Tourism has only recently started opening up in Saudi Arabia, with the country now readily granting tourist visas to visitors. This mystical Middle Eastern country, with its tantalizingly rich heritage, culture, and traditions, is truly a magical place to visit.
However, if you’re visiting Saudi Arabia from a western country, there are a few things that you need to know before you go…
Dress Codes Need to Be Adhered To
One of the biggest culture shocks for people who visit Saudi Arabia is the dress code. Although this has become much less strict in recent years, with many of the rules being relaxed, you still need to dress in an appropriate fashion when out and about around the country.
As you would expect from an Islamic country, the rules are more stringent for women. All clothing must be deemed “respectful”, meaning that it should fully cover the shoulders, legs, and arms.
This means that loose-fitting clothing is a must, which can actually keep you surprisingly cool when under the hot Saudi sun. Don’t bother packing tight skinny jeans and t-shirts, or shorts and mini skirts, as you won’t have the opportunity to wear these.
Men have dress code rules to follow too…
Local men usually wear a traditional white robe with a head scarf, but tourists can get away with simply wearing modest and loose-fitting clothing instead. Just like with women, shorts that bare the legs should not be worn.
What happens if you break the dress code rules?
The police will probably approach you and either ask you to return to your hotel to change your clothes, or to leave a specific area, especially if the rules there are more stringent than in other parts of the city/country.
The one exception to this is when you are at a private hotel or private beach. Rules are much more relaxed here – some will even allow women to wear bikinis, although a one-piece is still the better option.
Smoking Can Only Happen in Designated Areas
Everyone knows that smoking isn’t good for the health, but if you haven’t managed to kick the habit just yet, then you need to be careful about where you light up in Saudi Arabia.
Smoking is only allowed in designated areas. Even if you happen to be outdoors, don’t be tempted to light up unless you know that you’re in an area that allows people to smoke.
This applies to both cigarettes and shisha.
The Weekend is Friday and Saturday
You may be used to Saturdays and Sundays being classed as the weekend, but things are a little different in Saudi Arabia.
Here, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, with Sunday being the first day of the working week.
It’s worth keeping this in mind when traveling around the country, since many restaurants, shops, and tourist attractions will either be closed over the weekend, or will have different opening hours.
Be Aware of Public Decency Laws
Saudi Arabia has a number of public decency laws that both locals and tourists need to follow. It is most definitely worth reading through this list before traveling to Saudi Arabia.
Examples of some of the laws are as follows:
- Music should never be played during prayer times (more on prayer times below)
- Littering is forbidden
- Prints on clothing should never display nudity or offensive phrases
- Cutting in line in public areas is heavily frowned upon
- Never sit down on a seat that has been designated for disabled people, unless you are disabled
What happens if you break one of these public decency laws?
That all depends on how severe your “crime” is – a small discretion may just earn you a warning, while anything more serious could result in a hefty fine.
Prepare for Prayer Times
Being an Islamic country, there are five prayer times throughout the day in Saudi Arabia. The exact times for these change slightly each day, usually just by a minute or two, but it would be worth downloading an app that will tell you exactly when prayer times are each day.
Why does this matter for tourists who don’t intend on praying?
Because may shops and restaurants close during prayer times, since the people that run them need to pray.
Don’t worry if you already happen to be in a shop when prayer time hits, since the shopkeeper will likely give you a bit of warning and ask you to leave at the necessary time. The same applies to restaurants too, although if you’re in the middle of a meal, you will be allowed to finish your meal rather than having to stop midway.
How long does each prayer time last for?
Usually around 30 minutes.
As mentioned, the country is relaxing many of their rules, so you will find that some shops and restaurants do stay open during these times. However, it’s tradition for them to close, so the majority of them will continue doing this.
Understand Social Customs
Every country has their own social customs, but many tourists fail to acquaint themselves with these, thinking that they won’t need them since they won’t be mingling with locals.
However, the locals in Saudi Arabia are very hospitable and friendly. They love to speak to and get to know tourists, so chances are that, at some point in your visit, you will find yourself being invited for a meal or a coffee with some locals.
