Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
The capital city of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is a huge, sprawling and ever-growing conurbation, situated on a plateau bang in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Access to the country is limited. In principle, there are only two ways to get in: to work, and to participate in the Haj1. The latter option is only open to Moslems, of course, and the Saudi authorities take great care to try and ensure that no pilgrims stay on in the Kingdom to seek employment. This means that few travellers ever visit Riyadh. The following advice is intended for those that do.
You must be aware that Islam, or to be more precise, the Saudi's interpretation of it, is the fundamental fact of life in Saudi Arabia. This leads to what is, for visitors from the secular West, a fascinatingly alien environment. You have to remember that present-day Saudi Arabia contains the two holiest sites in Islam; Mecca and Medina, and the stated raison d'être of the country is to ensure that these sites are protected against what would be considered to be misuse and to make the sites available to any of the world's Muslims who want to worship there. The official title of the Saudi King is indeed 'Custodian of the Two Mosques'. What makes Saudi society so unique is the way that its sense of duty in protecting these two sites from immoral or irreligious activities in the area around the mosques (ie the whole country) is carried through into the activities of everyday life.
Do's and Don'ts
Here are some of the most important do's and don'ts for first-time visitors to Saudi:
Do be prepared for a long wait when arriving at the airport.
Don't bring any magazines featuring pictures of partially clothed women into the country. Porn magazines, obviously, but also magazines about golf, boats, gardening, motor racing, DIY, etc have been confiscated in the past. Your luggage will be searched on arrival. In fact it's best not to bring any sort of glossy magazine into the country, whatsoever.
The same goes for videos, with the exception that you'll be delayed for even longer as the customs man will insist on watching them2.
Don't even think aboutbringing drugs into the country. Saudi Arabia has the death penalty for drug smuggling and, as mentioned before, your luggage will be searched.
The same goes for alcohol - including miniatures collected from the stewardess on the plane - except that you won't be executed for it. You will get to spend a day or two in jail, however.
Don't drive if you can possibly avoid it. Taxis are everywhere and very affordable. If you must drive remember that the traffic in Riyadh is very dangerous - look at the number of wrecks, both at the side of the road and being driven around, and remember that fatality rates here are appallingly high. In an effort to reduce these, the standard penalty for almost any traffic infringement is now a few days in jail. Remember that most of the road signs are in Arabic (although some of the motorways have signs in our alphabet) and that, even if you can read Arabic, the generally secretive Saudi culture means that most roads you might want to find are not signposted. A lot don't even have names. Remember also that the Islamic justice system means that if you injure somebody in an accident, even if it's not your fault, you are expected to compensate him/her. Do you still want to drive?
Don't openly display a cross, a Bible, or anything which could be interpreted as Christian proselytising. A few years ago, the Saudi authorities even tried to prevent Swissair from landing at Riyadh Airport, because of the large Swiss cross painted on the tail of their aircraft.
Don't make any disparaging remarks about Islam, even if you think no-one is listening. In fact, it's best not to mention religion at all.
Do go shopping. In fact, given the fact that there are no theatres or cinemas in the country, shopping is about the only leisure activity all Saudis have in common. Most Riyadh shoppers tend to gravitate to the swanky Al Akarea shopping centre, which is worth a visit for its spectacular architecture alone. Be aware that prices here, though cheap by Western standards, are higher than in the rest of Riyadh. Once away from the Al Akarea, you will find that there are some great bargains to be had. In particular, look out for gold, computer software, watches and (if you can find a way to get it home) cars. You will be expected to haggle.
Don't mess with the women. The all-over black veil which Saudi women are obliged to wear makes for some bizarre sights - particularly if the woman in question wears glasses and puts them on outside the veil. Under the chadour, many of the women are extremely trendily dressed - one of the sights that amuses many Westerners is to see a gleaming white pair of trainers peeping out from what appears to be a big black bag. But seriously, Saudi culture takes a dim view of any women having any sort of contact with men outside of their immediate family. Don't talk to any woman you might bump into in the street, don't stare at them, in fact it's best simply to act like you haven't seen them. The tragedy of the situation is that many of the women in Saudi now are actually better educated than the men, but have great difficulty finding a way in which they can apply what they've learnt. Some, seeing Westerners, will want to practice their English. If a woman says anything to you, it's best not to respond. The veil means that people can't see her lips moving, but they can see yours.
