Should you visit Saudi Arabia? A Saudi Arabia tourist visa is now available. But the answer can be more complicated than that. See below for some of the things you might think about before making a decision. Plus learn from a British expat woman working in Saudi Arabia & find out what it’s like.
Saudi Arabia Tourist Visa
For the first time, many travelers can now get a Saudi Arabia tourist visa. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has recently announced it will start issuing tourist visas allowing travelers to obtain a 90-day, multiple entry visa to enter the country. The new Saudi visa has been extended to 49 countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., much of the E.U., and Australia. Tourists will be able to apply online for an e-Visa or gain a visa on arrival in Saudi Arabia. A dedicated online portal at visitsaudi.com has launched, and electronic kiosks are available at airports now. The visa fee is 440 Saudi riyals (approximately $117) and includes a health insurance fee.
It’s a good idea to brush up on the laws and customs before arrival. Travelers will need to dress modestly (cover elbows and knees), but it’s important to note that female tourists will no longer need to wear an abaya (full length cloak). Alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia and it is illegal to bring alcohol or drugs into the country.
Up until now Saudi Arabia has been mostly closed off to tourism. Previously, Saudi visas were restricted to Muslims visiting to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage, or those on business trips or expats working in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia tourist visas were only issued for select group tours. And it was particularly difficult for single women to visit the kingdom. You may recall that women in Saudi Arabia have only recently been allowed to drive and local women, can also travel within the country unescorted by a man for the first time.
It is another initiative of the 34-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (often called MBS) in his Vision 2030 to “modernize” the kingdom and essentially lower its dependence on oil.
Should You Visit Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East and the 13th largest in the world. It has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has some pretty stunning landscapes including the largest continuous desert in the world and the Al Wahbah Crater.
When considering visiting or even working in Saudi Arabia, there is much to consider. Contrary to what many American’s first knee-jerk reaction would be, safety is really not a primary concern. I would say it’s more of an ethical decision.
The Saudi Arabian government is heavily invested in the growing tourism sector, and will profit from most hotel stays, restaurant meals, and other tourist attractions. There are many countries in the world whose governments and political leaders may do things we don’t want to support. But when it’s hard to find independent hotels or tour companies and the money from your tourism riyals (the currency of KSA) will go straight into the pockets of that government, it can make the case for visiting a bit more complicated for some.
In Saudi Arabia, the royal family dominates the political system. The family’s vast numbers allow it to control most of the kingdom’s important posts and to have an involvement at all levels of government.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has undergone a process of political and social reform. And there has been mounting pressure to reshape and modernize the royal family’s rule. To what extent that is actually happening is up for debate.
The Saudi Arabia tourist visa announcement came right at the one year anniversary of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He was killed at the hands of the Saudi government for publishing critical pieces. The CIA’s investigation concluded with high confidence that crown prince Mohammed had ordered Jamal’s killing.
Within the Saudi legal system judges can use personal interpretation of Sharia to any particular case. Capital and physical punishments are still imposed by Saudi courts, such as beheading, stoning (to death), amputation, crucifixion and lashing. Some judges can be ultra-harsh in their punishments and yet super-lenient for others, often in terms of wife-beating and rape. Several organizations like Amnesty International condemn the Saudi criminal justice system.
Human rights issues include capitol punishment for homosexuality, a lack of religious freedom and the disadvantaged position of women. This last one is supposedly changing — women were granted the right to drive in 2018 (although some women’s rights activists who protested for this very right are still being detained), a woman can now open her own business without a man’s permission, and now women can travel independently.
It is also very important to note that U.S. and Saudi Arabia are strategic allies. The United States sold more than $80 billion in military equipment between 1951 and 2006 to the Saudi military. The United Kingdom has also been a major supplier of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The relations with the U.S. became strained following 9/11. American politicians and media accused the Saudi government of supporting terrorism and tolerating a jihadist culture. Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Yet under both Obama and Trump, billions of dollars worth of arms have still been sold to Saudi Arabia.
