What makes Saudi Arabia a unique country to travel to?
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by a king chosen from and by members of the Al Saud family. The king rules through royal decrees issued in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, and with advice from the Consultative Council. The king appoints members of both councils. Saudi interpretation of Islamic law is the basis of the authority of the monarchy and provides the foundation of the country's conservative customs and social practices. Saudi Arabia has a modern and well-developed infrastructure, and facilities for travelers are widely available.
Crime in Saudi Arabia has increased over recent years, but remains at levels far below most major metropolitan areas in the United States. Visitors should take precautions to reduce their risk of becoming victims of crime. Individuals should be aware of their surroundings, keep valuables out of sight and secure, and travel with a companion, if possible. Private Saudi citizens who perceive that a foreigner is not observing conservative standards of conduct have been known to harass, pursue, or assault that person. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh cautions U.S. citizens that Saudi Arabian police have detained potential witnesses to crimes without charges or access to legal counsel, and with limited or delayed consular access, during the investigative stage of criminal cases, which can take months. On occasion, Saudi authorities have temporarily confiscated the personal effects of detained potential witnesses. Even when released from detention, witnesses to criminal incidents may be prohibited from leaving the country until investigation of the incident is complete.
During 2011-12, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh received several reports of carjacking incidents in Riyadh and throughout the Kingdom. These incidents involved multiple criminals who, in some instances, used force or a display of force. In other incidents, the criminals created a diversion such as a minor traffic accident or some other ruse to coax the driver out of the car. In the few cases involving Westerners, it appears that they were targeted because of the make of their cars rather than the fact that they were Westerners. As in the United States, most vehicles are stolen for parts. If you are a victim of such an attack, please see the Victims of Crimesection below for guidance on reporting the incident to the authorities.
Do not buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are these goods illegal in the United States, they are a violation of local law as well.
While in Saudi Arabia, you are subject to its laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. To visit incarcerated individuals, the Saudi Government requires diplomatic missions to request visits -- including to police stations -- via formal diplomatic channels, which often causes delays.
Persons violating Saudi Arabian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, imprisoned, or even executed. Suspects may be detained without charges or legal counsel, and with limited access to a consular officer, for months during the investigative stage of criminal cases. Penalties for the import, manufacture, possession, and consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs in Saudi Arabia are severe. Convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences, heavy fines, public floggings, and/or deportation. The penalty for drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia is death, and Saudi officials make no exceptions. Customs inspections at ports of entry are thorough. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General have no standing in Saudi courts to obtain leniency for a U.S. citizen convicted of alcohol or drug offenses. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States.
Saudi authorities do not permitcriticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam. Non-Muslims suspected of violating these restrictions have been jailed. Muslims who do not adhere to the strict interpretations of Islam prevalent in much of Saudi Arabia frequently encounter societal discrimination and constraints on worship.
While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained in Saudi Arabia. In the case of dual nationals the Saudi Government may recognize only the nationality of the document used to enter the Kingdom. While staff at the U.S. Embassy and Consulates General will make every effort to visit incarcerated U.S. citizens, they may experience delays in obtaining permission from the Saudi authorities for the visit.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical care varies greatly in quality, and high profile cases of medical malpractice and errors have occurred. Consult your regular physician if you are considering serious medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.
While Red Sea scuba diving is a popular past-time for many visitors, you should only dive with an experienced boat and crew. Some boats are not equipped with radio communications in the event of an emergency. There are only two recompression chambers for treatment of decompression sickness – one at Jubail Armed Forces Hospital and another in Jeddah – both hours away from Red Sea and Gulf diving sites.
Safety and Security
Significant enhancements in the capacity and capability of Saudi security and intelligence forces have greatly improved the security environment, but the Department of State urges U.S. citizens to consider carefully the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia.
