Communicating in Saudi
Arranging your Saudi eVisa
Now that Saudi Arabia is open to international tourists, birders from 49 eligible countries can apply for an eVisa through VisitSaudi's fast and easy-to-use online portal and discover the thrills of touring what is still one of the most under-birded countries on the planet. While obtaining a visa on arrival is possible for some nationalities, I recommend applying online to save time and avoid any hassles at the airport. To see if you are eligible to apply for an eVisa and read up on other visa requirements, check out the Visit Saudi website.
The eVisa at a glance:
Quick and easy*
Valid for a year
Stay up to 90 days total during the year
535 SAR ($142)
Cost includes full medical insurance with COVID-19 coverage
Apply for your eVisa HERE.
* To ensure your eVisa application is approved without a hitch, be sure to enter your personal details carefully and that all of the information matches that found on the photo page of your passport. If you don't receive your eVisa by email within 48 hours, log back into your account. If it shows "Visa Granted", you should be able to download the visa and your insurance policy directly from the site (as well as add the visa to your Apple Wallet!).
If your application is still showing as "Pending" or even "Rejected" after 48 hours of completing the application, go to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Visa Platform and search there using either your first name and passport number or passport number and application number. One recent client's application was showing as "Rejected", but I was able to locate his eVisa on the platform. If you still haven't received your visa, use the chat option on the eVisa website and ask to speak to a "live ambassador"; they can help sort out the issue.
To confirm that a medical insurance policy has also been opened in your name, go to the Saudi Council of Health Insurance's Tourist Insurance Inquiry page to perform a search. You can find the name of the company handling your policy as well as your policy number. As for the policy details, you should receive that in a separate email after you complete the eVisa application process. Be sure to also check your spam folder for both the eVisa and your insurance policy.
When to Visit Saudi
Ultimately the best times to visit Saudi depend on where you would like to visit and what you would like to see. Anyone considering a tour throughout many of the country's thirteen regions, including the Eastern and Central Region, would best consider visiting during the winter months. The weather during the winter is quite lovely, and one could not only see the endemic species of the southwest but have a better shot of encountering sought-after Western Palearctic desert specialists, such as Desert Owl, Temminck's Lark, Thick-billed Lark, the near-endemic Arabian Lark, and Sinai Rosefinch as well as interesting winter visitors, such as Sociable Lapwing, Steppe Eagle, Hypocolius, Finsch's and Persian Wheatears, and Syrian Serin.
The birding in the highlands, however, is not ideal during the winter months, during which the conditions, while cool, are quite dry. Several highland species disperse to lower elevations during the winter, thus becoming more difficult to find, while others leave the Kingdom altogether and only return mid to late spring.
The best time to visit the highlands is May through September. In May a number of species move to higher elevations in response to the rising temperatures in the lowlands, which leads to greater concentrations of a diverse array of birdlife along the southwest escarpment. Also many species are returning from Africa, either as passage migrants, like Semi-collared flycatcher or Thrush Nightingale, or as summer breeders, like Diderick Cuckoo and Gray-headed Kingfisher. Summer (June - August) is the monsoon season, when mist and rain keep the highlands moist and cool. While the temperature in the lowlands and out in the northern, central and eastern deserts can exceed 45° C (113° F) during the day, especially with the heat index along the coasts due to the stifling humidity, the weather in the highlands is quite lovely, with the temperature rarely exceeding 30° C (86° F).
Here are the main birding regions in Saudi, when to visit, and what you can see there, including endemics (E) and near-endemics (NE). Click on the highlighted links to see the most recent eBird sightings by region.
