The majority of short term visitors to Saudi Arabia are religious pilgrims taking part in the yearly Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) or who visit the country to celebrate Ramadan.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to step foot in Mecca and many other religious sites are off-limits. Saudi Arabia did launch an initiative to encourage tourism but it was focused on convincing Saudi nationals to spend their holidays in the kingdom rather than for the purpose of attracting foreign tourists.
The country is also very conservative: the ban on different sexes interacting in public means that cinemas and public concerts are banned. The ban on alcohol means there are no pubs, bars or night clubs. The religious restrictions further limits the range of activities on offer.
If you find yourself in Saudi Arabia, it is most likely that you will be there for work reasons. A staggering 90% of the workforce are foreign. For a foreign traveller, everything is geared towards the business traveller with only business hotels on offer and other facilities having a purely business focus. There are no tourist information centres or tourist maps with practically no guide books available either.
The malls in Saudi Arabia are highly modern and include all of the major western chain stores. Malls are also a great place to get something to eat, as they cater for the large international workforce with American, European and Middle Eastern food available. You will also be able to find a McDonald’s in the shopping malls along with other recognisable fast food places. They open till around 1am on weekends, so you could literally spend your whole day there.
The souk is like the original shopping mall, a market where you can pick up authentic Saudi Arabian arts and crafts. There are many to be found around Saudi Arabia. Think of the clichés of the Middle East and you will find them represented in the souks with spices, leather goods and carpets all on offer. The other true cliché about the souk is that you must haggle. Any non-Saudi will look like an easy target and you will be overcharged unless you are prepared to start bartering.