Exploring Saudi Arabia as a pregnant, non-Muslim, Black American woman
If you told me in January, when I make my annual travel list of destinations I plan to visit for the year, that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) would be on that list, I wouldn't have believed you. Yet, in August, just a few months after first learning that tourist visas to the Kingdom were available, my husband and I were boarding a plane with a final destination of KSA.
My husband and I did not travel to KSA with a tour group--they aren't our style. We like the freedom of exploring on our own. I particularly love the puzzle-like planning and piecing together of logistics that non-tourist group travel requires. We had many experiences in the Kingdom, from driving a rental car given to us on E through a sand storm at night (thanks a lot Lumi) to feeling slightly out of place in my full-length Western-style dress in a Jeddah mall to melting near the Red Sea in freshly purchased abaya. Traveling to the Kingdom sparked my joy in traveling to the Middle East, and I hope the knowledge I share in the Passport Paris e-book will persuade you to design your own trip to the Kingdom.
In this blog post, I'll briefly touch on traveling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a pregnant, non-Muslim, Black American woman. Whether or not you fit into any of these categories, you'll definitely want to explore KSA before a surge of tourists water down the culture, as tends to happen with other destinations.
I felt safer traveling through the Kingdom as a pregnant, non-Muslim Black woman than I do leaving my house to go grocery shopping in the States.
Traveling to KSA while Pregnant
My husband and I discussed traveling to Saudi Arabia in June, while vacationing in Honduras. We were thinking of destinations for my birthday. We knew that wherever we'd explore would have to be a destination I could enjoy, given my status as a pregnant lady. We had no idea how large or small my baby bump would be or how comfortable traveling to a faraway destination would be for me physically. We also knew that with a baby arriving next year, there would be a gap of several months where I wouldn't be able to travel (*tears*), so this birthday trip had to be one for the books!
My explorative mind started looking for destinations when I found an article sharing that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was open for tourism. I learned that Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS), the son of king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, made tourist visas available in 2019. Before this date, you could only travel to Saudi Arabia if you were there on business, visiting family, or on a pilgrimage to Mecca or Medina. MBS' goal is to increase tourism by diversifying the country's portfolio and reducing its dependency on refining and selling oil.
With this knowledge, I began planning our trip to KSA. Alcohol and pork are illegal in KSA and cannot be imported into the country. That worked for me since I'm pregnant and can't drink anyway. I'm also avoiding high-sodium pork because who needs to be even more bloated when traveling while preggers? Though, I was perplexed when I had the most delicious pork-replica turkey bacon I've ever tasted in my life. The pork-bacon-look-alike was so delightful that I ordered it every day while in AlUla. I started wondering why they don't sell that brand of turkey bacon in the states and concluded that it must have something to do with money, politics, and American pork farms. *sad face*
Flying with Saudia Airlines
I used a large portion of Delta SkyMiles to book two roundtrip tickets from the U.S to Riyadh, the Kingdom's capital city. I later learned that two legs of our trip would be with Delta's partner airline and the national carrier of KSA, Saudia Airlines. Honestly, the roughest part of the entire trip was traveling on Saudia. It was tough to communicate with the airline and equally challenging to use their app. I made dozens of attempts to call ahead in the weeks preceding our trip to purchase seats in advance. Still, the technology barriers were insurmountable. My husband and I were willing to pay the necessary upgrade fees to buy comfortable seats for travel during pregnancy. Unfortunately, we couldn't do so, and even attempts to go through Saudia's loyalty program, Alfrusan, were highly unhelpful.
Further to the technology issues, Saudia lost my husband's luggage on a domestic flight the day before my birthday. We ended up losing a half-day of exploring AlUla because we had to drive an hour back to the airport to retrieve his luggage the next day. If you can't tell by now — flying with Saudia while pregnant wasn't the best experience. The staff is friendly, and I imagine the economy seats are reasonably comfortable for a non-pregnant person. Still, I couldn't get any rest while flying with Saudia. We did fly with a domestic carrier, Flynas, at one point in our trip and had a much better experience.