Best time to visit: October through April
Key birding centers: Jubail, Dammam, and Al Ahsa
Regional specialties: Gray Francolin, Great Crested Grebe, Namaqua Dove, Egyptian Nightjar, Pallid Swift, Water Rail, Gray-headed Swamphen, Northern Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, Sociable Lapwing, Slender-billed Gull, Great Black-headed (Pallas's) Gull, Little Tern, White-cheeked Tern, Lesser Crested Tern, Socotra Cormorant (NE), Little Bittern, Western Reef-Heron, Squacco Heron, Black-winged Kite (Asian), Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Pharaoh Eagle-Owl, Masked Shrike, Graceful Prinia (hufufae), Delicate Prinia (irakensis/carpenteri), Moustached Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Asian Desert Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat (halimodendri), Hume's Whitethroat (althaea), European Starling, Black Scrub-Robin, Bluethroat, Black Redstart (Eastern), Finsch's Wheatear, Persian Wheatear, Hypocolius, Spanish Sparrow, Yellow-throated Sparrow
The Central Regions
Best time to visit: October through March
Regional specialties: Ferruginous Duck, African Collared-Dove, Namaqua Dove, Pallid Swift, Northern Lapwing, Spur-winged Lapwing, Cream-colored Courser, Black-winged Pratincole, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Steppe Eagle, Desert Owl, Pharaoh Eagle-Owl, White-throated Kingfisher, Arabian Green Bee-eater (NE), Bar-tailed Lark, Temminck's Lark, Arabian Lark (NE), Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Basra Reed Warbler (April - September), Scrub Warbler (inquieta), Black Scrub-Robin, Blackstart, White-crowned Wheatear, Persian Wheatear, Streaked Weaver, Red Avadavat, Spanish Sparrow, Trumpeter Finch, Desert Finch, Corn Bunting
The Northwestern Regions
Best time to visit: October through March
Regional specialties: Ferruginous Duck, See-see Partridge (Sakaka), Sand Partridge, Chukar, Common Wood-Pigeon, Namaqua Dove, Spur-winged Lapwing, Cream-colored Courser, White-eyed Gull (NE), Brown Booby, Black-winged Kite (Asian), European Honey-Buzzard, Black Kite, Common Buzzard (Common), Little Owl, Desert Owl, Arabian Green Bee-eater (NE), Sooty Falcon (May - October), Thick-billed Lark, Bar-tailed Lark, Temminck's Lark, Arabian Lark (NE), Olive-tree Warbler, Eurasian Crag-Martin, White-spectacled Bulbul, Scrub Warbler (inquieta), Asian Desert Warbler, Ruppell's Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Arabian Babbler, Tristram's Starling, Black Redstart (Western), Hooded Wheatear, Kurdish Wheatear, Blackstart, Palestine Sunbird, Sinai Rosefinch, Trumpeter Finch, Desert Finch, Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin (E), Syrian Serin, Striolated Bunting, Corn Bunting, Cretzschmar's Bunting
Best time to visit: March through October
Key birding centers: Madinah, Makkah, Jeddah, Taif, Al Ula, Yanbu
Regional specialties: Sand Partridge, Arabian Partridge (E), Philby's Partridge (E), African Collared-Dove, Bruce's Green-Pigeon, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse, Nubian Nightjar, Alpine Swift, Pallid Swift, African Palm-Swift, Demoiselle Crane, Crab-Plover, Cream-colored Courser, White-eyed Gull (NE), Saunders's Tern, White-cheeked Tern, Black Stork, Brown Booby, Goliath Heron, Western Reef-Heron, Striated Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Osprey, European Honey-Buzzard, Verreaux's Eagle, Black Kite, Arabian Scops-Owl (E), Arabian Eagle-owl (E), Desert Owl, Gray-headed Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Arabian Green Bee-eater (NE), Arabian Woodpecker (E), Sooty Falcon, Black-crowned Tchagra, Fan-tailed Raven, Bar-tailed Lark, Temminck's Lark, Arabian Lark (E), Olive-tree Warbler, White-spectacled Bulbul, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Scrub Warbler, Yemen Warbler (E), Arabian Warbler (NE), Abyssinian White-eye, Arabian Babbler (NE), Violet-backed Starling, Tristram's Starling (NE), Yemen Thrush (E), Gambaga Flycatcher, Black Scrub-Robin, Little Rock-Thrush, Buff-breasted Wheatear (E), Blackstart, Arabian Wheatear (E), Nile Valley Sunbird, Shining Sunbird (Arabian), Ruppell's Weaver, Arabian Waxbill (E), Pale Rockfinch, Long-billed Pipit (arabicus), Arabian Grosbeak (E), Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin (E), Yemen Serin (E), Yemen Linnet (E), Cretzschmar's Bunting, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Striolated Bunting
