Saudi Arabia seems restrictive from a Western perspective, and the capital is the Kingdom's most conservative city. It's forbidden for unrelated men and women to socialise, alcohol is banned, and there are no clubs or performance venues. Many expats find themselves wishing for an outlet, especially on weekends.

Luckily, taking a weekend break from Riyadh's working world is certainly possible with advanced planning.

Weekend breaks in Riyadh

Desert drives and hiking

Activities in and around Riyadh may be limited, but there's no shortage of activities in the surrounding desert where soft red sand becomes rougher terrain that transforms into magnificent escarpments.

There are no designated camping areas, but most areas that aren't fenced off are opportunities for exploration.

That said, going into the desert alone can be dangerous and expats should go with formal groups or experienced people who know the terrain.

It's also possible to drive through the desert using four-wheel drive vehicles. Several organisations plan day trips and weekend campouts. Some even offer GPS and sand driving courses.

Desert safety tips:

  • Heat stroke is a risk for all. Expats should bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat with good coverage or a scarf, and bring snacks for energy and to replace lost minerals.

  • They should also travel with another car in case of any malfunctions, and make sure someone in the city knows what they're doing – depending on where they are, their mobile phone  may be out of range.

  • A GPS is highly recommended and can be bought in the city with all the necessary maps preloaded – everything looks similar out in the desert. 

  • While the desert is hot during the day, temperatures fall at night and expats should be prepared. Luckily there are plenty of camping stores in Riyadh.

Diving in the Red Sea

Expats often have no idea that Saudi Arabia is perfect for snorkelling, fishing and diving. Jeddah is an hour-and-a-half flight from Riyadh and is a popular weekend getaway that offers amazing sea life without the sizeable crowds. Expats could also visit the Farasan Islands off the coast of Jizan.

Visit Dubai, Bahrain or Qatar

Expats who want a more drastic change of scenery could also consider a weekend break outside of Saudi Arabia.

It's an hour-and-a-half plane ride to Dubai, which provides a stark contrast to austere Riyadh. Alternatively, Bahrain is a four-hour drive away and it takes seven hours to drive to Qatar (but flying is an option too). It's advisable to leave early in the day so there's enough daylight to watch out for camel crossings. 

Although all of these destinations are Islamic states, they're more liberal than Saudi Arabia. Expats can mix with the opposite sex, visit a hotel bar, take in a museum and indulge in other sorely missed activities. 

If they are driving, expats must own the car or get the required documentation from their sponsor and local police. Border guards may request to see ownership documents or paperwork for rentals.

Depending on their nationality, expats can usually purchase a visa at the border. However, they should check each country's regulations before they travel.

To exit and re-enter Saudi Arabia, expats will need to get a multiple-entry visa. These are valid for six months and must be purchased through a sponsor.

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