Business Jet Destination Guide: Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has long been one of the busiest and most popular business aviation destinations in the Middle East. Operating to Saudi Arabia – or through its airspace – is fairly straight forward; however, operators do need to give themselves sufficient preparation time. We recommend at least three weeks to ensure everything goes smoothly – including meeting all permit, visa and sponsor letter requirements.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Airport options
The most frequented destinations in the country for general aviation are Jeddah (OEJN), Riyadh (OERK), and Dammam (OEDF). All are 24/7 Airports of Entry (AOEs). OEJD and OERK have Fixed-Base Operators (FBOs) and full services available. OEDF does not have an FBO, although it was announced in March 2019 that one would be constructed on the ground floor of the existing terminal building. Ground support equipment, in-flight catering and local transport options are limited at OEDF. When you operate to this location, it’s best to check in advance to determine service availability.
Taif (OETF) is often used as an airport of entry (AOE) for operators traveling to Mecca. Note that many airports in the Kingdom are either military or private airfields and not easily accessible.
Slots, PPRs, Parking
While airport slots and prior permission required (PPR) are not normally required in Saudi Arabia, there are special arrangements, and longer lead times, involved for operations to military and private airfields with approvals on a case-by-case basis. Parking availability is seldom an issue unless a large local event is underway such as the Hajj period at Mecca, where you may need to drop, go and reposition but this is quite rare.
At the primary AOEs, handling infrastructure and services are good-to-average. However, at smaller airfields without a fixed-base operator (FBO) presence, handling support may be somewhat below average, and local agents and fuel trucks, on occasion, show up late. It’s best to pre-notify supervisory agents and/or handlers of planned arrivals at least 24 hours in advance, although services at larger airports can generally be set up with as little as three hours’ notification. When requesting ground handling, operators should provide aircraft type and maximum takeoff weight (MTOW), operating schedule and crew/passenger manifest.
It’s best for crew to stay at international chain hotels. There is an abundance of 4- and 5-star accommodation options in Jeddah and Riyadh, but options are more limited at Dammam. During Hajj, Ramadan, and other local holiday periods, it may be difficult to book hotel accommodations and preferred local transport options.
4. Ground transport
Pre-paid transportation (car with driver) is the recommended option for local transport. It’s best to avoid public taxis unless the particular service is recommended by your ground handler.
You can get a free quote for ground transportation through Universal-Drivania Chauffeurs.
Fuel prices here are attractive – with OEJN and OERK being the most popular options. It’s always recommended to carry a fuel release, and to send a copy to your handler in advance, whenever planning fuel uplifts in Saudi Arabia. In this region it’s important to ensure fuel credit has been pre-organized. Local handlers may or may not provide credit for fuel, depending upon their policies. At least24-houradvance notification is recommended for uplifts at major airports while 72 hours is suggested for smaller locations. At major AOEs fuel services are usually reliable and on time although it’s best to avoid peak periods of commercial operations. Also, for any international tech stop it’s important to have a fuel release available.
6. In-flight catering
In-flight catering services are available at OEJN, OERK, OEMA and OEDF. At most other locations it’s best to cater directly from local hotels or restaurants. Plan on 24-48 hours’ notification for in-flight catering orders and when catering from hotels/restaurants and have your ground handler involved in the process to assist in bringing catering through airport security. While a wide range of international cuisine is available, be aware that pork products and bird of prey meat are not possible, nor is anything with alcohol.
Note: During the month-long Ramadan holiday – when Muslims do not consume food or drink during daylight hours – it’s best to provide at least 48-72 hours’ advance notification for catering.
For assistance with in-flight catering, Air Culinaire Worldwide can help.
Major airports in Saudi Arabia are highly secure and off airport threat levels are not high. GA operators generally do not arrange aircraft guards, secure transport or executive protection services although these services are available. Be mindful that with tight airport security, and aircraft routinely sealed after arrival, it can be a somewhat cumbersome process returning to your aircraft prior to day of departure. We recommend taking everything off the aircraft that you’ll need upon arrival.
Both private non-revenue and charter (non-scheduled commercial) operations require landing and overflight permits for Saudi Arabia. Information requirements are the same for both private and charter flights. Permits are processed by General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), also known as Saudi Arabian Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Landing permit requirements
In addition to crew and passenger information, and data about the aircraft, including airspeed, you’ll also need airworthiness and registration certificates, worldwide insurance and a notation of the flight levels you’ll be flying. The latter is a somewhat unique requirement for Saudi Arabia but one that must be complied with. While local sponsor letters are not needed for landing permits, they often are for visa purposes. However, it is possible to apply for landing permits prior to obtaining all passenger/crew visas.
