9 Misconceptions about traveling to Saudi Arabia as a woman

can a woman travel to Saudi Arabia alone

In the last few years, I have been traveling extensively across the Middle East and other Muslim countries, so it is not surprising at all that, every week, I receive tons of requests and questions from kick-ass women who wish to travel to the same places.

Since I am a man, all my articles tend to be kind of male-oriented, not on purpose though, but it is just that, sometimes, I forget that the experience for women may be totally different.

When I was posting all the photos and videos from my visit to Saudi Arabia on my Instagram Stories, people were actually amazed at all the places I visited and the people I met, as they were so many miles away from all the stereotypes the media has been showing us during the last decade.

Those images really triggered the interest of many travelers who would have never thought of going there, and that included many women as well.

However, since Saudi is known for being an extremely patriarchal country, I received more questions than I had ever received before, some of them asking about safety, while others if it was even possible to go travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman alone.

As always, I can’t give an accurate response about solo female traveling but, luckily, during my journey, I met Nada from Nadal Al Nahdi, a 20-something-year-old backpacker who has traveled solo to some very extreme destinations such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan, and the coolest thing about her is that she is half-Yemeni, half-Indonesian.

Nada actually grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, so she knows the people and culture very well and has traveled around the country extensively, so who could be better than her to explain about solo female travel in Saudi Arabia?

In this article, Nada takes us through the 9 misconceptions about traveling to Saudi Arabia as a woman. 

As you might know, Saudi Arabia started issuing tourist visas from December 2018, which means that now anyone can go there to discover its wonders. If you want to know about all the practical information to visit the country, read: Tips and how to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019

 

traveling to Saudi Arabia as a woman

 

Here are some common misconceptions about solo female travel in Saudi Arabia. 

1 – As a female, I need a guardian to travel to Saudi and around Saudi.

No. No. No.

This common misconception needs to be eradicated as soon as possible. 

Women can travel to Saudi Arabia alone. I travel around independently all the time and, definitely, without a guardian.

The ‘guardian thing’ is more of a cultural thing, not the law. What I mean is that, in general, Arabs treat females as queens, something I am not complaining about, but the concept of females being independent is not something they can comprehend.

I am not saying they are close minded but it is a scene they are not used to. However, as things are opening up and changing, this is starting to slowly wear out.

I’m going to share an incident that happened to me on 4th January 2019.

I needed to travel from Jeddah to Riyadh. The flights were ridiculously expensive, and I missed the bus, so I went outside the bus station to hop in any of the carpooling services which are called “Kadad”. I got in one, slept comfortably throughout the journey until we reached the checkpoint to enter Riyadh.

The police asked us to pull over, took our IDs and asked standard procedure questions.

Keep in mind that I was the ONLY female in a car of 7 men; the driver and 6 male passengers.

Three policemen came to me one by one, asking where my guardian was and how could I travel without one. 

I simply answered: I do not need a guardian and I can travel around without a guardian

The police insisted that was an issue, so they wanted to hand me in and report me.

I said: What are you going to report me for? I did not do anything.

He was stunned and said that they would explain the procedure at the station.

I was NOT ONE BIT scared because I knew my rights and that that was not the law. This is just the culture he has in his house.

Long story short, the higher rank guy came out and instructed the policemen who were questioning us to let us go as long as our documents were legal.

There you have it, a proven and real-life situation with the man of the law that females do not need a guardian.

You may also be interested in: Is it ethical to visit Saudi Arabia as a tourist?

Travelling to Saudi Arabia as a single woman
Nada al Nahdi – @robertmichaelpoole – Rijal Alma, Abha

 

2 – I need to get a burqa aka ninja cover and a headscarf

I’m going to let photos speak for me.

Here’s a photo of me in Jeddah:

Solo female travel Saudi Arabia
Nada al Nahdi@morinasworld – Jeddah

This is me in Al Ula:

can a woman travel to Saudi Arabia
Nada al Nahdi@alertthememory – Al Ula

And when traveling to remote areas and going for activities such as hiking, climbing, and camping, abayas are not needed at all.

Here’s a photo of me hiking at Wabah Crater:

can you travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman
Nada al NahdiWabah crater -Saudi Arabia

And don’t forget to pack your bikinis! Yes, females can wear bikinis in Saudi when you are on a boat trip or at any of the private beaches. Private beaches can be accessed at a certain fee.

Saudi Arabia beach

While in the city, all you need is decent and long outerwear. It can be of any color and pattern. We love colors, patterns and unique styles!

Don’t be surprised when strangers come up to you and ask “Where did you get the abaya from?!” I get that a lot too.

As for scarves and burqa, they are absolutely not required.

During the questioning I mentioned in point 1, the policemen asked me to cover my hair and, of course, I did not cover my hair because, one, it’s not the law, and two, I didn’t have a scarf anyway.

