Saudi Arabia ranks number four on the Eight Most Dangerous Countries for Women Travelers. Although hardly a common tourist destination, 3.7 million pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, many of them women; this year it is scheduled for August 19-24 when the heat will be stifling. That means heat stroke, even with carrying umbrellas, hydrating, and being sprayed with cool water by the police. It’s worth noting that in some years, many people have been trampled to death simply due to the incredible size of the crowd that makes any error, deadly. For example, in 2015, an estimated 2,177 pilgrims died. On the bright side, in 2017, there weren’t mass casualties from trampling because there were physical changes to the route and more security police were added. However, there’s also the issue of contracting MERS and other diseases from being in close proximity to millions of other pilgrims. But wait – is that the only problem? Why no.
There’s also the terrorism risk: According to the latest Canadian travel advisory, a high degree of caution is required anywhere in Saudi Arabia due to terrorist attacks and security incidents, with a recommendation to avoid all travel within 60 km of the Yemen border due to rocket, missile and mortar attacks. Further, avoid non-essential travel in Al Qatif and its suburbs due to ongoing tensions between Saudi security forces and local militants. By terrorist groups, we mean several of them, some associated with Al Qaeda. The British travel advisory recommends most of the same cautions as the Canadians and suggests following local media to avoid running into public demonstrations since they’re illegal and likely to result in violent clashes between the security police and the demonstrators. The Irish travel advisory echoes these warnings and notes that there have been attacks on Danish, American, and Canadian citizens. Fine, but many countries have terrorism, is that really all? No.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the British note that the local driving standards are poor and the Middle-Eastern Respiratory System Corona-Virus (MERS Co-v) is also a hazard. But really, should women really be that discouraged about Saudi Arabia?
Yes, because of the breath-taking and enforced sexism. Saudi Arabia requires you to have a male relative with you for most items we consider daily living and women have very few rights. To be fair, they’re improving. In big news for 2018, Saudi Arabia started issuing tourist visas in April which means non-Muslims will be able to visit Jeddah, Riyadh, and the ancient desert city of Madah’in Saleh (ancient tombs similar to the Nabatean sites in Petra). However, non-Muslims won’t be able to tour the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For women, the key part is that the Saudis will issue a visa for women without a chaperone as long as they are at least 25 years old, part of an accredited company, and stay at designated hotels. If you don’t want to be part of a tourist group or are under 24 you still need a male relative. In other good news, women can now legally drive as of June 2018, go to movies, and attend some sporting events. Although extending a hearty “Party on!” to Saudi Arabian women, this still makes Saudi Arabia only somewhat better for the average woman visitor, who likely won’t go unless they want to do the Hajj, have family there, or really need to go there for business (you still need special permission and must follow specific requirements, which we weren’t able to find). So even with these improvements, Saudi Arabia is still a very difficult and obnoxious place for a woman to travel because of its many restrictions that make our ability to travel in a normal fashion, non-existent (see the key tips below for why).
If you want to go or must go: Best to go with a male relative to avoid lots of trouble and below is a list of tips for navigating Saudi culture. The Red City town of Jeddah combines sun and sea or go to Madah’in Saleh if you can get a reputable guide. The following are key tips to follow:
- Don’t offend the religious police by being out on the streets during the five daily prayers, which last 20-30 minutes. Check online or in the newspaper since times change daily and work around them.
- Wearing an Abaya is required.
- Wear a head scarf (not required of foreigners, but still likely to get you in trouble if you don’t).
- Don’t drink alcohol. It’s illegal. You knew this, right?
- Do not travel with a man other than your husband or a relative.
- Don’t ride a bicycle, though you might be able to drive. Check and follow the requirements.
- Be careful when taking photos. Technically photography is okay but in practice, it’s often a problem if you take a picture of something that might be governmental and therefore secret or of Muslim men, who would find that offensive.
- Don’t overtly act like a non-Muslim. This means don’t behave in public in any way that looks religious but not Muslim.
- Don’t criticize the flag, royal family, or Saudi government.
- Not to mention a host of other laws and practices that are hazardous to women, including the requirement of having your husband’s permission to leave the kingdom even if you are a foreign national and even if he isn’t Saudi.
- Traveling during Ramadan is even trickier so study up if you’re going.
- Are you sure you want to risk being flogged or imprisoned? Is this is the best place to spend your travel dollars? If you do want to risk it, here are more details.
Conclusion: Perhaps you are thinking it would be better to go where a woman can travel freely and safely, if so, please refer to our 10 Safest Countries for Women Travelers, Best Countries in Africa, Best Places in Oceania, Best Countries in South America and Best and Worst of North America.
Photo: Women are sharing their experiences of being sexually harassed and assaulted while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia
Photo credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images, courtesy of Buzzfeed