14 Most Common Tourist Scams in Saudi Arabia

Safety at Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Abha, Al-Ula, Rijal Almaa, Najran, Taif
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Mecca

Mecca

 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offers visitors a wealth of Middle Eastern delights.

You can spend time taking in bustling souks, shopping in cutting edge malls and also explore some of the greatest archeological sites in the world such as the mighty Meda’in Saleh and Empty Quarter.

Besides that, you can also check out amazing rock paintings inside breathtaking caves, dive in the crystal clear seas that skirt the country as well as enjoy the delicious food over here.

Home to some of the strictest laws in the world, crime is also rare here.

However, you still have to remain vigilant as there are scams and opportunistic petty crime.

Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Fake Zamzam water

Zamzam Well

Zamzam Well

 

How it works:

Zamzam water is basically water that comes from the Zamzam well located inside Islam’s holiest place, the Grand Mosque.

The government has given licenses to only a few stores such as the Bin Dawood chain to sell this, and the demand for this water increases during the holy month of Ramadan.

In recent times, police have busted several factories (such as one in Makkah) that produce fake Zamzam water bottles.

What they do, is to fill bottles with regular tap water and then paste a special sticker to make it seem legitimate.

 

What to do:

Only buy from the licensed stores such as the Bin Dawood chain.

 

2. Fake Hajj online travel agents

Saudi Arabia Hajj

Saudi Arabia Hajj

 

How it works:

This scam occurs every year during the Hajj without fail.

Saudi Arabia has a strict visa system for anyone looking to visit the kingdom and this is exploited by scammers especially during the Hajj.

Scammers will set up websites posing as travel agents.

They claim to be able to help you get a visa quickly and easily, or that they can help you to extend a visa or apply for a family visa.

Some will also offer “all-inclusive” packages that include air tickets, accommodation and transport.

However, once you have handed over a few thousands worth of fees to them, you will never hear from them again.

 

What to do:

When applying for a Saudi visa, always go through the official channels.

There is a process that you will need to follow and anyone who tells you that they can expedite this is likely to be a scammer.

As for tour operators:

  • Offline operators: ask – is the operator licensed? Is there a website, office and working phone number? Are there real online reviews? What does the price cover – is it too cheap?
  • Paying: avoid paying in full upfront (unless reputable operator) or off the (online) platform.

 

3. Short changing

Riyal

Riyal. Source: 5min.pw / Flickr

 

How it works:

While in Medina, you may encounter unscrupulous shop vendors or service providers who will try their luck and shortchange you.

 

What to do:

Always check your change.

 

4. Pickpocketing

 

How it works:

This is a particular problem in crowded areas such as traditional markets, souks and the Grand Mosque where thieves will take advantage of the crowded conditions.

Areas where you may find pick pockets include Al Balad Souk in Jeddah and Al Zel Souk in Riyadh.

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelry / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they surround you and then work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts you (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Don’t look like an easy target: wallet in front pocket, small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in an anti-theft bag, most valuables in hotel safe.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – our review) which covers theft.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Airport unofficial taxi scam

Medina Airport

Medina Airport. Source: taigatrommelchen / Flickr

 

How it works:

As you come out of Medina Airport, you may be approached by a well-dressed man, seemingly an airport staff or someone from the government who then asks to see your passport.

Should you hand your passport over, he will bring you to a desk, where someone there will pretend to scrutinize it.

After that is done, you will then be brought to a taxi where an inflated fare will be charged.

Don’t be tricked by such smooth taxi operators. Outside in the parking area, there taxis with their standard government-set prices clearly displayed.

 

What to do:

There are standard, fixed fees set by the government when taking a cab out of the airport.

These are all displayed outside in the parking area.

Check these before taking a cab.

 

2. Taxi meter scams

Taxi in Saudi Arabia

Taxi in Saudi Arabia. Source: thenational.ae

 

How it works:

There are taxi drivers in Saudi Arabia do not want to use their meter.

As such they will often tell you that it is broken or will simply offer you a flat rate which they will pretend is cheaper than the meter fare.

Often however, the trip will work out to be more expansive if you opt for the flat rate.

 

What to do:

Always negotiate the fare (currency, price for everyone and not per pax) before getting into a taxi.

