Saudi Arabia travel guide
About Saudi Arabia
No country in the world is as misunderstood as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And yet, perhaps no other country is as worthy of a visit. Many imagine nothing more than a harsh desert, but in reality Saudi Arabia contains areas of beautiful oases and dramatic mountaintops, beaches, and rivers. The sands themselves are wondrous, especially the Empty Quarter, a beautiful expanse of undulating dunes unlike anywhere in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, Saudi Arabia is a country rich in culture and heritage.
In the west of the country you’ll find untamed stretches of Red Sea coast, and southwestern mountain towns such as Taif are definitely worth a look. The ancient history in the north is perhaps one of the country’s greatest draws, where the town of Al Ula serves as the gateway to Medain Saleh, a collection of stone dwellings as magnificent as Petra in Jordan.
Then there are the cosmopolitan city centres of Jeddah, the Red Sea port, as well as Riyadh, the throbbing central capital, and Gulf-side Dammam, the large city in the east. All enjoy a lively cafe culture and top-notch restaurants. Saudi Arabians have a reputation for shopping and there are stores galore, from traditional souks to glittering malls with all the latest fashions. Hotels are being built at a rapid pace, and each seems to feature a chef of ever-increasing pedigree.
Few other countries are as rich in historical sites as Saudi Arabia. As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, it is home to nothing less than the two holiest sites in Islam: The Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, with millions visiting both every year (although these are off-limits to non-Muslims). The Saudis take pride in protecting the integrity of this holy land and Islamic laws are strictly enforced by the Mutaween (religious police).
To a novice visitor, Saudi Arabia can seem like a daunting place for a vacation, and it certainly pays to swot up on cultural rules (such as women not being allowed to drive) before you arrive. But for the intrepid traveller, this is a beautiful country with much to offer.
2,149,690 sq km (830,000 sq miles).
32,157,974 (UN estimate 2016).
15 per sq km.
King and Prime Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud since 2015.
King and Prime Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud since 2015.
220 volts AC, 60Hz. Two-pin plugs (flat and round pins) and British-style plugs with three square pins are used.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Each year around 3.7 million pilgrims participate in the Hajj. Since 2013 the Ministry of Hajj has been imposing a global 20% reduction in the numbers of Hajj pilgrims due to infrastructure works in Makkah. These reductions are expected to end in time for Hajj 2017. Pilgrims who have performed Hajj in the past five years will not be granted a visa, although we understand certain exemptions will be applied, such as for those accompanying disabled pilgrims.
A crane collapsed at the Holy Mosque in Makkah on 11 September 2015 resulting in over 100 fatalities and casualties. On 25 September 2015 a crush in Mina resulted in over 750 fatalities and many more casualties. According to media reports, the crush on 25 September 2015 in Mina resulted in over one thousand fatalities and many more casualties. The Saudi Arabian government announced that it would hold investigations into the incidents and publish the findings.
Before you travel for the Hajj, you should carefully consider the information and advice on the website of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, and in the Health section of this travel advice.
If you are travelling to Saudi Arabia through another country you should check for advice on possible travel restrictions with that country’s Embassy in London.
Saudi government regulations require British pilgrims performing Umrah and Hajj to travel with a UK travel agency that is accredited with the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.
You should confirm the full itinerary for your pilgrimage before departure. The British Embassy receives a large number of requests for help in relation to disputes and dissatisfaction with tour operators. The British Embassy can’t become involved in commercial disagreements or disputes between pilgrim and tour operators.
There has been an increase in the number of reported cases of pick pocketing and other forms of theft in Makkah, particularly in the region of the Grand Mosque and in Medina. You should take extra care of your passport, tickets and other valuables while visiting these areas. Make a copy of your passport before you travel, and keep it in a safe place.
The authorities don’t allow pilgrims to take cameras into the Holy Mosque at Makkah or the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina. This restriction also includes the courtyards surrounding the two holy sites. Violation of these instructions could lead to the confiscation of your film or camera.
Public demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia. Follow local media and be alert to local and regional developments, which might trigger public disturbances. You should avoid public gatherings or demonstrations. Despite warnings issued by the authorities, demonstrations do take place from time to time, mainly in the Shia communities in the Qatif area of Eastern Province and Al Hasa. Violent clashes have occurred between demonstrators and security forces.
Saudi Arabia-Yemen border
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all travel to within 10km of the border with Yemen, and against all but essential travel between 10km and 80km of this border. If you’re currently in an area to which the FCO advise against all but essential travel, you should consider whether you have an essential reason to remain. If you do not, you should leave the area.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading coalition air strikes in Yemen following the request for support from President Hadi to deter continued Houthi aggression. Clashes along the Saudi-Yemeni border continue, resulting in both military and civilian casualties. Ballistic (Scud) missiles have been fired occasionally from Yemen. Military facilities in Najran province, Asir province, Jazan province and the most south-westerly part of Riyadh province may be targeted by missiles but it is also possible that attacks could be made on other locations in Saudi Arabia.
Airports near the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border have been closed temporarily from time to time: you should check with your airline before travelling to airports near the border.
Saudi Arabia-Iraq border
Take great care in all areas close to the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border. On 5 January 2015, 3 Saudi Arabian border guards were killed in clashes close to the Arar crossing point.
Although the crime rate in Saudi Arabia is low, there have been some isolated incidents of more serious crimes. Take particular care when travelling outside towns and cities.
Petty crime does also occur.
Where possible, keep to major roads. When travelling to more rural areas, take precautions such as travelling in convoy and during daylight.
Standards of driving are poor and there are a high number of serious accidents. You should wear seatbelts at all times. Distances between cities are large and emergency services can take some time to get to any accidents or emergencies.
Some Saudi cities have implemented an automated traffic system. You will need to pay any fines issued through this system before leaving the country. You can pay at the airport but only during regular Saudi office hours.
Oil infrastructure remains a possible terrorist target. Shipping serving the oil installations should make sure SSPs are implemented fully and robustly while operating in the area. All ships should maintain a high state of vigilance while in Saudi Arabian ports, and report anything suspicious to the authorities.
Vessels operating in the Gulf of Oman, Northern Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab El Mandeb areas may be at increased risk of maritime attack from pirates.