Travel to Saudi Arabia is about to become much easier with the introduction of the online Saudi Arabia visa in the near future. The Saudi eVisa will allow eligible citizens to obtain a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia exclusively online, eliminating the need to apply for a visa from a Saudi embassy or consulate. This new system to make it easier for foreign travelers to visit the country is being implemented as part of Vision 2030, an initiative spearhead by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in order to boost tourism in the country.
The Crown Prince’s plan for the future of Saudi Arabia also includes substantial societal and economic reforms in an attempt to modernise some of the more conservative laws in the country. Some of the long-held strict rules that have already been repealed include several controversial restrictions on women, including the ban on women being able to drive and being allowed to attend sports matches.
However, the process of modernizing Saudi Arabia laws is still ongoing, and there are a number of laws and corresponding punishments for breaking them that may surprise foreign travelers. Visitors are therefore advised to get to know the culture of Saudi Arabia and learn about any potential faux pas that could get them into trouble before traveling to the country.
What is the Law in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is a devout Islamic country and still governed under strict Sharia law, which is derived from several Islamic texts including the Quran. If an act is committed within Saudi Arabia which is suspected to be ‘haram’, or capable of leading the perpetrator away from the Islamic faith, then this is enough for a trial to take place. As there are no official written rules for Sharia, the judge at each individual trial must interpret the law at their own discretion.
In addition to a regular police force, Saudi Arabia is also policed by the muttawa, a group of volunteers and officers who enforce Sharia codes of morality and report to the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice overseen by the Saudi Royal family. Their presence on Saudi streets is especially felt during daily prayer time (around 20 minutes, five times a day), when they tend to question anyone out on the streets and send them towards the nearest mosque.
Problems with the muttawa are easy to avoid if travelers practice discretion. Private practice of another religion besides Islam is not illegal in the country, and travelers are even allowed to bring religious texts such as a bible into the country as long as it is for private use. However, visitors should keep in mind that openly preaching or advocating a religion other than Islam is a crime, along with many other activities they may take for granted in their home country.
Things Foreigners Shouldn’t Do in Saudi Arabia
Although it is generally safe to travel to Saudi Arabia, there are several precautions that visitors should take to avoid getting in legal trouble in the country:
- Avoid breaking the Lese Majeste laws – It’s completely illegal to publicly criticize in any way the government, King, royal family, or flag of Saudi Arabia, including on social media platforms. Foreign citizens are not exempt from this law, and although they may not be sentenced as severely as a local, the punishment could still include a public flogging, prison sentence, and deportation.
- Be careful when taking photographs – Taking pictures of government and military installations in Saudi Arabia is illegal and can result in a prison sentence. You should also avoid taking pictures of local people without first asking permission.
- Don’t wear red on Valentine’s Day – The romantic holiday is discouraged in Saudi Arabia as it is not considered an Islamic celebration. Consequently, the government has banned flower and gift shops from selling anything red during the period.
- Be discreet with your significant other – It’s important to be aware that LGBTQ relations, marriage, and rights are illegal in Saudi Arabia and can be punished by flogging, jail, and even death. However, LGBTQ travelers are unlikely to experience any problems in the country as long as they act discreet and respect local laws and customs. It’s also important to note that public displays of affection are not acceptable regardless if you are LGBTQ or not.
- Carry personal ID at all times – Authorities in Saudi Arabia are able to request identification at any time, especially at security checkpoints, so it’s a good idea to always have your passport or a photocopy of it on hand.
- Don’t eat, drink, or smoke in public – During Ramadan, the Islamic month for fasting, it is totally prohibited to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours.
Foreign travelers should also be aware that it is totally prohibited to bring the following banned products for Saudi Arabia and/or consume them while in the country:
- Alcohol – It is a crime to bring alcohol into the country, as well as to arrive in Saudi Arabia intoxicated, so think twice about drinking on the plane.
- Drugs – Trafficking, smuggling, or even personal use of drugs is illegal and can even result in the death penalty.
- Pornography – Saudi Arabia has strict laws against any kind of pornographic content, which can even include illustrations. Saudi customs officials have the right to scan any phone, tablet, or computer you may bring into the country for inappropriate images and to confiscate any devices on which they are found.
- Pork products – As importing any pork product is strictly forbidden, such items will be confiscated from anyone attempting to bring them into Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian Laws for Women
Although some laws regarding women have recently been relaxed, there are still strict codes of conduct and specific rules that women are expected to abide by when visiting the country. Travelers should be aware of the following Saudi Arabia rules for women in order to avoid getting into trouble:
- Wear clothing which respects local customs – Although restrictions are being somewhat relaxed as part of the Vision 2030 initiative, women in Saudi Arabia are still required to wear either an abaya (a long robe, usually black) or a hijab, (headscarf). Women travelers are able to wear either an abaya or loose conservative clothing, and are advised to carry a headscarf if they are planning to enter religious building. It’s also worth noting that the muttawa are likely to cause problems for any women they deem to be wearing too much makeup or showing too much flesh.
- Be aware of gender segregation – Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to limit the amount of time spent with men who are not direct relatives, and women typically face harsher punishments for unlawful mixing than men. Most public buildings will have seperate entrances for different sexes, and places such as beaches, parks, and public transportation are likely to have segregated zones.
- Avoid swimming in public – Gyms and swimming pools in Saudi Arabia are widely segregated, and women are not permitted to use the same facilities as men. Although some resorts permitting gender mixed bathing are expected to be implemented as part of Vision 2030, women in Saudi Arabia are currently forbidden from swimming in front of men at public beaches.
- Avoid trying on clothes when shopping – Women are not permitted to disrobe in public, and this includes behind a dressing room door in a store. Other restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia include bans on entering cemeteries and reading uncensored fashion magazines.
Although many areas in Saudi Arabia remain segregated between sexes, the requirement for a woman to be chaperoned by a male relative has also been significantly relaxed. Local women often travel with their children without a male in attendance, and foreign women travelers are not expected to have a male chaperone during their stay in Saudi Arabia.