Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world, wants to change. In addition to creating new laws – especially those concerning women’s rights – they are also planning to welcome tourists. As of April 1, it will be possible to issue a tourism visa to Saudi, with some restrictions. Women under the age of 25 must be accompanied by their father or a male family member, and only groups of four or more may apply for a visa. The visa process has to be accompanied by a Saudi company. It is similar to what already exists today with religious tourism, but now it will no longer have to be tied to Islam.
But before you go to Saudi Arabia, there are certain information and rules of conduct that you need to know. Check them out:
*Esse post foi escrito originalmente em português.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy – and is forbidden to criticize the royal family
The government there works in a totally different way from most western countries. The king dictates the rules, aided by his sons / nephews / cousins, the princes. There are over 20,000 princes in the country (!!) and it is forbidden to criticize the royal family. If you have any acid comments to make during your visit, I suggest you do it in the privacy of your hotel. Really. At least that’s what the Saudis do: they only discuss politics quietly, at their homes.
Women are forced to wear the Abaya
Calm down, we’re not talking about a burqa. The Abaya is a long cloack (covers the legs and arms), usually black, that does not cover the head. Its use is mandatory, and this is valid for tourists too. If you walk around without it, you will certainly draw attention and be questioned on the street. It’s annoying? IT IS. But do you have to respect it? Yes, you do. There’s no way. It is part of their religion and, as oppressive as it seems to be, all the Saudi women I met said they would use it even if they were not forced to. If you are travelling there for the first time and do not have an Abaya, I suggest you wear a long coat or cape and buy one at the beginning of your trip.
They pray five times a day – and you will hear the call, wherever you are
It starts at sunrise. If your hotel is near a mosque, my friend, I’m sorry: you’ll be awaken by the music that announces pray time. The mosques are distributed throughout the city so that in every place it is possible to hear the call. At the airport they even play it at the speakers. Get used to it. Some stores close for half an hour during prayer, but important functions (such as check in at the airport, for example) are not interrupted. At the time of prayer you will see many men stretching their rugs on the ground and kneeling towards Mecca. Respect this moment and do not interrupt, even if you are waiting for some service.
Demonstrations of affection in public are not allowed
If you travel with your partner, contain yourself. It’s not common to show affection in public, even between married couples. Kissing, holding hands or even dancing in public can scandalize the most religious – and create an unnecessary problem. Specially if someone decides to film the moment, something that happens more often than you think. Which brings us to the next item.
The Saudis are addicted to Snapchat
It seems bizarre to include this in a list of customs of Saudi Arabia, but the truth is that it matters. Even at times when you think you can relax, take off the Abaya, do something wrong, don’t do it. They record everything on Snapchat, especially if you look a lot like a foreigner. As a blonde woman I felt like a celebrity – I was filmed and stopped for selfies several times during the trip. And if a video becomes viral, It can create a great problem. I recently read the news that a couple was arrested for dancing in public in Jeddah, one of the most progressive cities in the country. This certainly would not have happened if the video had not been viral on the internet.
Some places have separate entrances for men and women
That goes from Starbucks to the airport security lines. Always pay attention to the signs in public places so you do not risk getting into the wrong place. In restaurants, they usually separate “singles” and “families.” So if you are accompanied by a boyfriend, for example, you can join “families” together.
Oh, and gyms and hotel pools ALWAYS separate. If you find a beautiful gym or swimming pool in your hotel, you can be sure that it is only for men. Generally, women’s gyms are a lot smaller. Hopefully with the increase in tourism this will change! Our hotel in Riyadh was already building a women’s pool on the rooftop. Since you can’t go together, at least be on the same level, right?
Many stores close between 12pm and 4pm
If you are planning a shopping trip, avoid the afternoon between noon and 4 pm. This “siesta” occurs mainly because of the weather, which can reach 65°C in the summer! You can understand why they close, right? When we went in February, temperatures rarely went above 30°C (a warm winter, hahaha). But even then they closed during the afternoon.
Although many young people speak English, the official language is Arabic
Currently Saudi Arabia has more than 120,000 young people studying abroad, all funded by the government. Because of this tradition, many young people speak English fluently. But this is not the rule, especially among the lower classes. It may happen that your driver or waiter does not speak English very well. Therefore, it is good practice to learn a few words in Arabic, such as the good old “thank you”. In the case “shukraan”, which is pronounced “xucrán”. At the very least you’ll get a smile from anyone who’s doing something for you. That’s good, right?
They eat well. And way too much!
Their food is based on a lot of bread, hummus, rice (with several spices!), chicken, lamb, more bread, more hummus, and desserts made with honey and pistachio. It’s all very good! In some places you even find camel meat, but I didn’t have the guts to prove it. The bad (or good?) side is that they always serve sooooooo much more than one person can eat. It is part of the culture to leave left overs. Do not feel obligated to eat everything they offer you, because believe me, you will not be able to.
Another thing that is part of the dinner, especially if you are received at someone’s house, is the small talk before and after the meal. Eating in Saudi is a long ritual! Usually the meal starts with coffee (Arabic, which is not coffee itself, looks more like tea) and dates, many dates. Then comes the full meal. In the end, more tea with sweets or fruit. And more talking!
Do not show the soles of the feet and eat with the right hand
In Saudi Arabia it is considered disrespect to show the soles of the feet. If you sit at a table at floor level (very common there), sit cross-legged or on your knees. Also never put your feet on furniture, such as coffee tables. Oh, and don’t forget to take your shoes off before sitting at such a table.
Another curious custom is to always eat with the right hand, since the left is considered dirty. Poor lefties! If you go to a traditional restaurant, you may see people eating by hand. Even rice, it’s an art! If you do not feel comfortable (or able), ask for a fork. No problem.
Did you like the fun facts? Do you know other ones? Comment below!
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