I’m Going To Saudi Arabia… I Think?

Filed Under: Saudia, Travel

Saudi Arabia was supposed to start issuing tourist visas as of April 1, 2018, in an attempt to boost their non-religious tourism. However, for whatever reason there have been delays in implementing this, and more than six months later they’re still not issuing tourist visas.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an interesting workaround to get a visa to visit Saudi Arabia. In December there will be a Formula E race in Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia is issuing e-visas for the purposes of attending this event. Beyond attending the Formula E race you’re encouraged to explore the country, and can travel around freely (well, except for some sites that are off limits for non-Muslims).

I think I’m going to Saudi Arabia!

While the December 15 date isn’t ideal for my schedule, I think I can make it work. I’d be fascinated to see Saudi Arabia firsthand and form my own opinion.

Part of the reason I figured I should try to make it work is because December is an ideal time to visit in terms of the weather, as it’s much better than going in the summer, when it’s painfully hot. Furthermore, who knows how long it will be until they start issuing “true” tourist visas.

I don’t have much time (only about four days), though a lot of things are coming together to make this work):

  • Based on the award availability I see, I could review Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9 business class to London, and then Gulf Air’s new 787-9  business class from London to Bahrain to Riyadh
  • I’m still trying to decide on my return trip, but there are quite a few options; I sort of regret having flown Saudia first class already, because while there’s award availability, I don’t want to just review the same thing again

Ritz-Carlton Riyadh — interesting or creepy?

My general plan was to spend two nights in Riyadh and two nights in Jeddah. In Jeddah I was going to stay at the Park Hyatt, while in Riyadh I can’t decide where to stay. I’d be fascinated to stay at the Ritz-Carlton, given its significance and recent history. However, I think I’d also probably be a bit creeped out staying there, given what happened there recently. I’m not a fan of bad juju.

What happened to Saudia’s ALBAYRAQ service?

One thing I was really excited about with this trip is experiencing Saudia’s special ALBAYRAQ service between Jeddah and Riyadh. Essentially Saudia operates two A319s in an all business class configuration between the two airports, and they depart from the airports’ private terminals, so that’s pretty special.

I was getting ready to book my flight, but couldn’t seem to find the flight for December.

I can see the flight bookable for the rest of October…

But starting in November I just don’t see the flight anymore.

Is the service being quietly discontinued, do they only start selling tickets a few weeks out, or what?

Bottom line

While I haven’t pulled the trigger on my flights or visa yet, I’m seriously leaning towards booking this. I’m just bummed that Saudia’s all business class service between Jeddah and Riyadh doesn’t seem bookable for mid-December, unless I’m missing something.

Lastly, let me acknowledge that understandably a lot of people will disagree with my willingness to travel to Saudi Arabia. I think that’s a completely fair stance to take. I shared my thoughts on why I don’t have issues traveling to countries that I strongly disagree with in this post, and it’s something I’ll soon write a follow-up post about, because I have more thoughts on it in the meantime.

Has anyone been to Jeddah and Riyadh, and if so, thoughts on which is more interesting?

  1. I think you should go to the consulate in Instanbul and check if you can see if Jamal Khashoggi is alive or dead.

  2. For the return, I think Etihad operate their 787-9s to both Riyadh and Jeddah so you could fly their 787 first class to Abu Dhabi and then onwards to Washington.

  3. I heard they still have public executions at Deera Square (nicknamed chop chop square) in Riyadh. As a westerner it sounds horrific but to a different culture it may be viewed differently. I’ve never been to KSA (missed out on the whole transit visa thing some bloggers did a few years ago) but I hope to visit someday once they actually do offer tourist visas. Jeddah just sounds more pleasant since there’s at least a coastline and beach!
    As for the Saudia first class redemption, I think you were better off flying them earlier since who knew Chase would stop skypass transfers a few months ago. Also, I believe AAdvantage recently ended its partnership with Gulf Air so I’m curious how you got the ticket for LHR-BAH in Gulf Air business class. I know GF has a bid upgrade program though.
    Good luck with this trip and I hope it works out!

  4. “Hello people who hate me, my country, my life, and my decisions, and who might kill me or put me in jail for any of those things. Please take my money. Don’t worry, if I get kidnapped or something, my country will send people here to risk their lives trying to save me.”

  5. There is no such thing called “regular visa” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: generally you go there either for work or hajj. I go there for working one week per year, and go through business visa process, which is initiated by my sponsor inside the Saudi Arabia in form of LOI (letter of invitation) , and this LOI is forwarded to the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa, where I have to use a designated visa agent to file visa application.

    Lucky, there is zero tourist service setup now, so if I were you, I would wait for the next few years. The tourism infrastructure between the Saudi and the neighboring UAE or Qatar or Oman, are probably 100 years difference. Even the tiny Bahrain is 10 times better.

