Earth : Asia : Middle East : Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a Middle Eastern country that occupies most of the Arabian peninsula and has coastlines on the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Neighbouring countries include Jordan to the northwest, Iraq and Kuwait to the northeast, Bahrain and Qatar to the east, the United Arab Emirates to the southeast, and Oman and Yemen to the south.
Saudi Arabia is one of two countries named for their royal families, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The family were sheikhs of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, but were driven out by a neighbouring dynasty, hiding with their relatives, the emirs of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and a few dozen lads rode out to raid their home territory. As it turned out, the invaders had been ruling badly, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured Riyadh, but much of the surrounding territory.
After that, Abdul Aziz set out on a 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.
In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its sand for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.
Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of petroleum in the world (26% of the proven reserves), ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 25% of GDP comes from the private sector.
Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy - for example, in the oil and service sectors.
The government in 1999 announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies, which follows the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. The government is expected to continue calling for private sector growth to lessen the kingdom's dependence on oil and increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. Shortages of water and rapid population growth will constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.
Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. While part of this can be explained by Saudi reluctance to take many types of work, it is also true that Saudi citizens are forced to compete with multitudes of imported labor, which is often much cheaper than that of the locals.
Saudi Arabia covers approximately four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping eastwards till reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.
The main topographical features are as follows:
The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range runs parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As one moves further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as 'Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Makkah, and approximately 400 km north of Makkah in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Madinah.
West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country's second largest city, Jidda, is located.
East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow platau running 800 kms from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criscrossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.
Further east from the Tuwaig plataeu and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100 km) corridor of red sand dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the "Central Region" or "Najd" from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large "seas" of sand dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior, and the southern is known as "the Empty Quarter," so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three "seas of sand" make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin almost never attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.
North of the Nufud desert lies a vaste desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins with the exception of a few oasis such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.
The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.
People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an expanse of scorchingly hot desert punctuated with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country, they would be absolutely right. From May to September, the country (basically everything except the southwestern mountains) bakes in temperatures that average 42°C and regularly exceed 50°C in the shade. In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country and work slows down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38°C — but at the price of extreme humidity (85-100%), which many find even more uncomfortable than the dry heat of the interior, especially at night. Only the elevated mountainous regions stay cool(er), with the summer resort city of Taif rarely topping 35°C and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet.
In winter, though, it's a surprisingly different story. Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 21°C, and temperatures can easily fall below zero at night, occasionally even resulting in a sprinkling of snow in the southern mountains. The winter can also bring rains to all or most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two torrential outbursts. The end of spring (April and May) is also a rainy season for much of the country. In the south, though, this pattern is reversed, with most rain falling during the Indian Ocean's monsoon season between May and October.
Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law specifically requires Saudi citizens or passport holders to be Muslim, public observance and proselytism of religions other than Islam are forbidden. There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia of any kind. However, some Fillipino workers report the presence of churches inside some gated communities. The small number of Saudi Arabian Christians meet in Internet chat rooms, and foreign Christians may meet at church meetings held at one of several embassies after registering and showing their passport, to prove foreign nationality, or by private assemblies in school gyms located in gated communities on Aramco grounds. They can also hold services in each others houses.
Everything in Saudi is regulated by the five daily prayers. All shops and offices close during each prayer for a period of at least 20-30 minutes, and the religious police patrol the streets and pack loiterers off to the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports do stay open (but with all shops inside the shopping malls closed) and taxis and other public transport continue to run normally.
The first prayer is fajr, early in the morning before the first glint of light at dawn, and the call to prayer for fajr will be your wake-up call in the Kingdom. After fajr, some people eat breakfast and head to work, with shops opening up.
The second prayer is dhuhr, held after true noon in the middle of the day. The Friday noon prayer (jummah) is the most important one of the week, when even less observant Muslims usually make the effort to go to the mosque. After dhuhr, people head for lunch, while many shops choose to stay closed and snooze away the heat of the day.
Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (1:30-2 hours before sunset), with many shops opening again afterward. Maghrib prayers are held at sunset and mark the end of the work day in much of the private sector. The last prayer is isha'a, held around 45 minutes to 1 hour after sunset, after which locals head for dinner. Expats refer to the time between maghrib and isha'a as the "prayer window", during which you can hit the supermarket and buy your groceries if you time it right.
Prayer times change daily according to the seasons and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the day's times in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a handy online prayer time service .
