Dominating the Arabian Peninsula, the sands and cities of Saudi Arabia take in the sultry shores of the Red Sea to the west and extend all the way to the Persian Gulf in the east. But to cross it, you'll have to navigate the Rub' al-Khali - or Empty Quarter - the largest sand desert in the world. It may be notoriously difficult to gain entry, but those who do will be in for the adventure of their lives.Home of Islam
It has been home to countless other civilisations over the course of history, though it is probably best known for holding the spiritual home Islam. The pilgrim's paradise of Mecca, off limits to non-Muslims, welcomes the millions of visitors who flock into the city during the hajj (pilgrimage) period to witness for themselves the birthplace of Muhammad, the site of his first revelation and the immense Abraj Al Bait - also known as the Makkah Clock Royal Tower Hotel - which stretches to 601 metres.Feast your eyes
Even if the city is blocked for you, the country holds reams of other treasures, from the Asir Mountains in the west with their clean air and fresh temperatures, to the majestic sites of old Nabataean tombs at Najran and Jeddah. But the country's main attraction lies in the ancient city of Mada'in Saleh - with its incredibly preserved tombs carved straight from the rock and undisturbed pathways.Mountain air
To the west, the Asir mountain chain descends to the shores of the Red Sea before climbing to the dizzying heights of the Jabal Sawda, 3,000 metres above sea level. The mountains' extensive national park is home to gazelles, leopards and even baboons, and dotted with ruined villages, old fortresses dating from the pre-Islamic period and, to the north, 5,000-year-old cave paintings.The Red Sea
Once you've been from desert to mountain, the beautiful Red Sea coast awaits you with open arms. A paradise for divers, the coastline holds some of the best spots in the world. You can even leave the mainland behind and take a trip out to the Farasan Islands - over 80 coral isles and islets just over 20 miles off the coast of Jizan. These south-western isles harbour an immense diversity of marine life, including dugongs, a strange sea mammal belonging to the same family as the manatee.Urban oases
Emerging from the edges of the large swathes of desert, you'll stumble across ultra-modern cities clinging to green patches of oases. The capital, Riyadh, attracts businessmen in large numbers to hatch rich plans, as well as diplomats from all over the world. Medina, like Mecca, is accessible only for Muslim visitor but neighbouring Jeddah welcomes all with its 18th-century tower-houses and souks stuffed with interesting artefacts and souvenirs.
Surface area : 2149690.0 km2
Population : 28008000 inhabitants
Apart from Bedouin jewellery in silver and woven fabrics, you will not have a large choice of local craftwork. The souks of Khamis Muchayt and Najran are amongst the most interesting, but you have to look around. Like the banks, shops are open from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm from Saturday to Wednesday. Some are open in the afternoon between 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm.
Saudi cuisine is still strongly based on Bedouin nomadic traditions. Staples include basic foods such as dates, flat bread, spices and plenty of chicken. Lamb is also eaten, though this is often reserved for honoured guests and large feasts.
All the large cities have their international restaurants, particularly Chinese and Thai. Jeddah is a slight exception to the rule, with its good and small fish restaurants along the coastal road.
The import and consumption of alcohol are strictly forbidden, as is the consumption of pork, in accordance with Muslim customs.
This country is the homeland both of Islam and of the Arab people. Its citizens nowadays identify strongly with both these cultures. Bedouins, farmers, merchants, travelling nomads - they may be dying traditions but they are still a huge part of the heritage of this nation and key to understanding its inhabitants.
All Saudi Arabian citizens are Muslim, with a small minority of Shia and a majority of Sunnis. Non-Muslim faiths, on the other hand, are not permitted to practice anywhere. A heavy focus on sharia law means that gender segregation is extremely prominent throughout the entire country, as is respect for age. Mixing between generations and sexes is rare and visitors should keep all public exchanges formal and polite.
Literature is a particularly special aspect of Saudi Arabian tradition, especially poetry, which is often recited at large gathering and special events such as weddings. Classical poetry is highly valued and beautiful to listen to, whilst modern novels are closely censored by the religious government. Art is also highly censored, limiting the work on display to the general public.
Impenetrable and mysterious, Saudi Arabia can be a wonder and a worry, though only if you don't go well-prepared. Travel to and around this Islamic country demands respect for a people and culture that differ vastly from the Western world. You should always be aware of the strict sharia law which governs local population and visitors alike, making sure you are covered to the ankle and respectful of the Ramadan fasting period in public.
If you aren't visiting on a religious pilgrimage, try to avoid this time as it can be difficult to find hotel rooms. Shops and public places are closed at prayer times and women should also cover their heads outside the larger cities.
It will come as no surprise that, yes, this desert-like country can get ridiculously hot. In terms of the best time to go, try to avoid the period between mid-April and October when temperatures approach and often exceed 45C. However, winter can bring temperatures of well below 15C, especially in the desert at night. November and March are two of the best months to visit, though anywhere in between will also serve you well.
In a domain of business transactions and religious pilgrims, tourist visas just don't exist in Saudi Arabia. The country's archaeological sites are beginning to attract a fair amount of researchers and scientists but progress is still slow. Most visits are carried out in organised groups, rather than individual trips so be prepared to put a lot of effort into planning your travels.
Internal travellers often fly between the country's major cities, as long distances and low prices make it the easiest and most comfortable form of transport. However, if you prefer to take your own four wheels the road network is excellent, though only men over the age of 25 have the right to hire a car.