Saudi Arabia: Airport Etiquette

First of all I’d like to thank American Bedu follower, Jlll, for asking about airport etiquette to ensure no wrong steps are made at arrival.  Now Jlll first asked if she arrived in Saudi as a female tourist, must she be well-covered before landing?   Well, to begin with, while Saudi Arabia is making strides in its efforts to open up more for tourism, tourism is not as yet fully developed in the Kingdom.  As a result it would be more likely that a single woman would travel to Saudi Arabia due to accepting an employment opportunity.  Now based on this premise, should the woman be well-covered before landing at the airport?

As a flight prepares to land the inside cabins are quite busy.  Saudi men may choose to revert from their western jeans and shirt back to the traditional thobe.  In turn Saudi women who relaxed during the flight without their abaya on will also be reaching into their bags to retrieve it so they deplane clothed at least from shoulder to toe in black.

What about expat guests?  Do they have to wear the traditional dress?  My own suggestion for women is towards making the best possible first time impression; it is preferred to wear a loose abaya upon deplaning at the airport.  A head cover is not mandatory for non-muslim female guest workers but it is suggested that she carry a scarf in case she would find herself in a situation where she felt more comfortable to wear one.

Another good question raised by Jlll was whether she would be expected to enter/exit a female-only bus to and from aircraft.  Thus far I have traveled at Saudi airports in Riyadh, Jeddah and Madinah and can say that the busses have not been segregated.  Men and women will naturally gravitate to separate areas but families will tend to stay together.

There will be taxi queues outside of the airports.  In my own experiences traveling in and out and within Saudi Arabia as a western woman I have never had any difficulty in being able to retain a taxi for transport.  My personal recommendation when at all possible is to have a private taxi reserved in advanced if the sponsor has not organized transport.

Within the airport itself there are separate areas for families and women to sit if preferred but again, it is not mandated.  The same applies at the airline ticket counters.  Women can go up to the ticket counters and will be served courteously.

In closing the post I’d just like to remind readers that not all travelers flying in and out of airports in Riyadh may be accustomed to seeing independent women traveling freely on their own.  Therefore I would suggest that although it is not mandated to wear an abaya on departing on a flight out of the Kingdom, I recommend a woman do wear one, again showing her understanding and respect of the culture.

Thanks again Jlll for your questions and look forward to more.

13 Responses

  1. Customs are different in the Eastern province. When I leave or arrive at the Dammam airport, I never wear an abaya. I do, however, dress conservatively. My legs and arms are usually covered, my clothing loosely fitted.

    I have not seen a separate family/women’s waiting area anywhere. With the exception of prayer rooms and restrooms, everyone waits together.

  2. […] the original post: Saudi Arabia: Airport Etiquette « American Bedu This entry was posted in Object and tagged a-western-woman, airports, and-out, own-experiences, […]

  3. I have heard a lot about the less orthodoxy of the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia. Carol, may be you can write a post on this.

  4. thanks for the suggestion Daisy.

    Since I don’t live in that area, would anyone from the EP be interested in letting me interview you on what it is like living there?????

  5. When I arrived here I was under no circumstances allowed to leave the baggage claim area without my sponsor arriving in person to pick me up. I know this because the representative of my sponsor wasn’t aware that women weren’t allowed outside and was waiting at the outside exit for me. Whoops – glad I had a contact number.

    Tho I did meet another girl who had been in the Kingdom for a while and was allowed through when she assured the customs guy her driver was outside. I guess first time is most important then they don’t mind?

  6. I have to admit that even as a Saudi, it is a bit weird to notice that we have our own ‘traditions’ even in airports!!

    Anyway, I would like add another remark about passports check points. Please do not be surprised if the passport officer just suddenly decided to serve Saudi citizens who just landed on another airplane regardless of you been waiting in line for more than 30 minutes to reach him. It happened the last time I was in Riyadh and it was really embarrassing. Group of us, Saudis, were courteous enough to just wait in line with everybody else!

  7. @Stacee – I think it depends on who the sponsor is perhaps regarding women arriving in the Kingdom. Since I have residency and my spouse is my sponsor, I can come and go freely.

    @Saad – Your experience reminds me of my former diplomatic days. Whenever I would fly in and out of Pakistan and the ticket agent saw my diplomatic passport, I would get waved ahead in all lines. I was like you, I had no objection to waiting my turn but the authorities would be insistent. And even if I were not traveling first class or business class, they would insist on my waiting in the VIP lounge for the flight. The same would happen on arrival. On deplaning and entering the airport you show your passport and I’d be directed by an official to the head of the line.

  8. I’d say it’s better to get off the plane and get covered, that way you’re ensured of not being stared at ,stopped and reach your destination faster – I’m in a rush to get home and crash after a long flight ,to that end i’ll take all kinds of restrictions, there’s plenty of time later to assert your individuality. and anyway that country required you to be covered and so anyone moving there should be prepared for that – atleast in public. no poit going there and trying to fight their customs.

    When i landed there with 2 v young kids, it didn’t feel any different than any other airport and i meekly put the abaya that my spouse had brought to the airport. later he told me he was worried i’d take one look and go back home leaving him with 2 little kids:-)

  9. I never wear an abaya when I arrive in the Kingdom or when I depart from there. But I wear a loose clothing covering all my body (I wear hijab, so this is my usual clothing outside of the Kingdom… no problem at all).

    I think it’s important not to bring CDs or any magazines that show too much women skin. I used to bring so many CDs (they all contained either MP3s or computer programs). When the authorities in the airport found out that I brought some CDs, they took all of them so that they could check what’s inside (making sure that there’s no porn, etc etc). I had to wait for almost 2 hours for this! So if you don’t want to wait for so long, just don’t bring any CDs:)

    For magazines, I used a black marker to “cover” the models who showed too much skin…

  10. Welcome AM and thanks for your comment and additional tips about DVD’s and magazines – very good points.

  11. Dear Carol and all other friends,

    Thanks so much for the post and feedbacks!!
    I was just away a few days in Prague and coming back seeing this post making me sooooo happy!
    I’ve been contemplating to attend a broker organized investment conference in Saudi, but the invitation mentioned for single woman a sponsor is needed, I still need to check out if the London broker can act as the sponsor or not, because we have no local contacts…. but since I was following Carol’s post, I got all intrigued and excited about every different aspect of life. Now I think I have a much better understanding about the airport procedure, and apparently it’s more “normal” than I had expected:-). Big thanks again and now I am going to catch up with the rest of posts that I’ve missed out the past few days…

  12. Dear Jill,

    It is my pleasure – I love writing posts in response to specific requests.

    I have organized and planned international conferences/symposiums in Saudi Arabia and what happens is that we (the conference organizers) act as the sponsor for international attendees. This was a large institution which had a travel section and a liaison with Foreign Affairs to facilitate visas for delegates. Check if your sponsor organizer is doing something similar since it is widely known that not all who want to attend a function in Saudi Arabia have work in the Kingdom or a designated sponsor.

    And also query about accommodations. Single women are comfortable at the Four Seasons, Al Fasiliyah and Al Kozama in downtown Riyadh. Then there is also the Lufan Hotel and Spa for women only but is a little outside of the downtown area.

    Good luck! Carol

  13. i am stopping for just 4 hours in riyadh on a transit to cairo, what is the minimum i can get away with re clothing at the airport?

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