Additionally, Saudi Arabian landing permit applications require the name of your ground handler. Please also note that for domestic flights within Saudi Arabia, CAA evaluates them on a case-by-case basis. Also, for operations to a military airport, a landing permit request must first be sent to Saudi Arabian CAA. Once CAA has received the permit request, a request for a prior permission request (PPR) must be sent to the military air defense department for approval.
Overflight permit requirements
Overflight permits are always required when traversing the Saudi Arabian airspace. While the actual routing is not important, for permit purposes destination and departure points must always be provided. Except for sponsor and ground handler details, the same information needed for a landing permit must be provided for overflight requests.
Permit confirmation process
After DGCA receives a permit request, they’ll review and process the information. For landing permit applications, DGAC routinely confirms all details with your local business sponsor. If the business contact is not prepared to verify the details of your visit, or the information is wrong, this will delay the permit process. DGCA will have to reconfirm the flight information with the business contact, allowing time for the operator to make the contact aware of the visit, or corrected information will need to be provided. Permit confirmation will be provided once this process has been completed. Have all required information assembled when the application is first submitted to ensure the request is accepted and processed without delay.
Flight permit lead times
Official lead times are five business days for overflight permits and three business days for landing permits (Sun-Thurs, LT). However, in practice landing permits can often be obtained with short notice. In some cases, we’ve seen permit requests turned around in under an hour. Landing permit validity is +/- 24 hours from the day approved. While CAA is only fully staffed during normal Sunday-Thursday business hours, personnel are usually available to process permits and revision requests outside of these hours.
Government offices are also closed during public holidays which include Ramadan, Hajj, and Saudi National Day (Sept 23). Ramadan and Hajj follows the Islamic Calendar, so the exact public holiday dates change every year.
Assuming the request has no missing information, a permit may be processed within 24 hours, but that’s at Saudi Arabia CAA’s discretion.
Permit revisions must be submitted for all changes, including crew/passenger names, schedule, destination, point of flight origin and aircraft changes. It’s best to notify CAA of any permit changes 24 hours prior to operation. Permit revisions are usually confirmed quickly. We find Saudi Arabia to be one of the easiest countries in the Middle East in terms of obtaining and revising permits.
While cabotage is not an issue in Saudi Arabia, it’s always important to advise your ground handler who will be onboard each leg and to ensure that passport information is provided. Smaller airports in Saudi Arabia often have operating curfews. Airport hours will not be extended except in the event you have certain VIPs or medical emergencies, onboard. Note that military airports will only provide access to approved military flights or flights with certain dignitaries onboard. Domestic operations within Saudi Arabia are not an issue, but you must operate inbound/outbound via an AOE. Note that Medina (OEMA) scrutinizes any requests for operations to this location.
At larger airports of entry (AOEs), customs, immigration, and quarantine (CIQ) is cleared within the FBO, and it’s usually a quick 10-15-minute process. Note that all passports must have at least six months remaining validity and two-to-three copies of the gen dec are needed for each arrival/departure. Arrival and departure cards are also required for Saudi Arabia, and these cards cannot be obtained in advance. However, your handler may pre-fill out arrival/departure cards for you.
Planeside or onboard clearance may be possible in Saudi Arabia, depending on the person onboard and purpose of the flight, but that needs to be set up in advance.
Visas are required for most passenger/crew nationalities. Visas on arrival may be possible for crew members (not passengers), but this is limited to a max stay of 72 hours. We do not recommend obtaining visas on arrival, as they 1) are not guaranteed, 2) could be denied last minute, and 3) cannot be extended unless it’s an emergency.
Note that visas for Saudi Arabia often take longer than for other countries as a local sponsor is usually needed. Keep in mind that if you have an AOG issue, it may be an issue trying to arrange a last-minute visa on arrival. Always ensure that you provide a cell phone contact number for your sponsor as authorities will contact him or her.
Crew visa exemptions
Crew members, as long as they’re not Israeli citizens, may arrive in Saudi Arabia without visas for stays of up to 24 hours, and this may be extendable for a stay up to a maximum of 72 hours. To obtain temporary access permits, crew members need to provide copies of passports and crew IDs along with local hotel info. While temporary access permits are handy for crews doing tech stops in the Kingdom, we recommend that crews obtain visas for destination stops, as this enhances operational flexibility and movement within Saudi Arabia.
11. Flight planning
Operators flying over the Kingdom must stay on approved airways as direct routing is seldom possible. Be aware of no-fly zones over Mecca along with extensive restricted airspace in the south of the country. In most cases, Israeli built, registered or crewed aircraft may not enter Saudi Arabian airspace.
