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Country Reports

Saudi Arabia Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

It is generally safe to travel to Saudi Arabia (population 28.5 million). However, visitors to this wealthy, oil-producing, and extremely conservative country - which follows Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam - should remain vigilant due to potential security issues.

AREAS TO AVOID

The southern and northern regions close to the Iraqi and Yemeni borders are at high risk of terrorist attacks. In the south, the border is often targeted by Yemeni fighters who have been known to launch missiles in cross-border attacks. Houthi rebels, at war with the Yemeni government since 2014, often penetrate Saudi territory from the south and even control military bases on the border.

Clashes often occur between the local population and security forces in the Shi'a-majority Qatif region in the east. Finally, the desert region between Riyadh and Mecca is presents security threats to travelers due to its isolation.

The cities of Mecca and Medina are forbidden to non-Muslims.

POLITICS

The political situation of the kingdom has witnessed a sweeping change to the status quo in late 2017, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the recently named heir to the throne and son of reigning King Salman, has seemingly consolidated power and taken control of the country's foreign policy, economic development, social reforms, and internal anti-corruption effort. Notably, in November 2017, more than 200 princes, ministers, and businessmen were detained on corruption charges.

The prince's "Saudi Vision 2030" scheme seeks to modernize the country and diversify the oil-based economy; the low price of oil has resulted in economic stagnation in the kingdom since 2015. Among the country's recent reform efforts are the announcement in September 2017 that women will obtain the right to drive by June 2018, and the declaration that a greater emphasis will be placed on tourism in the future, in addition to other reforms.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a military offensive as part of a regional coalition in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels. The campaign has included frequent airstrikes throughout Yemen, as well as ground and maritime campaigns. In November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition instituted a blockade of Yemen, closing all land, sea, and air borders in the country following a cross-border missile attack that was intercepted near the King Khalid International Airport (RUH) in the capital Riyadh on November 4, 2017. The blockade has since been partially lifted, though restrictions remain in place at most entry crossings and ports throughout the country.

In January 2017, the Saudi government severed diplomatic ties with Iran following violent protests in Tehran during which the Saudi Embassy was ransacked and torched. Tensions between the two countries remain high. Saudi authorities have also suspended flights to and from Iran until further notice and have barred their citizens from traveling to the country.

TERRORISM

The country has come under increasing pressure due to the growing threat of terrorism. A planned suicide bomb attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca during Ramadan in June 2017, as well as a planned attack on the Ministry of Defense in Riyadh in September 2017, were both reportedly thwarted by Saudi authorities. Additionally, in October 2017, gunmen attacked guards at the gate of the royal palace in Jeddah, killing two royal guards.

Terrorist cells are regularly dismantled. Since February 2014, security forces have been authorized to arrest and detain anyone suspected of carrying out terrorist activities and can detain individuals for up to 12 months. Despite a significant increase in security forces deployed along the Iraqi border, there is still a high risk of members of terrorist organizations entering Saudi Arabia via the border.

Eastern Province is home to numerous Shi'a militants classified by the Saudi government as terrorists. Clashes between these militants and security forces occur frequently in the province (especially in the cities of Qatif and Dammam) and security forces regularly conduct raids in the region. In August 2017, Saudi officials announced that the historic city center of Al-Awamiyah had been demolished to try to purge the area of terrorists, who had perpetrated a string of attacks on security forces in the region.

CRIME

Crime rates are low in the kingdom.

Kidnappings carried out by criminal groups are rare. However, the recent increase in terrorist activity in the country could result in an increase in abductions of foreign nationals, especially Westerners. Expatriates face a more intense kidnapping threat than business travelers, especially when traveling to remote areas.

If such an incident occurs, avoid the affected area for at least 24 hours and report any suspicious objects or behavior to the authorities. Always inform a friend or colleague of your itinerary and plans, and avoid traveling alone. Carry a cell phone at all times.

SOCIAL UNREST

Anti-government protests occur - notably in the kingdom's Eastern Province, where the majority of the population are Shi'a Muslims.