The Southwestern Regions
Best time to visit: May through September
Regional specialties: Ferruginous Duck (winter), Helmeted Guineafowl, Harlequin Quail, Arabian Partridge (E), Philby's Partridge (E), Lesser Flamingo, Rameron Pigeon (African Olive), Dusky Turtle-Dove, African Collared-Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Bruce's Green-Pigeon, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse, White-browed Coucal, Pied Cuckoo, Dideric Cuckoo, Klaas's Cuckoo, Nubian Nightjar, Plain Nightjar, Abyssinian Nightjar (Montane), Alpine Swift, African Palm-Swift, Spotted Thick-knee, Greater Painted-Snipe, Small Button-Quail, Crab-Plover, White-eyed Gull (NE), Saunders's Tern, Black Stork (winter), Abdim's Stork, Brown Booby, Pink-backed Pelican, Hamerkop, Goliath Heron, European Honey-Buzzard, Black-winged Kite (African), Eurasian Griffon, Verreaux's Eagle, Bonelli's Eagle, Dark Chanting-Goshawk, Gabar Goshawk, Shikra, Black Kite (Yellow-billed), Arabian Scops-Owl (E), Arabian Eagle-Owl (E), Little Owl, Desert Owl, African Gray Hornbill, Gray-headed Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, White-throated Bee-eater, Arabian Green Bee-eater (NE), Abyssinian Roller, Arabian Woodpecker (E), Sooty Falcon, Black-crowned Tchagra, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Asir Magpie (E), Fan-tailed Raven, Rufous-capped Lark (NE), Eurasian Reed Warbler (Mangrove), Brown Woodland-Warbler, Scrub Warbler (buryi), Yemen Warbler (E), Arabian Warbler (NE), Abyssinian White-eye, Arabian Babbler (yemenensis) (NE), Violet-backed Starling, Tristram's Starling (NE), Yemen Thrush (E), Gambaga Flycatcher, Black Scrub-Robin, Little Rock-Thrush, African Stonechat, Buff-breasted Wheatear (E), Blackstart, Arabian Wheatear (E), Nile Valley Sunbird, Palestine Sunbird, Shining Sunbird (Arabian), Arabian Golden Sparrow (NE), Ruppell's Weaver, African Silverbill, Arabian Waxbill (E), African Pipit (eximius), Long-billed Pipit (arabicus), Arabian Grosbeak (E), Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin (E), Yemen Serin (E), Yemen Linnet (E), Cinnamon-breasted Bunting
Saudi's actually a fairly easy country to get around. There are three main international airports—Dammam, Riyadh, and Jeddah—by which most visitors will enter the Kingdom. From there, you can catch domestic flights to a number of destinations, most of which will be direct from the hub. The three domestic airlines, listed according to budget, are Saudia, FlyNas, and FlyaDeal.
There are also three main intercity train lines, operated by Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR). One line runs between Dammam in the Eastern Region and the capital, Riyadh, with stops in Abqaiq and Hofuf (Al Ahsa). I've taken this train from Al Ahsa to Riyadh several times. It's comfortable, relatively cheap, and cuts the travel time between the two cities by over an hour. The second line runs between Riyadh and Qurrayat in Saudi's Al Jawf Region in the north with stops in Majmaah, Qassim, Hail, and Jawf. The third line connects Jeddah and King Abdulaziz International Airport with the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah to primarily facilitate the movement of domestic and international pilgrims.
Another means of intercity transport, with stops in smaller towns along the way, is buses operated by the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO); however, as you can imagine, the travel time is significantly longer than driving by car, taking a full 24 hours, I've heard, for buses from Dammam to reach Abha.
Of course, it's also quite easy to rent a vehicle of your own. You'll find several international rental agencies, like Budget, with branches at the different international and regional airports as well as at the central train station in Riyadh, like Sixt, in addition to central branches within certain cities. There are also local agencies, such as Yelo, that now rent to international visitors. Just be sure to confirm the rental conditions, such as whether an international driver's license is required on top of your nationally issued driver's license.
