The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the third-largest country in Asia and second in the Arab region. Known as the birthplace of Islam, the country also houses the religion’s most revered shrines in Medina and Mecca.
Although a prime destination for Muslims worldwide, Visiting Saudi Arabia is only beginning to open its doors to non-Muslim visitors from other nations.
In September 2019, the Kingdom’s monarchy made a landmark decision to open Saudi to international tourists as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform program to diversify the economy through tourism and entertainment.
This monumental announcement paved the way for more tourists to consider Saudi Arabia destinations as one of their vacation options if you’re one of many who plan to visiting Saudi Arabia.
Five vital pieces of information you need to know:
1. Electronic Visa
Today, visitors from 49 countries, including the United States and China, can apply for electronic visas to enter Saudi as tourists.
The tourist visa requirements and qualifications include the following:
- At least 18 years of age
- Vaccinations (booster shots may be required for some COVID-19 vaccines, as well as a quarantine for visitors coming from several countries)
- Minimum of six months passport validity
- Health insurance from KSA
- Proof of accommodation (e.g., hotel or residence)
- A roundtrip ticket and trip itinerary
The Saudi eVisa costs SAR 300 (plus SAR 140 for the insurance), which amounts to about $123 in U.S. dollars.
Upon release, the visa is valid for up to a full year or 365 days and can be used for a one-time visit or multiple entries with a 90-day maximum stay.
Locals in Saudi Arabia speak Arabic, the KSA’s official language. However, tourists who don’t know the language shouldn’t feel too intimidated since many locals say and understand English well enough, making communication so much easier.
Moreover, the country’s road signs and other public signages are written in English and Arabic, catering to native and international visitors.
Of course, it would still make your trip to the KSA much more fulfilling and enjoyable if you learned a few words in the local language, even though it isn’t required. Who knows? You might even get a few brownie points with locals by speaking Arabic phrases.
Here are some examples of common and valuable Arabic phrases:
- Yes: Na am
- No: Kalla or la
- Hello and goodbye: Assalamu alaikum
- Excuse me: Afwan
- Thank you: Shukran
- Thank you very much: Shukran jazeelan
- Welcome or you’re welcome: Ahlan wa sahlan or Hayek
- I want a taxi: Ureed sayaratt ujra
- I want to get to [location]: Ureed an azhab ila [location]
- Can I take a photo?: Momken asawwar
3. Dress Code
Laws on the dress code are becoming looser in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the country is no longer as strict about it as in the previous years when women needed to wear robes or full-length dresses called abayas whenever they went out in public.
Still, it is normal for you to feel intimidated by what you need to wear when visiting Saudi Arabia, especially if you come from a place with a more relaxed fashion.
The key is to remember that dressing according to local customs is part of the excitement that comes with the adventure of visiting Saudi Arabia. Plus, you won’t get another excuse to wear a thawb (ankle-length men’s robe) or abaya, so you might enjoy it while you can.
Below are a few guidelines on how you should dress in public areas in KSA:
T-shirts are the bare minimum. Avoid wearing tank tops or going shirtless.
Wear long pants in most public places, and make sure your knees are covered.
Foreign women can choose not to wear abayas. However, female travellers should still consider wearing them in public and outside their accommodation or anyone’s home.
Of course, you may opt-out of the traditional outfit, but chances are you’ll stick out from the crowd more if you do.
You can freely choose what to wear underneath the abaya. Headscarves are also not required, but you can still wear one in certain areas to avoid unwanted attention.
If you’re going to a mosque, dress as respectably as you would while visiting Saudi Arabia or any other religious site.
Both genders must wear clothes long enough to cover the wrists and ankles. Plus, shoes aren’t allowed inside the premises and women’s hair must be hidden.
On public beaches, ladies wear burkinis (wetsuit-like swimwear) or abayas, while men keep their shirts on while swimming.
On the other hand, more exclusive locations like private beaches allow bikinis or swimming trunks. Some beaches in Jeddah even prohibit the wearing of abayas in the water.
4. Public Dining
Despite the relaxing regulations on people’s dress codes, Saudi Arabia still maintains a conservative culture. This is most apparent with gender segregation, particularly in public dining areas.
Essentially, men and women operate in two separate spheres. Even if you’re dining with your family, you should expect that women would be eating at a different table if not covered up except for their eyes.
Of course, the gender divide is no longer required by KSA law. However, you may experience remnants of this longstanding custom that will still be apparent in some establishments.
A few scenarios on the seating arrangements go like this:
- Men can only sit in the women’s section if accompanied by other women.
- The ladies shouldn’t be sitting in the men’s sections at all.
Of course, some Saudi restaurants managed by progressive restaurateurs are more flexible about this custom, especially if the place is mostly empty.
Note that the level of segregation varies in different parts of the country. In some small towns, women cannot be seen in public, while cities like Jeddah and parts of Riyadh sometimes see men and women together in the same place.
Acceptable public behaviour in Saudi Arabia focuses mainly on how opposite genders interact.
While certain acts are no longer illegal, and some people can be more progressive than others, generally accepted social norms still dictate how tourists should behave in the country.
Whether you’re travelling with your family or significant other or have decided to visit a friend who lives in Saudi, here are a few helpful tips you should remember:
- Avoid touching anyone from the opposite gender. Don’t shake hands unless the locals offer their hand first (which is highly unlikely).
- Do not make unnecessary eye contact with the opposite gender, particularly strangers. This is most applicable when you’re not directly talking to them. Some men may also find it offensive if other men stare at women in their company (e.g. wives or sisters).
- Avoid sitting beside someone of the opposite gender. Exceptions include relatives and companions.
- Never engage in public displays of affection (PDA). Married couples can hold hands, but anything beyond that is inappropriate and offensive.
Welcome to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has been one of the most challenging countries to visit in the past, making it a highly coveted destination for avid tourists.
But thanks to their more flexible travel policies today, the country has become more appealing to international travellers. Use this article as a guide on your first visit, and enjoy your stay in Saudi Arabia.