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Travel Warning & Consular Information Sheet for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia - Consular Information Sheet
June 19, 2001

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by a king chosen from and by members of the Al-Saud family. The king rules through royal decrees issued in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, and with advice from the Consultative Council. Members of both councils are appointed by the king. Islamic law is the basis of the authority of the monarchy and provides the foundation of the country's conservative customs and social practices. Saudi Arabia has a modern and well-developed infrastructure, and facilities for travelers are widely available, although the country does not issue visas for tourism except for approved tour groups. The workweek in Saudi Arabia is Saturday through Wednesday.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS: Passports valid for at least six months and visas are required for entry. Visas are issued for business and work, to visit close relatives, and for transit and religious visits. Visas for tourism are issued only for approved tour groups following organized itineraries. Airport and seaport visas are not available. All visas require a sponsor, can take several months to process, and must be obtained prior to arrival. Women visitors and residents are required to be met by their sponsor upon arrival. Women traveling alone, who are not met by sponsors, have experienced delays before being allowed to enter the country or to continue on to other flights.

Visitors to Saudi Arabia generally obtain a meningitis vaccination prior to arrival. A medical report or physical examination is required to obtain work and residence permits.

Residents working in Saudi Arabia generally must surrender their passports while in the Kingdom. The sponsor (normally the employer) obtains work and residence permits for the employee and for any family members. Family members of those working are not required by law to surrender their passports, though they often do. Residents carry a Saudi residence permit (Iqama) for identification in place of their passports. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General in Saudi Arabia cannot sponsor private American citizens for Saudi visas.

Foreign residents traveling within the Kingdom, even between towns in the same province, carry travel letters issued by employers and authenticated by an immigration official or a Chamber of Commerce office. Police at all airports and dozens of roadblocks routinely arrest and imprison violators.

Residents in Saudi Arabia who are departing the country must obtain an exit permit prior to leaving and an exit/reentry permit if they intend to return to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi sponsor's approval is required for exit permits. A married woman residing in Saudi Arabia with her husband must have her husband's approval to receive an exit permit. The father must approve the departure of any children. The U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulates General cannot sponsor private U.S. citizens for an exit permit under any circumstances. Temporary visitors normally do not need an exit permit but may be prevented from departing the country if they are involved in a legal dispute.

In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated procedures at entry/exit points. These often include requiring documentary evidence of the relationship between the child and an accompanying adult and, when the child's parent(s) or legal guardian is not traveling with the child, permission from that adult for the child's travel. Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/departure.

For further information on entry/exit requirements, travelers may contact the following Saudi government offices in the U.S.:

--Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, 601 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037, telephone (202) 333-2740. The Embassy's Internet home page is at http://www.saudiembassy.net/

--Saudi Consulate General in New York: 866 United Nations Plaza, Suite 480, New York, NY 10017, tel: (212) 752-2740

--Saudi Consulate General in Houston: 5718 Westheimer, Suite 1500, Houston, TX 77057, tel: (713) 785-5577

--Saudi Consulate General in Los Angeles: Sawtelle Courtyard Building, 2045 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025, tel: (310) 479-6000

DUAL NATIONALITY: The Saudi government does not recognize dual nationality. Saudi authorities have confiscated the U.S. passports of U.S. citizens when they apply for Saudi citizenship and the U.S. passports of dual (Saudi/U.S.) nationals when they applied for a Saudi passport. This does not constitute loss of U.S. citizenship, but should be reported to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. For additional information, please refer to the Consular Affairs home page on the Internet at http://travel.state.gov and click on the dual nationality flyer.

SAFETY AND SECURITY: The U.S. Government continues to assist Saudi authorities in their investigations of the 1995 and 1996 bombings of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Mission continues to receive reports that suggest terrorist action against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia remains a possibility. Because of continuing security concerns, the Embassy, Consulates General, and the U.S. military elements throughout the country have reviewed their security postures and made improvements wherever possible to lessen their vulnerabilities. We strongly encourage all Americans visiting or resident in Saudi Arabia to likewise take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness and lessen their vulnerability.

All American citizens in Saudi Arabia should maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness and reduce their vulnerability. Americans should maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel, and treat mail and packages from unfamiliar sources with suspicion. In addition, American citizens are urged to avoid contact with any suspicious, unfamiliar objects, and to report the presence of such objects to local authorities. Vehicles should not be left unattended, if at all possible, and should be kept locked at all times. American citizens are urged to park their motor vehicles in protected areas with restricted access and to inspect the vehicles before using them, looking underneath, inside the engine compartment, and inside the trunk. The use of flashlight for vehicle inspections at night is recommended. Suspicious activities, individuals, or vehicles should be reported to the U.S. Embassy or nearest Consulate General. License numbers of vehicles and descriptions of individuals are extremely helpful. Saudi officials continue to cooperate closely with the Embassy to ensure the safety of all Americans.