  6. If the Albayraq service is cancelled, how about flying SaudiGulf? I know you love trying obscure airlines. Given that almost every new airline in the world is low cost, or even ultra-low cost, it would be refreshing to fly a new full service carrier.

    No way of flying Kuwait first class during this trip? Otherwise the new Gulf Air Dreamliners could be interesting… a definite improvement over the old A330s, and they’re introducing new menus and turn-down service on-board.

  7. Please be careful if you go. If anyone there knows that you’re gay… you know what happens. Just think wisely

  8. Honestly here is how I look at it. People should be able to go where they want but they should also assume the risk. Dave is spot on. I can’t stand when people go somewhere dangerous and then expect their government to get them out. That being said I don’t think Lucky will have any issues.

  9. @Lucky — Please don’t stay all four days in Riyadh and Jeddah. As others and I have urged you before, please visit Mada’in Saleh (I don’t think you’ve been to Petra).

    One writer above says, “there is zero tourist service setup now,” which is quite untrue. There’s a new airport in Al Ula, which serves as the gateway to Mada’in Saleh.

    It strikes me that over the years you’ve come to appreciate those “special” places, and this is indeed one of those.

    By the way, the Saudi Airlines website can be a little erratic, so don’t be surprised if something is showing one day and then has disappeared a while later. And also be prepared for male call centre staff to hang up on you (if your question involves too much work), but the women staff are excellent.

    Glad you’re going to finally make it here.

  10. The 787 or 777 (with 1-2-1) Saudia biz isn’t bad, especially with direct from JFK, and the Virgin Atlantic upper class out of LHR is a nice option. If you do end up making it out here and want to visit a “western” compound, let me know and I’d be happy to get you a pass onto the one we live on. The city is not a tourist destination in typical sense, but there are a lot of new experiences to be had, from the food, to seeing a movie in a country that hasn’t had them before this year since the 70s, to some amazing desert camping. Good luck on the visa though as I know that’s a cumbersome process right now.

  11. I’ve travelled to KSA many times for business. I stayed at the Ritz about a month before the “detention.” It’s fabulous. I can give you lots of travel advice (too much to list here). Email me and let’s connect!

  12. I worked in the eastern province for over a year and went to Bahrain every weekend. The people in Saudi were always friendly, but there was nothing to do. Found the country very boring.

    Guess if you’re going for 4 days, you can check out Madah’in Saleh which I heard was cool, but also heard Petra is better. You will be perfectly safe there as a white male from the US and have nothing to worry about; I felt safer there than NYC where I’m from. Just be prepared for you to not have much to do.

  13. Having lived in KSA for several years, I can say that you may be the only non-Muslim Ive heard of being excited to visit (although, I suppose I was when I first arrived). Prior to arriving in KSA, I envisioned it being like Kuwait, but in reality it is more like Baghdad. The Ritz Carlton maybe the nicest RC in the the world with some of the best service in KSA. The Four Seasons would also be highly recommended (I don’t know it it’s the tallest building in the kindom, but if not, it’s close). The Kempinski is also good. The Park Hyatt Jeddah is the best choice in Jeddah (DO NOT stay at the Marriott, Jeddah- not only is it beneath the quality of any Marriott, it falls beneath the quality of any Best Western).
    Personally, I’m not a fan of Saudia, but I’ve only flown, in J class (though, I’ve been on flights between IAD-RUH where there were as few as 40 people on a 77W, which is nice). The one thing that people get wrong about KSA is that the Saudis are actually very hospitable toward Americans, so in contradiction to what I stated earlier, I actually think you’ll enjoy your short trip (BTW, what ever you do….don’t drive).

  14. 100% agree with Mfb123 – Do not drive!!! You get in an accident, very likely, you will not fare well in their system, and with how crazy ppl drive there, you want to avoid being behind the wheel.

  15. @joey: “I heard they still have public executions at Deera Square (nicknamed chop chop square) in Riyadh. As a westerner it sounds horrific but to a different culture it may be viewed differently”.

    Uh it is horrific. Period. Lucky, seriously re think this

  16. Hi ben,

    My name is Amr from Saudi Arabia. I’ve been reading your blog for a while. I have learned alot from you & your blog. I can definitely help to get best experience from your trip to Saudi Arabia specially authentic food and historic/culture places and tips how to get around the city.
    No better way to pay you back for all hard work you put in your blog.

  17. @keitherson: Hologram for a king, indeed a cool movie showing inter-cultural differences.

    @Df: Is it more horrific than death penalty in several countries, including some states of the US?

  18. Lucky,

    I work in Riyadh and will be in country during that time in Dec. in fact, my wife may take advantage of this visa opportunity to visit me here for the first time. I’d be happy to show you around and setup some outings with some of my Saudi friends.

