Saudi Arabia

Realistically speaking, the biggest danger a visitor to Saudi Arabia faces is the lethal driving — drive or pick your drivers carefully and buckle up your seatbelt.

A low-level insurgency which targets foreigners in general and Westerners in particular continues to bubble. The wave of violence in 2003-2004 has been squashed by a brutal crackdown by Saudi security forces and there have been no major attacks in the cities for several years, security remains tight and it is prudent not to draw too much attention to yourself. Foreigners should register their presence with their embassy or consulate. Emergency alert systems using e-mail and cell phone messages are maintained by many governments for their guest workers.

Four French tourists, part of a larger group that had been camping in the desert, were shot and killed by terrorists near Madain Saleh in early 2007. Due to this, mandatory police escorts — which can be an interesting experience, but can also be annoying, restrictive hassles — are sometimes provided for travel outside major cities, in areas like Abha, Najran and Madain Saleh.

While Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, a certain background level of non-violent opportunistic theft like pickpocketing and purse snatching does exist. Lock doors and keep valuables on your person.

Saudi society endeavours to keep men and women separate, but sexual harassment — leers, jeers and even being followed — is depressingly common. Raising a ruckus or simply loudly asking the harasser anta Muslim? "are you Muslim?" will usually suffice to scare them off.

Violations of Saudi law can bring a visitor into contact with the local police and justice systems. The Saudi justice system is notoriously harsh and gives no leeway to non-Saudis, and embassies can provide only limited help in these situations. See Respect for how to stay out of trouble.

There are no major health risks for traveling in Saudi Arabia: water is generally drinkable and food is usually, but not always, hygienic. No vaccinations are required for general travel to the Kingdom, but for pilgrims joining the Hajj and its extraordinary concentrations of pilgrims from all corners of the globe, a comprehensive series of vaccinations is required as a condition for entry. See the Hajj article for details.

Smoking is the one sin that the mullahs haven't gotten around to banning yet, and consequently everybody smokes everywhere: hotel lobbies, airport lounges, shopping mall food courts, drivers in their taxis, etc. If this is a problem, be sure to request non-smoking rooms in hotels.

The Kingdom has a wide-reaching national health-care system, but the services provided by this program are quite basic. Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These facilities range from fairly rudimentary to very advanced and very expensive. Pharmacies are widely available and prescriptions are not required for most medications. Psychoactive medications are tightly controlled and available only through government pharmacies.

Bottled water is easily available, and as they say, is more expensive than gasoline.

men

Locals almost universally wear a thobe white robe with sleeves with a ghutra headdress, but the standard dress code for foreign men in Saudi Arabia is long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. Short-sleeved shirts are unusual, although T-shirts are increasingly common among rebellious youth, while shorts are rarely seen outside the gym or beach.

Men with long hair might want to consider a cut before entering the kingdom; although shoulder-length locks can be considered reasonable, anything longer can be considered as grounds for ejection from shopping malls and public places by the muttawa.

Homosexuality is in theory punishable by death, but in practice this is almost never applied, except in cases of rape or child abuse. It is common for Saudi men to walk hand in hand as a sign of friendship or more, but it would be unwise for Western men to attempt the same. Sharing a hotel room as a way of cutting costs is normal, but don't even think about asking for one bed for two. That said, homosexuality still happens, only discreetly, and it's not uncommon for a foreign man to be approached by an amorous, young unmarried Saudi.

other

Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Do not take pictures of any government-related building ministries, airports, military facilities etc or any building that could possibly be one, or you risk being hauled off to jail for espionage. As strict Wahhabi belief prohibits making images of any living creature and Saudis place a high value on privacy, do not photograph any Saudi men without permission and do not even point your camera in the general direction of women, period. Even government publications avoid pictures of people and often resort to mosaicing out faces if they have to use one!

Playing music in public is also prohibited though this does not include playing music at a picnic in the desert for example. However, personal music players and listening to music in private is fine, and there are plenty of music shops in the country's shopping malls if you don't mind permanent marker over Britney's hemline on the cover. It is not uncommon to hear young Saudis blasting the latest hip-hop music in their vehicles, at least when the muttawa are not around.

Religious items for religions other than Islam, including Bibles, crucifixes and any religious literature, are technically forbidden, although these days items for personal use are generally ignored. However, anything that hints of proselytism is treated very harshly, and the muttawa often bust illicit church assemblies and the like. Public observance of religions other than Islam is technically a crime in Saudi Arabia.

