For travelers, the most apt symbol for Saudi Arabia may be the veil. The country's traditions, influenced by a strict interpretation of Islam, mandate that a woman's features be hidden from public view, and a similar concealment seems to apply to the country as a whole. It has remained largely unseen and mysterious, obscured by centuries of isolation, an austere religious tradition and the government's lack of interest in developing Western-style tourism.
But over the past few years, the veil has been lifted just a bit. The government is now issuing tourist visas to a few organized tour groups. The number of groups granted entry is still very small, and the tour itineraries are closely controlled—groups are directed to certain areas and excluded from others. The only other means of visiting the country is to go as a Muslim religious pilgrim (to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) or to receive a business visa (which, like a tourist visa, requires official approval and advance planning). By whatever means you arrive, you'll find Saudi Arabia to be an outwardly modern country that admires the latest technology but at the same time seeks to preserve customs and traditions that date back to the seventh-century days of the Prophet Muhammad—and even earlier.
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