Unfortunately, you'll likely find renting in Saudi to quite a bit more expensive than in your home country, with the smallest economy options running closer to $40 per day plus tax (15%), and just as likely to be disappointed in the overall quality of the vehicles. While the situation has improved over the past few years, customer service and vehicle maintenance are still not yet up to par with the standards found in other countries. For your safety, it's critical that you inspect vehicles carefully, especially the tires, before you hit the road. On two occasions I questioned why the tire pressure indicator was illuminated, was reassured by employees that it was only an issue with the sensor, only to discover that something had punctured it and was clearly visible through the tread.
The bulk of your accommodation needs can be sorted out in advance through websites like Booking.com. However, this is primarily true for places in the cities and larger towns. There are many towns and villages, especially in more remote areas, that do, in fact, offer accommodation, none of which, however, is listed on the booking sites. I've encountered this when looking for places to stay near Haql, on the Gulf of Aqaba, Tanomah, in the Asir highlands, and on Jebel Al Aswad and Jebel Fayfa in the Jazan Region. These can be found by searching Google Maps and then contacting them by phone or WhatsApp. Unfortunately, though, most of these listings are only in Arabic and most of the staff at these places don't speak English, which makes it nigh impossible to confirm availability, inquire about prices, and make a reservation. On top of that, most of these places don't actually do reservations, except perhaps the day before your arrival. For the peace of mind I recommend making most of your bookings online in advance of your arrival. Then go in person to listings in Google Maps to inquire about rooms in those places where you couldn't. Unless it's a particularly busy time for domestic travel, such as during the eid holidays, then you shouldn't have any issue securing a place to stay.
The Black Mountain Hotel (above) on Jebel Al Aswad ("The Black Mountain") is one such place you won't find listed on Booking.com or Hotels.com but is perhaps the best place to stay when visiting Jebel Al Qahar—and its southernmost population of Asir Magpie—as well as Wadi Lajab, a stunning canyon complex popular with local tourists. They have nice one- and two-bedroom apartments with phenomenal views east and west of the ridge on which the hotel and surrounding village are perched. Yemeni coffee and the mildly narcotic qat are grown here.
Just a note on accommodation options. While you'll find ample hotel-style rooms, particularly in the cities, the most abundant type of accommodation are two-bedroom furnished apartments, as Saudi families generally prefer to all stay together in a single unit. These can prove to be the most economical option as they can accommodate up to four or five guests, depending on your needs, and have kitchens with full-sized refrigerators for storing food supplies and electric kettles for preparing your own coffee and tea. The kitchens are especially helpful if you're visiting during Ramadan and need a space to prepare and eat meals during the daylight hours. These apartments tend to be quieter as well, as the door to the corridors, where local children sometimes play late into the night, opens onto the living room, not where you're sleeping.
Camping in Saudi Arabia is also an option and many expatriates enjoy nights out in the desert or along quiet stretches of beach. There are also lots of municipal and national parks, especially out west, where folks have tucked away for a night. There are just a few things to keep in mind if you decide to camp. First, Saudi families generally keep different hours than most other nationalities, so if you pull into park or public beach on a weekend, particularly when the weather's nice, chances are there'll be children staying up quite late. Good luck sleeping! You'll want to put as much distance between you and others and, of course, there are plenty of remote stretches in the Kingdom where you may find you have the place all to yourself. Second, you should avoid camping in remote areas directly on the Red Sea coast. These areas are patrolled by the Saudi Coast Guard who are on the watch for smugglers and traffickers crossing Saudi's maritime borders with Yemen, Sudan, and Egypt. You won't necessarily get into any trouble per se, so long as you comply, but expect to be ordered to move along. Lastly, be mindful of your surroundings when choosing a place to camp. While Saudi is generally a safe country, where violent crime is rare, there are safety concerns to be aware of. I discuss them in the health and safety section below.
Food and Drink
As with traveling anywhere, one of the biggest joys will be experiencing the local eats, so don't pass up invitations to dine with Saudis or trying out local restaurants. Rice with chicken is basically a staple for Saudis and you'll find an abundance of inexpensive restaurants serving a variety of chicken-and-rice meals depending on your rice preference and how you like your chicken—rotisserie ("shawaya") and grilled ("faham") are our favorites. Also don't miss breakfast at a Yemeni restaurant, of which there are also a lot. Our favorite dishes are shakshookah with cheese, foul Adeni, and areekah. Of course, you'll also find a lot of international options and fast food chains as well.