There is also one secular holiday: Unification of the Kingdom Day, on September 23rd. Strictly speaking, it's not a public holiday or a festival, but it's treated rather like one anyway.
During Ramadan itself, visitors are required to abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during the daylight hours. Some better hotels will be able to quietly supply room service during the day, but otherwise you'll have to do your preparations. All restaurants in the Kingdom are closed during the day, and while some offices stay open with limited hours, the pace of business slows down to a torpor. After evening prayer, though, all the restaurants in the bazaar open up and do a roaring trade until the small hours of the morning. Most of the shops are open as well, and the cool of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop. A visitor can have a fine time joining in on these evenings, though having a stash in your hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten will suit most visitors better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast.
Saudi Arabia is administratively divided into 13 provinces (mintaqah), but the traditional divisions of the country are more useful for making sense of it.
Expect significant variations in the English spellings of place names in schedules and even road signs: Al Wajh and Wedjh are the same place. In particular, Q/G, E/I, and E/A are interchanged freely (Qassim/Gassim, Mecca/Makkah, Jeddah/Jiddah), H/A sometimes swap places (Al-Ahsa/Al-Hasa) and the definite article al- can be left on or off (Medina/Almadinah, Riyadh/Arriyadh).
Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive travel policies in the world, and advance visas are required for all foreigners desiring to enter. The only significant exception is citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. Also exempt from visa requirements are foreigners transiting through airports for less than eighteen hours, but many other entry requirements, such as the dress code and restrictions on unaccompanied females, still apply. Nationals of Israel and those with evidence of visiting Israel will be denied visas, although merely being Jewish in and of itself is not a disqualifying factor. (There are, however, anecdotal reports of would-be visitors who tick the "Jewish" or "Atheist" boxes on their visa application having trouble.) Saudis prefer not to grant visas to unaccompanied women, but work permits are common in some fields — esp. nurses, teachers, maids — and possible for anyone if your sponsor has enough connections.
The fun doesn't end when you get the visa, since visas do not state their exact expiry date. While the validity is noted in months, these are not Western months but lunar months, and you need to use the Islamic calendar to figure out the length: a three-month visa issued on "29/02/22" (22 Safar 1429, 1 March 2008) is valid until 29/05/22 (22 Jumada al-Awwal 1429, 28 May 2008), not until 1 June 2008! Depending on visa type, the validity can start from the date of issue or the date of first entry, and multiple-entry visas may also have restrictions regarding how many days at a time are allowed (usually 28 days per visit) and/or how many days total are allowed during the validity period. This all results in fantastic confusion, and it's not uncommon to get different answers from an embassy, from your employer and from Immigration!
If you have a work visa, exit visas are required to leave the country. (Business, tourism, transit, or Hajj visas do not require exit permits.) You cannot get an exit visa without a signature from your employer, and there have been cases of people unable to leave because of controversy with employers or even customers. For example, if a foreign company is sued in Saudi for non-payment of debts and you are considered its representative, an exit visa may be denied until the court case is sorted out.
Saudi Arabia has very strict rules for what may be imported: alcoholic beverages, pork, non- Sunni Islamic religious materials and pornography (very widely defined) are all prohibited. Computers, VCR tapes and DVDs have all been seized from time to time for inspection by the authorities. If you are unsure if the movie you watch or the video game you play is deemed un-Islamic, it would probably be best not to bring them with you to the kingdom. In general, though, inspections aren't quite as thorough as they used to be and while bags are still x-rayed, minute searches are the exception rather than the rule. Note that western families driving through on a valid transit visa are generally waved through the customs inspection.
Saudi Arabia has 4 international airports at Riyadh, Jeddah, Madinah ,and Dammam . The airport at Dhahran is now closed to civil traffic, so passengers to the Eastern Region now fly into Dammam, or into nearby Bahrain (which is much better connected) and then cross into Saudi Arabia by car.
Saudi Arabia is served by the national airline Saudi Arabian Airlines , often referred to by its Arabic name Saudia. Saudia has a reasonable safety record, but many of their planes are on the old side and the quality of service, inflight entertainment etc tends to be low. Virtually all Gulf airlines and most major European airlines fly into Saudi. During the Hajj, numerous charter flights supplement the scheduled airlines.
Foreigners living in Saudi Arabia can often get sensational discounts on outbound flights during the Hajj. Airlines from Muslim countries are flying in many loads of pilgrims, and do not want to go back empty.
