Saudi Arabia: How to stay safe & out of (big) trouble

Other than serious crimes the main concern with local laws for travellers in Saudi Arabia is breaching Islamic codes of morality, which can be a lot stricter than you think and what many foreign travellers may see as a non-event, may in fact get in a lot more trouble than they ever expected.

Criticism of the flag of Saudi Arabia is considered insulting, as it bears the Islamic declaration of faith, and desecration or any other inappropriate use of the flag can lead to serious problems. However, publicly criticising the King, the royal family, or the government of Saudi Arabia, is not tolerated even in the slightest and can attract the attentions of the muttawa or security personnel.
Foreign nationals who breach any of these laws may not get as harsh a sentence as a local would, but this does not rule out corporal punishment such as public floggings, multiple weeks in prison, deportation, or all of the above.

The inscription reads: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah" and it's underlined by the sword of justice.

Law enforcement in Saudi Arabia

The official system of law in Saudi Arabia is Sharia, which is derived from various Islamic texts and governs all members of the faith in the country.
Islamic codes of morality are very keenly enforced by the Muttawa, a volunteer organisation for the religious police (yes, they really have religious police) previously known as the "Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" and they take their position very seriously.

Anything that looks like preaching or proselytising a religion other than Islam though, is treated with extreme prejudice. The muttawa often come down quite hard on illicit Christian assemblies and the like. Publicly observing any religion other than Islam is literally a crime in Saudi Arabia, so be careful of that one.

The Nejd region around Riyadh is the most strict region in all of Saudi Arabia, so be very careful to be on your best behaviour at all times, with Hejaz around Jeddah being somewhere around the middle.

Generally, the Muttawa don't enter hotels or expat compounds, and you should be able to relax a little more there.

In Saudi Arabia, everything runs around the five daily prayers. More or less everything closes during each prayer for at least 20-30 minutes and the religious police actually patrol the streets and send loiterers off to the nearest mosque. So, avoid being out on the streets during these periods unless you want some hassle from the Muttawa.

The exceptions to the closure during prayer time are hospitals, airports, public transport and taxis, which continue to run normally. Shopping malls also remain open, however the shops inside tend to be closed.

(That's what passes as a smile for a Muttawa.)

Five prayers a day

The first prayer of the day is fajr, held early in the morning before dawn breaks and generally after this, shops begin to open and people tend to eat breakfast and head to work.

The second prayer of the day is dhuhr, held after true noon during the middle of the day, with the Friday noon prayer, jummah, being the most important one of the week. Generally speaking, even less observant Muslims make the effort to attend the mosque for this one. Aftewards most people tend to have lunch and many shops remain closed to avoid working in the heat of the day, especially during the intense summer months.

The third prayer of the day is asr, which are held in the later afternoon, roughly one and half to two hours before sunset. Many shops open again after this, as the intense heat of the day has usually faded by this point.

The fourth prayer of the day is maghrib, held at sunset and tend to mark the end of the working day in most of the private sector.

The fifth and final prayer of the day is isha'a held between forty five minutes and an hour after sunset. After this, locals tend to head for dinner and it more or less marks the end of their day.

Making the most of between prayers

The period between maghrib and isha'a is known amongst expats as the "prayer window" during which time, if you're time is good and you're swift, you can buy your groceries at the supermarket with minimal traffic.

To make matters slightly more complicated, prayer times change daily according to the season and your exact location. Daily prayer times are advertised in the newspaper and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a handy online prayer time service. It's worth looking at one or both of these to make sure you don't get stuck without vital necessities because you didn't make it to the shops in time.

(Sunset over a Riyadh mosque)

Tips for Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

During the period of Ramadan, visitors to Saudi Arabia are expected abide by the restrictions at least in public. This means no eating, drinking, or smoking anything during the daylight hours. Unsurprisingly, restaurants and eating establishments will not sell you food during this period, however some of the better hotels do quietly supply room service during the day. Generally speaking, you will need to make your own preparations.

After the evening prayer, things change quite dramatically. Restaurants in the bazaar and elsewhere open, and are generally very busy until the early hours of the morning with a fairly festive atmosphere.

Restrictions in Saudi Arabia

Alcohol is forbidden and illegal throughout the country, although things are generally more lenient within residential compounds for foreign national or expatriates. Some of these even have full size English style pubs, serving homebrewed beer and wine on Wednesday nights which the police generally turn a blind eye to, however anyone caught either smuggling or distilling alcohol in significant quantities tends to be prosecuted under Saudi law.

Speaking of distilling alcohol, be careful of the local brew, Arak. In addition to being illegal, it's very strong (up to 90% proof) and may contain harmful impurities such as methanol.