I typically book window seats when I land in a new destination so that I can record my first time landing on new ground. That wasn't possible with Saudia airlines because of the severe miscommunications. Thankfully, a Saudi woman allowed me to sit next to her as we landed, and I was able to capture footage of landing in Riyadh in the middle of a sand storm. The adventure was about to begin!
High Desert Heat
Another concern we had about traveling while pregnant was the high desert temperatures--KSA's heat is sweltering. The temperatures in August were around 110 Fahrenheit each day. Was traveling to the desert during the hottest month of the year the most intelligent travel decision I've ever made? No. LOL. But since I'm pregnant and cannot travel in the winter months— the most ideal time to visit the Middle East— I decided to toughen up and explore the Kingdom for my birthday in August.
The heat was less of an issue in AlUla, where we spent most of our time driving between tourist spots and the resort (and the airport). But the major cities of Riyadh and Jeddah were scorching. Thankfully, there are shopping malls and areas with central air conditioning that can keep you cool in the summer. The only time I felt concerned for the heat and my baby was while walking along the Red Sea at around 6 pm wearing an abaya. My husband and I learned that Saudis enjoy the summer months in the evening hours when temperatures are cooler. 6 pm is too early for a stroll by the sea. By day two in Jeddah, we formed a routine of going out later in the evening and had a more enjoyable time walking along the Red Sea waterfront at night.
Every woman and pregnancy is different. Use your best judgment and communicate with your doctor before planning your trip to KSA. I did travel with nausea bags and medication prescribed by my OBGYN. Since I spent most of our time in Honduras with pregnancy morning sickness, my husband and I took extra precautions in KSA. There are several regulations for bringing items into the country, so check out my tips on traveling to KSA with prescription medications.
Traveling to KSA as a Non-Muslim
Most, if not all, Saudi citizens practice Islam, and even some of their millions of Indian and Filipino expats are also devout Muslims. As a result of their dedication to their religion, there are rules and guidelines that tourists must abide by to be respectful when visiting KSA. If you are a Christian and plan on visiting the Kingdom, only one bible per person is allowed. No religious jewelry or artifacts can be brought into the country. Saudia Airlines has a mosque onboard its planes and begins every trip with a prayer to Allah. Religion is intertwined with daily Saudi life.
Attire in KSA
You must dress modestly while traveling around KSA. If you think this is extreme, consider it the same as visiting a friend's home. If a friend had a rule of "no shoes in the house," you wouldn't walk around their home wearing your muddy sneakers. You'd respectfully remove your shoes at the door, per the guidelines of the household, and enter your friend's home as a guest. The same is true when visiting any country, but especially when visiting the Kingdom. If you've decided to visit KSA, you should want to be mindful and respectful of the country's culture and customs.
You can be yourself and still be respectful to another person's home. The Saudis are friendly people who don't treat you differently if you're of another religion (from my personal observation). My guess is that the Saudi people will know you practice a different faith because you aren't wearing traditional attire (for women: an abaya, hijab, and/or niqab). While shopping in Jeddah, I did have an experience where I felt like I stood out as a foreigner. I wasn't sure if I stood out because I "looked American," or wasn't wearing a Hijab or if my full-length dress was too colorful and patterned. None of the looks I received from the Saudis while shopping were of disgust or anger. The looks were more of intrigue. I stood out the same way a Muslim woman wearing a niqab would stand out in a shopping mall in the States.
Aside from the attire, if you are a non-Muslim, you can be confident that you will have a religious experience in Saudi Arabia. The beautiful boulders in AlUla, which are so intricately designed that they could only have been formed by a higher power, and the general devoutness of the Saudi people (even in daily pleasantries) will persuade you to reflect on your own spirituality and relationship with God.
