With Saudi Arabia opening up to tourism after decades closed, it is no wonder that it has become a hot topic among communities of travellers. Saudi Arabia offers something completely new a different to people from all around the world as it is the birthplace of Islam but also a vast country filled with varied sceneries and sights which can be visited without much preparation, apart from getting an e-visa. Its reputation as a closed-off country, however, leads to many myths or misunderstood facts, especially when it comes to the specificities of travelling to Saudi Arabia as a woman.
Let’s lay it out there right here and now, female travellers in the Kingdom will find it much easier to travel in the country than they would have expected.
Getting to Saudi Arabia as a woman
First and foremost, women will find that they can apply for their visa to Saudi Arabia without any problem. Contrary to popular belief based on the old way things were working, foreign women can travel to Saudi Arabia independently without the need for a male chaperone, such as their husband or their brother. They can travel on their own, with female friends, male friends or as part of a group (such as our group tour to Saudi Arabia) to their own will.
Laws of Saudi Arabia regarding foreign women
As for the laws as a female tourist in Saudi Arabia, they are quite different from what is expected of the local women there. Indeed, a foreign woman can book her own hotel and hire a car on their own. This is quite impressive considering that women have only recently gained the right to drive a car in the country. As far as tourists are concerned, there are no differences between women and men when it comes to abiding the law and provided you follow common-sense rules and are respectful of local customs, we are sure that you’ll have a great time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The country is currently, under the impetus of its crown prince, reviewing many of its laws and has been asked by the crown prince to adopt a moderate and open version of Islam, which has led to many recent changes in its laws and, most probably many more changes to come.
Dressing up in Saudi Arabia as a woman
When it comes to clothes that women must wear in Saudi Arabia, lots of people have an apprehension that is quickly surprised. It is true that any local woman that you’ll meet in Saudi Arabia will be wearing the full niqab and that they wouldn’t be caught doing otherwise by their family or friends. However, the tourist gets a total pass on this and wearing any kind of specific attire is not a requirement for tourists in Saudi Arabia. The rule for tourists basically says that they must refrain from wearing clothes that would be judged distasteful or morally harmful to the locals. As such, Saudi Arabia allows tourists more freedom in the choice of what they wear than say, Iran. From our experience, as long as women refrain from wearing clothes that show cleavage or short skirts, they will not encounter any trouble. A headscarf, contrary to Iran, is not compulsory. Female travellers might, however, want to wear a headscarf when visiting mosques which is a common courtesy all around the Muslim world. It is not like Iraq where for example, it is necessary to rent a chador before entering the shrines of Najaf or Karbala. In that aspect, you’ll find that there are fewer restraints on female foreign tourists visiting religious sites in Saudi Arabia than in Malaysia. There are, however, some mosques, such as the mosques of Mecca and Medina which are off-limit to non-muslims. This ban applies uniformly for non-muslim men and women.
As a rule of thumb, any foreign woman wearing long trousers, long sleeves and showing no cleavage should be welcome in Saudi Arabia. At the moment, however, women should refrain from swimming in either one-piece or two-piece swimsuits, with the locals swimming either in their clothes or in a burkini. Clothes displaying what could be judged as provocative messages should also be avoided by men and women alike. This doesn’t mean that locals won’t be curious! The following clothing, for example, would be totally fine.
On a side note, you’ll find that local women take very good care of their appearances. While the abaya conceals a lot, many women we’ve encountered wear elaborate makeup, have their nails done and carry sophisticated accessories.
Mingling between men and women in Saudi Arabia
While local women in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to interact with men who they are unrelated to, you’ll find that foreign tourists of both genders are welcome to interact with everyone they might encounter, without regard to their gender. That means that a female tourist in Saudi Arabia can freely interact with hotel staff, guides, salespersons and clerks anywhere. Of course, people of opposite genders should avoid subjects which could be seen as improper as well as physical contact. This is more to avoid offending people than actually running into trouble with the law (although, in some extreme cases, the law would be able to intervene.
Travelling in the country, foreigners will find that there are actually quite a lot of women employed and working around the country. As such, it is likely that you’ll encounter saleswomen and female representatives. Men and women alike are welcome to interact with these women, without any issue.
While there are still men sections and family sections (open to females and married couples) in restaurants female travellers are generally welcome to sit wherever they see fit. During our first tour of Saudi Arabia after the opening of the country, we spectated a crazy parade in Riyadh. There, men and women were watching the show without enforced distinctions of gender.
Saudi Arabia however, is not Ibiza and while it is very permissive for foreigners in contrast to the local traditions, certain behaviors are still not welcome here. Men and women should not, for example, hold hands, hug or kiss in public.
So that’s the skinny on the current state of the affair from females travelling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Of course, that is all written by me, a man. If you’d like to hear more about the situation from the perspective of one of our female guests on our Saudi tour, please have a look at Madison’s blog about the subject!