Saudi Arabia has long been a place of pilgrimage for devout Muslims traveling to Mecca. However, it’s fast becoming a must-visit destination for tourists.
Beyond Mecca, the country also has many other attractions for non-Muslims to enjoy, with the added sense of adventure offered by such an uncommon holiday destination. These attractions include beautiful beaches in the Farasan Islands, Mada’in Saleh, an ancient city carved into the rock, and excursions into the vast desert of Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter) to name just a few.
But before you start packing your bags it is worth considering some basic questions about safety in Saudi Arabia and what to keep in mind when visiting. This article helps explain some of the factors to remember when traveling in the country.
How to Safely Enter Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has created an online authorization for those wishing to travel to the country. The new eVisa was launched in September 2019 and allows foreigners to enter the Kingdom for tourism purposes.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been notorious for being one of the most difficult places in the world to visit. The eVisa is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative which looks to diversify the economy.
Promoting tourism in the kingdom is part of the approach and the eVisa has been key to implementing this. Potential tourists only have to fill in a simple and quick eVisa application form. They’ll have taken their first step to enjoy Arabian nights.
Saudi Culture: Religious and Traditional
As most people will be aware, Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative and religious country. Islamic law, known as Sharia, governs many aspects of daily life and is enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Tourists should take simple steps to avoid problems, including:
- Make sure that you are dressed appropriately. For both men and women, this will mean being dressing conservatively by wearing clothing that does not reveal shoulders, knees, and cleavage
- Overt displays of affection in public can be heavily frowned upon, especially in the case of LGBTQ+ travelers
- Alcohol consumption is strictly forbidden in the Kingdom. The authorities are much more lenient with foreign workers and tourists, but you should not be seen drinking in public or appear drunk
- Caution should be exercised when taking pictures, especially if photographing locals or government buildings
- Criticism of the Saudi royal family is not permitted under any circumstances. Do not assume that locals will not understand you if you have such conversations in English
Traveling Solo to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is an overall safe country with low crime rates, especially against foreigners. Tourists and businessmen and women traveling solo are unlikely to encounter any problems during their time in the Kingdom and should visit with confidence.
Of course common sense and general safety advice apply in Saudi Arabia like anywhere else in the world:
- Don’t walk alone in poor-lit streets at night, especially if far from the city center
- Keep your belongings close and exercise special cautions in malls, tourist attractions, and other crowded spaces
- Don’t flash expensive items like jewelry and cameras
- Keep your cash and credit cards in different pockets or bags
Like in most Middle Eastern communities, Saudis are welcoming and happy to help should you need assistance, as long as you show respect for the local culture and traditions.
Female travelers: exploring Saudi Arabia alone
For a long time, Saudi Arabia has had a reputation for being one of the most conservative countries in the world, especially when it comes to women. That is why solo female travelers may have avoided it in the past.
However, it’s important to note that things have changed dramatically in recent times and continue to evolve. The Kingdom is opening itself up to international tourism and this includes a relaxation of rules and laws that appeared very strict just some years ago.
- Changes to abaya laws. Foreign women no longer need to wear an abaya (a traditional long robe that covers the entirety of the body) while in Saudi Arabia.
- Possibility to book hotel rooms. Until recently, single women could not book a hotel room without the permission of a male guardian. Now, female travelers can make a reservation and pay for their accommodation without help or permission.
- Famously, women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The ban was lifted in June 2018.
Is Saudi Arabia Safe for LGBTQ+ Travelers?
As mentioned before, Saudi Arabia is a traditionalist country by Western standards. Foreign gay and lesbian couples may need to be more cautious than what they are used to in their home country.
Of course, you will not be asked about your sexual orientation when applying for a visa. Therefore, LGBTQ+ travelers are welcome to visit the country. However, public displays of affections are to be avoided in order not to attract unwanted attention. Even minor acts like holding hands should be kept for private environments.