The American Embassy and Consulates General in Saudi Arabia inform the resident American community of security matters through a communications system known as the warden faxnet. Persons who are residing in the Kingdom should contact the Embassy or nearest Consulate General for information on their warden contacts. Americans arriving in Saudi Arabia are encouraged to register at the Embassy or Consulates General and obtain the most current security information (see section on Registration.)

CRIME: Crime is generally not a problem for travelers in Saudi Arabia. However, private Saudi citizens who perceive that conservative standards of conduct are not being observed by a foreigner may harass, pursue, or assault that person. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh cautions American citizens that Saudi Arabian police authorities have detained potential witnesses to crimes, without charges or access to legal counsel and with limited or delayed consular access, for months during the investigative stage of criminal cases. On occasion, Saudi authorities have temporarily confiscated the personal effects of detained potential witnesses.

U.S. citizens may refer to the Department of State's pamphlets A Safe Trip Abroad and Tips for Travelers to the Middle East and North Africa for ways to promote a more trouble-free journey. These publications are available by mail from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, via the Internet at http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs, or via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov.

The loss or theft of a U.S. passport abroad should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

MEDICAL FACILITIES: Basic modern medical care and medicines are available in several hospitals and health centers in Saudi Arabia. Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the United States can cost thousands of dollars. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services.

MEDICAL INSURANCE: The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation. U.S. medical insurance plans seldom cover health costs incurred outside the United States unless supplemental coverage is purchased. Further, U.S. Medicare and Medicaid programs do not provide payment for medical services outside the United States. However, many travel agents and private companies offer insurance plans that will cover health care expenses incurred overseas including emergency services such as medical evacuations.

When making a decision regarding health insurance, Americans should consider that many foreign doctors and hospitals require payment in cash prior to providing service and that a medical evacuation to the U.S. may cost well in excess of $50,000. Uninsured travelers who require medical care overseas often face extreme difficulties, whereas travelers who have purchased overseas medical insurance have, when a medical emergency occurs, found it life-saving. When consulting with your insurer prior to your trip, ascertain whether payment will be made to the overseas healthcare provider or whether you will be reimbursed later for expenses you incur. Some insurance policies also include coverage for psychiatric treatment and for disposition of remains in the event of death.

Useful information on medical emergencies abroad, including overseas insurance programs, is provided in the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs brochure Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad, available via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page or autofax: (202) 647-3000.

OTHER HEALTH INFORMATION: Malaria is endemic to the low-lying coastal plains of southwest Saudi Arabia, primarily in the Jizan region extending up the coast to the rural area surrounding Jeddah. Visitors to the region are advised to take precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. As a further precaution, all persons intending to travel to this region should seek medical advice regarding recommendations for prophylactic anti-malarial medications. Cases of Meningicoccal disease or meningitis in Americans traveling to Saudi Arabia are rare. However, during the Hajj season when there is an increased incidence of this disease among those traveling in the vicinity of Makkah and Medina, the Saudi Ministry of Health may require proof of immunization against meningitis. The Department of State Medical Unit at the Embassy in Riyadh recommends that official U.S. Government travelers be vaccinated for meningitis prior to travel to the Kingdom. Information on vaccinations and other health precautions may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747); fax 1-888-CDC-FAXX (1-888-232-3299), or via CDC's Internet site at http://www.cdc.gov.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS: While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Saudi Arabia is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Good
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Good
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Fair
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

Traffic accidents are a significant hazard in Saudi Arabia. Driving habits are generally poor, and accidents involving vehicles driven by minors are not uncommon. In the event of a traffic accident resulting in personal injury, all persons involved (if not in the hospital) may be taken to the local police station. Drivers are likely to be held for several days until responsibility is determined and any reparations paid. In many cases, all drivers are held in custody regardless of fault. Those involved in an accident should immediately contact their sponsor and the U.S. Embassy or nearest U.S. Consulate. For additional general information about road safety, including links to foreign government sites, see the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov/road_safety.html.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Saudi Arabia's Civil Aviation Authority as Category 1 -- in compliance with international aviation safety standards for oversight of Saudi Arabia's air carrier operations. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet website at http://www.faa.gov/avr/iasa/. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801.

