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visiting Saudi Arabia

In December 2018, Saudi Arabia started issuing tourist visas for the first time in history.

As a Middle Eastern lover, I have wanted to visit Saudi Arabia for a very long time, so when I heard that they were finally issuing them, I applied for mine straight away.

To learn more about it read my Tips for traveling to Saudi Arabia in 2019.

It was an amazing journey, as I visited many interesting places that I didn’t know existed, plus I met loads of wonderful people.

After posting all my pictures and a few articles and stories, many people were actually surprised by all the beauties this country can offer.

On the other hand, as I was expecting, I also received many negative comments from skeptical people who claimed that visiting Saudi goes against all Western ethics.

If you don’t want to visit Saudi, then I am very happy for you, as everybody is completely free to make their own travel choices.

However, claiming that visiting Saudi as an independent tourist is unethical is not the right approach and, as a traveler, I would like to tell you why.

 

visit Saudi Arabia

 

Is it ethical to visit Saudi Arabia as an independent tourist?

How can you promote a country that doesn’t respect basic human rights?
How can you say good things about those people who oppress their women?
You are a sexist and a misogynist
You are an ignorant who knows nothing

My inbox got flooded with messages like that…

I deleted most of them and blocked those people who were insulting me.

Yes, I visited Saudi Arabia. How can that make you angry?

And yes, I want to say good things about those people who treated me like a royal guest. Am I a sexist for saying this?

I just wanted to share my point of view as a traveler, with the sole objective of showing beautiful places around the world, not trying to sell any propaganda.

Let’s go point by point:

Hanging out with friends in Abha

 

You shouldn’t visit Saudi Arabia because the country doesn’t respect basic human rights

It seems that a lot of people really like this claim, as I found it several times in my inbox.

All right, let me tell you something.

I don’t travel to judge governments and I don’t go for beers with presidents.

When I travel, I visit places, meet regular people and learn about their culture.

Not traveling to a country because you don’t agree with their government’s policies is a very wrong approach.

In my eyes, one of the evilest governments is the one in the USA.

Sure, they may be a democracy but their international politics suck a lot.

By the same rule of thumb, we should all stop going to the USA, right?

What about Spain? As far as I know, Spain is one of the largest weapon exporters to Saudi Arabia, weapons that are used for the Yemeni war.

Should we all stop from traveling to Spain?

I am from Spain and my government is partially responsible for the Yemeni war. Are you going to hate me for that?

Please note that I am very well aware of what is going on in the country but Saudi Arabia has a population of 20-million and, as such, there are millions and millions of good people that deserve to be known and we can’t blame them for the actions of their government, regardless of whether we like them or not.

Hanging out with some Saudis – Photo by @joaoleitaoviagens

 

You shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia because women are oppressed by their men

Over the last few years, many pro-feminist groups have been claiming that Saudi Arabia is an extremely patriarchal society where women are oppressed and forced to wear the niqab against their will.

Look, I fully understand their point and yes, Saudi is a paternalist society but that speech is extra-loaded with demagogy and is distant from the actual reality.

First of all, I want to ask you something:

Those who claim such a statement, have you ever carried out a survey in Saudi Arabia, asking local women what they think about it?

It seems that such a strong claim is based on the opinion of people from the West with strong Western values, rather than made by the actual women who live in the country.

I know that you may hate me for saying this but the reality is that most women in Saudi Arabia choose to wear the niqab. Yes, this is the harsh reality and you must accept that.

Chilling with a Saudi woman in Al-Jawf – Yes, you can be with them and they are lovely

They wear it because they believe this is the right thing to do as, according to their interpretation of Islam, this is what God dictates, so they strongly believe they need to wear it, as much as men do.

Are they wrong?

Well, I am not a religious person so, personally, yes, I think they are wrong, but I also respect their decisions, their religion and whatever they want to do with their lives is none of my business.

When I listen to people’s opinions, it looks like they think that women in Saudi are miserable and spend the whole day crying in their rooms, being yelled by their evil husbands for not behaving in certain ways.

