Saudi Arabia Travel Guide: All the information you needby | September 26, 2023
- 1. Flag of Saudi Arabia
- 2. Geography of Saudi Arabia
- 3. History and Heritage of Saudi Arabia
- 4. Culture and Traditions of Saudi Arabia
- 5. Gastronomy of Saudi Arabia
- 6. Weather in Saudi Arabia
- 7. Currency of Saudi Arabia
- 8. Main tourist attractions of Saudi Arabia
- 9. Safety in Saudi Arabia
- 10. Visa for Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Asian country with an enormous religious importance for Muslims. Birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and full of riches thanks to its oil fields, it’s rare to find a country that mixes so well the old and the new.
Enjoy the luxury and history of this magnificent country with all the general information you need before traveling to Saudi Arabia.
Flag of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s flag is a green rectangle with a white Arabic inscription and a sword.
The inscription is the shahāda, the Muslim proclamation of faith, which reads: “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the prophet of God”. Curiously, it’s the only flag in the world with script as its main design feature.
The sword represents the swift application of justice. Green is the color of Islam and it’s featured all along its history.
It was made official in 1932, the year of the unification of Saudi Arabia. However, the design was a little bit different. The inscription was larger, filling most of the green background, and instead of it being a straight saber, it was curved. The current design was made official by royal decree in 1973.
Since the Saudi Arabia flag has religious importance, it can never be flown vertically or at half-mast. Also, the text has to be read from both sides without difficulty.
Geography of Saudi Arabia
If you were wondering: where is Saudi Arabia? In what continent is Saudi Arabia? The answer is Asia. As the map of Saudi Arabia shows, it borders with:
- Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait to the north
- Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to the east
- Oman and Yemen to the south
- The Red Sea to the west
The population of Saudi Arabia as of 2023 is 36.438.701.
Saudi Arabia’s area is 2.217.949 km². However, that number is just an estimate: some borders are undefined, specifically those shared with the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
To the west, following the Red Sea, you can find the Hijaz (now referred to as the Western Region), the area in which the holy cities in Saudi Arabia are located (Mecca and Medina). The center of the country is called the “Highland” (Najd).
The eastern part of Saudi Arabia is where all the oil fields are located, responsible for providing the wealth associated with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The geography of Saudi Arabia is defined by the desert. The southern area of Saudi Arabia is called Rubʿ al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, which is one of the largest desertic areas in the world. It has an area of almost 650.000 km².
To the center-north of Saudi Arabia you can find Al-Nafūd, another desert of approximately 57.000 km². It’s joined to the Empty Quarter by Al-Dahnāʾ, a sandy area in the center-east of the country.
Since most of Saudi Arabia’s area is covered by desert, it’s no surprise that there are almost no viable areas for agriculture, less than 1% of the total territory. To the southwest we can find the Asir Highlands and, to the east, the Hasa Province: these are the two areas used for cultivation.
On top of that, it’s important to add that Saudi Arabia has no rivers (this phenomenon can only be found in 19 countries in the entire world, including Saudi Arabia). However, Saudi Arabia does have wadis, which are dry riverbeds. You can find more than 20 wadis in the country.
The highest peak in the country is Mount Sawdā with an altitude of approximately 3.200 m, located to the south.
History and Heritage of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has been populated since before the last Ice Age, at least 15.000 years ago. After the ice melted, the lands turned into extremely dry deserts without animals or rivers. That forced its inhabitants to move to valleys and oases, where agriculture was developed.
Once Saudi Arabia’s population was settled, the caravan routes used for trading with other developed areas helped the country’s growth. They used to trade products like almonds, dates and frankincense. The spice import from India was also a key aspect of the trading system of that era.
Then, in the 600s, the Prophet Muhammad started to preach the message he received from Allah. The Islamic religion was then born. A native of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he and his followers were forced to migrate to what is now known as Medina (the City of the Prophet). This is considered the first Islamic pilgrimage or Hajj, and it’s also the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
After the death of Muhammad, the rulers of the area were the so-called “Four Rightly Guided Caliphs”, who followed his teachings as closely as possible. This time period is known as the Islamic Empire. It remained an Empire until the 17th century, at which point it divided itself into smaller Muslim kingdoms. In 1727 the First Saudi State was formed in the Highland or Najd. It continued expanding itself through the Arabian Peninsula. It even reached the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The area was then conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s.