Most of the local dishes are meat heavy, but other Arabic dishes would be perfectly suitable for vegetarians. The Yemeni breakfast foods I mentioned above don't contain meat, and you'll find cafeterias and restaurants selling falafel, hummus, and mutabel as well as other meat-free dishes along with different Arab- and Western-style salads. Vegetarianism is also a lifestyle among some South Asians, so Indian restaurants will have suitable options as well. Then, of course, you could prepare your own meals; some of the larger supermarkets have vegetarian and vegan products available. You might also find dedicated vegetarian restaurants in the larger cities, like Riyadh and Jeddah.
Now depending on when you would like to eat and where, you may have to reckon with the prayer times—Muslims pray five times per day—during which shops and restaurants may close. This, like many things in Saudi over the past few years, has changed with many places now remaining open, but the choice has been left open to the businesses themselves so it's best to be aware that you may not be able get what you need exactly when you want it. If that happens, just be patient. The place will likely reopen within 30 minutes at mos t.
Non-Muslim visitors may have a slightly tougher time adjusting during the month of Ramadan—the holy month when Saudis fast during the daylight hours—as restaurants and cafes will be closed. Definitely try to enjoy "Iftar", the meal had after sundown when breaking the fast, at a local establishment or with a Saudi family, and depending on how early you wish to get up, you might also be able to partake in "Suhoor", the meal had before dawn prior to the start of the fast. The rhythm of life in Saudi changes significantly during the holy month and visitors will be enriched by taking part themselves. As for the logistical challenge of a birding tour during Ramadan, supermarkets do remain open throughout the day, so no issue picking up breakfast and lunch fixings. The only issue then is where to eat. It's not forbidden to eat if you're not Muslim and therefore not fasting. Just don't do it in front of those who are fasting. This isn't much of an issue if you're out birding and no one's around. You can also prepare and eat your meals in your room. For dinner, though, most restaurants will be prepared to serve perhaps an hour before sundown and some places might even let you dine in before sundown if it's clear you're not Muslim. If you can't wait until sundown and are worried still about causing offense, you can always take your meal back to your room or drive to a private spot to eat.
Since COVID, cash is one thing that you don't need to have a lot of on hand any more. Saudi Arabia has witnessed a very broad rollout of contactless payment technology across its service sector. Virtually every business a tourist would deal with during their visit will have chip readers for paying with debit and credit cards as well as methods of contactless payment, such as using ApplePay. Just in case, though, you might want to have a couple hundred Saudi Riyals (SAR)—the equivalent of around $50 USD—for those odd establishments that don't. It's also nice to have some small bills with you to offer as tips to service sector workers, such as waiters and bellhops. Tipping is generally not the norm in Saudi—among either locals or expats—and Saudis and some other Arabs would likely refuse. Other nationalities, however, typically welcome the small gesture of appreciation.
What to Wear
As with any birding trip, what clothing to bring depends on the weather conditions you might encounter as well as the activities you intend to do. However, given Saudi Arabia's conservative Islamic culture, there are other considerations to keep in mind. First, let's talk about the weather.
Throughout most of Saudi, you can expect to deal with harsh desert conditions, especially from roughly May through September. During the hottest months, temperatures can sometimes exceed 45° C (113° F) in the interior desert regions, so light, loose-fitting, cotton-based clothing will go a long way towards keeping you cool. Pants, long sleeves, and a wide-brimmed hat are also critical for protecting you from overexposure to the intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is no less of a threat during the cooler winter months.
The weather during the winter is generally quite lovely; however, at night and in the early morning hours, the temperature can sometimes get below 10° C (50° F), especially in the mountainous regions and open desert, so don't forget to bring a jacket and an additional layer or two just in case.
Depending on what time of the year you visit and where, you might also want rain gear in the event you get caught in a shower while out birding. Throughout much of Saudi, the rainy "season" (it may rain but a few times per year) is during the winter months. The highlands of the southwest, though, experience a summer monsoon (July - August) with light showers, often in the early afternoon, and the occasional thunderstorm. While the rest of Saudi can feel like a veritable furnace during the day, the highlands during the summer can be comparatively delightful, with temperatures rarely exceeding 30° C (86° F). However, again, mind the UV!
