Thinking of traveling to Saudi Arabia? Excellent. Before you go though, you should definitely do one of two things:
— if you’re traveling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, your pilgrimage (about which we’ll learn a
bit below), BOOK EARLY. Over 1.5 million of your soon-to-be closest friends will be joining you from abroad, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Saudis who will come along; you don’t want to be the one who waited too long to reserve a room. You may also want to follow this advice from islamicity.com on what to do before you leave,
such as to be prepared for the rigors of the pilgrimage by simultaneously getting into good physical and spiritual shape: “To achieve this, start a program of brisk walking and jogging for twenty to thirty minutes a day about three to four months before your departure. Gradually increase this regimen to an hour every day or every other day. After a few days of walking/jogging start reciting audibly the Talbiyah and the prayers for Tawaf. This will keep your mind occupied during the monotony of the exercise, and will also help you get in a peaceful frame of mind. Concentrating on the meaning of the prayers will help you get
ready for the actual Hajj as well….” In addition to your pocket Qu’ran and other essentials,
Islamicity.com also suggests you bring, “slippers (flip-flops, thongs, chappals), sneakers, folding umbrella, sunglasses (or clip-on sunshades), small flash light with extra batteries, travel alarm clock, elastic eye-glass holder, baseball cap, 10 zippered sandwich bags, 4 garbage bags, plastic spoons, laundry detergent, 6 plastic grocery bags” and, of course, an inflatable pillow.
— if you’re not planning to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, find out when the Hajj is taking place and BOOK SOME OTHER TIME. During the Hajj over 1.5 million Muslims converge on Saudi Arabia, pretty much all the same time, for their pilgrimage. Imagine 1.5 million other travelers trying to force their carry-on luggage into the same overhead compartment as you, 1.5 million in line ahead of you at customs, 1.5 million waiting for their luggage at the carousel…. Look at a calendar, figure out when the Hajj is going to be, then pick another week.
But if you do pick that other week and you do travel to Saudi Arabia you’ll find it to be a nation unlike any other. If you’re into history you’ll find so much of it in Mecca and Medina,
cities that have been settled continuously for well over two thousand years. If you like the idea of a desert trek, there’s certainly a lot of trek-worthy desert here. If you’d rather experience Saudi culture in a more relaxed, more relatively liberal city, Jeddah, found on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, may be for you.
If you’re a woman you may need to put special thought into you trip to Saudi Arabia. Public contact between men and women who aren’t related is strictly forbidden, so unless you’re traveling with an immediate male relative, your husband or an unrelated male you claim to be your husband, you must be especially careful. (The following link isn’t necessarily appropriate for kids, but look here for a 2008 example of what can happen if the religious police disapprove of your companion at Starbucks.) As mentioned above, women in Saudi Arabia still may not drive cars, so put any plans of a cross-country Saudi Arabian concert tour for your all-girls do-it-yourself punk band on hold.
When you’re traveling you’ll surely bring your camera to document your adventures. Beware! The Saudis are especially sensitive about foreigners who photograph their government institutions, so avoid taking pictures in the airport or near anything that may be a government facility. Even as a tourist you may get in serious trouble for taking a picture of a Saudi woman, even if you have her permission; be prudent and focus your lens only on non-governmental-looking dudes standing from away from big buildings. Another thing to avoid is religious expression that’s not Islamic. Religious items for non-Islamic religions (a Christian Bible or crucifix, for example) are forbidden on the grounds that they may be used to proselytize to Muslims, and public observance of any non-Islamic holiday is forbidden. Oh, and definitely don’t make fun of the King. Whether or not you’re a big fan of the monarchy, pretend to be.
LonelyPlanet.com on Saudi Arabia, “The world’s last great forbidden kingdom.”