You can estimate the fair price of any route by checking:

  • With your hotel / hostel.
  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • Taxi booking apps like Uber, Careem and Easy Taxi.

Take a photo of the car plate and also of the driver’s license in case anything goes wrong.

 

3. Indirect taxi routes

Al Qurrayah

Al Qurrayah

 

How it works:

If you can find a taxi driver who will use the meter, they often try to bulk up the fare by taking you on a long route rather than driving you directly to your destination.

 

What to do:

In the cab, be very clear when communicating the destination you are heading to. More prominent landmarks around your destination can be mentioned.

During the ride, check your phone’s GPS to make sure you are headed in the correct direction.

Sometimes, drivers do take detours to avoid traffic jams, but that should not detract from the correct general direction.

To tell if you have been taken for a ride, you can also estimate a fair price of any route by checking:

  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • With your hotel / hostel.
  • Taxi booking apps like Uber, Careem and Easy Taxi.

If you want to seek recourse, take a photo of the car plate number and of the driver’s license to report to the cab company.

 

4. Short-changing taxi drivers

 

How it works:

Taxi drivers may also try to scam you by short-changing you when you pay for the taxi ride.

This involves them giving you the incorrect change as they assume that you are not familiar with the local currency.

 

What to do:

Once you arrive in Saudi Arabia take some time to familiarize yourself with the different coins and notes available.

Make sure that you always count your change carefully before you leave the taxi.

 

5. Flat tire scam

Al Khobar

Al Khobar

 

How it works:

This scam involves a car in a deserted area that waits for someone to drive past.

As you drive along the road, the passenger or passengers will flag you down and pretend they have an emergency such as a flat tire.

Once you get out of the car to help, they will rob you of your possessions.

This is particularly prevalent in rural areas around Qatif and Al Khobar.

 

What to do:

Take care when driving in deserted areas and do not stop if you notice a group of people at the side of the road.

If you are genuinely concerned for the safety of the people you encounter on the road then you can drive further away to a safe spot before reporting it to the police.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Hotel swap

Riyadh

Riyadh

 

How it works:

If you see an offer too good to be true, it usually is.

A hospitality company, Kenzi Group, has been accused of putting up good promotions of a good quality hotel but when you reach the hotel, you will be transferred to another hotel of low quality.

Should you protest at the original hotel, you will there they have no such record of your booking.

 

What to do:

Only book via legitimate accommodation platforms such as:

  • Booking.com: Frommer’s tests have found the site to offer the best selection and rates amongst competing sites most of the time.
  • Homestay: if you are up for gaining genuine insights of Saudi Arabia by staying with a local host!

 

2. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

Thefts are usually conducted by non-locals, though local youths have also been reported perpetrating thefts.

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach (e.g. private beaches in Jeddah) where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.

 

What to do:

When seated / not moving:

 

3. Rental apartment scam

Riyadh at night

Riyadh at night

 

How it works:

Similar to the fake online travel agent scam, there are fraudulent listings on accommodation platforms as well.

This is where scammers pull off photos of a legitimate listing and create a new listing of their own.

If you don’t want to throw hundreds or thousands of dollars down the drain, these are the common red flags of fraudulent listings:

  • Prices that are too good to be true.
  • Illogical descriptions because they copy and paste without any edits.
  • Dodgy sounding reviews.
  • Difference in photos provided and pictures seen with Google Street View.
  • Payment only by bank transfer off the booking platform (note: they will use names that include the original booking platform to make it seem like you are still dealing with the platform).
  • Or payment to a foreign bank account or via Western Union / MoneyGram (sure sign of a scam as transfers are irreversible).
  • Owner is overseas, insists on only using English in emails and emails are worded in poor English.
  • If the “owner” refuses to provide more details or to allow for a tour of the place.

 

What to do:

First, only book via legitimate accommodation platforms such as:

  • Booking.com: Frommer’s tests have found the site to offer the best selection and rates amongst competing sites most of the time.
  • Homestay: if you are up for gaining genuine insights of Saudi Arabia by staying with a local host!

Next, some due diligence to be done on individual listings:

  • Search online reviews and Google the names of the owner.
  • Call the phone number provided on the listing.
  • Grill the “landlord” by asking specific questions, such as room dimensions or something unique as seen in the photos.
  • You can even pretend something exists in the online photos and test if the “landlord” can call your bluff.
  • Search if the property has another online presence or contact number and engage that to see if they are consistent.
  • Test the owner by requesting for a visit from a local friend – it doesn’t have to happen, you just want to test the owner’s receptiveness.
  • Finally, do not pay in full upfront and do not make payment off the platform.

