Arabia is the birthplace and centre of Islam. Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, the only one permitted to its citizens and the only one that may be celebrated in public. While foreigners are granted freedom of religion, no religious practices other than Islam are allowed, and proselytizing is illegal.
Non-Muslims should familiarise themselves with Muslim philosophies and tenets, as these relate fundamentally to the daily life of the people. Religious police, called mutawwa’in, actively enforce these standards.
The majority of Saudis are Sunnis of the Wahhabi sect, a fundamentalist version of Islam founded by an 18th-century religious leader, Abdul Wahhab al-Shaikh. It regards God alone as divine, not the Prophet Mohammed or his descendants.
The strict Wahhabi interpretation of the faith plays a very powerful social role in upholding traditional ways. Although Sunni Muslims are dominant, there is a large Shiite population in the oil-producing Eastern Province.
Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, are located in Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year. These sacred sites are reserved for Muslims, and non-Muslims are not permitted to enter them.
Calls to prayer, salah, occur five times a day for Muslims:
- Fajr – between dawn and sunrise
- Dhuhr – noon
- ‘Asr – mid-afternoon
- Maghrib – sunset
- ‘Isha – night
All businesses and commercial establishments are required to close during prayer calls. The religious police, mutawwa’in, patrol to make sure that everyone abides by the law.
Non-Muslims usually are not allowed to enter mosques.
Sawm is the fast of Ramadan, the holy month. During the period of Ramadan, Muslims must fast every day between sunrise and sunset, but they feast enthusiastically at the close of the day.
Ramadan is the celebration of the month in which the Koran was revealed, and is concluded with the feast of Id-al-Fitr. This is a religious holiday period which should be avoided by business travellers, as most business activities slow or stop until after Id-al-Fitr. The date of this month is established by the cycle of the moon, moving forward ten days each year.
A passport and visa are required for entry into Saudi Arabia. Passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the estimated stay in the country. Saudi Arabia will bar entry to Israeli nationals. The restriction is officially termed political rather than religious. Nevertheless, anyone whose passport indicates travel in Israel or whose religious affiliation is Jewish has been refused entry.
This restriction may become an issue for firms whose home-country governments ban employment discrimination on the basis of religion. Companies hiring individuals bound for work in Saudi Arabia should check with their home-country governments for information and guidance.
Requirements as to behaviour and appearance are strictly enforced. The following traits or behaviour are reasons for refusal of entry or deportation:
- For men, exposing legs by wearing shorts
- For women, short skirts, clothing judged too tight or too thin, and exposed hair, arms, or chest; makeup should be removed before arrival at the airport, and the head and body should be covered by a headscarf and anabaya
- Arrival in an obviously intoxicated state
- Public displays of affection between men and women, even spouses.
Any unaccompanied females or wives traveling to join their husbands must be met at the airport by the husband or by a sponsor and have confirmed onward reservations up to their final destination in Saudi Arabia.
In the case of a married couple, both spouses should carry a copy of their marriage license whenever in public, in case the mutawwa’in, or religious police, request proof of their relationship.
Passports, visas, and permits must remain valid throughout stays in Saudi Arabia. Do not surrender your passport to your Saudi employer except for the most specific and valid reasons. Your passport is the only evidence of legal right to be in the country. In emergencies, your embassy will issue a replacement passport, but those cannot be used to depart, since they will not bear a Saudi exit permit.
Carry identification, such as your passport, at all times when traveling in Saudi Arabia. You are likely to be asked to produce it and failure to do so could result in a fine or detention.
All visitors to Saudi Arabia must have a visa, except for nationals of The Co-operation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. This includes Bahrain, Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
In order to obtain a visa, you must have a sponsor in the country. Your sponsor will be responsible for much of the required paperwork, but you will have to provide a great deal of documentation, often including marriage and birth certificates, and copies of your employment contract and academic or professional qualifications. Applicants for certain visas also require a comprehensive medical examination.
It takes about six weeks to obtain a visa number, which entitles you to collect your visa at the Saudi Embassy.
Business visit visas
This type of visa is generally valid for 30 days with the possibility of extending it to three months. Requirements for application include:
- Passport valid for at least six months beyond the end of expected stay
- Passport size colour photo
- Visa application form completed in black ink (or typed/printed)
- Proof of employment position (see Saudi Embassy for a list of the five accepted forms of proof)
- Visa fee, paid online at Enjazit website
- Self-addressed envelope with paid label from trackable delivery service.
The Saudi Embassy will provide complete instructions for making a business visit visa application. Family visit visas are required for a spouse and children.
If you anticipate travel in and out of the country, you should request a multiple exit/re-entry permit at the time of application for the business visit visa.
The employer begins the process and will obtain a visa authorization code. Applicants should be prepared to produce the following at their local Saudi Embassy:
- Passport valid for the length of employment
- Passport-size colour photo
- Application completed in black ink (or typed/printed)
- Original letter of employment from the sponsoring Saudi company, certified by both the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Certified, notarized copy of university diploma, validated by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission
- Copy of employment contract, signed by employer and employee and including the visa code obtained by the company
- Three copies of medical report signed by physician attesting to disease-free state of applicant
- Police report detailing any criminal record (or lack thereof)
- Visa fee, paid online at Enjazit website
- Prepaid self-addressed envelope.
Family visit or residence visas
Although many working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia choose to not bring their spouses or children for security reasons, those who wish to invite members of their family to visit or reside there must submit a request through their sponsor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia.
If this request is approved, each family member must provide complete documentation as specified by the Saudi Embassy.
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This article is an extract from a much more detailed guide to Living and Working in Saudi Arabia. You can access this information free of charge in the Destinations section of www.worldofexpats.com.