Beyond the general importation of illegal drugs and weapons, Saudi Arabia has very strict rules on imports. Alcohol, pork, non-Islamic religious material and pornography are all expressly prohibited. Pornography is VERY widely defined and may include things such as swimsuit calendars. Computers, CDs, DVDs, iPods and other portable media devices have all been seized for inspection from time to time by authorities, and you may lose your device if it has anything deemed to be forbidden on it.

Anything religious that isn't Islam related is pretty much outright banned and illegal in Saudi Arabia. Technically, even items for personal use are banned, although personal religious artefacts have tended to be tolerated in recent years.

Tips for women travellers in Saudi Arabia

All women are required to wear the abaya, a long and loose black robe while in Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether they are local, foreign, Muslim or non-Muslim.

The headscarf is however optional for foreign women, but it is worth brining one along simply to avoid harassment by the religious police or other men intent on causing problems.

(Saudi women are challenging the no driving law)

Saudi law is generally strict where women are concerned and prohibits women from associating with unrelated men. Some places are quite strict on this, and will not even allow a married couple to have dinner with a single man.

Women are also not allowed to drive cars, ride bicycles and generally speaking go pretty much anywhere without a male relative.

Don't get too snap happy

Taking photos in Saudi Arabia is a very touchy subject. If you get a feeling you probably shouldn't take a phot of something, then don't. Anything that's government related including ministries, airports, military facilities or looks like it could be a government building, don't take a photo of it. You risk being hauled off to jail for espionage which really isn't a joke.

Don't take photos of Saudi Arabian men without their permission, and don't even point a camera in the vaguest direction of women. They don't have a sense of humour where this is concerned and the muttawa may well be on you before you can say "sorry, what?" and you'll probably be shocked when they smash your camera or worse.

(Not funky, not cold, but it is Medina)

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40 Comments

  • Susan said

    Can i take Panadol from New Zealand to Saudi Arabia. <br>Can i take a Webcam.

  • safetyhub said

    Hi Susan, the best place for questions like this is here http://answers.worldnomads.com<br>You'll be able to source the travel knowledge of thousands of others. But from what I can see you're very unlikely to have panadol confiscated at the airport. Obviously the same can't be said of drugs which contain codeine (such as panadeine). I'm also told that you can buy paracetamol (Panadol is a brand name) at just about any store in Riyad, so if you're really concerned, leave it at home and buy some when you arrive.<br>Webcams... considering so many of them are built into laptops I'd be very surprised to find out they're banned. But this is a good one to try on Ask A Nomad.<br>Phil from worldnomads safety hub

  • Rons said

    Are mp3s on phone okay at Saudi?

  • Hajj Abdullah said

    I went thru customs in 5 minutes and they looked at nothing at all. It was much harder going into Israel by 1000%. I had 4 prescriptions with me, never a problem. The only thing I found to be a problem was the crazy fast drivers; could not go under 100 MPH no matter how much I yelled 'shwaii shwaii' [easy, easy]. Most everything you read in travel blogs is wrong.

  • Jim said

    may i ask what me and my cousin will be working at a certain place in saudi and we choose to stay together even if we are a male and a female is it ok thanks for your time and i hope for a question

  • Scott said

    With all these limitations and restrictions what is the point of going to this backwards country?

  • Nageswara Rao said

    Hi sir , I am Hindu but I am go to saudi . Saudi are safe?

  • Shaikh Shaibaz said

    Mecca is best place in the world

  • bader marroun said

    the most things i read it here doesn't related to the reality of saudi arabia at all

  • Al Mudai Ashraf al shammary said

    dear bader marroun it seems you are not experienced with Saudi Arabia.... what ever stated here is a day to day real picture..

  • Donald Trump said

    What a horrible country! Women can't drive, they have religious police, no alcohol and you can only practice islam? All of you filthy sunni muslims need to grow up and get a fucking life!

  • futhie said

    My husband has relocated to Saudi Arabia n have recently found out he is having an affair with a nurse in one of the hospitals I real need to know is it legally for a married man to have an affair n what protocol should I follow to report the matter

  • Lamia said

    ^ no it's pretty illegal and you can contact the religious police to report this or any law enforcement constitution whether you're in Saudi or not

  • Mouath said

    Hello visitors,

    I am a Saudi, and i would like to clear some points are not true at all!

    First of all, Most of the points mentioned above are completely wrong and not true .. All people who have not visit Saudi Arabia have the wrong idea about the country. Regarding to what mentioned about the religious police, it's not a really religious police .. it is a "Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" and the photo above for them i assume that the author has chosen this specific photo to give the readers a wrong idea!.

    Regarding to the women rules for the Abaya, If you think our women don't get their rights believe me or not you're 100% wrong. Saudi Arabia based on Islam so our rules is islam rules and if you asked Saudi women about the rights she's will tell you we have all our rights and more.

    The Abaya is required to all women in the KSA(Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia) +16 and more, But what Abaya is exactly means? Abaya is a black dress and is used to cover all the body except the head and the face. The whole head is not required to cover.

