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Before you start booking your trip to Saudi Arabia, find out about visas, local laws and customs, restrictions on what you can and can't do, and safety tips for women and LGBTQ+ travelers.
Saudi Arabia will begin to issue e-visas for travelers to the Middle Eastern kingdom. Previously, only business travelers, expats and Muslims visiting for pilgrimages were allowed to visit. From September 28 2019, travelers from 49 countries can enter the country for up to three months. If you cannot find your country of residence listed on their e-visa website, contact the Saudi Arabian embassy for more information.
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. Something which you may consider to be normal in your home country can cause offense in Saudi Arabia; landing you with a public flogging, jail time, deportation or even death.
Aside from general police, Islamic codes of morality are enforced by the muttawa, an organization of volunteers and officers that enforce Sharia law on behalf of the governing royal family, specifically the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
In Saudi Arabia, everything runs around the five (20-30mins) daily prayers. More or less everything closes during each prayer, except hospitals, airports, public transport, and taxis. The religious police will patrol the streets and send loiterers off to the nearest mosque. So it's best to avoid being out on the streets during these periods unless you want some hassle from the muttawa.
Anything that looks like preaching or proselytizing a religion other than Islam is treated with extreme prejudice and treated as a crime in Saudi Arabia. However, private practice of other religions is accepted and travelers are okay to bring a religious text, for example, a bible with them, as long as it's for personal use only.
The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced several reforms for the muttawa as a part of his Vision 2030 initiative which aims to boost tourism in the country. These include restricting patrols to business hours and removing the ability to detain or arrest anyone.
Publicly criticizing the King, the royal family, or the government of Saudi Arabia, is not tolerated and will attract the attention of the muttawa or other police. This includes social media platforms.
Foreign nationals who breach any of these lese majeste laws may not get as harsh a sentence as a local would, but could include corporal punishment (such as public floggings), weeks or months in prison, deportation, or all of the above.
Criticism of the flag of Saudi Arabia is considered insulting, as it bears the Islamic declaration of faith. Desecration or any other inappropriate use of the flag can lead to serious punishment.
Alcohol is forbidden and illegal throughout the country, although things are generally more lenient within residential compounds for foreign nationals or expatriates. Some of these even have English-style pubs, serving home-brewed beer and wine which the civil police generally turn a blind eye to. However, anyone caught either smuggling or distilling alcohol in significant quantities can be prosecuted under Saudi law.
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.
Personal use, trafficking or smuggling drugs in Saudi Arabia is illegal and punishment can include the death penalty.
Beyond the general importation of illegal drugs and weapons, Saudi Arabia has very strict rules on imports. Alcohol, pork, and pornography are all expressly prohibited.
Pornography is very widely defined and may include things such as swimsuit calendars.
Electronic equipment other portable media devices have been seized for inspection on occasion by authorities, and you may lose your device if it has anything deemed to be forbidden on it.
This also applies to printed materials such as magazines and books.
Taking photos in Saudi Arabia is a very touchy subject. If you get a feeling you probably shouldn't take a photo 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.
Don't take photos of locals, especially women or it will land you in trouble with the muttawa or civil police.
Always carry your identification with you at all times, whether it's a photocopy or your actual passport. Saudi authorities reserve the right to check your identification and this is a common occurrence especially if you are passing through security checkpoints.
As a part of his Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced that women can decide whether they want to wear the abaya (a long and loose robe, commonly black in color) or a hijab, (headscarf). In an interview with CBS in March 2018, the Crown Prince said, "The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men."As a result of this and other announcements, the jurisdiction of the muttawa has been reformed in terms of women's issues. To respect local customs and traditions, women travelers should wear an abaya or loose conservative clothing.
While not compulsory wear, it can be handy to carry a headscarf with you if you feel the need to be a bit more incognito or if entering religious buildings.
Women travelers also don't need to travel with a male chaperone. Despite the obvious separation of genders in many places, travelers have reported that locals are attentive, welcoming and go out of their way to make sure you feel comfortable and safe. Local women will often travel about town with their children sans male chaperone.
In June 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's announcement allowing women to drive came into effect, ending a long-held ban.
LGBTQ relationships, marriage, and rights are outlawed in Saudi Arabia; punishable by public flogging, jail, and even the death penalty. In 2014, a local Saudi man was arrested and sentenced to three years jail for organizing dates with other men via Twitter. He was caught out by a police officer posing as a potential date. In 2017, two Pakistani transgender women were placed in sacks by local police and bashed to death. 30 other transgender people were arrested at the same time.
LGBTQ travelers must take caution when traveling to the country. As long as you show respect to the local laws and customs, act discreetly and respectfully, you are unlikely to encounter any issues. Public displays of affection are not recommended, regardless of whether you are LGBTQ or not.
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