No water bottles, take off your shoes, start your laptop/pda to prove it’s for real.

We all know the drill.

And when traveling overseas, you have to remember to take the prescription medicines in a valid bottle to prove it’s yours, and remember to list all the gifts you bring. (The trick is to wear or use the stuff so you can list them as personal items not gifts). There are often valid reasons for this: to stop drug smuggling, to stop smuggling of jewels, to tax imports.

But what few people in the west realize is that Saudi Arabia bans even more things: pornography and religious items.

My nieces, when they went to work there are nurses, knew about not taking a bible, but were upset when their jewelry boxes were searched and their rosaries were confiscated.

That was ten years ago. Nothing seems to have changed, the Saudi web site still stating 100percent of their citizens are Muslim, but does note that 35% of the population between age 15-64 are non citizens. And about a million of these (5% of the population) are Christians. But no churches are allowed, and even local Shiites are not allowed to worship in their version of Islam.

So Tourists to Saudi will have their Playboy and Bibles confiscated.Yup. So what else is new?

But who would go to such a place as a tourist?

Well, a million people visit Saudi in the Haj each year.

And after the Bali bombing and the tsunami, a lot of European tourists who want sun and sand are looking for other exotic first class resorts. And Saudi Arabia is trying to attract their share of the tourist surge. There are pristine beaches, exotic nature reserves, and desert camping, among other things.

But those who want to see a sophisticated Middle East might want to consider visiting the smaller Gulf states instead.

Qatar and UAE are already major tourist areas for locals and foreign workers, and are now trying to attract the lucrative European tourist trade.

Unlike the insular fanatic Saudi tribes, the Gulf states have a long history of contact and trading with non Muslim cultures . Yes they are still conservative (one doubts they would welcome a gay pride parade) but they are used to tourists, and unlike Saudi Arabia, Dubai the local prince donated land so Catholics can have their own church for worship.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket 

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