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A Saudi Arabia guide – rolling sand dunes, colorful souks and striking archaeological sites

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For centuries Saudi Arabia was considered off limits to outsiders, only to be risked by the bravest of travelers, but now it is beginning to let tourists in and if you don't mind overcoming some obstacles you can see some really enchanting sights and enjoy some great Bedouin hospitality.

Khaled Al Mughrab

My Destination local expert on

Saudi Arabia

What to see and do

 

There is so much to see and do in Saudi Arabia, offering a glimpse into the true nature of the Middle East. The extraordinary Madain Saleh, called Saudi Arabia's Petra, is home to 131 tombs. The Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world and has huge sand dunes. In the south you’ll discover Najran, an ancient caravan site filled with dusty forts and leafy palm plantations. On the coast, Jeddah is home to sensational souks and off shore lies Saudi's Red Sea with reefs that feature some of the most unspoiled scenery in the world.

 

Culture and art

 

Saudi is a country dominated by its religion and, every year for the past 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims from around the world have travelled to the holy sites in Makkah and Madinah. The traditional heritage of Saudi Arabia varies from handicrafts to costumes to ethnic dishes. Folklore is a key element in the tourism experience and is based on the theme of unity and groups. Souk Okaz is a market where Arabs traditionally met for trading and presenting poems and speeches. Today, it has been revived to showcase its history as a unique poetic and artistic meeting place.

 

Visas

 

During the last six years, the Saudi authorities have started to issue tourist visas. These are only for those willing to travel as part of a group with a recognised tour company, however. Jewish people are not permitted to visit and unmarried couples cannot travel alone together. Women under 30 must be accompanied by their husband or brother.

 

Travel tips

 

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and although there is no law that requires Saudi citizens to be Muslim, practising other religions publicly is strictly forbidden. Everything in Saudi is organised around the five daily prayers - all shops and offices close during prayer time for at least 20-30 minutes and the religious police patrol the streets to send loiterers off to the mosque. Hospitals, airports and shopping malls stay open (although the shops inside the malls close) and public transport continues to run as normal.

 

Holy cities

 

The holy Muslim cities of Makkah and Madinah are in Saudi Arabia. Makkah is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life. Millions of pilgrims from around the world visit each year to perform the Hajj - the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Visiting Madinah is not a religious duty like Makkah; however, many Muslims are drawn there to pay their respects to the place where God's last Prophet established the first Islamic community. As holy cities, both Makkah and Madinah are only open to Muslim visitors.