A guide to independent female travel in Saudi Arabia, solo or otherwise. Includes cultural tips, advice on what to wear, things to be careful of, and more!
You probably could’ve guessed that Saudi Arabia is an… interesting place for female travelers.
Heavily segregated by gender and (in)famous for its restrictions on women’s freedoms and rights, the country is not the easiest place to be a woman, let alone travel as one!
However, times are changing. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pushing for relaxed restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. I won’t go into politics or rationale—what matters is that some changes affect foreign female tourists, too.
Figuring out what is and is not okay as a woman traveling Saudi Arabia is tricky, especially given these rapid changes. To help you, here’s my guide to female travel in Saudi Arabia, compiled after my 3+ weeks of travel in the country.
Female travel in Saudi Arabia: a guide
- Background on women in Saudi Arabia
- Is it safe for women to travel?
- What’s it like?
- Should you travel there?
- What to wear
- Things to know
- Safety tips
- Solo travel vs. traveling with men
- Harassment and other female traveler’s experiences
- Resources for female travelers
What’s up with women in Saudi Arabia?
Where to even begin?
Saudi Arabia used to be a more relaxed and open society, until religious hardliners came to power in the 1980s. Restricting women in the name of Islam was one of the items on their agenda. Contrary to how free women were several decades ago, these days the list of restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia is immense.
Forget fixations on clothes and hijabs, as Western media tends to do—there were (and still are) far more important restrictions on women’s lives in the Kingdom.
Women could not travel internationally, conduct business, or even receive medical treatment (among other things) without a male guardian’s written permission. Now women aged 21+ can get a passport and travel without one, but many other guardianship rules are still in place.
Women weren’t allowed to drive cars until 2018, limiting movement and forcing many to spend exorbitantly on taxis. Even now, there aren’t enough driving schools to handle the number of female applicants. Women’s rights activists who campaigned for the right to drive are still in prison.
Separation of women and men is in every aspect of society. Women are restricted to women-only educational institutions (often of lower quality), eating only in restaurants with family seating (of which there are few), and they could get in trouble for being with men whom they are not related to until very recently.
However, things are quickly changing. Many of these legal and cultural restrictions are theoretically relaxing, though women are still being punished and shamed for minor offenses in the wake of these liberal reforms.
In five years, the country might be completely different for men and women alike. Only time will tell.
Do these rules apply to foreign women?
Rules for foreign women and local women do differ at times. For example, foreign women no longer have to wear abayas, but local women do.
In general, foreign women enjoy more freedom than their Saudi counterparts. Because the Kingdom hopes to attract more foreign tourists of a diverse nature, foreign women are likely to be given more leeway if caught… but many of the rules still apply. Tread carefully.
Is it safe for women to travel in Saudi Arabia?
I’d say so. I certainly wouldn’t consider it a dangerous place for women to travel!
What was it like to travel as a woman in Saudi Arabia?
I’ll be honest: I found it frustrating many a time. However, it’s certainly possible, and you’re not as restricted as Saudi women.
I didn’t have to be on guard with Saudi men. Much.
Though just as conservative in many ways, Saudi Arabia is not as intense for female travel as, say, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Men don’t stare as much, and they certainly aren’t as touchy! Nor are men as aggressively forward as men in Iran.
Young men were flirty a few times, but I put on my best bitchface and ignored.
I straddled the line between men and women’s worlds.
A common occurrence for foreign women in conservative countries: you benefit from weird double standards.
I went out for one-on-one dinner and coffee with a Saudi man who wouldn’t let his own brother see his wife’s face.
A friendly local guy happily showed a foreign female friend and I around his city, even though his family was so conservative that he didn’t know what his female cousins looked like.
I drove around late at night, candidly talking about everything from sex to atheism with a man who was worried about being seen shaking my hand outside of his workplace.
Meeting women was tough.
In my experience, women were invisible outside of big cities. Many women travel only by car, not foot, and are fully covered when they do. I had to actively seek out women to interact with via Instagram and Couchsurfing; I sure wasn’t meeting many by chance!
