Key Developments

  • Attacks against oil facilities on 14 September 2019 have been claimed by Yemen based Houthi rebels, though blame is being apportioned to Iran
  • This is the latest in a series of attacks that have included targets in Riyadh
  • Geopolitical tensions have the potential to impact Riyadh further, and advice should be sought before travel to remain advised of a volatile and developing situation
  • Despite wider regional issues, the easing of regulations and a diversification of investments improves Riyadh’s operational outlook
  • Travellers who consider themselves part of the LGBTQ community should exercise discretion to avoid persecution. Advice should be sought before travel to ensure safety

 

Risk Level: MODERATE
Risk Outlook: UNSTABLE

Political

RISK LEVEL: MODERATE

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a Unitary Islamic Absolute Monarchy where the Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly of political power. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended to the throne in 2015 and his son, Mohammed bin Salman, was appointed Crown Prince and first in line to the throne in June 2017. Prince Mohammed controls all major levels of government and was the pioneer behind moderate reform to the Kingdom’s ultra-conservative values, such as allowing women to drive in June 2018. However, authorities arrested activists who had campaigned for women’s right to drive and were accused of conspiring with foreign governments, with the activists reportedly tortured in custody. This crackdown highlights that the Saudi monarchy continue to seek to repress independent activism and do not wish for civil society to share any credit for reforms from the King and Crown Prince.

Saudi Arabia’s monarchy restricts political rights and civil liberties, with no officials at the national level being elected. The regime relies on extensive surveillance, criminalising dissent and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. According to the Freedom House country report for 2019, Saudi Arabia is ‘not free’, boasting no freedom of speech, no political rights and no civil liberties in the nation. Therefore, political parties are forbidden, citizens do not have the right to criticise the regime and citizens in Riyadh, and the entire nation, are subject to extensive surveillance by the state in attempt to curtail dissenting behaviour.

Geopolitical tensions have impacted on Riyadh recently due to an alleged Houthi rebel drone strike on the Khorais oil field 145km from the cities centre (see terrorism section). These attacks have heightened tensions surrounding global oil facilities and, given that these attacks have already fuelled a 20% increase in the price of oil globally, more damage to markets may ensue. Indications are that the country’s oil trade will recover in due course. However, the potential for further disruption poses a concern for the country’s leaders as they seek to both galvanise international support against Iran driven attacks and ensure future investment. With the US indicating that they will increase their military footprint in the region over the coming weeks, the potential for increased geopolitical and regional tensions is clear. There are no guarantees that this conflict will not escalate further, albeit this not being in US or Saudi interests. Whilst Saudi Arabia have been ardent supporters of Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran, they have minimal interest in an actual war. Iran also has a strong interest in avoiding an all-out conflict, which would expose the country to the firepower of their well-armed Gulf neighbours, and the US. In recent months, tensions have been increased by the seizing Western oil takers in the Gulf, alongside alleged conspiration with Houthi rebels to hit soft targets in Saudi Arabia, which has directly increased hostilities in the region. As such, regional tensions are currently high and, if travelling to Riyadh, one should remain aware of their surroundings and seek guidance with regards to what is a developing and volatile situation.

When visiting Riyadh, local laws and customs should be complied with and the monarchy should not be criticised either openly, in private, or on social media. You should not engage in any protests or dissenting activity and should adhere to the conservative practices that epitomise the culture of the nation.

Operational

RISK LEVEL: LOW

Riyadh is the Kingdom’s capital, with an estimated population in the Riyadh province of around 7 million people. The Kingdom is one of the largest economies in the Middle East with a GDP per capita around $25,000, with Riyadh being the business hub for Saudi Arabia, and, as such, most visitors to Saudi Arabia visit for business as opposed to leisure. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and there is a strong demand for UK goods and services in a wide range of sectors. Major opportunities for trade and investment in Saudi Arabia include traditional sectors such as oil and gas, but also health and education. More international firms are actively seeking to establish a physical presence in the Kingdom in order to gain a foothold in this high-growth market, with the UK being the Kingdom’s second largest cumulative investor, with over 200 joint ventures worth an estimated £11.5 billion.

