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Saudi Arabia is a Middle Eastern country in Asia that occupies most of the Arabian peninsula and has both Persian Gulf and Red Sea coast lines. Its surrounding countries are Jordan to the northeast, Iraq to the northwest, Kuwait and Qatar to the east, United Arab Emirates to the south east, Oman and Yemen to the south.
Saudi Arabia contains the holy site of Mecca (which is believed to be the holiest place in all of this physical space-time), a place that all Muslims try to pilgrimage to at least once in their life.
Much of Saudi Arabia (about 98%) is desert and is largely uninhabited. Only the existence of petroleum, and the wealth it generates, tempts people to explore and live in much of this harsh landscape.
13 provinces (mintaqat, singular - mintaqah)
Some people make excursions into the desert to look at the railway line the Turks tried to build and that Lawrence and his lads repeatedly blew up.
For foreigners, this requires a group of four-wheel-drive vehicles well supplied with tow ropes for getting each other out when they bog down in sand. Large numbers of local Arabs drive around the same area in two-wheel drive Toyota trucks, and never seem to bog down.
Saudi Arabia is the only country on Earth named for its royal family. The family were sheiks of Nejd, the area around Riyahd, but were driven out by a neighbouring tribe, hiding with their relatives, the sultan of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and a few dozen lads rode out to raid their home territory. As it turned out, the invaders had been ruling badly, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured captured Riyadh, but much of the surrounding territory.
After that, Abdul Aziz set out on a 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.
In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its soil for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.
Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of petroleum in the world (26% of the proved reserves), ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 25% of GDP comes from the private sector.
Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy, for example, in the oil and service sectors. Riyadh expects to have a budget deficit in 2002, in part because of increased spending for education and other social programs.
The government in 1999 announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies, which follows the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. The government is expected to continue calling for private sector growth to lessen the kingdom's dependence on oil and increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. Shortages of water and rapid population growth will constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.
Unemployment among young Saudis is a very serious problem. While part of this can be explained by Saudi reluctance to take many types of work, it is also true that imported labor is much, much cheaper than that of the locals.
Saudi Arabia has among the most restrictive travel policies in the world. As a practical matter, visas are required for all foreigners desiring to enter or leave. The only important exception are residents of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
Tourist visas are only available for restrictive guided tours. Transit visas are limited to some long-distance truck drivers. Passengers transiting Saudi airports are not allowed to leave the terminal. Hajj visas are issued by the Saudi government through Saudi embassies around the world in cooperation with local mosques.
Hajjs, and those on transit visas are prohibited from traveling freely through the kingdom.
Most visitors are guest workers. These visas are provided by the Saudi government to employers.
Exit visas are required to leave. Note that if you have a work visa, you cannot get an exit visa without a signature from your employer. There have been cases of people unable to leave because of controversy with employers.
Saudi Arabia has very rigorous customs inspections at all entry points. Alcoholic beverages, pork and pornography are all prohibited. Computers, VCR tapes and DVDs have all been seized from time to time for inspection by the authorities. A visitor should expect all bags to be opened or x-rayed.
Saudi Arabia has 3 international airports, among these are Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam. The airport at Dhahran is now closed to civil traffic, passengers to the Western Region now fly into Dammam.
Saudi Arabia is served by the national airline, Saudia as well as Gulf Air, Air Italia, Air France, Lufthansa, Pakistan International Airlines, Air India, Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), and Philippine Airlines. British Air stopped service to the kingdom in March, 2005. During the Hajj, numerous charter flights supplement the scheduled airlines.
A popular option is to fly into nearby Bahrain and then cross into Saudi Arabia by car.
There are no railroads connecting Saudi Arabia with other countries.
Automobile crossings exist on all the borders, although those into Iraq are currently closed.
The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) operates intra- and inter-city buses as well as international buses between the kingdom and Bahrain and the UAE.
A passenger ferry runs between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Saudia enjoys a monopoly for all air service in the Kingdom. There is no general aviation in the Kingdom.