Probably the most popular service is between Dammam/Khobar and Bahrain, operated by the separate Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company (SABTCO) . There are five services daily at a cost of SR50/BD5 and the trip across the King Fahd Causeway takes around two hours on a good day; see Bahrain for details.
Automobile crossings exist on nearly all the borders, although those into Iraq are currently closed. The eastern crossings to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE are heavily used, all others rather less so. There is currently no land border crossing with Oman; plans are in place to open the first such crossing by the end of 2012.
Infrequent passenger ferries run once a week or less from Egypt and Sudan to ports in western Saudi Arabia. (The service to Eritrea has stopped running.) Slow, uncomfortable and not particularly cheap, these are of interest primarily if you absolutely need to take your car across. An unofficial ban on Western travelers may still apply.
Internal travel permits are a thing of the past, so once you've gotten into Saudi, the country is your oyster. There are, however, three exceptions:
Saudi Arabia is a large country, which makes flying the only comfortable means of long-distance travel. State carrier Saudia has the best schedules, with near-hourly flights on the busy Riyadh-Jeddah sector (90 min) and walk-up one-way fares costing a reasonable SR280 (~US$80). Low-cost competitors Nas  and Sama  can be even cheaper if you book in advance, but their schedules are sparser, changes will cost you money and there's no meal on board.
The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO)  operates long-distance buses linking together all corners of the country. Buses are modern, air-conditioned and comfortable, but often slow, and the bus stations are more often than not located several kilometers away from the city center. The Riyadh-Dammam service, for example, costs SR60 and takes around 6 hours.
Special "VIP" services operate on the Riyadh-Dammam and Riyadh-Bahrain sectors. For a surcharge of about 50%, you get a direct, non-stop city center-to-city center services, plush seating and a meal on-board -- all in all, quite good value, if the sparse schedules match your plans.
The railway network in Saudi Arabia is seriously underdeveloped, with only one line running between Riyadh, Al-Hofuf and Dammam, but it's still the only passenger train service in the entire Gulf. There are plans to extend the network to Jeddah and build a Makkah-Madinah link during the next few years.
The trains are operated by Saudi Railways Organization and have 3 classes: Second, First and the delightfully named Rehab. First and Second classes are very similar, with aircon and two-by-two seating, but First has a few inches of extra legroom. Rehab (VIP) class, on the other hand, has plush leather seats, roof-mounted flat-panel TVs showing Arabic entertainment, and slick waiting lounges at stations. There are no reserved seats, so show up early to claim yours, and beware that most carriages reserve the forward-facing seats at the front of each carriage for families. Trains have a cafeteria car serving up drinks and snacks, as well as push-trolley service.
A ticket from Riyadh to Dammam costs SR60/75/120 in Second/First/Rehab. There are four trains each day in both directions, and the trip takes 4-5 hours. (Note that, as of May 2008, the timetables on SRO website are outdated.) It is advisable to buy tickets in advance as the trains are often sold out. You can reserve tickets by calling their service center in Dammam (+966 3 827 4000) and then pick up the tickets from the nearest railway station 24 hours before departure.
Car rental is available and gasoline is some of the cheapest in the world. Highway quality is highly variable, except highways that connect major cities, which are generally excellent. However, there are important reasons to think twice about car rental. The country has some of the highest accident rates in the world. Accidents are common, and if a visitor is involved in one, they would be exposed to the extremely punitive Saudi legal system; see elsewhere on this page for the warnings about that.
If you are involved in a car accident all parties are required to stay where they are and wait for the Traffic Police (call 993) to turn up, which can take up to four hours. English is unlikely to be spoken by the police, even in big cities, so try to use the waiting time to arrange a translator. The police will issue an accident report, which you have to take to the traffic police station and get it stamped a few times in different queues (this takes most of a morning). Only then can any damage to the car be repaired, as insurance companies will not pay for any body work without this report.
It is not uncommon for the traffic police to resolve the incident there and then by determining the guilty party and deciding compensation. So, should it be your fault the Police will ask you to pay an amount to the other party - but you are not obligated to do so.
At the present time, access to car rentals is limited to males 21 and older. Women cannot drive on public roads or ride bicycles.
Within cities, taxis are the only practical means of transportation, which carries some safety risks for women. Metered fares (only in Riyadh) start at S.R. 5 and tick up at SR 1.60/km, but in other cities you'll often have to haggle the price in advance. Solo passengers are expected to sit up front next to the driver: this has the advantages of being next to the full blast of the air-con and making it easier to wave your hands to show the way. Be careful of unregistered cars claiming to be taxis. If possible, always ride with a friend who knows the country. There are no street addresses in Saudi Arabia, so you will have to know your route well, and pay attention to the road to explain to the driver where to turn.