No, it’s not like that.

Saudi men aren’t evil but they love their wives and do whatever they think is best for them and this involves being overprotective because, in their eyes and culture, women are weak and fragile, and women believe it as well.

Today, you can see woman working all over the country – Photo by @joaoleitaoviagens

And yes, there are many cases of liberal Saudi women who want to flee from their families because they are forced to do certain things, like that woman who escaped to Canada recently, claiming that Saudi women are slaves of the Saudi society.

I believe her and sure, in her eyes all of them are slaves but that is because she is very liberal but most women don’t feel that way…

Dude, did you know that only in the USA, nearly 3 women are killed everyday by their intimate partners?

I think my next article is going to be: Is it ethical to travel to the USA?

Please note that I am not trying to justify anything here.

Is there anything to be improved? Hell, yeah… A lot, but this doesn’t mean that going there is unethical

I am fully aware of all the problems, that the country’s law is not fair between genders and I don’t share many aspects of their culture but my only point here is that this women’s oppression you are talking about is not entirely true, so this should not stop you from going to Saudi. 

And, by the way, in case you are wondering, Saudi Arabia is a safe place for Western females and foreign women living there claim that they are always treated like queens, which has to do with the cultural aspect of being overprotective with women.

As a woman, you don’t need to cover your head, you can visit Saudi being single, with your boyfriend and you can even wear a bikini at the beach. Truly.

If you want to know more, I recommend you read this article that Nada al Nahdi posted on my site:

9 Misconceptions about solo female traveling in Saudi Arabia

Nada trekking in Saudi Arabia

 

Visiting Saudi is not ethical because they are homophobic

Sure, homosexuality is not well-accepted in Saudi Arabia, as it is not in most Muslim countries, from Sudan to Syria and Oman.

However, you don’t need to travel to a Muslim country to find homophobia.

I dare you to go to the center of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, with a rainbow flag, claiming you are homosexual and see what happens.

They may beat the shit out of you, and I am not joking.

In Georgia, there is a really big pro-violence group (supported by the Church) against homosexuals and trust me when I say it is big. Just go to YouTube and search for gay demonstrations in Tbilisi. You are going to freak out.

And yes, I know that the law against homosexual people in Saudi is very extreme but again, I don’t visit governments.

If homophobia is the reason you think visiting Saudi is not ethical, all right, but then also don’t travel to Oman, Iran, Georgia and similar countries.

A friendly Saudi man from Abha

 

Visiting Saudi is not ethical because they are racist and treat Indians, Bengalis and Pakistanis badly

I also received a few comments and messages from Indians and Pakistanis who claimed that the reason Saudis were so nice to me was that I am a Western tourist.

Fair enough.

I completely agree that being from Spain helps a lot and I can’t really argue about that.

However, what I can tell you is that, unfortunately, racism isn’t a particular thing about Saudi but it happens all over the world and, as always, you are going to meet racist people and non-racist people.

Dude, I lived in Dubai for nearly 3 years, a city home to many South Asian workers as well, and you can’t imagine the endless cases of bad treatment these workers receive from Germans, Brits, as well as Arabs from other countries.

As much as I hate saying this, racism is something tangible in all societies, especially against larger minorities and, by the way, many Indians will agree that Indians themselves are very racist to other Indians from different ethnicities…

In Saudi Arabia, there are many ethnicities. These people are Yemeni-looking guys from Jizan

 

Conclusion – How was my experience in Saudi Arabia as a tourist?

Like in any country, you are going to find good and bad people and, personally, I had an amazing experience when I visited Saudi.

I have said it many times, but I will say it again.

People in Saudi are, definitely, as friendly and hospitable as the ones you meet in Iran, Pakistan, and Oman.

I hitchhiked 1,300km, from Riyadh to Jizan and, over the journey, countless random people opened their houses to me, took me out for lunch, dinner, to their camel farms and showed me around their beautiful towns and villages.

