After having lived in Saudi Arabia for over two years, I have finally decided to write a few posts on Saudi Arabia, the people, the culture and most importantly, living in this country from an expat’s point of view. The reason why I have kept the word ‘Travelling’ in quotes is because unfortunately, Saudi doesn’t have a usual travel visa. That means you cannot enter the country if you’re just a backpacker. It’s unfortunate but it definitely shouldn’t stop you from knowing about the country, which has a lot to offer to travellers. So here is some basic information about the country from the travelling point of view.
As I have already mentioned, Saudi doesn’t offer a tourist visa per se. One of the few ways in which you can enter the country is if you will be working in the country under a local Employer who can sponsor your work visa. A Business visa gets you 30 days in the country and allows you to travel anywhere you want to, except for the Holy cities of Makka and Madina. Only Muslims are allowed to visit the Holy cities. Other than a business/work visa, don’t only other travel-related visa offered is the Hajj visa that gets issued to those who choose to do a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Makka and/orMadina during the Holy month of Ramadan. More information can be found here.
Due to the strict set of laws for separate genders, the concept of hostel doesn’t exist here. The only option would be to stay in a hotel. Saudi Arabia is home to some of the world’s best hotel chains and everybody knows how Saudis love living like Royalty. Even the most average hotels in Saudi are dazzling and showcase the rich Arabian heritage perfectly.
The topic that deserves the most praise should the food in Saudi Arabia. Saudi is one of the closest allies of the USA, which is clearly visible on the streets of the country. Saudi has a great balance of Western fast food as well as traditional Arabic food. You will never run out of choices when it comes to trying out new food. It has been almost two years since I moved to Saudi but the endless varieties of food never fail to surprise me! Even though I am not much of a foodie, the food has a unique way of seducing my taste buds and I give in to the temptations every time. The best part of it all is that the food here is really cheap. For about 4 pounds, you can get a full plate of a chicken dish with a lot of rice and even a drink. Sheesha or Arabian Coffee is the popular choice of an evening beverage in Saudi. Arabian coffee is another thing that was new to me when I first came here. It’s really different from any other form of coffee I have ever tasted. The food is definitely one of the top reasons why every traveller should try to visit Saudi Arabia at least once in their lifetime!
Here comes the twist in the tale. Public transport facilities happen to be one of the chinks in Saudi’s armour of luxury. Saudi Arabia (at the moment) has a bare minimum of a public transportation system.There are a lot of justifications involved; for example, the weather is not always favourable, gender discrimination makes it harder to control, etc. A Metro line is being built in the capital city of Riyadh at the moment, so I am hoping that things will soon change for the better.
Currently, cars and taxis cover most of the transportation. Almost everyone in Saudi has their own car(s). Women are not allowed to drive and hence use taxis instead. The driving skills of the Saudis may scare you at the beginning, but you will soon get used to it.
The Locals & Living in Saudi Arabia:
Every time I acquire a travel companion and he/she gets to know where I’m from, I get asked the same question. “How is it like living in Saudi Arabia? What are the Locals like?” One of the main reasons behind these common questions is that since Saudi does not allow a lot of casual visitors, most people don’t get to see what the country really has to offer. There are a lot of questions and even misconceptions in their heads which just make me laugh!
I always reply with the same answer: “It is a different experience. It’s way different than any other place that I have ever been to. I can’t qualify well from bad since to know what is ‘bad’, I need to be able to say what ‘good’ is. I had my own doubts when I first came into the country but things did turn out to be better than what I had expected.” Yes, I won’t go ahead and say that it’s perfect; no country is. But there are always two sides to a coin. The people here are way nicer than one would imagine and yes, they are well informed. Family morals from the core of their systems and their rich culture are embedded into the hearts of every Saud. We can argue about Women’s rights in Saudi, but if we take a step back and consider the things as they are, the Saudis do respect women and give undivided priority to women in every occasion independent of the place and time. Unfortunately, due to strict laws in the country, being a female solo traveller is not possible by any means. Saudi is an Islamic state and strictly follows all Islamic values form the very core moral of praying five times a day, making it necessary for all the shops to shut down during those times.
When I had come to Saudi for the first time, I had curiously asked a local what it was like, living in Saudi Arabia. He had quietly answered, ‘Life in Saudi Arabia depends on who you know”. This is something I will never forget!