The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the Islamic declaration of faith, and desecration or any other inappropriate use of the flag is considered insulting. Public criticism of the King, the royal family or Saudi Arabia's government in general is not tolerated.

law and morality

The really important rules to beware of are enshrined in written Saudi law, with criminals subject to the full strength of the infamous Saudi penal system. In addition to obvious crimes like murder punishable by beheading and theft amputation of the hand for repeat offenders, acts considered serious crimes include adultery, homosexual activity and possession of alcohol or drugs.

In practice, though, most visitors will be primarily concerned with the code of morality, involving things like women not covering up properly, not observing prayer or during Ramadan fasting times, etc. These rules are enforced by the infamous muttawa pl. mutawain, the zealous volunteers of the religious police formally known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Confusingly, the exact rules and their enforcement vary greatly both with time and from region to region, with the Nejd region around Riyadh being the most strict, the Eastern Province being the least strict, and the Hejaz around Jeddah being somewhere in the middle. However, 99% of the time, encounters with the muttawa especially for non-Muslims simply result in verbal warnings. The muttawa do have the power to detain those suspected of un-Islamic conduct, but — in theory — must hand them over to the police before interrogation, and neither can they apply judicial punishments like whipping without a trial. Reports of abuse and even deaths in muttawa custody are still alarmingly common.

women

Women, be they local or foreign, are all required to wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe. While a headscarf is optional for non-Saudi females particularly in Jeddah and Dammam, one should at least be brought along in order to avoid possible harassment from the religious police or to be used as a means of deflecting attention from potentially aggravating men.

Saudi law prohibits women from mingling with unrelated men. Some family restaurants will go further and will not knowingly allow a married couple to dine together with a single man. Women may not drive cars, although as of 2008 there are — not for the first time — rumblings that this may soon change. In theory, women may not even be driven by unrelated people e.g. taxi drivers, although this is widely ignored and rarely enforced.

A woman may travel alone. They may also stay alone in hotels, although hotels may require written permission on check-in unless the woman holds an official form of ID.

While all this legally applies to foreign women as well, in practice foreign women are not restrained by their families in the way that Saudi women are, and can have considerable leeway if they choose to take it. For example, a foreign woman and her boyfriend or even male coworker can simply claim to be husband and wife, and thus mingle freely — although, if caught doing so, they could sometimes be subject to a short stay in jail.

A single woman accosted by the police or the muttawa and requested to come with them does not have to and, for their own safety, should not go with them alone: you have the right to call your mahram and have them arrive, and you should use it. However, you may be required to surrender your ID, and you may not leave until the police/muttawa allow you to.

by net

Internet cafes abound in major Saudi cities, and many shopping malls feature a gaming parlor or two. Rates are around SR5/hour.

While Internet in Saudi Arabia is cordoned off by a filter, it aims primarily at pornography, non-Islamic religious and domestic political sites in Arabic, and from the traveller's point of view is nowhere near as strict as, say, China's. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, all major webmail providers etc are all accessible.

by phone

Useful numbers

Police: 999

Car Accidents: 993

Ambulance: 997

Fire: 998

Phone Directory Fees Apply: 905

The three mobile operators in Saudi, incumbent Al Jawal (http://www.stc.com.sa), Emirati rival Mobily (http://www.mobily.com.sa/) and Kuwaiti newcomer Zain (http://www.sa.zain.com/) Vodafone Network are fiercely competitive, with good coverage in populated areas and good pricing. A starter pack with prepaid SIM and talktime starts from about SR 75, and you can sign up in most any larger mobile shop bring your passport. Local calls are under SR 0.5/minute, while calls overseas are around or less than SR 2/min.

And yes, you can bring in your own phone: despite grumblings from the clerics, both camera phones and multimedia messaging MMS are now legal.

by mail

Saudi Post (http://www.sp.com.sa/Saud...) has a good network of post offices around the country, but offices are closed Thursday and Friday. Stamps for postcards to anywhere in the world cost SR4. The bigger problem is actually finding postcards, as the mutawwa periodically crack down on the celebration of non-Islamic holidays like Valentine's Day, Christmas or even birthdays, causing all cards of any sort to disappear from bookstores! Your best bet is thus gift shops in major hotels. Mail coming in to the country from overseas is notoriously unreliable. Stories abound of thing arriving months after they were sent or never arriving at all. There are branches of DHL, FedEx and UPS operating throughout the kingdom so a good rule of thumb is to have anything important sent through those channels.