As for Saudi's conservative culture, while it is true that the Kingdom has been relaxing some of its restrictions, especially with regard to expectations for visitors, know that what may be commonplace in Western countries, for example, might be highly out of place in Saudi and could lead you to unnecessary hassles, if not outright trouble. This, unfortunately, falls to a greater extent on women, but men should also be mindful of what they're wearing in certain contexts.
First off, shorts and a t-shirt for guys are generally fine in outdoor spaces, provided the shorts aren't too short; however, you might find yourself turned away from public events and indoor spaces, like malls. Of course, such attire would be considered totally unacceptable if visiting a mosque or other area of religious significance. On public beaches, it's okay for men to go shirtless; however, this would be unacceptable anywhere else where locals may be present. Nudity on beaches, as you can imagine, is totally forbidden.
While dress for women is more strictly policed in Saudi Arabia, this has been changing even for Muslim women, Saudis included. Long gone are the days of the mutawa—the religious police—harassing women over wardrobe violations. Female visitors are expected to wear more conservative, loose-fitting clothing that covers their arms and legs. They are not expected to wear abayas—the long, black garment used by Saudi women to cover their bodies in public—or to cover their hair, but the latter would be advised if visiting a site of religious significance. You may, however, want to carry an abaya or something similar based on your own comfort or for situations in which you're unsure whether your normal clothes would be acceptable. When out birding in places with no locals around, you may choose to wear shorts, t-shirts, and tighter-fitting clothing. Even some local women opt for more comfortable outdoor wear in these situations. This is where having an abaya or similar cloak-style garment at hand is useful in the event you find yourself in a situation where you may be concerned your dress could cause offense, like passing through a village or town. As for beachwear, western-style swimsuits and bikinis would be considered inappropriate on a public beach, but there are many resorts and private beaches catering to non-Muslim expats where this would be okay.
What Else to Bring
Here is a list of other items to consider bringing to be best prepared for your visit:
A towel (some hotels and furnished apartments, especially in rural areas, don't provide them)
Toilet paper (this may not be available in public toilets, especially in rural areas; of course, you can pick some up here)
Sunscreen (high-quality sunscreen can be expensive and not readily available here)
Insect repellant (again quality repellant may not be readily available; needed only for certain wetland areas; malaria and other mosquito-born illnesses don't exist in Saudi)
Extra batteries (these can be harder to find in rural areas)
Travel adapter (for type G plugs—three rectangular pins in a triangular pattern)
Reusable water bottle (to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced during your visit; just fill from a single 18.9 liter (5 gallon) plastic bottle)
Dust and humidity protection for camera equipment (both can cause serious problems for your gear)
Flip-flops (for the ease of slipping on and off when eating on the floor at a traditional restaurant or visiting a mosque; also bathrooms in hotels and furnished apartments can get quite wet and slippery)
Tampons (these feminine hygiene products are not available in most, if not all, supermarkets and pharmacies here due to cultural stigma)
This is a list in progress though so please suggest revisions to best advise those visiting after you.
Health and Safety
Despite the bad press the Kingdom has received over years—particularly the dramatic terrorist attacks in the mid 2000s—Saudi Arabia, as with most of the other Gulf countries, is generally a safe country. Despite the continuing presence of Daesh (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the wider region, the threat of terrorism has been significantly reduced in the Gulf countries over the past decade or so and attacks are exceedingly rare and generally of an isolated nature. Then there is the ongoing conflict in Yemen. While there have been missile and drone attacks targeting military and civilian infrastructure near Jazan, Abha, Najran, Jeddah, Riyadh, and even Dhahran in the Eastern Region, the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces have used advanced American-made missile defense systems to successfully intercept most of these aerial threats; however, there have been injuries and some fatalities, mostly on account of falling debris. On these wider regional threats, please consider the advice of your home governments, like the US State Department's travel advisory, and decide for yourself how comfortable you are with the level of risk inherent to a visit to the Kingdom on account of the conflict. Most expatriates here have made peace with the risk, and life, as they say, goes on.
