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Holidays in Saudi Arabia

Understanding Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is one of three countries named for their royal families, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and also Liechtenstein The family were sheikhs of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, 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 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 sand 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 proven 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 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


mostly uninhabited, sandy desert
Elevation extremes 
lowest point: Persian Gulf 0 m 0 ft
highest point: Jabal Sawda' 3,133 m 10,279 ft
Natural resources 
petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, copper
Land use 
arable land: 172%
permanent crops: 006%
other: 9822% 1998 est


People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an expanse of scorchingly hot desert punctuated with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country, they would be absolutely right From May to September, the central areas of the country basically everything except the coasts bake in temperatures that average 42°C and regularly exceed 50°C in the shade In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country and work slows down to a crawl The coasts, on the other hand, are moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38°C — but at the price of extreme humidity 85-100%, which may even be more uncomfortable than the dry heat of the interior, especially at night Only the elevated mountainous regions stay cooler, with the unofficial summer capital of Taif rarely topping 35°C and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet

In winter, though, it's a surprisingly different story Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 7°C, and temperatures can easily fall below zero at night, occasionally even resulting in a sprinkling of snow in the southern mountains The winter is also the only season when it rains at all in most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two torrential outbursts In the south, though, this pattern is reversed, with most rain falling during the Indian Ocean's monsoon season between May and October


Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia Although no law specifically requires Saudi citizens or passport holders to be Muslim, public observance and proselytism of religions other than Islam are forbidden, and apostasy from Islam carries the death penalty In the broad sense, religious freedom is virtually non-existent However , there are no official churches in Saudi Arabia of any kind However, some Fillipino workers report the presence of churches inside some gated communities The small number of Saudi Arabian Christians meets in Internet Chat Rooms and Foreign Christians may meet at church meeting held at one of several embassies after registering and showing their passport, to prove foreign nationality, or by private assemblies in school gyms located in gated communities on Aramco grounds They can also hold services in each others houses

Prayer times

Everything in Saudi is regulated by the five daily prayers All shops and offices close during each prayer for a period of 20-30 minutes, and the religious police patrol the streets and pack loiterers off to the mosque However, shopping malls do stay open but with all shops inside closed and taxis and other public transport continue to run normally

The first prayer is fajr, early in the morning before the first glint of light at dawn, and the call to prayer for fajr will be your wake-up call in the Kingdom After fajr, some people eat breakfast and head to work, with shops opening up

The second prayer is dhuhr, held after true noon in the middle of the day The Friday noon prayer jummah is the most important one of the week, when even less observant Muslims usually make the effort to go to the mosque After dhuhr, people head for lunch, while many shops choose to stay closed and snooze away the heat of the day

Asr prayers are in the late afternoon 1:30-2 hours before sunset, with many shops opening again afterward Maghrib prayers are held at sunset and mark the end of the work day in much of the private sector The last prayer is isha'a, held around 45 minutes to 1 hour after sunset, after which locals head for dinner Expats refer to the time between maghrib and isha'a as the "prayer window", during which you can hit the supermarket and buy your groceries if you time it right

Prayer times change daily according to the seasons and your exact location in the Kingdom You can find the day's times in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a handy online prayer time service 1


Ramadan dates

  • 2010 1431: Aug 11 - Sep 9
  • 2011 1432: Aug 1 - Aug 29
  • 2012 1433: Jul 20 - Aug 18

The festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days Exact dates depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country

The Saudi interpretation of Islam views all non-Muslim holidays as smacking of idolatry, and the public observance of Christmas, New Years, Valentine's Day, Halloween etc is prohibited In fact, public holidays are granted only for two events: Eid ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, some 70 days after Ramadan Even Muhammad's birthday is not observed