    As mentioned above about the devices is wrong! .. just like your country you can bring any devices you want and no one will even check it as long as it running. you can bring anything you want except illegal things like Alcohol,Drugs,Ham(which is illegal in Islam) and especially Alcohol .. Alcohol is more than illegal in the KSA .. why?! First cuz Alcohol illegal in Islam, Second Cuz your body doesn't created for drink or handle Alcohol .. and to be clear with you guys u know what Alcohol can cause you to make problems and we see that everyday in the life .. drunk people make unusually behavior.

    In talking to Camera, You can bring all cameras as much as you want and you can capture anything you want except the sensitive areas like airports,security checkpoints .. just like any country!! .. The author trying to give u a wrong idea about the KSA .. However, Don't take a direct picture for the people without taking their permission especially the women .. and that's it!

    Please i am as a Saudi i care about what people think about the KSA and most of them are wrong .. don't make a judgment for thing you have never been on it before! .. and Saudi Arabia has changed since a years .. I bet if author has been in the KSA before!!.

    If you don't know what exactly Islam is just read about it from a trusted source, Believe me Islam is better than what you think .. am not inviting you .. i am trying to show you the real Islam .. not the people who keep saying i am a muslim cuz not everybody is a Muslim.

    I think the reason that made the people who never been in the KSA to have a wrong idea is because he has a wrong idea about Islam and he doesn't understand it.

    Thank you.


    Thanks for reading my letters just had to clear some wrong points.
    Best regard.

  • lynn musther said

    can someone please tell me that if a male cousin is walking with his female cousin in saudia arabia to a grocery store can the male cousin get arrested for being with her? my friend told me he was just arrested for doing walking with is female cousin to the store....and has to go back in 3 days for what i have no idea...

  • Mouath said

    Lynn..

    No that's not true .. of course you can .. it's ok for the foreigners people (Not Saudis) .. No one will arrest you don't worry.

    Regards,

  • Joseph P. said


    Good on you Mouath! I agree with your comments. As an British expat living in Saudi Arabia for nearly 2 years now, I believe quite strongly on what you say....It is such a shame sites like this and comments from Donald (Duck) Thrump that do NO justice to Saudi Arabia. Sadly, Western people are VERY narrow minded about Islam and Saudi Arabia....by the way, Donald Ducky has been banned from entering the UK! It is he that needs to get a life......

  • Didi said

    You cannot walk in the streets with your cousin . The only male you can walk with is your husband, your father, your brother or son or grandfather. A cousin is forbidden as in Arabia a female is permitted to marry a cousin.
    Hope this is helpful as in most cases cousins get married to each other.

  • Mohammed Nabeel said

    Hi Everyone,

    I was smiling the whole time I was reading the comments because some of it correct and some with exaggeration. I start laughing when I red about the women complaining about her husband having an affair with someone in hospital. (don't leave him alone in Saudi Arabia- poor guy).

    watch out from the crazy drivers (some of them drugged), other than that, Saudi Arabia is getting easier every day in the restriction.

    Good luck you all....

  • Abass & Tpin said

    I am very glad to come across this forum.....
    I am only worry about my wife, she left to jeddah there in saudi arabia on May 12 2016 landed and arrived to one of recuirting agency hostels there in jeddah. After her three to four days i was able to reach her and she was able to reach the family back here in Nigeria through phone calls and social media communication and told us that she was doing fine and they were really taking care of her . After two to three weeks stayed in the hostel where she had certifications to permit her to Work in Saudi arabia spoke to us through social media that she moved to Medinah on the June 12 2016 to work for under an Arabic dentist woman. Her communication with us continues till Wednesday 16 June. .....well, to cut the story short that Wednesday 16 was the last time we heard from her from the both calls and social media, even all her phone numbers that we used to call her to keeps saying the lines are switched off . And this is really bothering us here that how come all her lines would be switched off in non power failure country?.
    Please we need an advice on how to reach her there in Medinah.We are worry here .
    Will appreciate to read from you guys as soon as possible .
    Thanks

  • Atul Sharma said

    If you yourself are fine, and give respect to the rules, you are safe all over the World, why people are so curious and excited bout Saudi is, there the rules are followed and followed very strictly, but see if you are living under strict laws you are safe, you won't hear bout theft / robbery / rape so often as you hear bout them in any other part of the world. And as far as foreigners and tourists are concerned people are friendly and helpful to them, till the time you don't try to hurt someone's feelings be it religious or social.
    But problem is we are not ready to follow rules and when we are forced to follow them we start talking against them.

  • Karthick said

    An Saudi Arabian man had just cut off the one arm of an Indian maid. And all saudi government did was keeping their mouths shut about the problem. You people really don't want other races to exist and treat them like rubbish.

