Living in the Middle East / Saudi Arabia

Getting Around

Date Posted: February 16, 2016      

Saudi Arabia has a good network of modern highways making it possible to travel around the country with relative ease.

Driving

Expatriates are eligible to drive in Saudi Arabia and will be able to apply for the necessary local Saudi Arabian driving license. This is a well-established process and for some approved countries, including those in the European Union or USA, and will be straightforward and automatic. For all other countries you will be required to take a number of lessons and pass a driving test.

Driving in Saudi Arabia can be very different to driving in your home country, particularly if you are arriving from a country that drives on the left, as Saudi Arabia drives on the right hand side of the road. Extra care should be taken to familiarize yourself with traffic laws and regulations.

Unfortunately, traffic accidents are relatively common in Saudi Arabia; there is a tendency for drivers to be less cautious and more aggressive than in many countries. In practice, speeding, cutting across lanes to turn, not indicating and ignoring right-of-way rules is common place. Expatriates driving in Saudi Arabia should do so defensively, and with care and most importantly remain calm at all times.

It is important to highlight that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. A woman can only travel by car if accompanied by her husband, male relative or a male driver. In some of the expatriate compounds women are permitted to drive but this is not universally the case. However, the expatriate compounds offer regular shuttle bus services to schools (most schools also offer this service) and to local shops.

For expatriates living in Saudi Arabia on a short term basis, it is possible to hire a car (provided that you hold a valid driving license and a visa.)

It is also relatively common for expatriates to consider the option of hiring a family driver, particularly to afford women some convenience and independence.

Taxis

Major cities in Saudi Arabia have an extensive and reasonably priced taxi system. This is by far the most frequently used (and reliable) means of public transport within Saudi Arabia. In the cities, taxis can be flagged in the street, or pre-booked in advance either online or by phone. The service is generally professional and courteous, but you do come across a new driver, on occasion, who is unable to find your pick up address or destination. Therefore, if you have not been to your destination before and it is not a well-known location, it is best to get directions in advance, or at least be aware of the major landmarks nearby. Some expatriates retain the contact details of a driver they trust and call them when needed. Private taxis are available at most hotels although it is advisable to negotiate a price at the beginning of the journey. More recently, alternative services such as Uber have become increasingly available in larger cities.

Buses

There is a widespread system of buses running in Saudi Arabia’s cities and for travel to and from neighboring countries. Companies such as Saudi Public Transport Company (www.saptco.com.sa) provide an excellent public bus service. Note that women are not permitted to travel on city buses.

Rail

Currently, Saudi Arabia has only one passenger train service, which connects the city of Riyadh with the coastal port of Dammam in the East. However, in recent years a number of major rail transport projects have been announced, which are intended to make travel within and between its major cities easier, quicker and safer. These include the Landbridge Project, which will expand the existing rail service to connect Riyadh with Jeddah and other locations, and the Haramain High Speed Rail Project, due to provide links between the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah via Jeddah and King Abdulaziz International Airport.

The Saudi government has also announced metro projects for the cities of Riyadh (six lines), Madinah (three lines) and Jeddah (three lines), as well as an extension to the existing network in Makkah. All are scheduled to be operational by 2020.

Air

Saudi Arabia is well connected to many countries in the Middle East, Asia, North America, Western Europe and North and Central Africa by air. The country’s six international airports are located in the cities of Riyadh (King Khalid International Airport), Jeddah (King Abdulaziz International Airport), Dammam (King Fahd International Airport), Madinah, Al-Ahsa and Yanbu. In addition, scheduled passenger services offered by commercial airlines operate out of six regional airports and 14 domestic airports.

The country’s national flag carrier airline is Saudia, which offers operates domestic and international scheduled flights to over 120 destinations in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Domestic and international charter flights are operated, (the latter mostly during Ramadan and the Hajj season), which sees the country’s busiest airport in Jeddah used heavily as an international gateway on the journey to Makkah. However, with a dedicated Hajj terminal this increase in traffic is well catered for.

Even if you are a regular traveler, it is advisable to check with your airline for the list of items that cannot be brought into Saudi Arabia, as additional restrictions exist, in keeping with the Saudi Arabia’s Islamic culture and traditions. These include alcohol, pork, non-Islamic religious material and pornography (which is very broadly defined), as well as pharmaceutical products that may be readily available ‘over the counter’ in other countries. Additionally, computers, CD, DVD, iPods and other portable media devices may potentially be seized for inspection.