Saudi Arabia

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Introduction to Saudi Arabia

Arabia has intrigued travellers for centuries. Its vast swathes of desert were the swaddling clothes of infant Islam, the Arab race and of Arabic, a language considered holy by Muslims. It's also home to two of Islam's holiest cities and a host of modern, thriving, oil-rich metropolises.

Today's Saudi Arabia has held on to its mystique by being incredibly difficult to visit. But if you can find someone to sponsor you or decide to take an expensive 'approved' tour, it's worth coming here for the desert and mountain scenery, and some of the Middle East's best archaeological sites.

A land of astonishing natural beauty, Saudi Arabia remains difficult to enter. But the home of Islam is as diverse as it is surprising from its traditional Bedouin encampments deep in one of the world's greatest deserts, to its modern cities replete with stunning symbols of the Kingdom's headlong rush into the future.

Caution

Following recent attacks targeting foreigners, travel advisories are encouraging foreigners to leave Saudi Arabia unless on essential business. Security departments warn that more attacks on foreigners are being planned. If you are staying in the country, avoid public places where foreigners are known to congregate, ensure that your hotel has a good reputation for maintaining high security precautions and stay abreast of travel advisory updates.

Full country name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Area: 2 million sq km

Population: 24.2 million

Capital City: Riyadh (pop 3 million)

People: Arabs, Bedouins, Najdis and expats from all over the world

Language: Arabic, English

Religion: Islam

GDP: US$186 billion

GDP per capita: US$9,000

Annual Growth: -9%

Inflation: 0%

Major Industries: Oil, steel, cement, wheat

Major Trading Partners: Japan, United States, EU, India

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Traveler Facts

Visas: There is no such thing as a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia. You can enter the country with a visitor's transit or (if you're Muslim) hajj or umrah visa. To get a visitor's visa you will have to be sponsored by a Saudi individual or company. Another option is a 24- or 48-hour transit visa - to get one you have to prove that you had no choice other than to stopover in Saudi Arabia en route to your final destination. You can now also visit the country as a non-Muslim if you join an approved (and expensive - 5000.00 plus) organised tour.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3

Dialling Code: 966

Electricity: 127/220V ,60Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Saudi Arabia's only holidays are Islamic. The big one is Ramadan, a month when everyone fasts between sunrise and sunset to conform to the fourth pillar of Islam. Ramadan is mandatory, even for tourists: if you're caught smoking, drinking or eating in public during this period, you can be sent to prison until the end of Ramadan. Ramadan ends with a huge feast, Eid al-Fitr, during which everyone prays together, visits friends, gives presents and stuffs themselves silly. Eid al-Adah, held around March (though the month changes almost every year), is the other big feast of the year, and marks the time when Muslims should make the pilgrimage to Mecca. The only non-religious festival is the Jinadriyah National Festival of folklore and culture, held every February.

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Best time to Visit

The best time to visit is between November and February when the climate is mild. The Asir mountains are at their best a bit earlier and a bit later than the rest of the country - during winter they are often locked in fog.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Saudi Arabian Riyal

Meals

Budget: SRIs15-40

Mid-range: SRIs40-80

High: SRIs80-120

Deluxe: SRIs120+

Lodging

Budget: SRIs20-80

Mid-range: SRIs80-150

High: SRIs150-220

Deluxe: SRIs220+

Saudi Arabia is not a cheap place, but it's possible to travel relatively inexpensively if you put your mind to it. If you're on a rock-bottom budget, expect to spend around US$25 a day. If you'd prefer a little comfort, double that amount. If you want luxury, double it again.

Changing travellers' cheques can be a real pain. Many banks and moneychangers either won't take them, will only change brands they sell or will only cash them for account holders. Always carry your original purchase receipt with you, as the few places that change cheques will require it. If you're changing cash, moneychangers will give you a slightly better rate than banks. Saudi Cairo Bank ATMs are linked to the Cirrus and Plus networks.

Tips are not generally expected in Saudi restaurants. There is a service charge, but the money does not go to the (poorly-paid) waiters, so you might want to consider adding a few riyal to your bill. The price of almost anything is negotiable (to a point). In Bedouin markets you can haggle incessantly, but elsewhere it's a two-step process: you ask for a discount, you get given it. You can either take it or leave it.

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Attractions

Riyadh

Although Riyadh has officially been the capital of Saudi Arabia since 1932, it played second fiddle to Jeddah until the 1970s. Built with oil boom money, Riyadh is now a technoasis of glass, steel and concrete, home to huge hotels, even larger hospitals and one of the biggest airports in the world.

The centre of Riyadh is called Al-Bathaa and is the oldest part of the city, home to the bus station and other things a traveller needs. If the city gets dull, head to the camel market for a fun out of town adventure. It's a fascinating place to wander around (despite the smell).

Jeddah

Hyperbolically known as the Paris of Arabia, Jeddah is one of the few cities in the region to have built around, rather than over, its history. Although it's definitely a modern metropolis, Jeddah is also the most interesting and friendly of Saudi Arabia's big cities.

Located in a 200-year-old restored house built from Red Sea coral, the Municipality Museum has interesting photos of the development of Jeddah, along with traditional style rooms. The Jeddah Museum, the regional museum of archaeology and ethnography, covers the same turf as the Riyadh Museum.

Mecca

The birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, most visitors to Saudi Arabia come solely to visit Mecca, just inland from Jeddah. Mecca is Islam's holiest city, and all devout Muslims - wherever they live in the world - are (if possible) supposed to make the pilgrimage (or hajj) here once in their life.

Mecca and the holy sites in its immediate vicinity are off limits to non-Muslims. Apart from the obvious ideological arguments against breaking this rule, there are checkpoints along the roads to the city to stop non-Muslims from coming too close.

Najran

Almost on the Yemeni border, in the south-west of the country, Najran is one of the most fascinating and least visited places in the kingdom. Set in a sprawling oasis, this area has been inhabited for about 4000 years, and was once a major stop on the frankincense route.

Rumour has it that it's now a major stop on the Saudi-Yemen smuggling route. Yemen's cultural influence is stronger here than anywhere else in the country - you can see it in the architecture, and in the outgoing demeanour of the Najrani people.

Taif

In the mountains above Mecca, the summer capital of Taif is open to all. People come here for the weather (much cooler than Jeddah in the summer months), the scenery and the town's relaxed atmosphere. Taif's central mosque is a good example of simple, refined Islamic architecture.

Shubra Palace is a beautifully restored traditional house that doubles as the city's museum. Built in the late 1800s, it has since been the crib for a number of Saudi kings. Also check out the Tailor's Souq, a sandstone alleyway of ancient shops tucked between the town's modern buildings.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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