Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina. All physically and financially abled Muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. As such, there are many issues of which visitors should be aware, especially non-Muslims
Saudi Arabia is known for its strict interpretation of Islam and segregation of men and women. However, many business travelers to Saudi, including Muslims, are housed in compounds that are separated from the rest of society.
Saudi Arabia visa policies are extremely strict and advance visas are required for all foreigners other than citizens of countries belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Travelers who carry evidence of having visited Israel will be denied entry. Unaccompanied women will also have a hard time getting in, though exceptions are made for work. Tourist visas are only given out if the traveler is part of a guided tour. Muslim visitors traveling on Hajj (pilgrimage) visas are restricted to areas where the pilgrimage is performed. There are also very strict customs regulations.
Alcohol, beverages, pork, and any items deemed un-Islamic by the Saudi authorities are prohibited.
Saudi Arabia has an extremely hot climate with temperatures sometimes exceeding 50°C during the long summer months. Staying hydrated is imperative. However, during the winter, temperatures can drop below zero at night.
Life in Saudi Arabia is interrupted five times a day by the call to prayers, each lasting up to half an hour. During this time, shops and offices close; however, hospitals and airports stay open and public transportation continues to operate.
In this large, hot country, flying is a comfortable means of transportation. Airlines Saudia, Nas, and Sama offer frequent flights between Riyadh and Jedda. There are also intercity bus lines that link all regions of the country. The buses are modern and comfortable but slow. Car rental companies are easily found and cheap. Most major highways are in excellent condition, however, Saudi drivers are known for being aggressive and unpredictable. Accidents occur frequently and visitors should be cautious when driving. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Taxis are a convenient means of transportation within cities. The taxis operate on meters in cities, but often do not outside of cities. In this case, be sure to settle the price before entering the vehicle.
The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic. English is widely understood and because of a large expatriate community, other languages are often heard as well.
The Saudi currency is the Saudi Riyal. ATMs are everywhere and currency exchanges can be found in the souks. It is important to carry cash, as credit cards are mostly only accepted at malls and upscale hotels. Tipping is usually not necessary, even in restaurants where the service charge is added to the bill.
Tap water is considered safe to drink and bottled water is widely available. Sanitation usually meets high standards depending on the venue. Hajj pilgrims are required to have a series of vaccinations before entering the country. Pharmacies are widely available and Saudi hospitals offer world class health care.
Saudi Arabia is generally a safe country for foreign travelers with some of the lowest crime rates in the world. However, there have been terrorist attacks targeting foreigners and travelers should always check to see if their government has issued travel advisories and be aware of developments in the country. Sometimes police escorts are required to travel outside of the cities.
Respect of local norms is essential. The moral police, the muttawa, enforce religious regulations such as making sure that women are properly covered and prayer times are observed. They are usually not present in expatriate compounds or hotels. There is a strict separation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia, and foreigners should be aware of these norms. These regulations extend to all facets of life and are especially restrictive for women, who are required to wear an abaya, a loose fitting black robe. Alcohol is forbidden.
Visitors should always respect religious and traditional norms of the country and should avoid political discussion, especially criticism of the government.