  19. Also — don’t believe everything you read, come to KSA with an open mind. I don’t recommend staying at the Ritz, it’s too much. Try the Crown Plaza which is brand new and has a beautiful open design. Lastly, when booking remember that BA flights from KSA direct to LHR will be subject to enhanced security measures and you’ll need to check your laptop, e-reader, tablet, and anything else larger then a smartphone.

  20. Lucky,

    Found some great background info for you prior to visiting this country.


    “A public beheading will typically take place around 9am. The convicted person is walked into the square and kneels in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword known as a sulthan to remove the condemned person’s head from his or her body at the neck.[6] After the convicted person is pronounced dead, a police official announces the crimes committed by the beheaded alleged criminal and the process is complete. The official might announce the same before the actual execution. This is the most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia because it is specifically called for by Sharia law. Professional executioners behead as many as ten people in a single day.[7]

    Crucifixion of the beheaded body is sometimes ordered.“

    The Kingdom thanks you for your patronage!

  21. Jeddah’s an old Red Sea trading city – head over to the al-Balad district – look for the Nassif House Museum on google maps, and it’s that area. Older part of the city. I spent less time in Riyadh but check out the Masmak Fortress. Weather should be more moderate then.

  22. I say email your hotel in advance and ask them to arrange something for you.
    Either that or get a local to show you around, that may be a good option if you also want to know more about the people and the culture.

  23. Be careful it’s a lawless country, completely different than Qatar/UAE/Oman, people there get killed and thrown in jail for the smallest things, beside Houthi’s keeps firing missiles almost weekly on Riyadh

  24. I always wonder how many of the folks taking their not-racist principled stance on gay right and, generally, human rights issues in KSA are making sure to vote for parties and candidates in the US that support equality regardless of sexual orientation. Reading these comments, you’d think Luckys entire readership is coming from bleeding-heart liberals from SFO. Bravo to you all for your prinicpled stands wherever injustice is found.

  25. @Justin

    After asking my hotel, two cab drivers, front desk at another hotel, none of them had any clue about Masmak! This was in 2011 when I didn’t have easy offline mapping ability. My favorite theory is they were playing dumb due to an impending execution in the adjacent chop chop square.

  26. The one thing about Sawdee Arabiya is it is full of oil and sand. Sticks all on your shoes. Makes for tracking clumps of oil sand all over the carpet and thus becoming a terrible guest.

  27. Reading the comments it seems like a lot of down side for Formula E. Don’t risk life or liberty for anything less than F1 or WEC.

  28. I am quite appalled you would consider going to such an awful country in terms of human rights.

    Enjoy the guided cage, for your sake I hope they wouldn’t decide to pick on you for who you are.

  29. @steve. Hmmm…..public beheading more horrific than the USA death penalty? Yeah I’d say it’s more horrific. But then again I’m sure you would say that North Korean prison camps are similar to United States prisons

  30. As a saudi I advise going to the Ritz carlton because of the special hotel that it is, and it gives you an idea of how the rich men got imprisoned there, you could also go to winter wonderland (idk if it’s in the exact time your going) it gives you a feel of how young saudis businesses, you could also explore riyadh park and how the cinemas work here as it’s fairly different from other places.

  31. I’m not going to go into this whole “don’t go because you’re gay thing”
    For me it’s a no brainer, but you can do what you think is right.
    What I think is disappointing is your complete lack of solidarity with the oppressed people in that country. The complete lack of sanctions by the “enlightened west” does not give people automatic moral license to support an absolutely horrific regime. Your time, money and energy could have been spent better trying to help others win the liberties you seem to be taking for granted.

  32. Lucky, I am going to KSA for 2 weeks in Feb and flying Emorates using AA miles.

    US passport holders can get visas but not UK ones.

    Madain Salih is closed intil 2020 for massive cosntriction to make it the #1 tourist site in the KSA. It is part of the same civilization, the Nabateans, that built Petra in Jordan. But there are still many things to see especially if you levae the 2 major cities and head out to the desert. Many local tourguides offer such day visits or longer tours.

  33. One of the few places to buy postcards in Jeddah is the ground floor/concourse shops at the Intercontinental Hotel, across the street from the Park Hyatt.

  34. Park Hyatt Jeddah is wonderful, right on the Red Sea, and Jeddah is a much more interesting city than Riyadh. Jeddah is a very nearly tropical feeling Red Sea Port city. Riyadh is like a very large midwestern US city, just different language. I go to Saudi often, have no problems there. Everyone is very friendly and seem to love Americans. Lots of fresh fish in Jeddah also. I’m from a very small southern town in the US and Saudi is just like that, except the Baptist Church rules everyone and everything in my hometown. The government in Saudi wants to be liberal, but the Religious fanatic clerics wont let them.

