Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Flag
Country Description: The Saudi Arabian political system is a monarchy. The king is 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. Members of both councils are appointed by the king. Islamic law is the basis of the authority of the monarchy, and provides the foundation of the country's conservative customs and practices. Saudi Arabia has a modern and well-developed infrastructure, and facilities for travelers are widely available, although the country does not issue visas for tourism. The workweek in Saudi Arabia is Saturday through Wednesday.

Passport and/or Visa Requirements: Passports and visas are required. Tourist visas are not available for travel to Saudi Arabia. Frequently, only single-entry visas are issued by Saudi offices abroad. Airport visas are not available. Visas are required for persons on vessels calling at the Port of Jeddah. Visitors must have a business or personal sponsor. Women visitors and residents are required to be met upon arrival at a Saudi airport by their business or personal sponsor. Residents working in Saudi Arabia generally must surrender their passports while in the Kingdom and are required to get an exit/reentry visa each time they leave Saudi Arabia. The sponsor (normally the employer) obtains a work and residence permit for the employee and for any family members. Family members of those working are not required by law to surrender their passports, though they often do so in practice. Those on visitor visas do not need an exit visa to leave the Kingdom. Residents carry a Saudi residence permit (Iqama) for identification in place of their passports. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General cannot sponsor private American citizens for Saudi visas.

Foreign residents traveling within the Kingdom, even between towns in the same province, carry travel letters issued by employers and authenticated by an immigration official or a Chamber of Commerce office. Police at all airports and dozens of roadblocks routinely arrest and imprison violators.

Visitors to Saudi Arabia generally obtain a meningitis vaccination prior to arrival. A medical report is required to obtain a work and residence permit. This includes a medical certification. For further information on entry requirements, travelers may contact the following Saudi government offices in the U.S.:

--Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, 601 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20037, Tel. (202) 333-2740

--Saudi Consulate General in New York: 866 United Nations Plaza, Suite 480, New York, NY 10017, Tel.: (212) 752-2740

--Saudi Consulate General in Houston: 5718 Westheimer, Suite 1500, Houston, TX 77057, Tel.: (713) 785-5577

--Saudi Consulate General in Los Angeles: Sawtelle Courtyard Building, 2045 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025, Tel.: (310) 479-6000

Exit Permission: Residents in Saudi Arabia may not depart the country without obtaining an exit permit, which requires the approval of their Saudi sponsor. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General cannot apply for an exit permit for a U.S. citizen under any circumstances.

A married woman residing in Saudi Arabia with her husband must have her husband's permission for herself and her children to depart the country, even if they are U.S. citizens. Persons in Saudi Arabia on visitor visas do not need an exit visa to leave the country.

Security Information: The U.S. government continues to assist Saudi authorities in their investigations of the 1995 and 1996 bombings of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia. Because of continuing security concerns, official American facilities, including offices and residences of the U.S. Embassy and various military units, have adopted a variety of measures aimed at enhancing their security. The U.S. Embassy reminds American citizens in Saudi Arabia to exercise extreme caution and keep a low profile.

The American Embassy and consulates in Saudi Arabia inform the resident American community of security matters through a communication system known as the warden faxnet. Persons who are residing in the Kingdom should contact the U.S. Embassy or consulates for information on their warden contacts. Americans arriving in Saudi Arabia are encouraged to register at the U.S. Embassy or consulates and obtain the most current security information. (See section on Registration)

Saudi Customs, Religious Police, and General Standards of Conduct: Islam pervades all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. It is the official religion of the country, and observance of any other religion is forbidden. Non-Muslim religious services are illegal and public display of non-Islamic religious articles such as crosses and bibles is not permitted. Travel to Mecca and Medina, the cities where the two holy mosques of Islam are located, is forbidden to non-Muslims.

The norms for public behavior in Saudi Arabia are extremely conservative, and religious police, known as Mutawwa'iin, are charged with enforcing these standards. Mutawwa'iin, accompanied by uniformed police, have police powers. To ensure that conservative standards of conduct are observed, the Saudi religious police have harassed, accosted or arrested foreigners, including U.S. citizens, for improper dress or other infractions, such as consumption of alcohol or association by a female with a non-relative male. While most incidents have resulted only in inconvenience or embarrassment, the potential exists for an individual to be physically harmed or deported. U.S. citizens who are involved in an incident with the Mutawwa'iin may report the incident to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the U.S. Consulates General in Jeddah or Dhahran.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington advises women traveling to Saudi Arabia to dress in a conservative fashion, wearing ankle-length dresses with long sleeves, and not to wear trousers in public. In many areas of Saudi Arabia, particularly Riyadh and the central part of the Kingdom, Mutawwa'iin pressure women to wear a full-length black covering known as an abaya and to cover their heads. The result is that most women in these areas wear the abaya and carry a headscarf to avoid harassment. Women who appear to be of Arab or Asian ethnic origin, especially Muslims, face a greater risk of harassment.

Some Mutawwa'iin try to enforce the rule that men and women who are beyond childhood years may not mingle in public, unless they are family or close relatives. Mutawwa'iin may ask to see proof that a couple is married or related. Women who are arrested for socializing with a man who is not a relative may be charged with prostitution. Women who are not accompanied by a close male relative have not been served at some restaurants, particularly fast-food outlets. In addition, many restaurants no longer have a "family section" in which women are permitted to eat. These restrictions are not always posted, and in some cases women violating this policy have been arrested.