Where to Spend Your Tourism Dollars
Clearly, this can be extremely complicated and I’m only scratching the surface here.
Would I visit Saudi Arabia? For adventurous reasons, yes. It certainly piques my curiosity. It’s a place that has been closed off for so long and as one of the most conservative countries in the world, it is culturally different that anywhere I’ve been before. And I know from other middle eastern countries I’ve visited, despite how the governments may act, the locals can be very hospitable and welcoming.
But for ethical reasons, I don’t think I can, at least not right now.
While some may disagree, traveling is political. It’s hard to separate the two in cases like this. You have to make a choice about where your tourism dollars will go and if you are okay with that.
Q&A with Expat Who Lived in Saudi Arabia
A British travel friend of mine, Susan Kearton, who I met during my time volunteering at Pueblo Ingles in Spain (a sort-of weeklong “camp” with the goal to help Spanish business folks improve their conversational English), recently worked in Saudi Arabia for three years.
Susan tells us what it’s like to be an expat living and working in Saudi Arabia as a woman.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m an optimistic realist with a dry sense of humour who caught the travel bug at a young age. Singing, listening to music and theatre are favourite pastimes too. I’ve worked in the field of PR and Communications for the past 14 years … so it could be time for a change. Born and raised in Britain, I consider myself a European and my least favourite word is currently Brexit!
What brought you to Saudi Arabia?
I was contacted by an in-house recruiter. My initial reaction was there was no way I wanted to work in the Middle East, but after researching the organisation and giving it greater consideration, I decided I had nothing to lose and it would be an adventure, despite having a few reservations about the proposed role.
What were your initial reactions when you first started living/working in Saudi Arabia?
After clearing immigration, I claimed my luggage and found the taxi that was waiting to take me to the company’s residential compound. I remember arriving at my accommodation around midnight and feeling excited about my lovely apartment and the adventure ahead.
The following day my recruiter showed me around the compound and the morning after that was my first day in the office, which was located on the same site and pretty impressive having been designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid. The multi-national staff comprised of Saudis and expats from 20 countries seemed pretty friendly and welcoming. Initially, being mindful of the different culture, I was cautious in my interactions with Saudi colleagues to avoid potential offence, but I quickly realised I could be my normal self.
Film by Hans Georg Esch from ZahaHadid Architects
What was your day-to-day life like in Saudi Arabia?
Life was definitely more limited. The working day was 7:00 AM – 4:00 PM, after which I would go to the gym or swimming pool (the site had great sporting facilities), or take the compound shuttle bus to the supermarket.
Unlike the western compounds in Riyadh, my company compound housed Saudi colleagues and their families along with expats so it was more conservative in nature, e.g. a 1-piece swimsuit rather than a bikini had to be worn at the pool. Male and female staff below a certain grade were housed in the separate male and female apartment blocks where visitors of the opposite sex were prohibited, although there was no restriction on the gender of guests for staff living in villas – so this was where the social gatherings generally took place.
To a large extent, having an active social life outside the company compound depended on connecting with decent social networks and having contacts that could get you tickets for Embassy parties and other events. My life included attending a weekly Christian fellowship held in an embassy, joining a choral society, going to few embassy parties and events, occasionally eating at a restaurant, and socialising with multi-national work colleagues living on the company compound.
What was it like living in Saudi Arabia as a woman? Clothing? Restrictions? Treatment?
Although wearing an abaya (long black cloak) in public was required, as a western woman I didn’t have to cover my head. Fortunately, in my workplace women only needed to dress modestly in clothes that covered the knees and reached the elbow. A few expats chose to wear the abaya to work for ease, however, around 97% of my female Saudis colleagues wore abayas to the office and covered their head – some through choice, but many due to cultural pressure.
On the whole, I didn’t feel I was treated differently at work as a woman, neither did I feel a second class citizen when out and about in public. The western impression that all Saudi women are suppressed and completely male dominated just isn’t true, however I do acknowledge that women are more restricted and their treatment largely depends on their family situation.