Saudi Arabia ranked 94th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report for 2017 out of 180 countries. Riyadh is extremely important to the Saudi economy and a large proportion of Saudi business is conducted there. One of the world’s largest financial centres, the King Abdullah Financial District is under construction and expected to host the G20 summit in 2020, bringing a wealth of business and international interest to the new development which is likely to increase Riyadh’s prominence on the international stage further. The Saudi economy grew by 1.4% in 2016, although there has been a substantial impact following the major reduction in oil prices since mid-2014. Growth in real terms declined in 2016. Long-term average growth is around 3%. In 2013, the Kingdom had the second highest fiscal balance (just over 8.3% of GDP in surplus) and the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio in the G20; now debt is growing, and the 2016 budget deficit was around 56%, owing to low oil revenues and the military campaign in Yemen. The Kingdom has plans to diversify its productive base and move towards private sector-led growth. Much government spending goes towards enhancing the human and physical capital of the Kingdom, such as through new hospitals. As Saudi Arabia attempts to diversify its economy, there will be opportunities in health and education.

Heavy rain in Riyadh can cause flooding between November and February. Over the past 30 years, Saudi Arabia has recorded 14 natural disasters, affecting nearly 30,000 people and resulting in economic losses of approximately $450 million. Extreme heat in Riyadh should also be met with caution. Located in the centre of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh suffers from climatic extremes. Summer temperatures between May and August regularly exceed 45C, although this is not humid; whilst winter temperatures, particularly in the coldest month of January, can fall to just above 0C. Throughout the year Riyadh is extremely dry, and sandstorms are very common. Temperatures near 50C are usually only reached at the end of July and In August. This extreme heat may affect productivity and may lead to extreme sunstroke and illness. Therefore, workplaces must be kept cool and regular breaks if undertaking manual work should be taken to prevent illnesses within workforces.

Security

RISK LEVEL: MODERATE

The security situation in Saudi Arabia is relatively stable apart from the Saudi-Yemen border where we advise against all travel within 50km. Following the recent bout of drone attacks at the Khurais oil field around 150km from Riyadh, the security situation in the Riyadh area has heightened and you should remain vigilant. Local media announcements should be adhered to and you should be aware of the Saudi-Yemeni tensions and refrain from discussing or protesting this. There is the potential for future retaliation from the Saudi-led coalition towards Yemen and this will likely stimulate more attacks from Yemeni based rebels against critical national infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Attacks can be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. Opportunistic attacks on western targets are also possible, and therefore, you should be vigilant and follow the advice of the local authorities.

Consumption or possession of alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. In 2015, a British man working living in Riyadh was arrested for brewing his own alcohol. The man would have faced 350 lashes, but was spared due to his old age and ill-health. Western oil workers that live in compounds in the west of Riyadh illegally are reported to distil their own alcohol for personal consumption. However, this is extremely risky, and they face dire consequences such as execution, lashings or torture if caught doing so.

Homosexual or extra-marital sexual relations are illegal and can be subject to severe penalties. It is also illegal to be transgender. Transgender people travelling to Saudi Arabia are likely to face significant difficulties and risks if this is discovered. LGBTQ lifestyles are prohibited in Saudi Arabia and it is one of the least LGBT-friendly countries in the world. First offences carry the potential of a life prison sentence and physical punishments such as flogging, torture, or execution. In April 2014, 35 LGBT community members were arrested by the religious police following a ‘gay party’ in the Western city of Jeddah. In July 2014, a gay man who allegedly tried to arrange a date via Twitter was sentenced to 450 lashes and three years imprisonment. More recently, in April 2019, five men who were ‘proven to be gay’ were tortured and then beheaded.

Saudi Arabia operates an uncodified criminal code based on Sharia law where sex outside marriage is illegal, and same-sex intimacy is criminalised. Punishments vary, however, adultery and interfaith sex are punished with the death penalty, while non-married adultery men are punished with flogging. Sharia law principles underpinning the criminal law in Saudi Arabia also impose strict dress codes that impact upon the gender expression of transgender people. The whole Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is extremely conservative, including Riyadh, and careful procedures should be taken to ensure a safe journey if you are a member of the LGBT community.

Travel

RISK LEVEL: MODERATE

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country in which Islamic law is strictly enforced. You should respect local customs and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend, especially during the holy month of Ramadan (subject to fluctuation, this is set to occur between 23 April-23 May 2020). The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal, however, Saudi authorities accept private practice. Islamic codes of behaviour and dress are strictly enforced. Women should wear conservative, loose-fitting clothes as well as a full-length cloak (abaya) and a headscarf.