Trust, though, that nearly every Saudi you meet will be very friendly and welcoming and, should they perceive you to be in need, you can be sure that they'll offer you assistance. That said, as when traveling anywhere—even the US—you should be mindful of your surroundings and let people know where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing. As Saudi’s the largest country in the Middle East, exploring the region just might lead you to some pretty remote areas with spotty network coverage where even a breakdown could prove dangerous during the hotter months.
Threats of terrorist and missile attacks aside, honestly, the most dangerous thing you can do in Saudi is get into a car. This simply can’t be overstated. As this data visualization of the WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety for 2018 shows, Saudi Arabia has some of the most dangerous roads in the world. This is a combination of unpredictable road conditions and bad driving—honestly some of the worst I’ve experienced—but thankfully measures enacted by the government since 2018 have improved the situation.
Second to that, stay clear of the borderland areas, particularly the Kingdom's border with Yemen, not only on account of the ongoing conflict with Houthi militants, which has seen instances of cross-border fighting but also the potential presence of smugglers, traffickers, and illegal migrants.
While theft and robbery are mostly rare in Saudi, it can happen—friends of ours were robbed in broad daylight by a man on a motorbike while walking to a money exchanger—so again always be aware of your surroundings and reconsider going places and doing things that could potentially elevate your risk of being targeted.
Of course, COVID-19 remains a threat in Saudi Arabia, so, to stay healthy and safe, follow the guidance of the health authorities in your home country and adhere to the regulations established by the Saudi Ministry of Health during your visit.
Lastly, besides the sun, air quality can pose a hazard, especially to those who suffer from chronic respiratory issues. Dust storms, typically kicked up by strong northwesterly winds (known as "Al Shamal"), are frequent, with the central and eastern regions of the country the worst affected. To protect your breathing, it's best to avoid going out at these times; however, those traveling on a tight itinerary might be disinclined to loose precious time birding to vagaries of the weather. In that case, bring particle masks to protect your lungs and sunglasses, ideally with rubber gaskets, to protect your eyes. Dust storms can occur any time of the year throughout the country, but they're generally less of an issue in the southwestern corner of the country.
Only in the past four or so years did Saudi adopt 911 as its unified emergency number. This is the number to call from anywhere in the Kingdom to report an emergency. In addition, you can call one of the following numbers depending on the nature of the emergency:
For traffic accidents, 993
For the border guard, 994
For the highway patrol, 996
For an ambulance, 997
For civil defense, 998
For the police, 999
Again, though, you can simply call 911 for all emergency situations.
Dos and Don'ts
DO mind other drivers carefully on Saudi's roads, but DON'T flip anybody the bird!
DO experience the amazing birding in the Jazan Region, but DON'T venture too close to the border with Yemen.
DO bring a physician's letter for any subscription medicines that may be considered controlled substances, but DON'T bring, let alone do, illicit drugs regardless of their status in your home country.
DO accept another cup of tea or coffee when in Saudi, but DON'T bring or consume alcohol.
DO bring your birding optics, photography gear, and recording equipment, but DON'T use your gear in the vicinity of sensitive government and military sites as well as sites associated with the oil and gas and logistics industries, such as airports and shipping terminals.
DO capture images and videos of Saudi culture, but DON'T photograph Saudis, particularly Saudi women and children, without asking for permission first.
DO speak respectfully and use common-sense decorum when dealing with Saudis, and DON'T be loud, use profanity, or transgress people's personal boundaries.
DO visit Saudi if you identify as a member of the LBGT community, but DON'T engage in public displays of affection beyond what would be considered normal in Arab culture (ex. cheek kisses or briefly holding hands) or otherwise call undue attention to your identity. In Saudi, the unofficial policy with such private matters is don't ask, don't tell. For more, see the General Information section under the FAQs on the VisitSaudi website.
Here's a list geared towards visitors of Public Decency Violations and attending Penalties. Note that violations of a sexual nature receive the highest fines.
This is another list in progress, so please let me know if there's something else I should I add.