After the Ottoman dominion ended in the 1820s, the Second Saudi State was established. The city of Riyadh became Saudi Arabia’s capital.
However, the Empire returned in 1865 to reclaim its lost lands. The leader of the Saudis and his family were forced to flee to Kuwait, where they remained until 1902. His son, Abdulaziz, would later be responsible for the unification of Saudi Arabia into one Islamic kingdom on the 23rd of September, 1932.
The current ruler is King Salman of Saudi Arabia, although one of his sons, Mohammed bin Salman, is considered the true leader of the country. Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 provinces, each one led by an emir (governor).
Culture and Traditions of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s first influence is the bedouins, nomadic communities that lived in the area thousands of years ago. Another strong influence in Saudi Arabia’s past was the trade network that ran between Egypt, the Mediterranean and Asia. This allowed the Arabian Peninsula to mix itself with other cultures.
But perhaps the key element of Saudi Arabia’s culture is the presence of Islam. The two holy cities in Saudi Arabia, Mecca and Medina, were the stage in which this religion flourished and expanded itself to every corner of the world. They are also the centers to which pilgrims from all over the world travel to when it’s time to perform Hajj or Umrah, which helps the country to expand its culture.
Islam has influenced every aspect of life in Saudi Arabia, especially through its traditional values and the role of women in society. In fact, the Quran serves as the constitution of Saudi Arabia.
Other important values in Saudi Arabia’s society are generosity, hospitality and protection of the family. The holy month of Ramadan is celebrated all over the country. During Ramadan it’s forbidden to eat or drink in public.
Saudi Arabia approved a “Public Decency Law” in 2019 which establishes the correct way to dress oneself while in the country. For example, women should wear an abaya outside. Men’s permitted clothing is much more flexible, ranging from traditional dressing to jeans and a t-shirt.
Saudi Arabia’s language is Arabic, and its history can be traced back to pre-Islamic times. It’s currently spoken in more than 20 countries. Written Classical Arabic is the language of the Quran and it’s still in use today. However, you won’t have a problem finding English-speaking Saudis as it’s a common study amongst those with an education.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has four yearly national holidays:
- Eid al-Fitr: it marks the end of the month of Ramadan, when the fast is broken.
- Eid al-Adha: also called the Festival of Sacrifice. It falls on the 10th day of the final month of the Islamic calendar, roughly two months after Eid al-Fitr. It celebrates the end of Hajj, the most important pilgrimage in the Islamic world.
- Founding Day: it’s celebrated on the 22th of February. This festival marks the date in which Saudi Arabia was formed as a country in 1727.
- Saudi National Day: it takes place on September 23rd. It celebrates the integration of the nations of Najd and Hijaz to Saudi Arabia, which gave the country its final shape in 1932.
Other elements of Saudi Arabia’s culture are:
- Gambling is forbidden.
- Public displays of affection are frowned upon.
- Only greet others with your right hand.
Gastronomy of Saudi Arabia
The gastronomy of Saudi Arabia reflects the influences of the rest of the countries in the Arabian peninsula, as well as the influence of Europe and Africa.
The key ingredients used are meat (particularly lamb), rice, yogurt, spices and wheat. Saudi Arabia is the country with the highest rate of consumption of dates, fruit of which it’s also a producer. Alcohol and pork products are banned.
The most common drinks are tea, coffee and juice made of fruits like mango and orange.
Some of the most common dishes you can find if you travel to Saudi Arabia are:
- Kabsa, the national dish of Saudi Arabia. It’s made of rice, meat and vegetables and it’s served with salad.
- Tharid, a pre-Islamic dish and the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite. It’s a spicy lamb stew with barley flatbread.
- Harees, typical during the month of Ramadan. It’s made with meat and coarse wheat.
- Gursan, another of Saudi Arabia’s national dishes. It consists of thin sheets of bread, meat and vegetables. It’s a meat soup with a spicy broth.
- Mutabbaq, a staple of Arabian street food. It’s a fried and stuffed pancake which can be filled with items like meat, egg, onion and garlic.