Sometimes, this happens on the streets when random religious men yell out at you and ask you to cover. The best thing to do is to just ignore them and continue doing your thing.

Again, this is a culture, not the law. Please don’t take it that if we don’t wear a scarf is disrespecting the culture. It’s a personal choice.

Read more stories from kick ass solo female women in offbeat destinations!

 

3 – I need to be covered to avoid harassment

Harassment is an unfortunate worldwide issue that is specific to the person, not the country or culture.

6 years ago, I faced harassments here and there. In recent years, I have not experienced any harassment.

The worst one I get these days is someone coming up to me and slowly whispering “Mumken Snapchat?” which means “Can I have your Snapchat?”

Simply say no and walk away and that’s the end of it.

Read: Places to visit in Saudi Arabia, a 15-day itinerary

 

4 – As a female, I cannot hang out or be seen with unrelated men.

This is again not true.

Whether it’s in the city or remote areas, unrelated men and women, basically, a group of mixed gender, can mingle and hang out whenever, and wherever.

Here’s a photo of my friends and me in Jeddah, along with a tourist/travel blogger @morinasworld,

Nada al Nahdi – Jeddah Friends

and here in Jizan, mingling with locals while exploring the area.

Nada al Nahdi@mustafa sahloli – Jizan 

 

5 – The Religious Police are everywhere and monitoring women

The religious police do not have any authority, hence they cannot act on anything without being accompanied by the officials. Moreover, I have not seen religious police in the last 2 years.

Remember that, in Saudi, the internet is censored and, if you want to access blocked sites, you will need a VPN. Read: How to find the right VPN for Saudi Arabia

 

6 – Women cannot rent a car

Yes, we can. I’ve rented cars in different cities in Saudi with absolutely no issues, as long as you have a valid driving license for those issued in Saudi/GCC and international driving license for others.

 

7 – It’s not safe to travel to Saudi Arabia as a solo female

In the first point, I mentioned that females are seen as queens and, therefore, must be protected and looked after.

The only thing you need to worry about is being fed way too much food and being introduced to all the family members, relatives, and neighbors, who will keep you for a never-ending conversation because they want to make sure you get the best hospitality. 

Another potential danger might be being offered some camel milk. 

 

How to travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman
Nada al Nahdi@mal2at – Al-Ula 

 

8 – Saudi is not for everyone.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Saudi IS for EVERYONE.

Have you seen Saudi on the map?

It’s HUGE! It’s actually the fifth largest country in Asia.

From those who love to lounge by the sea to those looking for adventures, Saudi is for any kind of female traveler, really. Moreover, the culture in Saudi is so diverse that only 1:10 of my friends are purebred.

The traditions and cultures within the region itself are also very diverse. The northernmost part of the country has similarities to the Levant Arab countries, like Palestine and Jordan, while the southernmost part of the country resembles Yemen so much that it makes me feel like home!

Saudi Arabia has amazing historical sites such as Madinah Saleh, Rijal Almaa and many others.

Remember that, in Saudi, the internet is censored and, if you want to access blocked sites, you will need a VPN. Read: How to find the right VPN for Saudi Arabia

is it safe to travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman
Nada al Nahdi@mal2at – Al-Ula 

Saudi Arabia is surrounded by the Red Sea, hence a perfect diving spot for divers, snorkelers or simply lounge by the beach or on a boat!

And, of course, the great desert landscape! Saudi Arabia got you covered with black, brown and red sand dunes! And there are much more than just the desert and the sea. There are many unexplored caves, unclimbed mountains, and stunning valleys!

Traveling in Saudi Arabia as a woman
Nada al Nahdi –  @mustafasahloli -Wadi Laja, Jizan 

 

9 – This is an exaggerated post and it’s not what it’s like in reality

Please have a look into these Instagram accounts based in Saudi that will also show you the reality of Saudi Arabia as a Saudi woman and a non-Saudi woman. 

@nadaalnahdi – Yemeni/Indonesian living in Saudi
@blueabaya – Finnish married to a Saudi and living in Saudi
@esraarayes – Saudi
@mearch_ – Saudi
@nirvana.abdul – Yemeni married to a Saudi
@saraomar_travels – Saudi
@mykindoffridays – Saudi
@redseacitizen – Saudi

If you have any more questions about traveling to Saudi as a woman, don’t hesitate to contact Nada through her blog.

You can also follow and contact her on Instagram and Facebook.

I also recommend reading these 2 articles from her:

What you didn’t know about Pakistan

An impulsive visit to Afghanistan

And here you can read all my articles and guides to Saudi Arabia

After receiving so many emails from really kick-ass female travelers who want to wander around some of the most off the beaten track countries in the world, I decided to open a Solo Female Traveling section on my blog, to help women get to know the reality of traveling solo in these countries. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you think you have a nice experience to tell! 

