Saudi Arabia has finally opened its doors to allow tourists from other countries to visit. In September 2019, the country launched a visa regime that will allow visitors from 49 countries to enter. Previously, visas were mostly restricted to business travelers and Muslim pilgrims, who had to get special permission to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Non-pilgrim tourists will still find it difficult to visit these holy places as permission is restricted.
Saudi Arabia is known for its strict dress code and rules of conduct, especially regarding females, but the newest laws will be more relaxed, appealing to Westerners. Before the new traveling laws, men and women had to be segregated in public places and women were required to wear the all-covering black robes known as “abayas.” This does not mean that women will be able to dress as they do in their home countries; they will still be required to dress modestly, including at public beaches. Alcohol, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia, will remain banned even to foreigners on vacation.
Tourism Minister Ahmad al-Khateeb said, “Visitors will be surprised by the treasures we have to share – five Unesco World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”
The decision to relax the visa requirements comes from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his desire to cut the country’s dependence on oil as well as to bring the kingdom more into the modern world. He is already credited with a number of liberal reforms, including giving women the right to drive and ending a ban that prevented cinemas.
The Saudi Arabian Way of Life
Although Saudi Arabia has been around for centuries, it has only officially existed as a kingdom in its current state since 1932. For 14 centuries before that, Muslim pilgrims from around the world traveled to the holy sites of Makkah (Mecca) and Madinah (Medina). They brought goods from their homes to trade, including ivory from Africa and carpets from the East.
The social customs in Saudi Arabia are quite different than in Western civilization. Unlike in America, the two sexes are kept separate, and there are strict rules on interaction. Gender segregation is not just about keeping males and females away from each other at public events; it also relates to the workforce. Women may work outside the home as long as the job does not require any contact with men who are not relatives.
Men have more rights than women, who cannot do many things without first gaining permission from a male guardian such as a husband, father, or brother. In fact, most business transactions are conducted solely by males to prevent women from accidental contact with non-related men.
The people of Saudi Arabia believe in family, morals, and values, and when a crime is committed, the goal is to shame the person for behaving poorly. When someone does something inappropriate, it shames not just them, but their family as well. For example, if a court decides the accused should receive a physical punishment, the reprimand is usually carried out in a public place where the person’s name and the ancestral names associated with his or her family are yelled out loudly for everyone to hear. This type of punishment is supposed to be a shame so severe it is worse than any physical punishment the perpetrator could have received.