Several passenger trains run each day from Dammam to Riyadh. Arrive early at the station as the trains are often sold out. You must buy tickets at the station.
In Riyadh, Taxis will charge you anywhere between SR5 for nearby distances to SR20 for city outskirts.
Watch out for unofficial Arab taxi drivers, especially at the airports. It's best not to travel with them as they are hesitant to drop you off at your choice of point specifically. They also have a habit of asking for very high fares and speak almost no English. Prefer Pakistani/Indian/Bengali taxi drivers as they are more friendly and also know more English than their Arab counterparts. Official taxis sport a distinctive paint scheme that differs from city-to-city.
The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR), which trades at a fixed 3.7450 to the US dollar since 1986.
Prices are generally fairly expensive. Figure on US$25/50/100 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs.
Few local products are of interest to tourists. Locally grown dates are of high quality, and religious paraphernalia is widely available, but almost exclusively imported. Copies of the Holy Quran are produced in a wide range of ions and sold at very low prices. Zam zam water is available throughout the Western Region and at all airports.
Carpets are a favorite purchase, most of these coming from nearby Iran. Jeddah in particular has lots of carpets, many brought by pilgrims who sell them there to help finance their trip to Mecca.
There are also numerous other American franchises operating in the various cities, including McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Wendy's. In addition to chains well-known in Europe and North America, there are some local businesses such as:
Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places.
It's fair to say nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.
Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country. The police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expats. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling booze in quantity, then expat or not, Saudi law applies. A foreigner may not get the sentence a local would, but can expect a few days or weeks jail, public flogging, and deportation.
Do not drink and drive! is good advice anywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident, or otherwise attract police attention, the consequences might be serious indeed.
The locally-brewed white lightning called "siddiqi" (Arabic for "my friend") or just "sid" is of course illegal. It is also extremely potent (anything up to 90-odd percent alcohol) and remarkably unpalatble.
Saudi Arabia is a developing country with both First- and Third-World aspects to health.
The Kingdom has a wide-reaching national health-care system. The services provided by this program are quite basic.
Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These facilities range from fairly rudimentary to very advanced and very expensive. Pharmacies are widely available and prescriptions are not required for most medications. Psychoactive medications are tightly controlled and available only through government pharmacies.
The public health situation in Saudi Arabia also ranges from one extreme to another. While a modern infrastructure is in place. Cleanliness in the preparation of food in commercial establishments can be substandard.
Tap water is generally safe to drink.
An aggressive program of inoculations is recommended to persons traveling to Saudi Arabia.
Homosexuality is punishable by death.
Drug smuggling is punishable by death.
Adultery is punishable by death if you are married, and lashes if not.
Apostasy is punishable by death.
Murder is punishable by death.
While crime is low by Western standards, a certain background level of nonviolent opportunistic theft does exist. Locking doors and keeping valuables on one's person is called for. In this case it is very handy that the Saudi authorities hand out extreme punishment by amputation of the hands if the thief is caught.
Violations of Saudi law can bring a visitor into contact with the local police and justice systems. Corporal and capital punishment are both used against both Saudi and other nationals. Embassies can provide only limited help in these situations.
In addition to more mundane violations, other crimes include not observing the Ramadan fast, insulting Islam, adultery, apostasy and (non-Islamic) preaching.
Saudi Arabians adhere strictly to the Islamic faith. Public expressions of religions other than Islam are forbidden. Insulting Islam is punishable.
Saudi etiquette is complex. That being said, should a visitor cause some minor offense, the reaction would generally be amusement rather than anger.
Women, be they Saudis or Foreign, are all required to wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe. While a headscarf is optional for non-Saudi females, one should at least be brought along in order to avoid possible harassment from the Muttawah (religious police) or to be used as a means of deflecting attention from potentially aggravating men, especially in case of blondes. Men with long hair might want to consider a cut before entering the kingdom, although shoulder-length locks can be considered reasonable, anything longer can be considered as grounds for ejection from shopping malls and public places by the Muttawah.