- Maamoul, a sweet cookie filled with fruits and nuts and covered in powdered sugar. They are often served with tea or coffee.
Weather in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s weather is desertic. The summer is long and extremely hot, with temperatures regularly surpassing 40ºC between April and October. It’s best to avoid those months.
There’s virtually no rainfall except in the south, where there’s more rain between June and September. In the rest of the country, some rain falls between November and April.
The best time to travel to Saudi Arabia is during the winter, specifically between November and February: the temperatures are less extreme, making it easier to enjoy the sightseeing.
Currency of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR/SR). The common exchange rates are:
- 1 EUR = 4,2 SAR
- 1 USD = 3,75 SAR
- 1 Pound = 4,9 SAR
The Saudi riyal is subdivided into 100 halalas. You can find coins of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 halalas and 1 and 2 riyals. The banknotes are of the following denominations: 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 riyals.
Main tourist attractions of Saudi Arabia
If you travel to Saudi Arabia, you shouldn’t miss the following things to do in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s capital is located in the Province of the same name, the second most populated in the country. The city mixes tradition with modernity and it has a well-preserved historic center.
Riyadh serves as a starting point for other Saudi attractions, such as:
- The Al Diriyah Heritage Village
- The Kingdom Center
- The National Museum
- Jebel Fihrayn and the Edge of the World
The beautiful city of Jeddah is home to two of Saudi Arabia’s main attractions: the Floating Mosque and King Fahd's Fountain.
The Floating Mosque, actually called the Al-Rahmah Mosque, was built in 1985. Since its base is underwater, it gives the impression of being floating, an unforgettable sight.
King Fahd's Fountain, also called the Jeddah Fountain, is actually the highest water fountain in the world: it reaches heights of more than 300 meters.
Mecca is one of the most emblematic cities in Saudi Arabia, especially for Islam: it’s a holy city. Every Muslim in the world prays in the direction of Mecca because it’s where the Great Mosque is located. Inside the Great Mosque is the Kaaba, the holiest site in all of Islam and the House of God.
The other holy city in Islam, Medina also played a huge part in the religion’s history.
The key attraction in Medina is the Prophet’s Mosque (Al Masjid An Nabawi), actually built by the Prophet Muhammad. Even though Medina is open to non-Muslims, they can’t enter the mosque or its courtyard.
Also in Medina you can find the Quba Mosque, the oldest building of its type and the first Islamic mosque in history. It was also built by the Prophet Muhammad in the year 622.
Madain Saleh/Archeological site of Hegra
This unique site consists of 131 tombs carved in the stone, resembling the city of Petra in Jordan. It was the first World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia, declared in 2008.
Wadi Al Disah
Wadi Al Disah translates to “the valley of palm trees”, and that’s exactly what you will find in this beautiful place in Saudi Arabia. Located in the province of Tabuk, to the east of Saudi Arabia, this wadi is a valley surrounded by mountains. It’s a great place for camping and picnics.
Asir National Park
Asir/Aseer National Park was the first to be established in Saudi Arabia. It’s also where the highest mountain is located. Here you will encounter many species of wildlife, from the lynx to several types of birds. It has an area of 6490 km².
List of World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia
- Ḥimā Cultural Area (2021)
- Al-Ahsa Oasis (2018)
- Rock Art in the Hail Region (2015)
- Historic Jeddah (2014)
- At-Turaif District in ad-Dir'iyah (2010)
- Hegra (2008)
Safety in Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is safe for tourists. There’s virtually no crime due to their very strict laws.
However, it’s important to avoid leaving touristic routes and going to the desert without a professional guide. The border with Yemen has to be avoided at all costs because of armed conflict.
Visa for Saudi Arabia
All foreign nationals need to apply for a visa before they travel to Saudi Arabia. Luckily, if you’re traveling for tourism or you’re in transit, you can apply for the Saudi Arabia visa online. However, you need to check beforehand if your nationality is eligible for the eVisa.
There are other types of visas you can apply for if you need to, although the application will have to be submitted in person at an embassy or consulate. You can learn about the Saudi Arabia transit visa in case you need it.
Make sure you follow all the Saudi Arabia entry requirements to avoid any issues at the border.