CUSTOMS REGULATIONS: Saudi customs authorities enforce strict regulations concerning importation into Saudi Arabia of such banned items as alcohol products, weapons and any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam. This includes non-Islamic religious materials, pork products, and pornography. Saudi customs and postal officials broadly define what is contrary to Islam, and therefore prohibited. Christmas decorations, fashion magazines, and "suggestive" videos may be confiscated and the owner subject to penalties and fines. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington or one of Saudi Arabia's consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Saudi Arabia's laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, imprisoned or even executed. Suspects can be detained, without charges or legal counsel and with limited consular access, for months during the investigative stage of criminal cases. As stated in Section 5 (CRIME), witnesses to possible criminal incidents also can be detained under similar circumstances for long periods of time. Even when released from detention, witnesses to criminal incidents may be prohibited from leaving the country until investigation of the incident is complete.

Penalties for the import, manufacture, possession, and consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs are severe. Convicted offenders can expect jail sentences, fines, public flogging, and/or deportation. The penalty for drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia is death. Saudi officials make no exceptions. Customs inspections at ports of entry are thorough. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General have no standing in Saudi courts to obtain leniency for an American convicted of alcohol or drug offenses.

Besides alcohol products and illicit drugs, Saudi Arabia also prohibits the import, use, or possession of any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam (see "Customs Regulations" section above.) The private ownership of weapons is prohibited. Imported and domestic audiovisual media and reading matter are censored.

Homosexual activity is considered to be a criminal offense and those convicted may be sentenced to lashing and/or a prison sentence, or death.

Saudi authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam, although private worship by non-Muslims generally is permitted. Non-Muslims suspects of violating these restrictions have been jailed.

EMPLOYMENT AND BUSINESS CONTRACT: The written, Arabic text of a contract governs employment and business arrangements under Saudi law. Before signing a contract, American companies should obtain an independent translation to ensure a full understanding of the contract's terms, limits, and agreements. No American should come to work in Saudi Arabia or make a business arrangement without having seen and understood the full, written contract. Verbal assurances or side letters are not binding under Saudi law. In the event of any contract dispute, the Saudi authorities refer to the contract. Since the Saudi sponsor holds the employee's passport and controls the issuance of exit permits, Americans cannot simply leave Saudi Arabia in the event of a labor or business dispute. An American who wishes to break an employment or business contract may have to pay substantial penalties before being allowed to leave Saudi Arabia. To change employers in Saudi Arabia requires the permission of the previous employer, which is discretionary. Saudi courts take seriously their responsibility to adjudicate disputes. This process, which is performed in accordance with Saudi law and customs, may require the hiring of legal counsel, should not be entered into without an Arabic translator, and can take several months. The U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulates General cannot adjudicate labor or business disputes.

U.S. consular officers can provide lists of local attorneys to help U.S. citizens settle business disputes, but ultimate responsibility for the resolution of disputes through the Saudi legal system lies with the parties involved.

SAUDI CUSTOMS, RELIGIOUS POLICE, AND GENERAL STANDARDS OF CONDUCT: Islam pervades all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. It is the official religion of the country, and public observance of any other religion is forbidden. Public non-Muslim religious services are illegal, and public display of non-Islamic religious articles such as crosses and Bibles is not permitted. Travel to Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, the cities where the two holiest mosques of Islam are located, is forbidden to non-Muslims.

The norms for public behavior in Saudi Arabia are extremely conservative, and religious police, known as Mutawwa, are charged with enforcing these standards. Mutawwa are required to carry special identification and usually are accompanied by uniformed police. However, in some cases they have detained persons even without police presence. To ensure that conservative standards of conduct are observed, the Saudi religious police have accosted or arrested foreigners, including U.S. citizens, for improper dress or other infractions, such as consumption of alcohol or association by a female with a male to whom she is not related. While most incidents have resulted only in inconvenience or embarrassment, the potential exists for an individual to be physically harmed or deported. U.S. citizens who are involved in an incident with the Mutawwa should report the incident to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the U.S. Consulates General in Jeddah or Dhahran.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington advises women traveling to Saudi Arabia to dress in a conservative fashion, wearing ankle-length dresses with long sleeves, and not to wear trousers in public. In many areas of Saudi Arabia, particularly Riyadh and the central part of the Kingdom, Mutawwa pressure women to wear a full-length black covering known as an Abaya and to cover their heads. Most women in these areas therefore wear an Abaya and carry a headscarf to avoid being accosted. Women who appear to be of Arab or Asian origin, especially those presumed to be Muslims, face a greater risk of being confronted.