When you visit KSA, you will not be stumbling down the street as you possibly would in, say, Las Vegas or a European city with premium wine. Instead, you will have the experience of a lifetime seeing and exploring nature, culture, history, and the future. Don't restrict yourself to destinations with beach resorts where alcohol is readily available. I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone, wear the necessary clothing that covers your shoulders and knees, and explore Saudi Arabia.
Traveling to KSA as a Black American
When family and friends found out I was in KSA, I got a few questions: "what about their human rights violations?" and "What about how they treat a woman?" or "Did you hear what they did to that guy in Turkey?" To these concerns, my response was and is always the same — I am Black in America. There is no danger greater to me as a tourist than the ones I face in my home country.
I am not a Saudi citizen nor a Saudi woman, so I cannot speak on what goes on in KSA from a non-tourist perspective. I can only speak to the egregious human rights violations that America was founded on and that persist today. MBS has made strides in advancing the Kingdom in less than a decade -- removing the authority of the religious police, allowing women to drive, initiating revenue-generating tourism projects like NEOM and the Line, and more. America, however, is still in its 100+ year cycle of death, brutality, and gaslighting of Black, Brown, and other people of color.
When the American national news media tells me to fear a country or an entire region of countries that just happen to be led and run by people of color, I am skeptical. The same fear-mongering media will question the character of a Black child carrying a toy, murdered by adult police officers who "feared for their life."
Your level of fear of Saudi Arabia may differ depending on the news outlet to which you subscribe. And yes, I've done a significant amount of research, and I am keenly aware of the politics between the American government and that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But I view MBS as a millennial, fresh with ideas, making the necessary chess moves to advance his country as much as possible, even if those chess moves require diplomacy with shadowy politicians from other countries. As I've said, KSA has advanced further in one decade than America has in ten. Politics will be played no matter where you are in the world. Regarding safety, comfort, and security, and with the utmost honesty, I can say: I felt safer traveling through the Kingdom as a pregnant, non-Muslim Black woman than I do leaving my house to go grocery shopping in the States.
When it was nearing our time to leave, I cried real tears while sitting in the back of an Uber, looking at the Jeddah skyline. I didn't want to return to the micro-aggressions, gaslighting, crime-ridden, and racially tense place my passport says is my home. I'm sure the pregnancy hormones contributed to those tears as well. As we got closer to our hotel, I realized I was driving past debris that indicated the beginning of new construction projects, new buildings, and new skyscrapers. KSA has an air of newness and opportunity, and I didn't want to leave. I wanted to at least see a little more, do a bit more, stay a little longer, and determine if this country could be a place for expats to raise a non-Muslim, racially mixed family.
To say my visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was a life-changing trip would be an understatement. My birthday trip to Saudi Arabia solidified my love for traveling to the Middle East, and my desire to one-day live as an Expat somewhere in the world, with some cities in the Middle East ranking towards the top of the list of options. There is so much to see in the Kingdom, and I wish I had more time to explore further. I'd like to have lunch or dinner with a Saudi family on subsequent trips. I'd also like to dive deeper into this country that is the proclaimed "Keeper of Islam" — full of devout Muslims that, without trying and regardless of your religious stance, teach you lessons on what dedication to your beliefs truly looks like.
A few days later, it was time to go, and our departure flight on Saudia was chaotically boarded from Riyadh's international airport late at night. As the plane sped down the runway, I started thinking of ways to return to the Kingdom. Could I use my background in technology to be a consultant for the NEOM or Line projects? Maybe I could work remotely while living in the Kingdom? Perhaps I could work with the tourist board guiding English-speaking travelers visiting the Kingdom. I could definitely consult Saudia and help them sort out their technology problems. The ideas rushed through my mind, and once we were in the air, I knew that I would need another trip to be sure. It was also clear that creating an E-book of my experiences to help tourists wanting to travel to the Kingdom is also necessary. I encourage you to step away from whatever fears or concerns you have about visiting the Kingdom and plan a trip that would, without question, be the adventure of a lifetime.