Headscarves, PDA, and alcohol: What to know about visiting Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has set an ambitious goal for itself: 150 million tourist visits by 2030. Travel e-visas, a growing number of international air links and a new 96-hour layover program have all made it logistically easier to visit.

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However, for many first-time visitors, especially ones who aren’t familiar with the Middle East or Muslim-majority countries, it’s critical to do some research before setting off. 

The first and most basic thing to know about Saudi Arabia is that it’s not closed off from the world. Although the country has only been offering tourist visas since 2019, things have moved pretty quickly since then.

Just like major cities in Europe or North America, Jeddah and Riyadh have hipster cafes, cool arts and culture venues, and major sports teams packed with international players.

Road signs, menus, maps and more are usually in both Arabic and English. Western credit cards are widely accepted, too.

How do I get there?

Saudi Arabia’s primary air hubs are its two biggest cities – capital Riyadh and port city Jeddah. Regular connections are available via Doha, Dubai, London, and other major gateways.

Once you’re traveling within the country, there are several options. Internal flights are easiest for popular tourist destinations like the oasis town of AlUla, which is where travelers go to access the archeological site of Hegra.

Saudi Arabia has also invested heavily in infrastructure, which includes high-speed rail. Right now, the system only serves Jeddah and the surrounding areas, namely the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but there are plans to expand.

Foreign visitors can rent cars in Saudi Arabia, and both men and women can drive – provided their international driver’s licenses and other paperwork are in order.

Uber is available in larger cities, as are Middle East rideshare apps like Careem and Kaiian, both of which have English options. For street hails, there are taxi stands at busy areas like shopping malls and sports stadiums. Your hotel can also organize taxis for you.

A woman in long dress and head scarf takes a photo of a Rub al Khali sand dune in Saudi Arabia

A woman in long dress and headscarf takes a photo of a Rub al Khali sand dune in Saudi ArabiaEric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images

What should I pack?

Bulgaria-born Elena Nikolova, who converted to Islam and now resides in Jeddah, makes a perfect bridge between locals and outsiders. On her website Muslim Travel Girl, she helps her followers know what to expect when they visit.

Nikolova also adds that while many women wear abayas, loose garments covering the body, or niqabs, which also cover the face, they’re not required for foreigners. “In big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh you don’t need to wear a scarf or abaya. Wearing clothes that cover your body is OK.”

However, she points out that location is important, as smaller villages in more rural areas might not have the same vibe as major cities. “It is better for you to wear a maxi dress for example or an open abaya and scarf [there],” she adds. According to Nikolova, these guidelines are not laws – it’s just about “fitting in.”

Animal sacrifices and astral tombs: The mysteries still emerging from the Saudi deserts

Kareem George, CEO of travel specialist and tour organizer Culture Traveler, also fielded clothing-related questions from his clients ahead of a Saudi Arabia tour.

“I was surprised by the variety of dress I observed,” he says. “Saudi women and men both in traditional dress as well as more contemporary attire. There was an overall modesty to the dress for both sexes, however there was a lot of variety in colors, styles and textures.”

That said, it’s not unusual to see some men wearing shorts (granted, knee-length ones like cargos, not short shorts) and polo shirts, as the rules for male clothing are more relaxed.

“There was not an expectation for a foreigner to wear a thobe,” George adds, referring to the traditional garment many men wear in the Middle East. “My Western dress was accepted and not considered rude in any way.”

This place was inhabited for centuries – but has only recently had tourists

When it comes to dressing, weather and terrain are important considerations. If you’re planning to hike or visit the desert attractions in AlUla, for example, you’ll want to take tips from the locals: loose-fitting clothing, lightweight fabrics like linen and natural cotton, and hiking boots. It’s not unusual to see a Saudi woman sporting sneakers with her abaya.

And while it’s okay for non-Muslims to visit mosques – a pretty common occurrence, as many are tourist attractions in their own right – proper dress is a must. Women should cover their hair to be respectful.

If you plan to visit mosques, pack some socks – you’ll be asked to remove your shoes to go inside.

A view of Riyadh at night

A view of Riyadh at nightJohnnyGreig/E+/Getty Images

Public displays of affection

Tourism is growing in Saudi Arabia and with it more cultural freedoms, but it’s important to remember that certain public displays of affection should be avoided.  

No matter the gender or status of the people in a relationship, locking lips in public could result in some surprised stares.

“There is a general expectation of modesty http://katasungokong.com/ in one’s deportment and respect of others’ personal space in public,” George says.

Nikolova adds: “You can hold hands, but kissing – especially for a prolonged time – is normally frowned upon, mostly because it makes [locals] uncomfortable. “PDA is reserved for couples in private in many Muslim countries.”

Some regulations around unmarried couples have loosened in recent years.

In 2019, Saudi authorities announced that unmarried foreign couples would be permitted to share hotel rooms.

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