However, there were some spaces where I learned I could see women: shopping areas and malls, women’s sections of cafes, and sometimes parks around sunset.
Finding cheap restaurants to eat in was difficult.
Restaurants are usually divided into “singles” men’s sections and “family” sections… if there’s a family section at all! Most cheap restaurants are singles-only. Women are allowed to go inside to get food, but they have to get it packed for takeaway (an endeavor usually involving metric tons of unnecessary plastic and packaging).
Given I was backpacking around Saudi Arabia on a budget, this was annoying. Sometimes restaurants were flexible about this rule—segregation is now no longer required by law—but for the most part, I had to eat in more expensive family restaurants because I wanted to avoid the plastic waste of takeaway food.
Should you travel in Saudi Arabia?
Travel in Saudi Arabia is relatively easy—infrastructure is good, tourists are now welcome, and you don’t have to worry much about scams or dangers.
However, I would not plan to travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman unless you are prepared to encounter a strictly conservative and very patriarchal Islamic society and respect their norms. Or are only visiting Jeddah.
Traveling to Saudi Arabia is not like other popular Muslim-majority countries where tourists can get away with ignoring Islamic aspects of culture, ex. Morocco or Turkey. Its citizens are not yet used to tourists. It’s important that tourists respect the country’s rules and customs in this sensitive time of change. Even if you disagree.
If you aren’t comfortable respecting the local culture, don’t visit.
What should women wear when traveling to Saudi Arabia?
Remember, culture and official rules are two different things.
Officially: You can wear whatever you want in Saudi Arabia so long as it’s modest. That means long sleeves, legs fully covered, and no excessive cleavage showing. Color doesn’t matter. Covering your head is unnecessary.
Practically speaking: If you wear anything except a black abaya and hijab you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb in most of the country.
I’d say outside of Riyadh and Jeddah, 99% of the Saudi women a tourist will see will be in full niqab: an all black robe, and headscarf (hijab) with face covered except for the eyes. If you see women at all.
Inside Riyadh and Jeddah, things will only be slightly different.
Still quite conservative. Most women wear all black, even in fancy malls. Only in more upmarket establishments will you see uncovered faces and occasionally uncovered heads. Black abayas recommended.
A diverse crowd makes up the most liberal city in Saudi thanks to all the religious pilgrims and seaport cultures. You’ll see more women in open, colorful abayas, plus uncovered heads and faces. Abayas of any color work here.
What did I wear?
What you choose to wear depends on how comfortable you are with stares. (… and, I’d venture to say, the color of your skin.)
While traveling around Saudi, I wore a black abaya every day, and rarely took it off in public. When I did go without abaya, men actually did get more flirty. I covered my head about half of the time… and had stuffy old men shout at me to cover up once when I didn’t.
When in remote areas with few to no people, I took the abaya off. Hell, I even went swimming in my bathing suit on a few different beaches! (After a liberal local woman told me I could.) The coast guard eventually spotted me; they were surprised, but didn’t say anything. However, I wouldn’t swim anywhere in Saudi where strangers were present unless I was fully clothed. If I swam at all.
More things to know about female travel in Saudi Arabia
Let’s clear up some misconceptions and confusion about traveling as a woman in Saudi, shall we?
Women can book hotels on their own. No need for a male guardian.
Women can be hosted by men. Couchsurfing as a woman in Saudi Arabia IS legal, if not common. Male Couchsurfers can host women. However, many might choose not to as it’s still scandalous to do so. I recommend solo women only stay with families, women, or men with hosting references from women.
Women can rent cars and drive on their own. So long as you have a Saudi license or an international driver’s permit (IDP), that is!
Women can’t really sit in men’s sections of restaurants. Restaurants are no longer required to be segregated, but that doesn’t mean everything has changed. Sometimes restaurants will be flexible—the nicer the restaurant, the more likely this is—but for the most part it’s family sections or takeaway to eat at home/hotel. To find family sections, look for family icons or opaque side doors to restaurants.
Women’s restrooms are usually hidden. Many mosques have restrooms for men and women, but the women’s stalls will be in the back.