 

4. Sob story

Public market in Thuwal

Public market in Thuwal

 

How it works:

This can come in many variations.

One variation happens around car parks, where you may encounter a woman with a baby who is seemingly in need of medical attention.

They usually approach women to appeal to their maternal instincts.

Another variation is that of a family in a car, who claims to be from a neighbouring Gulf country and have run out of both fuel and money to buy fuel.

They then ask if you can spare them some money to buy fuel to get home.

A third variation involves drivers or taxi drivers telling how life is difficult back home. They may even claim that their sons intend to be Jihad fighters!

 

What to do:

These stories are most of the time, fictional. If you ever want to help, it’s better to donate to established charities.

 

5. Beggars

 

How it works:

Besides sob story scammers, you may also encounter fake beggars, especially during the Hajj period.

One variation is that of a family approaching you in a car, claiming that they cannot successfully perform the Hajj, due to financial constraints and so asks for your help.

Another variation is that of a man with fake injuries. He may even show you forged medical reports from a hospital!

 

What to do:

These stories are most of the time, fictional. If you ever want to help, it’s better to donate to established charities.

               

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not meant to be a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

                                                     

1. Violent crime and terrorism

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Saudi Arabia

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Saudi Arabia. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Saudi Arabia. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: low and isolated. Watch out more for petty crime in crowded areas and at holy sites.
  • Hazards: n.a.
  • Hotspots: within 50 miles of border with Yemen.
  • Terrorism: rebel groups in Yemen continue to fire long range missiles into Saudi Arabia, targeting populated areas and civilian infrastructure in Riyadh and Jeddah. Most are intercepted by Saudi air defence systems.
  • Civil unrest: although illegal, demonstrations do occur sometimes (though primarily amongst the Shia communities in Qatif).

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, hotspots, travelling alone at night, and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Also stay alert during periods of religious significance such as during Ramadan.

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid participating in demonstrations.

Avoid these areas:

  • 10km (definitely do not) and 80km (avoid unless essential) within the borders of Yemen.
  • Qatif in the Eastern province and its suburbs.
  • Hofuf and its suburbs in the al Hasa governorate.
  • Saudi-Iraq borders.

 

2. Medical care

Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz Hospital

Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz Hospital. Source: alfouzan.com

 

How it works:

Modern healthcare is available in major cities while basic services are available in small cities and towns.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: zika, dengue, chikungunya, malaria, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, leishmaniasis, Rift Valley fever, and West Nile virus.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, schistosomiasis.
  • Animal borne disease: avian influenza, rabies, brucellosis.
  • Human borne disease: HIV.
  • Others: allergies and / or respiratory problems due to sandstorms.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: Hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: Hepatitis B, malaria (if spending a lot of time outdoors), meningitis (if taking part in the Hajj), rabies (if traveling outdoors or working with animals), yellow fever (if coming from somewhere with this).

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:                                          

A brief summary:

  • Rainy season: November to February, can cause floods and landslides.
  • Sandstorms: June to August. Strong winds can carry sand from the northern deserts.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reports, weather forecasts and sources such as:

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Due to cheap gas prices, driving here is attractive but can be difficult (one of the highest accident rates globally) due to these factors:

  • Poor driving standards – aggressive driving, speeding.
  • Lax enforcement of traffic rules.
  • High traffic volumes.
  • Roads in large cities are well maintained but roads in small cities and towns are less developed and poorly lit at night.
  • Sandstorms can affect visibility.

As for public transportation:

  • Inter-city bus and rail are available.
  • Within cities, taxis are the only practical means of transportation.

 

What to do:

Note that if you are involved in an accident with a local, you as a foreigner will be deemed to be at fault regardless of what happened.

Driving:

  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up.

Public transportation:

  • Only use licensed taxis.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Police in Saudi Arabia

Police in Saudi Arabia. Source: Hassan Ammar / almasdarnews.com

 

  • Police emergency hotline: 999
  • Ambulance service: 997
  • Fire brigade: 998
  • Traffic police: 993

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