Operations are straightforward and the Saudis understand business aviation — but remember to play by their cultural and religious rules when on the ground.
Evolved from an ancient oasis on a high desert plateau in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh reigns today as the capital and largest city of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and protector of Islam's most sacred shrines.
Composed of 15 distinct districts and home to 5.25 million people — 7 million, if greater Riyadh Province is included — the metropolis is also one of the richest and most modern in the world, thanks to its oil wealth and the Saudi government's policy of investment in the private business sector. As a result, Riyadh is a favored destination for business aviation operators engaged in international commerce.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the simplest Middle Eastern countries to operate into, as they understand corporate aviation and expedite things through,” Bart Gault, an independent contract pilot with considerable experience flying in the Middle East told BCA. “There's excellent security there, too. Practically speaking, going into Riyadh, operations will be familiar to Western-trained pilots.”
Both Gault and a regionally based pilot, Mark Keiswetter, who captains a Hawker 900 for charter operator Rizon Jet of Doha, Qatar, praised the Saudi Arabian ATC establishment. “Controllers are very good,” Keiswetter said, adding that many are British nationals. Going into Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport (OERK) “is always fun,” he continued, cautioning, however, that “you're on your own a little, as you have to ask what you want done. If you don't ask for a descent, for example, they will let you fly right over the airport at 22,000 ft.”
Arriving at Riyadh, aircraft are directed to a dedicated general aviation terminal on the north side of the field, “a simple turn off the runway,” Gault said. “If you're general aviation, there is only one place to go. And you will clear customs right there. If crewmembers don't have visas, the Saudis will issue them on arrival, good for three days with extensions available. And you can obtain multiple-entry visas.”
At any given time, 50 to 100 private or business aircraft may be parked at the general aviation terminal. The airport can often be quite busy, Gault added, and the tower may send out a “follow-me” truck to lead aircraft to the parking ramp. But before that, remember to radio the tower and report clearing the runway. As Keiswetter explained, “At any Saudi airport, if you don't immediately call that you've cleared the runway, the controllers will get very upset. If you are taxiing across a runway, they want you to call that, too, even if they have cleared you to do it.”