In the camel farm of my local friend

Everything was so different from what the media has been telling us so, regardless of any government actions you may not agree with, who are you to blame all those kind-hearted people?

Don’t they deserve to be known?

Do you know what I think?

I strongly believe that this sort of speech full of demagogy, like all the messages I received, the only thing they achieve is increasing the generic hate against Saudi men, so who is being unethical here?

To those who called me misogynous, sexist and ignorant, you know what?

Look, instead of laying down on my couch, spitting demagogic speeches based on what I watch on TV,  at least, what I do is trying to open people’s mind, as well as breaking those stereotypes that are doing so much harm to our world.

Long story short: visiting Saudi Arabia as an independent tourist is ethical. Period.

Remember to read all my articles and guides to Saudi Arabia

 

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27 comments

  1. Thank you for all your posts on Saudi and especially this article! I think the question to be raised though is not, if traveling to Saudi is unethical. The question is, if its scary. And the answer is: YES! It is scary, because your (supposedly superiour western) identity will be turned upside-town. It is scary, because, who you think you are (and especially who you think you are not) will change. It is scary, because you might have left to an unknown place critically about “their” systems of beliefs, but when you come back from those places, you will be more critically about your “own” systems of beliefs. It is scary, becauso you might have left to meet the “other”, but what you will find out, is that they are you and you are them. We are all humans. And to realize this is why you should fucking travel no matter how scary it is!

  2. Hi Joan,
    Why someone calls you misogynist or sexist is way beyond me, since you are clearly none of those things. Same with being aggressive or insulting towards you, you are traveling and in no way doing anyone any harm. On the contrary, you are inspiring others and therewith helping locals in countries who really deserve a chance at earning money with tourism when media coverage keeps people from going there.
    I agree with all your points, the only thing I’m not sure with is regarding the women. I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia, but traveled in Iran, Pakistan and Oman.
    I had different experiences in those countries. Oman seemed the most liberal to me, it is common for women to work and they are pretty open minded. In Iran, I talked to countless women who hate the headscarf and dresscode put upon them as a law (I very much hated that thing myself – it just felt so unfair that I was forced to wear this, only for being a woman). But then, there’s a difference between culture and law.
    There is no such law in Pakistan, but most women choose to cover up. I talked to lots of Pakistani guys (it was difficult to talk to women there, except in Hunza, where the religious approach of the Ismaili is more liberal) and asked about their women&wives. I was told that “they don’t like to travel, they have different hobbies, they like to be at home” etc. I understand that this is part of the culture, and we shouldn’t be judging that. However, I can’t help but wondering if really almost all women of a country so big cover up and stay at home completely out of their free will. I personally like to travel in Muslim countries, I always feel safe there because yes, men (mostly) behave very respectfully towards women. However, I feel like there is something wrong with not letting women eat in the same room like men but banning them into the basement or behind a curtain. It feels like they are excluded from society with this, and that prevents them of having the chance (if they wanted to have that chance) to become a member of the society with equal possibilities (again, if they wanted to have those possibilities).
    I hope I could make my point come across without offending anyone or sounding “superior”. I’m still searching for the answer to this question myself. In the meantime, I will keep traveling and as always, grateful for your amazing stories about amazing people and landscapes in off the beaten track destinations, which will continue to inspire me!
    Annika

    1. Hi Annika!
      Thanks for your fruitful comment!
      And yes, I feel the same. I am also trying to look for an answer to all the things you brought up and, in the end, many times I just tend to think that their approach is completely wrong.
      However, my point was just to prove that women are not crying at their homes, that the oppression doesn’t exist and, as you well said, most of them have no ambitions, they like to be at home, they don’t like to travel and like to take care of their kids. And yes, it is their culture and society who made them like that, which is very wrong in my opinion.
      This may seem kind of a crazy comparison but is like when people say that some North Koreans (not the ones who starve) are OK with their lifes, but that’s is because they have never experienced any of the comforts we enjoy and, since they don’t have internet, many of them don’t even know they exist.
      Coming to the subject, my only point to prove is to say that the oppression Europe talks about is not true, hence that shouldn’t stop us from visiting Saudi Arabia.

