Saudi Arabia is known to be one of the most conservative countries in the world. Saudi people, nonetheless, are a mixture of those who are conservative and others who are moderate in addition to the liberals who are the minority. Because the conservatives considerably outnumber people with other Islamic views, Saudi Arabia is easily perceived by foreign visitors to be entirely strict. The advice and precautions given to foreigners regarding their stay in Saudi Arabia is an extra reason that supports that impression.
Although the Saudi government has opened the country lately to receive visitors outside the Haj pilgrimage season and, in fact, encouraged foreign delegations to make visits to both the private and the public sectors in so far as the Saudi Parliament and Ministry of Interior; there were recent visits made by mixed gender delegations to those two, yet laws and regulations entailed in these visits remain vague and confusing. With the exception of clear-cut laws regarding alcohol and drugs, nothing else is clearly defined. Among those who have visited Saudi Arabia, each and every one had a different story to tell. For example, some females were obligated to cover their hair where others weren’t. Also some male and female business associates were able to ride a taxi together or dine together and others weren’t. Some regions within the country were more lenient in enforcing those regulations than other regions, the thing that added more to the confusion factor. If the visitors are lucky, they will receive firsthand experience from a former visitor to the same region. Otherwise, they will be lost Googling forums and reading contradicting stories.
Visitors of that sort are usually reluctant to answer the call to visit Saudi Arabia from what they hear from friends and relatives with experience or even what the media projects. Once they arrive to the country had they taken the brave decision to visit, they arrive with an impression that Arabic is not only the main language but also the only language spoken. Although many Saudis speak English, it is not that easy to find someone who does in the streets or in public places where and when those visitors need it the most. The quite distinctive conservative Saudi uniform for both males and females which most visitors are unfamiliar with, plus the language barrier limit the freedom to interact with locals or even ask for help or directions.
The Saudi government realizes the significance of opening up to the world and to be a part of it. How the Kingdom is perceived by the outside world, and not only governments, started only recently to be part of their agenda. Thus, the government has begun to take some steps in that direction. Those steps, however, are rather reserved and lack moderation.
That being said, I wonder why the Saudi government does not put together a booklet with standard rules for foreign visitors that are accessible and implemented all across the kingdom. Worth mentioning is that those rules should be softened for those who are non-Muslim in a way that both guarantees respect for the Saudi culture as well as the visitors’ personal freedoms. Allowing visitors who are on the same delegation to ride together can be a start.