Women are not allowed to drive vehicles or ride bicycles on public roads. In public, dancing, music, and movies are forbidden. Pornography is strictly forbidden. Homosexual activity is considered to be a criminal offense and those convicted may be sentenced to lashing and/or a prison sentence, or death.

The Hajj: American pilgrims planning to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina should be aware of the following travel advice:

All travel plans should be made through a travel agent in the United States in order to book accommodations in advance. Hajj visas are required and are valid only for travel to the two holy cities. Stopovers in Jeddah or onward travel to Riyadh or other cities in Saudi Arabia is not permitted.

All foreign Muslim residents of the Kingdom may perform the Hajj once every five years. Advance approval must be obtained from an immigration office with the approval of the Saudi sponsor.

King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah is a large and modern facility, with a special terminal with facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. However, due to the extremely large number of people arriving, waiting time at the airport upon arrival during the Hajj may be as long as ten hours. Pilgrims should plan on a lengthy wait before leaving the airport on their way to Makkah or Medina. Travelers with only carry-on bags will find baggage transfer at the airport much easier than with checked baggage.

Before leaving home, travelers should make copies of their passports, including the pages stamped with Saudi visas. One copy should be left with someone at home and one taken with the traveler. Passports are turned over to Saudi officials upon arrival in the Kingdom and will be given back immediately prior to departure. Upon arrival, all pilgrims are issued an identification card or wrist-band. Travelers should carry this identification at all times.

A money belt or pouch is the best way to carry valuables. Upon arrival it is possible to buy what is known as a "Hajj belt," which is somewhat larger than American equivalents.

Visitors should check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their travel agent, or a Saudi consulate or Embassy regarding recommended or required shots.

Travelers should expect extremely crowded conditions during the Hajj. Temperatures in Makkah range between 60 and 112 degrees in May. There are many facilities providing water, public accommodations, and other amenities. In case of emergency, Hajj pilgrims should contact United Agents Office (Makkah), telephone (02) 545-1444, or National Adilla Est. (Medina), telephone (04) 826-0088, and then contact the American Consulate General in Jeddah, Tel.: (02) 667-0080.

Alcohol and Drug Penalties: U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of the country in which they are traveling or residing. In Saudi Arabia penalties for the import, manufacture, possession and consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs are severe and convicted offenders can expect sentences of jail terms, fines, public flogging, and/or deportation. The penalty for drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia is capital punishment. Saudi officials make no exceptions.

Child Custody: In Saudi Arabia, child custody decisions are based on Islamic law. It is extremely difficult for an American woman, even a Muslim, to obtain custody of her children through a Saudi court decision. Further information on this subject can be obtained in the Department of State publication "Marriage to Saudis" which is available from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520-4818, telephone (202) 736-7000, or from the U.S. Embassy or Consulates General in Saudi Arabia.

Traffic and Road Safety: Traffic accidents are a significant hazard in Saudi Arabia. Driving habits are generally poor, and accidents involving children drivers are not uncommon. In the event of a traffic accident resulting in personal injury, all persons involved (if not in the hospital) 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 are held in custody regardless of fault. Those involved in an accident should immediately contact their sponsor and the U.S. Embassy or nearest consulate.

Business Disputes: The Arabic version of a contract governs under Saudi law. Before signing a contract, American companies should obtain an independent translation to ensure a full understanding of terms, limits, and agreements. While settlement of disputes is possible, the procedures are complex and time consuming. If the Saudi party in a business dispute files a complaint with the Saudi authorities, Saudi law permits barring the exit of the foreign party from the country until the dispute is settled. U.S. consular officers can provide lists of local attorneys to help U.S. citizens settle business disputes, but ultimate responsibility for the resolution of disputes through the Saudi legal system lies with the parties involved.

Medical Facilities: Basic modern medical care and medicines are available in several hospitals and health centers in Saudi Arabia. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services. U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the United States. Supplemental medical insurance with specific overseas coverage has proved useful. The international travelers hotline at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tel.: (404) 332-4559, has additional health information.

Travel Warnings, Advisories and Areas of Instability: Crime is generally not a problem for travelers in Saudi Arabia. However, private Saudi citizens who perceive that conservative standards of conduct are not being observed by a foreigner may harass, pursue, or assault the person. The loss or theft of a U.S. passport abroad should be reported immediately to local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Useful information on safeguarding valuables and protecting personal security while traveling abroad is provided in the Department of State pamphlet, "A Safe Trip Abroad." General information about travel to Saudi Arabia can be found in the Department of State publication "Tips for Travelers to the Middle East and North Africa." Both pamphlets are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

Registration and Embassy/Consulate Locations: U.S. citizens who register at the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Consulates General may obtain updated information on travel and security within Saudi Arabia and can be included in the warden network. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is located at Collector Road M, Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter. The mailing address is P.O. Box 94309, Riyadh 11693, or AmEmbassy, Unit 61307, APO AE 09803-1307. The U.S. Embassy telephone number is (966) (1) 488-3800, fax (966) (1) 488-7275.

The Consulate General in Dhahran is located between Aramco Headquarters and Dhahran International Airport. The mailing address is P.O. Box 81, Dhahran Airport 31932, or Unit 66803, APO AE 09858-6803. The telephone number is (966)(3) 891-3200, fax (966)(3) 891-6816.

The Consulate General In Jeddah is located on Palestine Road, Ruwais. The mailing address is P.O. Box 149, Jeddah; or Unit 62112, APO AE 09811-2112. The telephone number is (966)(2) 667-0080, fax (966) (2) 669-3078.

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