Women don’t shake hands with men. Simply say salaam aleikum, nod, or put your hand over your heart.
Safety tips for female travelers in Saudi Arabia
- If a man asks for your Snapchat, be wary. It’s basically the Saudi equivalent of asking for your private phone number.
- If a man is harassing you, take a photo of him or his car’s license plate (or pretend to). It’s possible to report men for harassment if you have evidence, and this will scare many men off.
- Be cautious with very talkative or forward men. Unless you initiated contact, it’s not normal for men to be particularly chatty with women: they’re probably flirting with you.
Solo travel vs. traveling with men
During my 3+ weeks in Saudi Arabia, I traveled solo, with a man, and with a small group of people. Responses to me were quite different depending on who I was with.
Solo female travel in Saudi Arabia
People were mostly amazed that I was doing things alone as a woman… as they are in most parts of the world! I got a lot of curious stares when walking around alone—especially when wearing full hijab—and twice as many looks when driving around alone.
Most men I met gave me as wide a berth as possible. Conversations were short; many were clearly uncomfortable speaking with me. I received no invitations for tea, conversation, or anything along those lines. There were a few instances of verbal harassment, men catcalling, etc., but nothing serious by my standards.
Women, when I did see them, were predictably more forward and curious when I was alone. However, outside of major cities I didn’t meet—or even see—many women.
It is possible to Couchsurf as a solo female traveler with male hosts. As always you should use your discretion with male hosts.
Traveling with a man in Saudi Arabia
Would you believe that this was actually more frustrating, if easier?
When traveling with a man, I essentially stopped existing. Men would not make eye contact with me. They’d only talk to the man. When I spoke to men, they would respond to the man. They were shocked when they saw I was driving a man around. When I paid in cash, change was returned to the man.
On the bright side, we didn’t encounter any issues traveling together despite being unmarried. Sharing hotel rooms wasn’t an issue. Occasionally we said we were married to make things easier, but even when we admitted we’re friends we didn’t get much more than surprised (or judgmental) looks.
Which did I prefer?
Personally, as a stubborn headstrong woman, I preferred traveling alone. I hate not existing.
However, if you’re looking for an easy travel experience and as much welcome as possible, traveling with a man in Saudi Arabia makes things 10000x easier and more straightforward.
Harassment in Saudi Arabia and other female travelers’ experiences
I didn’t experience much harassment in Saudi Arabia. Men whistled and catcalled several times. Two men outside of Riyadh filmed me when driving by. Boys were flirty and tried to snap selfies with me at one point. But, generally speaking, men were usually too distant to do more than offer suggestive comments or stares.
However, every traveler’s experience is different. Here are stories I heard from other women to better prepare you for what could happen. Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with anything of the sort!
- A female traveler from Canada encountered a man masturbating to her in one of the Wadis in the south.
- A solo female traveler from Switzerland had a man proposition her for sex using pornographic imagery on his phone after he asked her to stay in a restaurant that was closed for prayer time.
- A solo traveler from China was assaulted by an Indian taxi driver in the south. He invited her into his home to “use the washroom” after other passengers were dropped off, and was forceful inside.
I share these stories not to scare you off, but to show that despite gender segregation, harassment is still a very real possibility.
Remember, men in Saudi Arabia are not used to women traveling alone or otherwise. They may interpret your foreign openness as a sign that you’re available. If anything happens, be firm. Make a scene. Don’t hesitate to be rude or run away. Or kick them in the balls.
Resources for female travel in Saudi Arabia
- Nada al Nahdi – a Yemeni/Indonesian female traveler and blogger who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia
- Esraa Rayes – Saudi woman and Instagrammer who quit her job to travel
- Blue Abaya – Travel blog of a Finnish woman married to a Saudi and living in the country for years
- Qairawan – Travel company run by Esraa and Nada offering women-friendly, affordable trips all over the country
- Couchsurfing – The best way to meet other travelers and locals in Saudi Arabia
- Girls LOVE Travel – A women-only travel Facebook group, some members live/work in Saudi Arabia