The recommended taxi service in Riyadh is the global firm, Uber. There are no organised or centralised taxis in Saudi Arabia and as such, you should rely on Uber, not take unlicensed taxis and make sure that every taxi you use is licensed. Whilst 3,500 buses in Riyadh entered the Riyadh metro link at the end of 2018, Riyadh is a car-oriented city and public transportation is badly underdeveloped and unreliable. Therefore, travel by taxi or personal car is you are familiar with the area is recommended, although, caution on the roads are advised as there are more than 460,000 crashes a year in the nation, predominantly caused by reckless driving. King Khalid International Airport 35km north of Riyadh is ranked 11th in the world’s on-time-performance with the airport’s commitment to the arrival and departure time within 15 minutes of the schedule reaching 80.6%.

Riyadh is generally a safe city for visitors with violent crime being very low and as such visitors will rarely face any safety concerns in the inner-city. Most common is pickpocketing in crowded areas and on public transport, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan when travel to the region is subject to increase. Fundamentally, Riyadh is considered the most conservative of the Kingdom’s cities. With most forms of entertainment banned, few sights of interest, photography of major monuments being prohibited and a variable climate, Riyadh is mostly a business destination.

Terrorism

RISK LEVEL: HIGH

Terrorists are likely to carry out attacks in Riyadh and the surrounding area. On 5 October 2017, 2 suspected terrorists were killed during a security operation which took place across three sites in Riyadh. On 21 April 2019, Saudi security officials killed four suspected terrorists when they attacked a security facility in the town of Al Zulfi, Riyadh province, with small arms and detonated an explosive suicide belt. Three Saudi security officials with injured in the exchange of fire and ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading coalition air strikes in Yemen to deter continued Houthi rebel (Ansar Allah) aggression since it intervened in the nation’s civil war in 2015. Since coalition military action began in Yemen, missiles and drones continue to be launched into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, targeting critical national infrastructure including aviation interests and oil infrastructure. There have been 6 intercepted missile attacks over Riyadh since the first attack on 4 November 2017. However, on 14 September 2019, drones claimed by Houthi rebels were launched against Saudi Aramco oil facilities in the city of Abqaiq in the Kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern province, which state-run giant Aramco describes as the world’s largest oil processing plant, and a refinery at the vast Khurais oil field, around 150km from Riyadh. Several sources have claimed that the assault had disrupted output and exports, with one source claiming 5 million barrels per day of crude production had been impacted which equates to nearly half of the Kingdom’s output.

This audacious assault highlights the increased sophistication of the Tehran-backed Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, highlighting that the Houthi’s targeting capabilities and strategic thought are developing and pose an increased threat to Saudi security and infrastructure. However, the regime in Iran has, over recent months, been more open about its support to the Yemeni rebels with coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki stating that an investigation into the strikes which had been claimed by the Houthi rebels was still ongoing to determine the launch location, yet, preliminary results have showed that the weapons are Iranian and the terrorist attack did not originate from Yemen.

This year, Hossein Sheikholeslam, a former senior diplomat close to Iran’s hardliners, stated that Iran was not sending missiles to Yemen, before adding: “if you think that this expertise that exists in Yemen came from Iran, you’re right.” Ultimately, here, the attacks on Saudi oil facilities have increased the chance of regional conflict and have been described by Al Jazeera as a “game changer” in already tense US-Iran relations, with the US believing that the responsibility lies with Tehran, whilst Tehran has dismissed these “unacceptable” allegations. Conclusively, whilst Donald Trump claims to not want to be involved in war, serious and careful diplomatic procedures must be undertaken to prevent an escalation of conflict, both within the Middle East and globally. Fundamentally, the terrorism threat surrounding Riyadh is currently heightened and you should seek guidance and remain vigilant at all times as future attacks may occur at short notice.

Terrorist groups continue plotting attacks in Saudi Arabia. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting major settlements such as Riyadh, transportation hubs and local government facilities. Terrorists have targeted both Saudi and Western government interests, mosques and other religious sites, and places frequented by Westerners. If you decide to travel to Riyadh, stay alert in busy locations, obtain comprehensive travel insurance, stay up-to-date with local news, know where the national embassy for your country is and whether there is one in Riyadh and consider formulating a contingency plan for emergencies. SI Risk remains available to provide advice as the situation develops.

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This version was last updated on 16 April 2019.
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