  • Rakesh Gupta said

    Hi All,
    I am travelling to KSA - Riyadh this Weekend, can anyone suggest me on email - [email protected] ; regarding some good accommodation for 3 months duration near STC Main complex with a reasonable price .

    Thanks in Advance:)

  • Ahmad Ibrahim said

    Mecca is best place in the world, Madina is alsoas well as ATTUR mountain in SINNA

  • kels said

    pls how can I get a working visa in Saudi.

  • Zara said

    Is it true that most Saudi Arabian guys marry their cousins? I am dating a Saudi boy but what are the chances of been married to a Saudi? I am not Saudi but I am a Muslim.

  • Dorty said

    Hi, my husband is in Saudi right he said it's really boring there amd hesitate to bri g me thetetcos it will be boring for us and will no entertainment. We will not allowed to enjoy activities together like shopping or eat in the restaurants. Is that true? can anyone give some ideas?

  • eso said

    @Abass & Tpin
    Bro, I hope you get to see this message!! Please try and get in touch with me via email asap so I can see how to help you. I can put a call to the embassy in Riyadh.
    I am a Nigerian Doctor working here in KSA and I really hope all is well with your wife!
    In the mean time try and contact the Nigerian embassy in Abuja about the problem quoting your wife's passport number and also contact the recruiting agency so they can make contacts!!
    Pls mail me: websniffersconcepts(at)y****.c**
    All the best, it is well

  • Ibrahim said

    Dear Dorty,

    It is absolutely fine to go and have a dinner with your husband but you need to make sure that your dress isn't revealing when heading out publicly. You don't need to cover your hair and face as it is only part of culture and religion. If your husband thinks that the place is boring it's probably because he haven't made many friends or haven't made any Saudi friends. Maybe another thing that made him bored is because we have plenty of time in Saudi Arabia, maybe even too much time. Shopping malls are really big and widespread as well as being clean and cool, mostly because it's too hot and too empty outside. Lots of Saudi people sadly don't do sports, so don't expect many areas to practice sports ( except soccer ). As you know, gas is pretty cheap in Saudi Arabia, so many people go on trips to the desert which has plenty of activities. The temperature in the desert is slightly cooler than the cities and the desert gets kind of cool after sunset. I would suggest your husband to meet new Saudi friends and they can do lots of activities together, but be warned that us, Saudis are really chatty people so better be prepared.

    I totally understand if you don't want to come here as other countries are a lot more open. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay Saudi Arabia a visit, we would be glad to have you.

    Best regards.

  • Manoj said

    Hi am going to saudi.As 4star hotel employ isn't safe to go there. Please guide me.

  • sajib said

    if any other country's men arested in soudi arabia & send him his own country. Then he want to go soudi arabia. can he go?

  • sulaf said

    sauid arabie is the best and howthe isnt so help us please
    and we will help you becuse the are chraing to kill us

  • Timothy said

    I am a foreigner Can I date someone secretly from Saudi Arabia

  • Laura said

    For anyone wanting to know about what life in Saudi Arabia is really like, you should go and read the Blue Abaya blog, written by a Finnish woman in Riyadh with a Saudi husband. www.blueabaya.com

  • Priscilla said

    I am coming to Saudi to work with a family .....but I keep hearing they aren't tratet well ...some are even killed n all ....how true is that


    Thanks

  • James said

    Guys i am from spain and I've been living in riyadh for 3 years believe me it is very safe in here and dont believe the things that the author says about taking pictures and stuff. life here is like living in any country but with few restrictions and thats it and there are alot of activities to do here. And please dont take the wrong idea about saudi arabia

  • glenn cruz said

    I want to be a law abider here in Saudi Arabia. Can you help me by telling the right way or the right place to stay during prayer times especially magreb and asha. I am a christian and working in a retail shop. Do I need to stay inside the shop while the shop is closed or should I go out and sit outside the shop. The police one time took me to the police station while I was sitting outside the shop during magreb. I am bit confused on which is the best way to follow. The police told me to stay in my house during prayers. But the problem is my house is quit far from where I daily work. It will take me around 20 minutes to walk from my house to the shop. Can you please enlightened me with your wisdom regarding this matter. Thank you. Assalam Alaikom.

  • Ruggero said

    We spent 3 fantastic years in KSA. A lot of fun reading stories from newspapers or web sites that are not true or partially distorted to create hype.

    If you want to read about expat life in Saudi and get a better idea of what it's really like, there are many blogs. I run my own at

    www.ruggeropellegrin.com

  • Dinesh said

    I want to work in Saudi Arabia & I'm an indian,
    What is the rule & procedures for Visa

  • Jen said

    Hi. I'm Nigerian and my friend(male) invited me to Saudi Arabia. Please is it safe? Can I walk with him on the streets? Must I wear abaya? I need help really.



    Thanks

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