    2. Hello Annika, i’m not sure if by jobless you mean Saudi women, or the women you met during your travels to different countries.
      However, i would personally say Saudi women are very ambition and eager to prove themselves at all kinds of jobs. more than half of Saudi universities’ students are women, all workplaces are forced to have 50% of their employees women, with equal pay of course.
      I personally am a 22 years old Saudi woman, About to graduate Strategic Communication & Political Science, already have a full time job and a company.
      Where ever i go when i work, I always see women literally ruling the place because they always try to prove themselves, so they work way harder than men.
      As for travels, Saudis LOVE to travel, millions of Saudis travel every summer, but they’re usually family trips not solo trips. Again setting an example of myself, i’m about to go with my girlfriends to London.
      Also when it comes the mention of niqab and women being weak in the article, yeah many from the old generations both women and men believe that, however younger generations are not so keen on head scarfs or any idea of looking at women as weak creature. but you can only see that at the modern cities i’d say.
      So when it come to Saudi, I always 1. it’s not what you think lol and 2. the generations’ ideologies are constantly changing.

        1. Which is it exactly?
          Higher education is certainly considered very important everywhere for everyone.
          As for women’s career i don’t think Saudi women usually have an issue with it, however some families still don’t like it when their daughters work with men lol, some even refuse it entirely (as i’m from Riyadh this rarely happens, but i imagine it happens in other cities)
          As for being able to take off head scarf, well i think a high percentage of younger generation don’t think it’s necessary, however unfortunately i think if you want to take it off without being harassed you have to be in Riyadh, Jeddah or the eastern province.

      1. Hi Ghada,
        Thanks so much for sharing those insights and your perspective! I found that really interesting to read 🙂 In my comment, I was referring to the situation in Pakistan, in retrospect I guess that wasn’t totally clear. Compared to your experience, it seems that in what regards women and women who work, that Saudi Arabia is really more open than Pakistan. Again, loved to read your comment, which is really starting to make me think about going to Saudi Arabia and seeing the country and its people (and strong women like you!) for myself 🙂

  3. NEWTON LOSI FILHO

    Your article is very good and your point of view is the same as mine, keep traveling and show us the culture of each country independent of the acts of its rulers.

  4. You nailed every point… and welcome to the social-media-accused misogynist club (mine of course came about for writing an Instagram post explaining a bit about the Afghan blue chadri, my curiousities about it and the varying opinions on them by the Afghan people, male and female).

    The big take away is that you can’t change already made up minds (even if they are misinformed and ignorant, based off of untrue logics), so I wouldn’t get too worked up. All you can do is present insight into a place and humans these people will never give the chance to.

    I like that you pointed out that you don’t visit governments, and pointing out the human rights and other abuses perpetrated by western governments. If we went off of wrong doings, crimes, human rights violations and histories of just about any country on earth we’d not travel to any (and likely be required to move outside our own).

    1. I tried to debate with the first haters on Facebook but I just achieved heating up the conversation and I got very angry. Haters can really get into your skin and after that, I learned that there is no point in discussing with them, so the ones who were very harsh and insulting me I just blocked them right away.

      I am going to check that post about the Afghan burqa you are talking about 🙂

      1. What’s funny is I sat an argued with a few of them (as well as others who had similar views to me), and most of the ones that tried to pick fights went back and deleted their comments

        I think one left her comments up (called me a misogynist) and then she proceeded to get super angry because I asked (more than once) if she had any ability of comprehend what she had read because based on her comments I truly don’t think she could understand anything I was talking about.

        It was surprising to me that almost 100% of the people attacking me were women! I was even talking about how many people in Afghanistan even would look at blue chadri and plead with you that that was not Afghanistan and their dislike for them.