Arabic is the official language of the Kingdom. There are numerous dialects spoken around the country, but the most important are Hejazi Arabic, originating from the Hejaz around Jeddah and the effective lingua franca, and Najdi Arabic, spoken in the Nejd around Riyadh.
Many people understand some English, although markedly less well than in, say, the UAE. Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali are extensively used in the marketplaces and by sub-continent expatriates. All major languages are spoken in the markets of Makkah. There is a significant Tagalog-speaking expatriate minority as well.
Nearly all road signs are in English as well as Arabic, although the vast majority of speed limit signs use only Arabian numerals.
The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal (ريال, SAR), which trades at a fixed 3.7450 to the US dollar since 1986. The riyal is divided into 100 halalas, which are used to mark some prices, but, in practice, all payments are rounded to the nearest riyal and odds are you probably will never see any halala coins. Bills come in values of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 riyals, with two series in circulation.
The riyal is also pegged to the Bahraini dinar at a 10:1 ratio. If you are considering travelling to Bahrain, virtually all businesses in Bahrain will accept riyals, but the dinar is not as easily convertible in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society, but credit card and debit cards acceptance is surprisingly good everywhere. ATMs are ubiquitous especially in gas stations and malls, all banks accept foreign cards, the largest bank in the country in the National Commercial Bank. Moneychangers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere. Foreign currencies are not accepted by merchants.
Prices are generally fairly expensive: figure on US$50/100/200 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs.
Tipping is generally not expected, although service staff are always happy to receive them and taxi fares are often rounded up (or, not uncommonly, down). Restaurants are now legally not allowed to include the 15% service charge on bills, it is considered illegal, and if found, politely ask them to remove it, it is a serious offence and the restaurant staff will quickly comply. The bill must state 0% service changer, and a tip is commonly respectfully given as 10% of the value of the bill, depending of course of the quality of service. Make sure to revise your bill before paying as sometime (like other places in the middle east) they would include an extra dish for extra charge. (Smoking in banned indoors throughout the country, see Eat section of this article) There are no sales taxes in Saudi, and for that matter, there aren't any income taxes either!
What to buy
Few local products are of interest to tourists. Locally grown dates are of high quality, and religious paraphernalia is widely available, but almost exclusively imported. Copies of the Qur'an are produced in a wide range of editions and sold at very low prices. Zam zam water is available throughout the Western Region and at all airports.
Large gold and jewellery markets are prominent in all major cities, especially in Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. Gold prices are cheap in Saudi Arabia, and bargaining is a norm in most small to medium sized stores. Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah offer a lot of trading and variety in terms of luggage, clothing, jewellery, knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense, and religious literature, audio, and paraphernalia. The Jeddah old town (Al-Balad) is internationally well known for its authentic, bazaar style, arabic souk atmosphere, along with the Hijazi old building architecture. There you will find a lot of local and international products, from jewellery, perfume and incense to cloths, toys and food. Along with with many international people and cultures mixing, which gives you a sense of belonging to the world and a real feel to business and product trading. Although to a new visitor the place might look unsafe, Jeddah's Al-Balad is very safe, with police cars and officers patrolling the street and standing in every corner.
Large, well maintained air-conditioned malls and grocery stores (i.e. Al-Danub, Geant, Carrefour ) are scattered throughout the kingdom.
Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is very family-oriented. There are few activities for just couples or singles. Single men are not allowed in family areas: family beaches are partitioned from the bachelor beaches, for example. In Riyadh, and many other places in Saudi, women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative in public, although single women may be admitted into family areas. This rule does not apply to Jeddah, and many women are seen alone, or in groups of ladies, in public without any problems from locals or officials.
Desert excursions are particularly popular with the native Arabs. There are few desert dune bashing tour operators, if any, but ATV rentals are often found along the roadside on the outskirts of major cities and expats often arrange convoy trips into the desert. The Empty Quarter has the most awesome scenery — and requires the most preparation.
Scuba diving is popular on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast. Jeddah has a number of dive operators.
Amusement parks (many of them indoor) are often found near malls or beaches. Many large cities have public parks and small zoos. Horseback riding, camel riding, etc. are also available at horse-racing tracks and some popular beaches. Many upscale hotels provide light activities (especially hotels located along the beaches).