12. Tech stop considerations
Major AOEs in Saudi Arabia are frequently used for tech stop purposes, and quick turns are practical so long as you don’t land during peak periods of scheduled commercial activity. For tech stops you’ll need a landing permit but not a visa, and the customs clearance process will be abbreviated.
Note: Security may come onboard to search your aircraft, even on international tech stops, and you may need to deplane prior to aircraft inspection. It’s important to ensure you leave no alcohol, non-Islam religious material, fashion magazines, or other potentially-objectionable paraphernalia anywhere in view within the cabin. See the section below on Cultural Sensitivity.
13. Peak season
Services may be limited during religious holidays such as Hajj (summer) and Ramadan (spring). Be mindful that weekends in Saudi Arabia are Friday and Saturday and most of the locals take prayer breaks five times daily. GA and airport services tend to slow down during weekend and holiday periods. While in the Kingdom it’s best not to talk about religion and to avoid political topics. The holy month of Ramadan, observed by 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide goes on for 30 days. During this time most Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. While non-Muslims may eat during the day it’s important not to flaunt this and to consume food/drinks in private.
14. Regulatory considerations
Be aware of travel restrictions from the following countries:
- Israel: Direct operations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are strictly forbidden as are overflights of Saudi Arabian airspace for operators to/from Israel. Aircraft built in Israel are not able to travel anywhere in the Saudi Arabian territory. Having an Israeli passenger onboard may or may not disqualify your flight. In some cases, with sufficient lead time and a good reason, special permission can be obtained to carry an Israeli passenger but approval is on a case-by-case basis. All passengers and crew should avoid having Israeli stamps in their passports as this will usually negate your ability to enter the Kingdom.
- Syria: Note that any direct travel between Saudi Arabia and Syria is carefully scrutinized by CAA and may not be possible.
- Iraq: Saudi Arabia has a restriction prohibiting flights to/from Iraq.
15. Other considerations
Cultural sensitivity is important
It goes without saying that Saudi Arabia has a very conservative culture that you need to be familiar with and respect prior to operating there—even for just a tech stop. It’s important that your passengers can respect Saudi Arabia’s culture as well. Below are some tips you should be aware of. In addition, we recommend working with your trip support provider or security team to get a current official country security and cultural brief, as this information may change.
- Alcohol and food: All onboard alcohol must be locked up prior to customs inspectors entering your aircraft, or you may be liable for a fine of up to 20,000 USD. Upon entering your aircraft, customs, immigration, and quarantine (CIQ) will put a tamper proof seal on the liquor cabinet. Similarly, you cannot bring pork products into the country.
- Guns: Guns and ammunition may not be brought into Saudi Arabia under any circumstances, even if it’s just a tech stop and you provide documentation.
- Regions symbols: Don’t have Christian bibles or even Christmas decorations in sight.
- Suggestive materials: There’s a low threshold here on what’s considered pornography so it’s best not to have any fashion magazines or the such in sight.
- Pets: Household pets may be temporarily imported into the Kingdom with proper documentation and pre-notification.
- Dress code: It’s important that all onboard dress conservatively, particularly females. It’s generally acceptable for female crew to wear uniforms with long pants and a scarf to cover the head. If you’re wearing anything that may be remotely revealing consider arranging for an Abaya, a robe-like gown that covers everything but the face, hands and feet. Your handler can provide an Abaya but it’s best to have this prior to arrival, in case security reaches your aircraft before the handler does.
- Considerations for female crew: Female crew members will not have an issue in Saudi Arabia so long as they dress appropriately and are escorted in public at all times by a male crew member. Be aware, however, that if a male crew member is not onboard you’ll be required to have your sponsor come out to the aircraft to escort female crew off the premises and to a private setting.
- Considerations for people who identify as LGBT: There have been rare instances of people who identify as LGBT being detained at various airports in the Middle East for questioning. If your purpose for flying into Saudi Arabia is just a tech stop, you may want to take this into consideration. If there is some sort of confrontation with local authorities, laws in Saudi Arabia are not favorable toward people who identify LGBT.
If you’ve not traveled to Saudi Arabia before, it’s best to allow at least three weeks’ lead time to make arrangements for permits, visas, sponsor letters, etc. Visas can take time to arrange. Ensure you receive a thorough brief from someone who’s traveled to Saudi Arabia before, and always pay attention to cultural norms when visiting this location.
We strongly recommendation you work with an experienced trip support provider when operating into this region.