        These women on attack all tried to hide under the veil of being feminists, though they don’t seem so feminist that they would maybe try to visit one of the most difficult places in the world to be a women to try and understand a little about life there. They all seemed to fail to understand that education is really going to be the biggest step in some places to empower women and help them get rights. Sitting and condemning from a comfy western country isn’t doing anything to help oppressed women anywhere. It really seemed to piss them off too when I threw in an added “it’s not my culture to change” in my responses. Because it’s truly not my culture to change. It’s not okay for me to step off a plane on Kabul to tell them how to live their lives. The women of Afghanistan really are who need to rally to change the culture as they see fit.

        Best thing your left with is to block them because some people are morons and I don’t think their ignorance can be corrected or reasoned with.

  5. Came into this article disagreeing with your thesis but I admit, it’s well written and you have compelling arguments. Here’s the difference I see between Saudi Arabia and Spain as per your example…

    Do you actually feel comfortable being openly critical, in direct opposition to the Saudi government? While traveling through Spain, or America for that matter… speaking out hyper critically against the government in specific detail wouldn’t be an issue (correct me if I’m wrong with Spain).

    So here, to me, is the main issue. Is it really possible to travel to these places and give an unbiased opinion on how people live there without fear for your live/livelihood? As a travel videographer I ask myself the same question. I would fear the same of being critical of the Chinese government in China, the North Korean government in North Korea.

    So I think the work you are doing is admirable. Opening people’s mind that the country of Saudi Arabia is not a monolith and the people are diverse, friendly, and ultimately human. This is beautiful. But suggesting people go and support a government so severely oppressive as the Saudi government with their tourism dollars gives me pause.

    If you’re able to respond to this, I’m genuinely interested in your response. These are questions I constantly struggle with myself. If you are afraid of repercussion from the Saudi government or fear for the safety of those that helped you/showed you hospitality, I get that as well.

    1. Hi Brett! Thanks for your comment 🙂
      Of course I would be afraid to criticize their Government. If I would not, I would be a fool!
      However, like I said, I didn’t visit Saudi to judge their policies but just meet their regular citizens and I encourage people to travel there independently, just like the way I did.
      I spent there 2 weeks, mostly Couchsurfing, eating in local eateries run by Indians and Bengalis, hitchhiking etc. etc. etc.
      I don’t see that I am supporting anyone but the local people and I never worried about the freedom of speech because I never intended to talk about politics 🙂

  6. What a poorly argued justification, making huge assumptions from contact with a tiny percentage to justify your actions. It is your opinion and you are entitled to it but don’t complain if others disagree. I have been to Saudi Arabia several times, on business and my findings are close to the opposite of yours.

    1. So you are telling me that I only discovered a tiny percentage of the country, you, a person who has only been there for business, the worst way of traveling for getting immersed in the local culture, as you probably haven’t left from the main cities, haven’t seen the countryside and barely left your office and the hotel.

      I traveled from Al-Jawf, located in the Jordanian border to Jizan, located in the Yemeni border and many places in between, besides visiting the main cities of Jeddah, Riyadh and the area around Dammam. I hitchhiked more than 1300km and Couchsurfed on several occasions, so I think I got quite a few more local insights than you during your business trips

      (and please, I don’t want to disgrace or discredit traveling for business but, dude, if that was your argument, then you got nothing man)

      PS: I don’t complaint about people disagreeing, I complaint about those trolls who insult

  7. As someone who spends more time visiting despotic regimes than most I totally support your reasoning. You could probably find some ethical justification to not visit most countries. For a boycott of a country to have much meaning it has to have some financial effect for its government so if you don’t spend any money at state run businesses or institutions you are not directly contributing to the states crimes. By not going you could just be denying local people who oppose their government of additional income. For anyone who rightly disagrees with Saudi treatment of gays, Shia and foreign workers for instance, go there and speak to people affected by it and blog about it, tell your friends etc. In reality there is a vibrant but underground gay scene in the country and the separation of sexes has only encouraged same sex experimentation, as Arab friends who lived there have testified. I read a blog by a gay English guy working there who said he got all kinds of action.
    Also by not engaging in respectful dialogue with people we disagree with we will never cause them to change. Simply attacking another culture you disagree with only entrenches attitudes. Gradual exposure to open minded travelers such as yourself will do more to open those Saudi minds that object to our values than lecturing them on their supposed evils. Along the way we might also learn to appreciate the positive aspects of their culture as well.