During Ramadan itself, visitors are required to abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during the daylight hours Some better hotels will be able to quietly supply room service during the day, but otherwise you'll have to do your preparations All restaurants in the Kingdom are closed during the day, and while some offices stay open with limited hours, the pace of business slows down to a torpor After evening prayer, though, all the restaurants in the bazaar open up and do a roaring trade until the small hours of the morning Most of the shops are open as well, and the cool of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop A visitor can have a fine time joining in on these evenings, though having a stash in your hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten will suit most visitors better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast

There is also one secular holiday: Unification of the Kingdom Day, on September 23rd Strictly speaking, it's not a public holiday or a festival, but it's treated rather like one anyway

Talking in Saudi Arabia

Arabic is the official language of the Kingdom, although English might be understood Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali is extensively used in the marketplaces and by sub-continent expatriates All major languages are spoken in the markets of Makkah There is a significant Tagalog-speaking expatriate minority as well

Nearly all road signs are in English as well as Arabic, although the vast majority of speed limit signs use only Arabian numerals

What to do in Saudi Arabia

Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is very family-oriented There are few activities for just couples or singles Single men are not allowed in family areas: family beaches are partitioned from the bachelor beaches, for example Women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative in public, although single women may be admitted into family areas

Desert excursions are particularly popular with the native Arabs There are few desert dune bashing tour operators, if any, but ATV rentals are often found along the roadside on the outskirts of major cities and expats often arrange convoy trips into the desert The Empty Quarter has the most awesome scenery — and requires the most preparation

Scuba diving is popular on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast Jeddah has a number of dive operators

Amusement parks many of them indoor are often found near malls or beaches Many large cities have public parks and small zoos Horseback riding, camel riding, etc are also available at horse-racing tracks and some popular beaches Many upscale hotels provide light activities especially hotels located along the beaches

Movie theatres are banned in the Kingdom, but DVD shops abound, although the selections are often tame and/or censored DVDs in Saudi Arabia are invariably Region 2, though bootleg DVDs which are widely available in smaller video shops are usually region-free, and often uncensored as well Satellite TV and downloading entertainment from the Internet is thus very popular

Video games are an eternal obsession of Saudi youth, and one which is capitalized upon rather well by local retailers Video game shops are ubiquitous in all of the major cities Authentic games are offered by most of the larger stores, as US or European imports for an average of ~270SR ~$70, while the smaller ones usually only offer bootlegs which are illegal, but still lucrative enough that almost all sell them at very low prices of 10-15SR $25-$4 Wii and Xbox 360 bootlegs reign supreme, but certain stores offer Nintendo DS and PSP games as well, downloaded to a customer's removable media on request

Buying stuff in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal ريال, SAR, which trades at a fixed 37450 to the US dollar since 1986 The riyal is divided into 100 halalas, which are used to mark some prices, but, in practice, all payments are rounded to the nearest riyal and odds are you probably will never see any halala coins Bills come in values of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 riyals, with two series in circulation

The riyal is also pegged to the Bahraini dinar at a 10:1 ratio If you are considering travelling to Bahrain, virtually all businesses in Bahrain will accept riyals, but the dinar is not as easily convertible in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society, and credit card acceptance is surprisingly poor outside luxury hotels and malls ATMs are ubiquitous, although those of many smaller banks do not accept foreign cards; Samba, SABB and ANB are probably your best bets Moneychangers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by merchants


Prices are generally fairly expensive: figure on US$50/100/200 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs

Tipping is generally not expected, although service staff are always happy to receive them and taxi fares are often rounded up or, not uncommonly, down Expensive restaurants often slap on a 10% service charge, although due to lax regulation many employers simply usurp it ask your waiters if they receive any of it or not if you would like to tip them There are no sales taxes in Saudi, and for that matter, there aren't any income taxes either!