Movie theatres are banned in the Kingdom, but DVD shops abound, although the selections are often tame and/or censored. DVDs in Saudi Arabia are invariably Region 2, though bootleg DVDs (which are widely available in smaller video shops) are usually region-free, and often uncensored as well. Satellite TV and downloading entertainment from the Internet is thus very popular.
Video games are an eternal obsession of Saudi youth, and one which is capitalized upon rather well by local retailers. Video game shops are ubiquitous in all of the major cities. Authentic games are offered by most of the larger stores, as US or European imports for an average of ~270SR (~$70), while the smaller ones usually only offer bootlegs (which are illegal, but still lucrative enough that almost all sell them) at very low prices of 10-15SR ($2.5-$4). Wii and Xbox 360 bootlegs reign supreme, but certain stores offer Nintendo DS and PSP games as well, downloaded to a customer's removable media on request.
Eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Like all other businesses in Saudi, restaurants are supposed to close during prayer hours, which they usually only dim off the lights. Jeddah is well known for its restaurants and cafes which can be found in every corner of every street. While Riyadh restricts its cafes to malls or outside the city. Smoking is banned indoors throughout the country's major cities, this law is very strict and restaurant owners will take it seriously as it risks closing their business. Smoking is allowed in the city in open areas only, which have very pleasant cold winds in winter evenings, but humid air (in Jeddah) in summer evenings. Indoor smoking is only allowed outside major cities.
Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and not a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere (e.g. Hardee's/Carl's Jr., Little Caesars). Meals invariably served with fries and Coke cost SR10-20. Some local imitators worth checking out include:
Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia's large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SR10. Just don't expect frills like air-conditioning.
The national Saudi Arabian dish is the Kabsa (orange coloured rice with lamb or chicken with strong essence and spices, but not chilli) it is similar to the indian Briyani but not quite the same.
The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich. The Egyptian mashed fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips like hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad).
Finding restaurants that serve actual Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places or, if you're really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home.
With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated people of the opposite sex all banned, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.
Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but also snacks. These are strictly a male domain in some cities like Riyadh, while they are very family oriented in Jeddah and surrounding cities. These establishments that offer shisha and smoking are banished to the outskirts of all major cities since smoking indoors is banned.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom's malls.
As for the coffee (qahwa) there are two types:
Turkish "black" coffee prepared in the traditional middle eastern way, served in a very small cup called "finjan" usually served with, or without, sugar.
The other type which is strictly found only in Saudi Arabia is the Arabic "white" coffee, made in the traditional arabic style. Spiced with cardamom (usually), but can contain saffron, cinnamon or ginger, it is strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with dates, also served in a small fingan, which distinctively looks different from the finjan of the Turkish coffee. Arabic coffee never contains sugar. The etiquette is to wiggle the little cup when you are done with the coffee to have it taken.
"Red" Tea (chai), is normal tea, which usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na'ana). Green tea is normal herbal tea. All served in tiny cups. Arabs are well known to include sugar in their tea and coffee.
Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expats, where homebrew wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling booze in quantity, then expat or not, Saudi law applies. A foreigner may not get the sentence a local would, but can expect a few days or weeks jail, public flogging, and deportation.
There is a local white lightning known among foreigners as "siddiqui" (Arabic for friend) or just as "sid". This is generally horrible-tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is a risk of inexpert distilling making it downright poisonous. The stuff is emphatically to be avoided.
Do not drink and drive! is good advice anywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident, or otherwise attract police attention, the consequences might be serious indeed.
As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of various fruit juices, ranging from the ordinary (apple, orange) to the downright bizarre (banana-lemon-milk-walnut, anyone?).
Non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks are popular. Two of the most common are Saudi champagne, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, ie. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc essences. You can even get apple-flavored Budweiser!
Tap water throughout the country is generally NOT safe to drink, in the summer tap water can be a bit hot.
Bottled water is readily available and cheap at S.R. 2 or less for a 1.5L bottle, so many visitors and residents choose to play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.
Hotels of all types are available throughout the Kingdom. Most tourist cities (i.e. Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah, Taif, Al Abha) will also have very affordable and spacious shigka-maafroosha (short-term furnished rental apartments). Shigka-maafroosha owners generally loiter in hotel lobbies. Often, they will approach civilized-looking people and make an offer. Prices for shigka-mafrooshas and small hotels are always negotiable to a great degree. Smaller hotels will only accept cash, normally in advance.