    1. Thanks for your wise words Graham as always!
      I was also told about this gay scene in Saudi and, as you may agree, in Saudi there could actually be more homosexual people (at least people who have experimented it) than in Western countries and the reason is that they spend their whole teenage and early 20s with only men and this fact happens across all Arabia, from Morocco to Oman.
      And yes, by just complaining and condemning their society we will achieve nothing, whereas if more travelers go there, the Western public opinion may evolve into positive and the country itself may also have some good positive exposure.

  8. Hi Will, great post here. I have to admit Saudi is not top of my list (although I am looking forward to reading the post from Nada on female travel there, but the arguments you discuss here are so important (I encountered similar criticism as some of the points you list after my trip to Iran). We have to expose the dual standard that we are being fed by the media that certain countries are “OK” and “right” and others are “evil” and “wrong”. The type of travel you are doing here is the type of travel we need more than anything else because it really has the potential to break down stereotypes, fears, and bring a greater sense of human connection. Keep up the great work!

  9. There used to be similar criticism of those who travelled to Myamar in the 80’s and 90’s. An evil oppressive regime, etc. Subsequently and in the light of recent events, it seems that all was not as those criticisms implied. It seemed, In any case, that it is when the independent traveller starts visiting that a clear view can be formed of the societies and communities in such countries. Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, has made just this point when his own enthusiasm for Myanmar came under scrutiny. I believe LP has subsequently been quietly and positively supportive of the ordinary Myanmar citizen.
    I guess self evidently none of your critics have actually been to SA.
    Definitely planning a visit myself, (partly because it was only when reading ATC that I learned that such visas now exist!!!) and I look forward to becoming more educated.

  10. You raised very pertinent questions here about ethical travel and I commend you for visiting Saudi Arabia and actually talk to locals and understand why things are the way they are over there. Most of the times we would have already developed a certain sense of biasness and stereotype towards a country and rather than visiting the country to “see it for yourself” you’re just condemning it which I feel is unfair.

  11. CORRECTION: Tourism visas were available in 2010 and before.. the government closed it for about 8 years because of people who came here as “tourists” and ran to live in the country ILLEGALLY and they caused a lot of problems. it was very cheap back then + weak laws but NOW everything has changed with new & strict visitors/residents laws.

    1. I seriously doubt that Western tourists would want to stay in the country illegally. I mean, what for?

      What you say sounds more like to those who come for Humra or Hajj.

      In any case, as far as I know, tourists visas to travel around the country ”independently” are a brand-new policy. Before, they were only issuing them if you booked a tour

  12. It has been interesting to see negative comments about visiting KSA. I do not travel to judge government or to get involved in political issues. I think traveling is about observing and see how people live, to see different landscapes or how to appreciate other cultures. If you start questioning political issues and human rights, you will not travel beyond Western Countries.
    Lots of tourists visit Thailand and don’t mind the sex tourism that revolves around children. What about Russia ? They poisoned people and yet many football fans went to Moscow to attend the World Cup… I could name many countries where human rights are not the same as we know it in the West. I am a European citizen and I have been working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for 5 years. I enjoy living there and like everywhere you will find pros and cons. Saudis are usually friendly and helpful; crime is non-existent compare to our countries. I feel very safe living in Saudi Arabia. I have also traveled to a lot of countries in Africa and Central Asia, and I can tell you that women in Saudi Arabia are well treated and spoiled in many ways compared to some other places I have seen. One should visit countries to be able to judge or have an opinion, rather than making assumption based on TV news. Presidents or dictators do not necessarily represent a whole population.

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