Driving in Saudi Arabia can be an exhilarating experience. It can also be a terrifying one. This small country has a lot of cars: one car for every four people. It also has a passion for luxury cars and high speeds. The Kingdom attracts tourists because of its sand dune driving; however, day to day driving in Saudi Arabia is drastically different from cruising in an SUV in the desert.
If you plan on driving in Saudi Arabia, be sure that you are well prepared.
There are 221,375 kilometers of well-built roadways in Saudi Arabia. The most important highway is Highway 40 which crosses the Arabian Desert and the entire country from the west coast to the east. At 1,359 km it connects Jeddah and Mecca, passes through Riyadh, and continues to Dammam on the Persian Gulf.
One reason that driving in Saudi Arabia is so common is that gas is cheap. In 2013 Saudi Arabia was ranked 59 out of 60 countries regarding the price of gas. Only Venezuela had cheaper gas. Therefore, if you are driving in Saudi Arabia gas prices are of minimal concern. Nonetheless, the Saudi government has the goal of further developing its use of alternative energy to fuel a third of its electricity within the next couple of decades.
Saudi Arabia is known around the world as the only country where women are not allowed to drive. Like many issues in Saudi Arabia, the surrounding debates are complex and contradictory. Women are allowed to own cars but not drive them. Although women can be arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia, there is no formal law that actually makes it illegal. Therefore, this ban is based on a religious edict as opposed to a traffic law.
However, there is hope that this will change in the not so distant future. A Saudi activist group, Women2Drive, started a campaign in 2011 demanding for women to be allowed to drive.
As of April 2013 women can now ride bicycles and motorbikes. This new rule stipulates that women can only do so as a recreational activity as opposed to a mode of transportation. Either way, it still sparks further hope for lifting the ban on driving cars.
Yet for expat women who are used to driving, this is still a major obstacle. Women must rely on their male relatives – husbands, brothers, fathers and even sons – to drive them. Alternatively, they can hire a professional male driver. However, the Saudi government is actively decreasing the number of foreign workers – currently over eight million – by firing and deporting some in an effort to decrease the unemployment rate for national Saudis. This translates as a further obstacle for women wishing to hire an affordable and trust-worthy driver. It is also further incentive for the country to allow women to drive.
When it comes to driving in Saudi Arabia, the usual rules apply, that is on paper. Drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts. It is illegal to speed and to use a cell phone while driving. However, on the road things are quite different. Unfortunately, Saudis don’t take the rules of the road very seriously. Nonetheless, as an expat, you want to follow the rules as getting caught and thrown into jail is just not worth it. Remember that corporal punishment is business as usual in Saudi Arabia. So be sure to follow the rules when driving in Saudi Arabia even if the locals don’t.
Saudis drive on the right hand side of the road. The speed limit for driving in Saudi Arabia is 45 km/h in urban areas and 80 – 120 km/h on motorways. In 2010 the government introduced an automated traffic control and management system, SAHER, which monitors speeding as well as other traffic violations. If SAHER catches you speeding they will text you a message to say that you’ve been fined. Fines increase as time goes by and they quickly become expensive.