What to buy

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 Koran are produced in a wide range of editions 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

Large gold and jewelry markets are prominent in all major cities Bargaining is a norm in most small to medium sized stores Mecca and Medina offer a lot of variety in terms of luggage, clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense, and religious literature, audio, and paraphernalia

Large, well maintained air-conditioned malls and grocery stores ie Safeway, Geant, Carrefour 14 are scattered throughout the kingdom Note that all shops, even those selling women's clothing and lingerie, are staffed exclusively by men and have no dressing rooms You may be offered use of a back storeroom for trying on clothes, but it is best to not accept the offer — a number of women have been raped this way

Food and eating in Saudi Arabia

Eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can

Fast food

Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway and not a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere eg Hardee's, Little Caesars Meals invariably served with fries and Coke cost SR10-20 Some local imitators worth checking out include:

  • Al-Baik - fried chicken- in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina, but not Riyadh
  • Baak - Pizza thin crust and quite good, fried chicken, lasagna, sandwiches
  • Kudu - Saudi sandwich chain 15
  • Herfy Burger 16 - biggest fast food chain in the country, 100% Saudi owned
  • House of Donuts - "The Finest American Pastries" - a chain started by Saudi students who studied in America

Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia's large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SR10 Just don't expect frills like air-conditioning

Local cuisine

The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma doner kebab is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich The Egyptian mashed fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel chickpea balls and a range of salads and dips like hummus chickpea paste and tabbouleh parsley salad

Finding restaurants that serve actual Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have "Arabian" usually Lebanese restaurants Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places or, if you're really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home

  • Mandi — Chicken or mutton cooked with rice in a pot suspended above a fire

Drinking in Saudi Arabia

With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated women all banned, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife

Coffee shops

Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but water pipes shisha with flavoured tobacco These are strictly a male domain, and in some cities like Riyadh establishments that offer shisha are banished to the outskirts of town

If, on the other hand, you're looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom's malls These usually welcome women, although 2008 saw several arrests of unmarried couples "mingling"

As for the coffee kahwa itself, try mirra, made in the Bedouin style Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it's strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates Tea chai usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves na'ana


Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expats, not a few of which have full-size English pubs serving up homebrew beer and wine on Wednesday nights 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 Arak In addition to being illegal, it's also extremely potent anything up to 90-odd percent alcohol, remarkably unpalatable and may contain dangerous impurities

Soft drinks

As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of various fruit juices, ranging from the ordinary apple, orange to the downright bizarre banana-lemon-milk-walnut, anyone?

Non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks are popular Two of the most common are Saudi champagne, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, ie non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc essences You can even get apple-flavored Budweiser!

Tap water

Tap water in the major cities is considered safe, although it's not always particularly tasty, and in the summer can be very hot Bottled water is readily available and cheap at SR2 or less for a 15L bottle Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations

Accommodation in Saudi Arabia

Hotels of all types are available throughout the Kingdom Most tourist cities ie Makkah, Medina, Taif, Al Abha will also have very affordable and spacious shigka-maafroosha short-term furnished rental apartments Shigka-maafroosha owners generally loiter in hotel lobbies Often, they will approach civilized-looking people generally families and make an offer Prices for shigka-mafrooshas and small hotels are always negotiable to a great degree Smaller hotels will only accept cash, normally in advance

Larger, more expensive hotels are abundant in all major cities After the lull caused by the insurgency in 2003, prices have been rising again, and you can expect to pay north of US$200 for a weekday night at a good hotel in any of the big Saudi cities In exchange, you usually get excellent service and the ability to work around some restrictions eg restaurants that stay open through prayer hours and daytime room service during Ramadan

Working in Saudi Arabia

There are quite a few jobs for expatriates in Saudi Arabia While the pay is good, foreigners often find that the strictly Muslim society and the near-total lack of employees' rights makes the country a most difficult place to work and live

To get a working visa, you must have a Saudi sponsor Then to get an exit visa, you need your sponsor's signature This can lead to major problems

Cities in Saudi Arabia

abha  buqayq  buraydah  jiddah  jizan  mecca  najran  riyadh  sabya  safwah  sakakah  sayhat  tabuk  tarut  turayf  umm lajj  

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