Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country with a well-developed infrastructure. The country's facilities for travelers can be quite lavish, but women planning to travel in Saudi Arabia need to be aware that social practices and customs here are conservative and based on Islamic law. It is best to study Saudi customs and appropriate behavior before beginning your trip.
Women in Saudi Society
Saudi men and women are not permitted to attend public events together and are segregated in the workplace. The populace of 28 million adheres to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law, so cultural presentations, for example, must conform to a narrowly defined standard of ethics. Because there are fewer than 100,000 Westerners thought to be living in Saudi Arabia, most Western women who travel there have been sponsored by their workplace for a specific period of time.
The U.S. Department of State urges all potential visitors to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia. The continued presence of terrorist groups, some of which have been affiliated with al Qaeda, have posed an ongoing security threat to all Westerners since 2001.
For Women Specifically
Women traveling alone are not allowed to enter the country unless they will be met at the airport by a husband, a sponsor or male relative. The Saudi Embassy advises women to dress conservatively in public; that means wearing ankle-length dresses with long sleeves and not pants. In many areas, particularly the capital, Riyadh, women are pressured to wear a full-length black covering called an abaya and to cover their heads. Women in restaurants not accompanied by a male relative often are not served, and religious police known as the Mutawwa travel in public watching for violations of social mores. Any public display of affection is considered offensive. A woman traveling with a man who is not her husband, sponsor or a male relative can be arrested.
Leaving the Country
While traveling to Saudi Arabia is difficult for women, leaving can mean even more trouble. Women relocating to Saudi Arabia to marry, study or stay with a Saudi family need to be aware that leaving the country requires the permission of the Saudi male head of their household. Unmarried women and children require the permission of their father or male guardian. The U.S. Embassy can intercede to request permission for an adult American woman married to or daughter of a Saudi to leave, but there is no guarantee of success.