Do go out into the desert. The desert around Riyadh is rocky, not sandy, and unfortunately has been used as an unofficial rubbish dump for the past 30 years. But if you can get away from the abandoned cars, the oil cans, the broken bottles and the old fridges the scenery is truly spectacular. If you can, find somebody to go camping with, and spend the night out there. The stars will blow your mind. You should remember, however, that driving in the desert at night is a very bad idea, and also that, at night, it can get cold in the desert very quickly. The best way into the desert from Riyadh is along the Mecca road. About 20km out of town you will come to the escarpment. This will also blow your mind.
Do remember to take your passport when driving out of Riyadh. There are police road blocks just out of town, with the aim of stopping 'undesirables' (mainly guest workers without a valid permit who are trying to stay on in the country illegally) from entering the city.
Do go and visit Old Riyadh, about 10km outside the city centre. It's a fascinating city (now uninhabited) built entirely out of dried mud. It looks like the biggest termite colony in the world.
Do remember that the working week in the Islamic world is from Saturday to Wednesday. Their weekend is Thursday and Friday.
Do go to visit the old fort right in the centre of Riyadh. Besides being an impressive building in its own right, it also contains a very good museum explaining the history of the Saudi state. The market stalls in the same area as the fort are fascinating, but not for the faint-hearted. The vendors there are certainly more 'in your face' than the westernised shop assistants in the Al Akarea
Saudi Arabia is one of the countries in the world which still thinks it necessary to have capital punishment. To this end, there are frequent public executions in the square in front of the main mosque in Riyadh, usually on a Friday. Don't go to have a look. It doesn't matter how much you like to watch horror films, or how 'cool' you think death is; these executions are, quite simply, horrible. Also, the locals don't like to see Westerners present.
Don't go walking around in skimpy clothes (even if you're a man). Islamic society is very prudish by European standards, and Saudis will be offended by the sight of men wearing shorts, vests, etc. If you want to go jogging, wear track suit bottoms (or whatever they're called these days) and a T-shirt. If you do walk around not wearing much during the day, the sun will burn you to a crisp anyway.
If you get a chance, do go to a game of football. This is the only mass activity (other than shopping) that people in Riyadh can enjoy. Football matches in Saudi can be quite violent affairs both on and off the pitch, as they're one of the few occasions where Saudi men can really let their hair down. Their ability to 'put the boot in', in the time-honoured football hooligan fashion, is however handicapped by the fact that they're all wearing long flowing robes and sandals.
As you will surely know, Saudi Arabia is completely dry. There is however a thriving home-brew culture among several of the long-term expat residents. If you are offered any home-brew, this Researcher's advice would be not to drink it, especially if you want to travel somewhere else afterwards. The Saudi police have apparently started breath tests for people involved in road accidents, (even passengers) and, again, road accidents are quite common in Riyadh. Also, the quality of a lot of this home-made stuff is not too good. If you do have a drink, be very discrete (ie don't go staggering across the street singing rugby songs) and do not attempt to give any booze to a Muslim.
If you are a woman, you should know that Saudi society means that it is very difficult for a woman to move about on her own. Check to see which taxi companies are permitted to carry unaccompanied women and use them. Be aware that if a woman is found in a car with a man who isn't her husband, a close relative or a designated chauffeur she will be liable, under Islamic law, to be accused of either adultery (if she is married) or prostitution (if she isn't.)
The rules on dress for Christian women in Saudi are considerably more relaxed than for Saudi nationals, although you will be expected to wear a long black robe to cover yourself from the neck down. You can borrow these robes from the hotel where you're staying. These days it's OK to leave your hair uncovered, although if it's blonde, or extremely long, it is recommended that you cover it anyway. Many Saudi men consider blonde hair to be the last word in exotic sexual temptation.
Hopefully, all this isn't too intimidating, and may be helpful if you ever have to visit Saudi, or Riyadh in particular. Despite all the 'don'ts' a visit to Saudi can be a fascinating experience. If nothing else, you will come back questioning the basic ground rules of our own liberal, secular, Western civilization. In truth, if you are a white male you will be pretty much left on your own in Saudi and, unless you do something extremely stupid (see some of the 'don'ts' above) no-one will hassle you. If you are a white woman, you should seriously think twice about visiting Saudi unless you are married to someone already in Saudi, because of the difficulties in travelling that have already been mentioned. If you are there with your partner, make sure you have a valid marriage certificate.