Larger, more expensive hotels are abundant in all major cities, you can expect to pay north of US$200 for a weekday night at a good hotel in any of the big Saudi cities. In exchange, you usually get excellent service and the ability to work around some restrictions (eg. restaurants that stay open through prayer hours and daytime room service during Ramadan).
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 there are a lot of smokers in Saudi Arabia due to bad law management historically. But now smoking is banned from being sold to people underage, and banned in indoors areas inside all major cities. This is a very strict law since it caries a risk of immediate business termination by the government, therefore business owners will strongly stop indoor smoking.
The Kingdom has a wide-reaching national healthcare system, which is considered one of the best the the middle east, in terms of diagnostic and technological advancement and quality of medical care. The services provided by this program are excellent and up to western standard, but with the disadvantage of very long queues, and some restrictions to foreigners. Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These facilities range from fairly rudimentary but some are very advanced and very expensive, with very short queues and no restrictions to foreigners. 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 yes, it actually is more expensive than gasoline.
There are quite a few jobs for expatriates in Saudi Arabia. While the pay is good, foreigners often find that the strictly Muslim society and the near-total lack of employees' rights makes the country a most difficult place to work and live.
To get a working visa, you must have a Saudi sponsor. Then to get an exit visa, you need your sponsor's signature. This can lead to major problems. ESL teachers can find work in Saudi Arabia with a Bachelor`s Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers in Saudi Arabia can expect to earn 8,000 - 13,000 SAR (monthly) and will usually teach 20 – 30 hours in a week. Contracts will usually include accommodations, airfare, and health care. Preference is usually given to male teachers, and previous ESL work experience may be required.
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, optional police escorts — which can be an interesting experience, are sometimes provided for western tourists traveling outside major cities, in areas like Abha, Najran and Madain Saleh. These can be easily arranged through local tourist agents and are not very expensive. Police escorts are trained to be very polite with foreigners, and usually speak good english.
While Saudi Arabia actually has one of the lowest crime rates in the world due to regular police presence in public, a certain very small background level of non-violent opportunistic theft like pick-pocketing and purse snatching does exist like any other part of the world.
Police in Saudi Arabia are divided into three authorities: Traffic Police (coloured green), General Police (coloured blue), and Special Safety Police (coloured brown). General Police and Special Safety Police are not corrupt and are trained to be friendly and respectful with everyone, they are also very strict in enforcing laws. Traffic Police are generally considered corrupt and lazy. As a result, within the police culture they are considered the lowest level.
Saudi society endeavors 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.
Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and voicing any criticism of the ruling monarchy will not be looked upon kindly. Also, due to the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict it would be unwise to say anything which could be deemed to be provocative as this is a very sensitive issue.
Visitors to Saudi Arabia are required to respect local conventions, in particular regarding Islam. While first-timers in Saudi Arabia are often regaled with tales of beheadings, amputations and whippings, the full harshness of Saudi law is reserved for true criminals like drug smugglers. With a modicum of common sense you'll be just fine, and should a visitor accidentally cause some minor offense, the reaction will generally be amusement rather than anger.
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 moderate, and the Hejaz around Jeddah being the least strict. However, 99% of the time, encounters with the muttawa (especially for non-Muslims) simply results 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 no longer common, and fairly non-existant in major cities, due to new very strict laws that control their behaviour.
Areas Off-limits to the Mutawwas
Surprisingly, certain areas are known to be "off-limits" to the mutawwas. These include the following:
Generally, the Mutawwa rarely enter hotels, if ever, and no longer allowed by law to enter malls, or even stand in front of them. This does not mean that one should flout Saudi social mores with impunity in such places, but the restrictions on mixing of genders and, in some areas, the dress-code are very much looser.
Many (perhaps most) areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of "mingling" (khulwa, a punishable crime). Under the rules of segregation, all people are divided into three groups:
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.
Contrary to rumours, men with long hair do not need to cut it before entering the kingdom. Shoulder-length locks are common and many men have long hair in Saudi Arabia. Beduins, which constitute the majority of the population, are well known culturally not to cut their hair, which is usually hidden under the headdress. But some men might get verbal advice from the muttaween if the man's hair is tied, and will usually ask him to untie it, as it is considered feminine to tie hair.
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 and arab 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.
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.
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, or accused of terrorist plotting. 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.
And yes, you can bring in your own phone: despite grumblings from the clerics, both camera phones and multimedia messaging (MMS) are now legal.
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.
Saudi Post  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.