What did you like about life in Saudi Arabia?
The crime rate is low. For example, I could put my bag down in a store without worrying that it could be snatched, whereas in the West I tend to hold on to my belongings for dear life in public. I also felt completely safe walking home alone in the dark from the office to the residential compound (about 15 minutes away) after frequently working late.
I liked the warm climate. Even though it is extremely hot during the summer months, everywhere is air conditioned so the weather was a lot more tolerable than I was expecting.
Saudis are particularly family oriented. The family unit is central and members are extremely close and supportive. I’m mindful this could correspondingly be detrimental if the family is unduly controlling, but I think western society would benefit from family members being more supportive of each other and taking better care of the elderly.
What didn’t you like about life in Saudi Arabia?
I disliked shopping as shops would close for 20-30 minutes for prayer several times a day, during which time you had to wait outside. The majority of clothes shops didn’t have changing rooms so you couldn’t try clothes on before purchasing and the return policy was limited to 3-5 days. Subsequently, I did the majority of my shopping during visits back to the UK.
The general inefficiency and lack of customer service across the board was frustrating — thank goodness this is gradually improving.
Living in Riyadh, I disliked the lack of green and varied landscapes.
And I disliked having to wear a black abaya in public, especially in the searing summer heat.
The driving and traffic is pretty bad in Riyadh and I found the road layouts confusing. The lack of public transport options (although a metro is currently being constructed) required the use of compound taxis, which had to be booked way in advance to guarantee availability. I didn’t feel comfortable using the general local taxis. Now that the ban has been lifted on women driving, there are increasing numbers of female drivers on the roads and I think their presence will encourage men to drive more safely.
How did your opinion change over time after living in Saudi?
I went with a fairly open mind, although was geared up for the culture to be tougher than it actually was. Despite cultural differences, globally people share the same traits. I did notice a relaxing of the culture during my three years there, e.g. the religious police lost their power to approach people in public places, cinemas reopened, women started wearing more colourful abayas, and public events such as Cirque du Soleil were staged, that both men and women were allowed to attend.
In light of all the recent news with the death of Jamal Khashoggi, etc., what was the atmosphere like there? Did locals talk about it or Prince MBS? Obviously here in the USA and in the UK, we can talk freely about issues we have with our governments (which we clearly both do right now!) without fear. How is this different there?
It wasn’t an open topic of conversation with the locals – not in public anyway – although some expats did discuss the news in private.
Many Saudis and expats alike spoke fondly of the former king, who cared about education and women. During his rule many universities were opened in the Kingdom and young people were also given an opportunity to study abroad.
It’s true that Saudi Arabia doesn’t subscribe to the same level of freedom of speech that we have in the West so, unsurprisingly, I didn’t experience my Saudi colleagues publicly expressing negative opinions of MBS and the ruling family.
Tell us about the food in Saudi Arabia
I was rather underwhelmed by the local food. Apart from a few traditional dishes, generic Middle Eastern food was eaten, (particularly Lebanese cuisine). However, there was an abundance of every type of restaurant including numerous American chains. Saudis enjoy eating out! Shops selling high end chocolates were also abundant and popular.
Describe the local Saudis you met and connected with?
I found the Saudis I met socially to be pleasant and approachable. I had good working relationships with my male and female Saudi colleagues who were predominantly well-educated, financially comfortable and forward thinking, especially the younger generation, although perhaps not representative of the local population as a whole.
When I accompanied an American friend to a really poor area in central Riyadh to give away some unwanted items, I was surprised at the poor living conditions of the people living there. It was the first time I’d seen Saudis living in poverty and belied the myth that all Saudis are rich. Also, the higher electricity and petrol prices are impacting many families.
On weekend trips out of the city to Jeddah, the Farasan Islands, and Abha, I found the people to be more laid back, open and friendly than those living in Riyadh – comparable to the north/south divide in the UK.
Would you live there again? Why or why not?