In January 2016, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior announced the execution of 47 people, including a prominent Shi'a cleric who had been accused of inciting hatred and violence. Demonstrations broke out in Eastern Province - including in Qatif, Al-Awamiyah, and Dammam - due to his political popularity among Shi'a Muslims.

TRANSPORTATION

All flights to and from Qatar have been suspended since June 2017 until further notice, and the Saudi-Qatari land border is closed.  Saudi Arabia (along with Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) has also severed diplomatic ties with Qatar due to accusations that the country was funding terrorist organizations in the region.

The UK government has banned passengers flying direct to the United Kingdom from Saudi Arabia from transporting any electronic device larger than a standard-sized smartphone (16 cm x 9.3 cm x 1.5 cm / 6.3 in x 3.5 in x 0.6 in) in carry-on luggage. This includes laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, DVD players, and video games, which will have to be stowed in checked luggage for the duration of the flight. A similar ban previously instated for flights to the United States was lifted in July 2017.

Foreigners should be aware that travel by car within Saudi Arabia can be dangerous. Reckless driving causes a high number of road accidents and hundreds of deaths each year.

Public transportation systems are being developed in the country but are not yet operational. However, buses connect major cities.

By law, taxis must be booked in advance, even at the airport. Most taxi drivers do not speak English. Women are not permitted to ride in a taxi alone or with someone from the opposite sex other than her family or husband. However, authorities are usually accommodating for foreigners.

The railway network consists of one line linking Riyadh and Dammam. Five trips, each taking four to five hours each, are available daily. Women traveling on their own can only do so in first class.

NATURAL RISKS

Foreign visitors should be aware that Saudi Arabia's weather can reach extremes during certain seasons. Temperatures sometimes climb to 50°C (122°F) or higher and power outages often occur during heat waves, particularly in the west.  Flooding is common in the northern and western parts of the country, particularly between November and March.

Sand and dust storms often occur in the country and can disrupt road and air traffic.

LEGAL

Only business travelers and family members of those working in Saudi Arabia can obtain visas, although Muslims going on the pilgrimage to Mecca can obtain a right of entry. Saudi authorities do not issue tourist visas and anyone with an Israeli stamp on their passport will be denied entry. The country practices a system of "sponsorship" (iqama), where foreigners must receive the backing of a Saudi citizen.

Islam is the only accepted religion in the country and social and religious customs should be respected, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. It is forbidden to drink, eat, or smoke in public during Ramadan. Throughout the year, women must wear an abaya (long black robe that covers the whole body) as well as a head scarf. Men should always wear long pants (no shorts). Consumption of pork and alcohol is prohibited. Books, magazines, and videos must be deemed as having appropriate and decent content. Pornographic material is forbidden.

A woman and a man cannot be seen in public together if they are not married or family members.

Acts of homosexuality or adultery are punishable by law.

The internet is subject to censorship. 

HEALTH

Medical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia is excellent. However, it is important to subscribe to a medical insurance policy that covers medical fees and urgent repatriation prior to departure.

There is no risk of yellow fever; however, a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for travelers arriving from countries with risk of yellow fever transmission.

There is a risk of contracting malaria in western and southern parts of the country.

Dengue fever is endemic to some provinces (Ta'if, Jeddah, and Mecca).

Gastric illnesses are common among tourists. Water is potable, but bottled water is nonetheless advised for drinking.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) remains present in Saudi Arabia. Some 1720 cases have been reported in the kingdom since 2012. Approximately one-third of reported patients with MERS have died.

Climate

Saudi Arabia's climate is arid all year long. Summers are very hot and dry, winters mild along the coasts and cooler inland. A rainy season (albeit with low levels of rainfall) lasts from October to April along the western coastal plains. In the center of the country (Nedj) nights are cool and days are scorching. The north and the south of the country is desert.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +966 Police: 999 Fire Dept.: 999 Ambulance: 999

Electricity

Voltage: 127/220 V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

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