  35. If you visit a country for the purpose of writing reviews, surely you need a journalist visa not a tourist visa? Don’t you risk arrest otherwise?

  36. Lucky I completely understand your stance and I agree with you when travelling to countries like the UAE and Qatar though isn’t Saudi Arabia a bit far they have super harsh punishments for being gay women have no rights there is poverty whats next North Korea

  37. I was just reading an article about all of the financial problems in the GCC right now. Good luck

  38. I usually stay at the Hilton in Jeddah, which is a very nice hotel too. Make sure you try their local Al-baik restaurant which serves great fried chicken. I go to KSA every quarter for meetings and there is nothing much to worry. You can also grab an Uber there, much easier than taxi as Uber drivers have to speak English as a requirement.

  39. You should not say you are a journalist, they will check you out and if they find anything adverse in your commetaries about the country , you run the risk of being detained or disappearing . Look at the guy in Istanbul, where is he ?

  40. You are on the radar already. Amr from Saudi has posted a comment . They know who you are !!

  41. Welcome to saudi in advance. with all respect to the comments; you’ll love the place. let me know if you need any help of booking or issuing the visa.

  42. @keitherson Fun fact: In Saudia Arabia close friends hold hands. Also fun fact: Doing gay things is illegal, but being gay isnt.

  43. I too had thought it would be fun to visit until I just read they killed and dismembered dissident Khashoggi in their Istanbul Consulate. Then I stopped being starry-eyed and remembered this is the same brutal Saudi Arabia it always has been.

  44. @Lucky –– As two others have pointed out, Mada’in Saleh is closed. I’ve just confirmed it. It will be closed for two to three years – I hope you come back one day to see it.

    I just hope that the Saudis don’t do anything to ruin the site. Many of the faces were destroyed because Wahhabis find drawing faces unacceptable and don’t recognise pre-Islamic history. Fortunately the current regime takes a more enlightened view, but one hopes they will still try and keep the site authentic rather than trying to rebuild damaged sites.

  45. The new high speed train has reduced flights between these cities. The airlines may have had no say in this latest jewel in the crown.

  46. I can’t wait to read about your harrowing experience in a Saudi Airport. Immigration in particular will be quite the treat.

    Good luck!

  47. Hello,

    To answer the question “Has anyone been to Jeddah and Riyadh, and if so, thoughts on which is more interesting?”

    Jeddah is more “interesting” as it is on the Red Sea coast. Although Riyadh is the capital, the financial center and one of the fastest growing city in the world; there are limited options for entertainment, especially for anyone who has limited time in the city and does not speak Arabic. There is no Gray line sightseeing office.

    Riyadh is a city where families still go the mall for entertainment. That said, it is a very safe city and you need not worry about anything. ATMs are everywhere and all major banking networks are available (Master Card, Maestro, Visa, Plus). Money changers at the Riyadh airport (usually Rajhi Bank) are arguably the most honest money changers in the world. The SAR (Saudi Riyal) is pegged to the dollar and the exchange rate never varies; never.

    Saudis don’t care about anyone’s ‘orientation’. Dress like a man and you’re good to go anywhere you please.

    For the record, I have spent over twenty-five years in Riyadh, over two stays. I have been here since December 1998.

  48. @As

    If you all are, thats great. The orientalist/racist tenor of comments up and down this page seem to hint otherwise.

    But, superiority complex?

  49. I am glad you are travelling there and I hope you try and immerse yourself into the cultural experiences, however atypical for you.

  50. @Lucky

    Next to the discussion about being gay and travelling to KSA, I’m interested how you value the fact that certain areas and cities are forbidden for Non-muslims. E.g. Mecca or Medina!

    That’s segregation based on religion and is the same as it was done in Nazi Germany.

    Just imagine the outcry, especially in liberal circles, if Vatican City would only allow entrance to Roman Catholics.

    So what’s your opinion please?

  51. I had a question about money changing in Muslim countries which a lot of people have mentioned in the comments. in Dubai on a recent trip, I had a few Dirhams left on me, and I was leaving to Australia. So I figured I’d just change them at the airport and lose a few bucks as the amount was equal to approximately $25.

    To my utter shock at the airport I was given an exchange rate that was almost at par. I read somewhere else in this comments that in Jeddah someone else had the same experience as me at the airport.

    Is there some Islamic Law in Muslim countries that prohibits Change Bureau’s/Money Changers really ripping someone off when they change money? If so, I’m gonna start changing all my money in Islamic countries if they allow euros/pounds to USD and vis-versa

  52. Having lived in Saudi from 2014-2015, I can say that in Riyadh I never once saw a public beheading. We used to drive past “chop chop” square regularly and never saw one. I think they moved most beheadings behind closed doors in Riyadh at least.

  53. The Saudi government tortured and killed a Washington Post journalist (Khashoggi) recently. Sure you still want to go?

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