When this happens, some things to keep in mind are:
- Always eat and drink food and beverages with your right hand
- Always remove your shoes before entering into a local’s home. Keep in mind that you may also be expected to sit on the floor on traditional floor cushions
- Locals tend to stand very close to each other when they are in a conversation. You may feel as though your personal boundaries are being invaded, but don’t be tempted to take a step back, as this would be considered rude
- Don’t be afraid to ask cultural questions, but avoid topics relating to politics and religion
- If you’re a man, don’t try to shake hands with a local woman, unless she extends her hand first. A more appropriate greeting would be to place your hand over your heart and simply say “hello”
- Public displays of affection are highly frowned upon, even if this is with your own spouse. Even linking arms or holding hands would be considered a public display of affection and should be avoided
- Homosexual relationships are not allowed in Saudi Arabia. If you are visiting the country with your same-sex partner, you will need to be careful to keep your relationship on the down-low
Understand Shopping Customs
Saudi Arabia is a shopper’s paradise. Many would say that shopping is a local pastime, so you can imagine that there will be plenty of shops and markets for you to browse during your visit.
The upscale malls, especially in Jeddah, are fantastic for picking up exclusive designer goods. Jeddah is also where you will find the first OROGOLD store in Saudi Arabia, where you will be able to enjoy free product demonstrations, luxurious VIP gold-infused facials, and expert skin care advice and recommendations.
The local souks are worth browsing too, with maze-like alleyways bursting with local goods.
However, one thing to keep in mind when shopping for clothes in Saudi Arabia is that most stores will only have fitting rooms for men.
What happens if a woman needs to try on an item of clothing?
She will usually need to either take it to a public restroom, or take it home to try it on, before bringing it back and exchanging it if a different size is needed.
This may seem unfair, but men have certain restrictions too. For example, men would not be allowed into a lingerie store, unless their wife is accompanying them.
Only Use Bottled Water
While this may not be considered very environmentally-friendly, it’s best to avoid tap water and use bottled water instead in Saudi Arabia.
This not only applies to water that you plan on drinking, but even water that you brush your teeth with or cook with.
When it comes to swimming, hotel swimming pools are generally safe, but avoid taking a dip in any natural fresh water pools – these are often a source of a parasite called Bilharzia.
Whether you’ve just finished a meal at a restaurant or have just taken a taxi ride, tipping is customary in Saudi Arabia.
The appropriate amount to tip is usually at least 10% of your final bill, although you can go higher than this if you’re feeling generous, or if the service you received was particularly exemplary.
The exception to this would be hotel rooms. A service charge, usually around 10%, will often be added to your room bill. Check this in advance – if the service charge has been included, then tipping isn’t necessary. However, if no service charge has been accounted for, then tipping the hotel would be a good idea.
The Weather Will Affect Your Visit
Just like with most other Middle Eastern countries, the summer months can quickly become unbearably hot in Saudi Arabia.
While most shopping malls and tourist attractions will be air-conditioned, soaring temperatures make it difficult to properly explore the country and all of its outdoor attractions.
The hottest months are usually between April and October, making this the off-peak travel season in Saudi Arabia.
The best months to visit would be between November and February. These months see a much milder temperature take over, although still hot enough for tourists to enjoy some winter sunshine.
The only downside to visiting during the cooler months is that rainfall can sometimes get quite heavy. Heavy rains lead to flooding, which could put a halt to some of the plans you have.
The best way to get around this would be to keep a constant eye on weather forecasts, adjusting your plans based on the predicted weather.
Follow Photography Restrictions
Most tourists have gotten into the habit of constantly snapping away at a new destination, either with a camera or a smartphone.
You will likely want to do the same in Saudi Arabia – there really is so much to photograph in this stunning country.
However, be wary of where you point your camera…
There are certain things that you are not allowed to photograph, and you could end up in quite a bit of trouble if you are seen photographing one of the following:
- Local women, unless you have their explicit permission to take their photo
- Military personnel or military buildings
- Government staff or government buildings
Learn Some Local Phrases
This is a tip that applies to any new country you may be visiting – it’s always a good idea to learn a few local phrases before you go.
In Saudi Arabia, the local language is Arabic. However, many locals are fluent in English, and you will notice that road signs are also printed in both Arabic and English.
While you would easily be able to get around the country without knowing a word of Arabic, locals are much more receptive and friendlier when a tourist makes the effort to speak their language.
This doesn’t need to take long – simply familiarizing yourself with a few commonly-used local phrases will be enough to win you some brownie points among the locals.
Take Out Travel Insurance
The main reason that people take out travel insurance before visiting Saudi Arabia is for healthcare.
The healthcare here is great, but this comes at a high price. If you happen to have a medical emergency, the bills that you could be left with would be excruciating.
Saudi Arabia is truly a fascinating country to visit, with so many exciting things to see and do. However, local laws, customs, and traditions are different in Saudi Arabia compared to the rest of the world, making it important to understand a bit more about these before you head off for your Saudi Arabian adventure.