Some Mutawwa try to enforce the rule that men and women who are beyond childhood years may not mingle in public, unless they are family or close relatives. Mutawwa may ask to see proof that a couple is married or related. Women who are arrested for socializing with a man who is not a relative may be charged with prostitution. Some restaurants, particularly fast-food outlets, have refused to serve women who are not accompanied by a close male relative. In addition, many restaurants no longer have a "family section" in which women are permitted to eat. These restrictions are not always posted, and in some cases women violating this policy have been arrested.

Women are not allowed to drive vehicles or ride bicycles on public roads.

In public, dancing, music and movies are forbidden.

Pornography, which is very broadly defined by Saudi authorities, is strictly forbidden.

THE HAJJ: American Muslims who are not resident in Saudi Arabia but who plan to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina should pay close attention to the following:

All travel plans should be made through a travel agent in order to book accommodations in advance. Hajj visas are required and are valid only for travel to the two holy cities. Onward travel to Riyadh or other cities in Saudi Arabia is not permitted.

Foreign Muslim residents of the Kingdom may perform the Hajj once every five years. Advance approval must be obtained from an immigration office with the approval of the Saudi sponsor.

King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah is a large and modern facility, with a special terminal with facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. However, due to the extremely large number of people arriving, waiting time at the airport upon arrival during the Hajj may be as long as ten hours. Pilgrims should plan on a lengthy wait before leaving the airport on their way to Makkah or Medina. Travelers with only carry-on bags will find baggage transfer at the airport much easier than will those with checked baggage.

Before leaving home, travelers should make at least two copies of their passports, including the pages stamped with Saudi visas. One copy should be left with someone at home and one taken with the traveler. Passports are turned over to Saudi officials upon arrival in the Kingdom and will be given back immediately prior to departure. Upon arrival, all pilgrims are issued an identification card or wrist-band. Travelers should carry this identification at all times.

A money belt or pouch is the best way to carry valuables. Upon arrival it is possible to buy what is known as a "Hajj belt," which is somewhat larger than American equivalents. Pilgrims should bring sufficient funds to cover any unforeseen emergencies. If pilgrims need to purchase Saudi Riyals, there is a bank at the Hajj terminal, but it is not continuously open. Exchange and ATM facilities are available in the city of Makkah, but not at the holy sites.

Visitors should check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their travel agent, and a Saudi consulate or embassy regarding recommended or required shots. Cases of Meningicoccal disease or meningitis in Americans traveling to Saudi Arabia are rare. However, during the Hajj season when there is an increased incidence of this disease among those traveling in the vicinity of Makkah and Medina, the Saudi Ministry of Health may require proof of immunization against meningitis.

Travelers should expect extremely crowded conditions during the Hajj. Temperatures in Makkah range between 68 and 90 Fahrenheit in February and March. There are many facilities providing water, public accommodations, and other amenities. In case of emergency, Hajj pilgrims should first contact the United Agents Office (Makkah), telephone (02)545-1444, or National Adilla Est. (Medina), telephone (04)826-0088, and then contact the American Consulate General in Jeddah, telephone (02) 667-0080.

CHILDREN'S ISSUES: For information on international parental child abduction and the international adoption of children please refer to our Internet site at http://travel.state.gov/children's_issues.html or telephone (202) 736-7000.

REGISTRATION AND EMBASSY/CONSULATE LOCATION: Americans living in or visiting Saudi Arabia are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the Consulates General in Dhahran and Jeddah. U.S. citizens who register at the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Consulates General may obtain updated information on travel and security within Saudi Arabia and can be included in the warden network.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is located at Collector Road M, Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 94309, Riyadh 11693. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: U.S. Embassy, Unit 61307, APO AE 09803-1307. The Embassy telephone number is (966) (1) 488-3800, fax (966) (1) 488-7275.

The U.S. Consulate General in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is located between Aramco Headquarters and the old Dhahran Airport at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals highway exit. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 38955, Doha-Dhahran 31942. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: Unit 66803, APO AE 09858-6803. The telephone number is (966) (3) 330-3200, fax (966) (3) 330-0464.

The U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is located on Palestine Road, Ruwais. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 149, Jeddah. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: Unit 62112, APO AE 09811-2112. The telephone number is (966) (2) 667-0080, fax (966) (2) 669-3078 or 669-3098.

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