an old train that runs between Dammam to Al Hasa and between Dammam and Riyadh. Getting that train is quite simple and you can pay for the ticket online. Most people use this route to go to work or university.
Other than that, you would 100% need a car to take you around.
Visitors are able to rent a car there with a valid driving license and with paying the car insurance like anywhere else in the world. The only thing is, I am not sure you want to drive there. The traffic is insane during rush hour and car accidents are one of the top reasons of death in Saudi.
In 2017 alone, the country recorded over 7,000 deaths related to car accidents.
So, I am warning you. It can be safe, but a lot of drivers do not follow the road rules. The Saudi government and the traffic police are working harder to enforce road rules and so on, but it will take a while to get used to it.
When I am back home to Saudi, I just get around by Uber or Careem, the Saudi alternative to Uber. I try them both and see which ones has a closest car to me. I try to use Careem more though to support a Saudi company rather than an international company. You are also able to pay cash in them and if they do not have a change they will add it as a credit to your cab account.
Download Careem for a safe, reliable and hassle free ride. Sign up & get SAR 10.
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Safety in Saudi
As a Saudi, I consider Saudi to be a safe country and I am very thankful for that. Cities are very safe generally, but there are unfortunate cases that happen every few years that keep you on your toes. I personally would not travel with a random man across a long distance that is longer than an hour. I would not go to a desert camp if it is majority of men and I would not go on tour groups that are majority men either.
Saudi is a huge place with SO many deserted spots, so it is better to be careful and use normal common sense.
All normal safety rules apply: Ten Tips for Safer Solo Travel
Interacting with Saudi locals
The Saudi locals can be nice to you or mean to you. There is no one rule about ALLLLL the people of the whole kingdom.
It all depends on who the person you are interacting with, their background, education level and your attitude towards them.
Some people will go above and beyond to host you and welcome you and some won’t even care that you are there. Such as a life.
Generally, it is better to interact with the same sex as you. Or at least that is what I do and it works.
Interacting with Saudi men
I got a question on instagram: “How would a Saudi man react to a woman travelling by herself?” I mean the questions people ask are something… I do not know, how would any man react to any woman?
NO ONE KNOWS! Hence serial killers… Don’t trust anyone that life puts in your way. Use your wits and your brain…
When I grew up in Saudi, it was not considered polite to interact with men, and all education was segregated, so a man and I would not randomly interact together for no reason let alone have a private conversation about my travels lol.
Regardless, the men I interacted with and worked with were mostly polite and they meant well. Of course you get creeps, but you get them wherever you would travel. You can find nice and rude people wherever you go and it is the same in Saudi.
Interacting with Saudi women
Again, this depends on where you are. Saudi women are similar to women in London, they would just walk by you and no one will smile or interact especially on the road, on the way to work and things like that.
If you are in a social settings then Saudi women are chatty a lot of the time.
If you are a female, do not be afraid to go introduce yourself and have a conversation. However, lots of people will ask you personal questions especially if they are older.
Men can approach Saudi women, but it depends on the setting. If you are lost and you need direction, they will help you, but if you are just chatting then it depends to who and where.
Code of conduct when being in Saudi
What to wear in Saudi?
Modest clothing. Western visitors are obsessed with this and some visitors either complicate it or over dramatise about it. It is simple. Dress modestly and use your common sense on what that would mean.
Shorts and short skirts are not considered modest. Here are a few ideas that should help you:
Skirt with t-shirt or a long sleeve shirt.
Trousers/Jeans (maybe avoid ripped that would show half your leg) with t-shirt or a long sleeve shirt.
Maxi dress with a cardigan.
I would suggest avoiding tops and dresses that would show off your breasts and extremely tight clothing that shows your curves in full details. Also see-through clothes are also not a great idea especially if you do not want to attract the wrong kind of attention.
The Saudi culture is very conservative, so if you provoke it, then that is on you.
Plus the same goes for most countries you would visit in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
If you are in a PUBLIC beach, you are not allowed to wear a bikini, but you can wear a bodysuit or Burkini to swim WITHOUT changing on the beach. Private beaches and resorts have their own regulations, so you can double check the rules where you go.
You are not required to wear any head-covering anymore with the new Saudi regulation and the “Ethical enforcement officers or religious police” have no right to tell any local or visitor to cover their hair now.
As a visitor, I think it’s appreciate it when women are dressed modestly anywhere in the gulf not just Saudi. I find it weird when girls are dressed with extremely immodest clothing in those settings and it’s just a self centred way of thinking.
Shows of affection in Saudi
If you are travelling with your significant other, please avoid public shows of affection. You can hold hands if you are married and have a proof of your marriage in case you get asked, but kissing in public is not acceptable.
Alcohol in Saudi
Although Saudi has opened its doors to the Western world (and some Eastern countries), religious rules still govern the country and alcohol is prohibited in Saudi, to consume, to sell, to bring in or to sell. If you can’t live without alcohol for the duration of your trip then maybe it is not a great place for you to visit. You can go outside of Saudi to other countries in the gulf or to the Levant to drink.
Photographing the Locals in Saudi
You are in Saudi, it all feels exotic to you and you take your camera and start taking photos of the locals. THIS IS NOT OKAY. This is not okay anywhere in the world.
Especially taking images of children no matter how adorable they are. Please ASK permission before taking photos or make sure the photos is not showing the face.
A lot of people will actually say yes to their photos taken, but do not be offended if they say no. It is their body, their face and right.
There will be so many other interesting to photograph like nature, mosques and so on.
LGBTQ and homosexuality in Saudi
Saudi is a strict Muslim country and a lot of Muslim countries are not accepting of homosexuality, so if you are in a same-sex couple act as friends without showing affection or revealing personal information. You will be allowed to stay in the same hotel room though. It is common for friends from the same sex to travel together.
If you do not feel comfortable with that, then that is understandable and it might be better to wait until the laws regarding this would change.
I hope you found this post helpful and I wish you a positive experience in Saudi.