While there has been a continued improvement in the security climate in Saudi Arabia since the last major terrorist attack against foreign nationals in 2007, it is important to note -- as evidenced by the arrest of two terrorist cells by Saudi security authorities in August 2012 -- that security threats remain due to the continued presence of terrorist groups, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda, that may target Western interests, housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas, and other facilities where Westerners congregate. These terrorist groups may employ a wide variety of tactics and also may target Saudi government facilities and economic/commercial targets within the Kingdom. Terrorists often do not distinguish between U.S. Government personnel and private U.S. citizens.
Saudi Arabia shares a border with its southernmost neighbor Yemen. In January 2009, Yemen became the official headquarters for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a joint organization of Saudi and Yemeni al-Qaeda members that seek to attack government and Western interests on the Arabian Peninsula and abroad. The rugged border area dividing Yemen and Saudi Arabia is not clearly defined; visitors should stay away from this area to avoid falling victim to terrorist and criminal elements operating there.
If you choose to visit or live in Saudi Arabia, you are strongly urged to avoid staying in hotels or housing compounds that do not appear to apply stringent security measures. However, please note that the U.S. Embassy cannot intervene to help resolve personal housing problems. This is a personal and individual decision for the traveler and/or sponsor. You should always remain aware of your surroundings when visiting commercial establishments frequented by Westerners. While crime is comparatively low, there are still risks to Westerners visiting the Kingdom. To the extent possible, maintain a low profile, vary times and routes of travel, and exercise caution while driving; incidents of road rage have occurred.
Ensure that your travel documents and visas are current, valid, and secured in a safe place. Carry a photocopy of your travel documents in lieu of the originals. On occasion, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Saudi Arabia may restrict travel of U.S. officials or suspend public services for security reasons. Whenever threat information is specific, credible, and non-counterable, the U.S. Government will make it available to the U.S. public. In those instances, the Embassy and Consulates will keep the local U.S. citizen community apprised through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and make every effort to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens. Messages to U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia are available at the U.S. Embassy Riyadh website.
The United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) has advised that regional tensions create risks of maritime attacks on vessels operating in the Gulf of Oman, North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el Mandeb regions.
MARAD recommends that vessels at anchor, operating in restricted maneuvering environments, or at slow speeds remain especially vigilant, and report suspicious activity. U.S.-flagged vessels that observe suspicious activity in the area are advised to report it, as well as any hostile action to the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s “battle watch captain” at 011-973-1785-3879. All suspicious activities and events are also to be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at: 800-424-8802, or 202-267-2675, or TDD 202-267-4477.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Saudi Arabia, you will encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Saudi Arabia is provided for general reference only, and may not necessarily apply to all locations and circumstances.
Saudi Arabia recently activated an automatic traffic control and management system called “Saher” to improve traffic safety in major cities. The system is a network of digital cameras linked to the National Information Center of the Ministry of Interior to monitor traffic accidents and violations.
Residents should update their personal details through one of the methods available here to receive SMS notifications once a traffic ticket is issued. Delay in payment of any ticket might result in doubling of the ticket amount.Travelers will need to pay any fines issued through this system before leaving the country; this may be possible at the airport but only during regular Saudi office hours.
Temporary male visitors may drive on their U.S. driver's license. Foreign men employed in Saudi Arabia must obtain a local driver's license from the Department of Traffic Police. Women are not allowed to drive or ride bicycles on public roads. Article no. 42/3 of the Saudi Traffic Law states that a valid foreign or international driver’s license can be used for either a year or until the expiration date, whichever is closer.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2009 Global Status Report on Road Safety, Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest traffic accident rates. Driving habits are generally poor, and accidents involving vehicles driven by minors are not uncommon. The main causes for accidents are speeding, unauthorized passing, and running red lights. In the event of a traffic accident resulting in personal injury, everyone involved (if not seriously injured) may be taken to the local police station. Drivers are likely to be held for several days until responsibility is determined and any reparations paid. In many cases, all drivers involved in an accident are held in custody regardless of fault. U.S. citizens involved in a serious accident resulting in injury or death should immediately contact their sponsors and the U.S. Embassy or nearest U.S. Consulate.