Communicating in Saudi
Compared to other Gulf countries, you'll find much less English spoken, particularly among Saudis and Arab and South Asian expats outside the major cities. This can pose a challenge in certain situations, such as inquiring about rooms or ordering food. You'll likely also find that most storefront signage and menus are exclusively in Arabic. This, in time, is sure to change. In the meantime, however, there are apps where you can use your smartphone camera to create an augmented-reality (AR) translation of signs and menus.
As for what "Arabic" to learn, that's where you could potentially get lost in the weeds. If you learn a little Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the formal Arabic used in most Arab media, like Al Jazeera News, then pretty much every native Arabic speaker will understand you. If it were only that simple. As you'll encounter, perhaps to a greater degree elsewhere, in the Gulf, many service-sector workers are not actually native Arabic speakers and may or may not be literate in the language. What exists is effectively a pidgin Arabic—a very stripped down version of the colloquial language that generally pays little heed to grammatical and pronunciation rules. Add to that various layers of dialect used in the Kingdom among Saudis themselves. Al Khaleeji, Al Najdi, and Al Hejazi broadly designate the colloquial groupings; however, there's also what's called the "white dialect", which is a "street language" understood by all Saudis, as well as a highly varied array of local dialects, including hassawi—spoken by Saudis from the region where I've been working, which can often be quite distinct. In short, Arabic is not an easy "language" to learn as it's not even a single language!
Even still, I encourage folks to learn as much of the language as they can before they arrive, especially since even the attempt will pay dividends in terms of the good will you'll get in response. You needn't be proficient by any stretch. Skillful use of select phrases will be met with delight in virtually all situations.
Here are some phrases that'll get you a long way in the Kingdom:
AssalAAM AlAIkum (السلام عليكم) - Peace be upon you
AlAIkum assalAAM (وعليكم السلام) - And also upon you (in reply)
SaBAH Al KHAY'r (صباح الخير) - Good morning ("Morning of the good")
SaBAH AnNOOR (صباح النور) - Good morning to you ("Morning of the light")
Kayf HALak? (to a male) Kayf HALik? (to a female) (كيف حالك؟) - How are you?
Ana k'WAIS / Ana biKHAY'r (أنا كويس / أنا بخير) - I am good/fine
MaSAAU Al KHAY'r (مساء الخير) - Good evening ("Evening of the good")
MaSAAU AnNOOR (مساء النور) - Good evening to you ("Evening of the light")
Low saMAH't (لو سمحت) - Excuse me (getting someone's attention)
Ana AHSif (from a male) / AHSifah (from a female) (أنا آسف/آسفة) - Excuse me (you didn't understand or you're stepping past someone one) or I'm sorry (apologizing)
Min FADHlik (من فضلك) - Please (asking for something)
SHUKran (شكرا) / SHUKran jaZEELan (شكرا جزيلا) - Thank you / Thank you very much
A'afwan (عفوا) - You're welcome
Though there are a ton of other ways to say thank you in Saudi. Here are two of my favorites...
YaTEEQ Al A'AFiya (يعطيك العافية) - "He (Allah) gives you wellness"
Allah YA'Afeek (الله يعافيك) - "Allah makes you well" (You're welcome)
If someone says to you bilA'Afiya (بالعافية) - "with wellness" (Bon appetit!) - you should also reply Allah YA'Afeek.
BiyaDHA Allah WAJ'huk (بَيَضَ الله وجهك) - "God whitens your face" (This is a strong expression of gratitude)
WAJ'huk AB'yadh (وجهك أبيض) - "You face is white" (You're welcome)
Just after leaving the baggage claim area at any of the international airports—Jeddah, Riyadh, or Dammam—you will find kiosks for the three telecom carriers in the Kingdom—STC, Zain, and Mobily. STC, Saudi's main carrier, offers the widest coverage in the country, particularly in more rural areas.
As the "free Wi-Fi" at many hotels around the country typically winds up weak or faulty, I recommend springing for a data plan to save yourself the headache and ensure you have reliable access to the internet during your visit.
Keep in mind that in some remote areas coverage may be spotty or non-existent, so, for safety's sake, be sure to share your planned itinerary with someone before you set out in the event you find yourself out of range and in need of help. Also don't hesitate to ask for assistance from any passing locals. They'll be sure to help and would definitely not leave you stranded if they perceive you in need. In line with the culture of hospitality, they see it as their duty to do so.