 

Start planning and booking your trip

For booking your hotel and guesthouse, look on Booking.com

For booking a hostel, always check on Hostelworld

For travel insurance, I recommend:

1 – World Nomads – Best insurance for adventurous destinations

2 – True Traveller – Best backpacking insurance (only Europeans)

3 – IATI Insurance (5% discount) – Cheapest travel insurance and for travelers above 70

For all your travel gear (trekking equipment, books, etc), check on Amazon

If you want to know all the companies I use to plan my trips, check my travel resources page

Disclosure: As a traveler, I use all the companies I recommend and you should know that, if you buy any service through any of these links, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These small earnings help me to improve and create more content for Against the Compass. I really appreciate your support :)

17 comments

  1. Hi, I’m an expat here in riyadh and I have an aunt working in jeddah, she’s inviting me to visit her in jeddah. I’ll be alone for sure, do I need anything to present at the airport? , aside the ticket and iqama. Your answer will be highly appreciated.

  2. “Saudi Arabia is EVERYONE”… Well, except if you are a gay person since any minimal display of affection in public to another person of your same sex (even just holding hands) can be punished with the DEATH penalty.

    1. Displays of affection are not allowed, regardless of your gender.

      If the police see a man and a woman kissing, they would also get arrested and yes, you are right that homosexuality can be punished with death penalty but controversially, you can’t imagine the massive gay scene you can find in Riyadh. You wouldn’t believe it.

      In any case, if you wanna go to Saudi, you will have to subject to their rules. If subjecting to their rules is an issue for you, then don’t go. It’s that simple.

      1. It’s fair enough to say that if you don’t like the rules, then you shouldn’t go. But you can’t say in good faith that Saudi Arabia is for EVERYONE when you can literally get the death penalty for being gay.

  3. I am considering a visit to see an old friend and his wife who currently lives in Saudi. Would it be appropriate to exchange hugs at the airport, or would this be considered a display of affection in public?

  4. Hello,I am from India
    I ‘m planning to go to the bts concert in Riyadh this October.Anything I need to know?

  5. Hii
    I m Hindu female I need to go to Riyadh Dammam for business purpose and I m unmarried will I get the visa…like I have heard u need to be married to get a visa

  6. Without sounding too disrespectful to the author of this article travelling solo to any country is not 100 percent safe for any woman.
    The author was obviously brave to have got into a vehicle with 7 Male men but for your own protection this is not something to be advised. Women must take caution so please don’t feel that just because this author has said this that’s it’s okay. I say this from having lived in Saudi myself not as someone from outside the country.

  7. This summer, I am planning to take my 17 year old daughter on a trip to Saudi Arabia. I have been to Egypt in 1989 and traveled with my son and daughter to Morocco in the summer of 2018. (I have traveled extensively around the world, but for the purposes of this e-mail, only my trips to Moslem countries is important.) Because we have been to Israel, it was impossible for us to travel to Saudi Arabia until now. I want to take my daughter now in case G forbid things change and we are unable to go. I plan to fly into Jetta, rent a car, and drive to Riydah, sightsee around there and then drive back to Jetta and do the same before flying back to the US. I plan to stay with my daughter at an apartment hotel in Ridyah and Jetta so we can do our own cooking and ask for the hotel to arrange for day guides for us. I have a teacher colleague that has lived in Saudi Arabia so she is going to help to let us know what to do around Jetta and Riydah. I also plan to see what Lonely Planet recommends to see in Saudi Arabia as it has helped us to plan trips to Brazil, Belieze, China, Peru, Equador, Mexico, Guatamala, Morocco, and Europe. With all of the conflicting information, I need to know if I am able to rent a car and drive between the two cities? Do I need a special driver’s license to drive in Saudi Arabia? As it is a Moslem country how easy can credit cards be used? We found in Morocco that credit cards were difficult and we needed cash. Do we need to wear an abya? I have heard in Ridayh yes and no. Jetta is supposed to be more open. Can I travel with my daughter alone in Saudi Arabia? Are we allowed to go to the Riyadh zoo by ourselves? Are banking hours restricted for women?

  8. Been living in Saudi many years. While things are changing in the big cities in provincial areas it’s another matter. Currently based in Buraydah, and as a woman you would be crazy to walk around showing your hair. To avoid unwanted attention it’s best to go with the flow and do the same as everyone else. My wife was actually physically attacked in a supermarket in Buraydah for not wearing a niqab. What works in Riyadh or Jeddah won’t work everywhere. I do agree that Saudis are great hosts though. But even then my wife had just had enough after 6 years. It’s just too restrictive at the end of the day. I’m sure they’ll get there in the end, but they’ve got a long way to go.

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