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.”

Easier Than Teterboro

On the whole, though, Keiswetter believes that operating in Saudi Arabia is easier than in the U.S. “Flying into Teterboro is much harder than into these airports, which are very standard,” he observed. Operators visiting Riyadh for the first time will find that procedures are pretty much unadulterated ICAO Pans Ops.

King Khalid International is graced with a pair of parallel runways (oriented 15/33), each measuring 13,796 ft. These ultra-long strips are common in the Middle East due to soaring summer temperatures, aggravated at OERK by the airport's elevation. Keiswetter, again: “When the runway temperature is 135F at Riyadh — at 2,049 ft. elevation — it's enough to limit climb performance, so you may have to take less fuel departing if it's that hot.”

As a result, some operators shift their entire lifestyles into the nighttime hours during summer months, making their departures at night. “We do a lot of night flying [at Rizon Jet] during the summer,” Keiswetter said. “In the worst of the summer, on an average day, it will be 120 deg. but 105 at night. The closest alternate to Riyadh is Dammam, about 45 min. away, so you should plan on having sufficient reserves flying in there.”

Which brings up the question of whether to fuel up at this busy airport upon arrival, knowing the aircraft may be sitting in 135-deg. ramp temperatures at near gross weight during your visit, or to wait until just before leaving and competing with the airlines for a fuel truck. “We play it by ear,” said Keiswetter. “In the summer if you depart after 0800 or before 1900, it isn't hard to get fuel. If we know we have to make an early morning departure, we will fuel up early — showing up 2 hr. [before departure] to allow an extra hour for a fuel truck to arrive.”

In terms of flight planning for Saudi Arabia, Tim Bartholomew, manager, international trip support operations at Rockwell Collins Flight Information Systems, urged operators to begin their preparations early. In addition to overflight and landing permits, a sponsor letter is required by the Saudi government for foreign visitors intending to do business in the country. “The sponsor letter has to be written by a Saudi Arabian citizen or someone located in the country and must be on the sponsor's letterhead,” he said. “Handlers can tell you how to write it, and they will present it to the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority.” (See accompanying “City at a Glance” sidebar for a rundown of necessary documents for entering Saudi Arabia.)

Contract pilot Gault advised operators to “make sure you have the permits and permit numbers handy. Sometimes the permit number isn't sent up to ATC [from CAA], and the controllers will ask you for it. Make sure you have Gen Decs [General Declarations] listing the crew names and signed by the PIC and that you have crew IDs for all members of the crew. Have copies of all the necessary documents on board the aircraft [e.g., aircraft registration, airworthiness certificate, RVSM cert, insurance coverage, etc.]. However, ramp inspections are rare in Saudi Arabia.”

And the actual flight must be planned so that the visiting aircraft does not overfly or stop first in Israel or Saudi authorities will prohibit it from entry into their airspace. “Coming from Europe, your likely shot will be across Egypt and the Red Sea, then into Saudi Arabia,” Gault said. “The only trouble with Egypt is they don't have enough controllers, so you may experience delays in making contact.”

In his Middle East operations, Gault said he has experienced dust storms in Riyadh and while crossing Egypt. “In the former case, we delayed our departure from Riyadh, and ATC was very cooperative in accommodating us.”

King Khalid International Airport is one of the largest and most modern in the world (not uncommon for the oil-rich Middle East where each country tries to outdo its neighbors with spectacular public works projects). More than 14 million airline passengers pass through its three terminals (a fourth remains unused) annually, and its 266-ft. control tower ranks as one of the highest in aviation. On its expansive grounds is a mosque that can accommodate 10,000 worshipers (half outside in a plaza) and 5.4 million sq. ft. of lavish landscaping. In the general aviation area is a private boarding area for members of the Royal Family and maintenance facilities for business aircraft and the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Know the Rules

On the ground, not only in Saudi Arabia generally but in the capital specifically, non-Muslim foreign visitors must always be aware of religious and cultural strictures, including a complete prohibition of alcohol in the country and the full coverage of women in public. “The country is very restrictive,” Bartholomew pointed out, “and the wisest approach is to be conservative in all things. Make sure the liquor is locked up on the aircraft and that all women crew and passengers are covered and escorted by a man at all times.”

Gault emphasized the importance of the latter: “Make sure your women crewmembers [including pilots] have abayas to wear before they deplane.” (The FBOs in Saudi Arabia can provide the head-to-foot garments for a reasonable fee.) Going out to dinner, he said, “women must be seated in a family section, and not all restaurants have them. At Jeddah, it's much more liberalized due to the business climate.” But in the capital, the streets are patrolled by the Mutaween, the religious police who enforce these rules, so visitors should govern themselves accordingly.

With acceptance of these restrictions, Riyadh is a treasure of history and culture, a fusion of ancient and ultramodern architecture. Its highlights include the Riyadh Museum of History and Archeology and the Murabba Palace, a residence of the country's first ruler, King Ibn Saud, founder of the House of Saud for which the desert nation is named.

For a more detailed discussion of Saudi Arabia, see “Operating in Saudi Arabia,” BCA, November 2011, page 30.

Riyadh: City at a Glance

City: Riyadh

Country: Saudi Arabia

Status: Capital

Country visa requirement: Required for both passengers and crew. Crew visas valid for 72 hr. may be obtained on arrival with prearrangements. Crew must be uniformed and present valid passports and crew ID (e.g., IBAC).

Landing permit requirement: Yes

Sponsor letter required: Yes, on letterhead stationery signed by sponsor

Aircraft documents required: Airworthiness certificate, registration, insurance certificate with country coverage

Any other requirements for visiting aircraft: Alcoholic beverages on board must be secured in locked cabinets while aircraft is on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Customs inspectors will apply seals to cabinets and stores upon entry that cannot be broken until the aircraft is in the air and headed out of the country.

Carbon trading requirement: No

ATC procedures: ICAO

Any unique procedures: No

Altimetry: QNH

Metric or feet: Feet

RVSM: Yes

WGS 84-compliant: Yes

Local navigator required: No

Airport(s):

Principal Airport

Name & ICAO identifier: King Khalid International Airport (OERK)

Coordinates: 24° 57.8' N, 46° 42.5' E

POE: Yes

Elevation: 2,049 ft.

Runways: 15L/33R, 13,796 ft. x 197 ft., asphalt (PCN: 080FAWT); 15R/33L, 13,796 ft., asphalt (PCN: 080FAWT).

Slots: No

Noise restrictions: No

Curfew: No

FBOs: Jet Aviation Saudi Arabia (JASA), Arabasco

Clear CIQ at: General aviation terminal

Parking: General aviation terminal ramp

Hangarage: No

Fuel: Jet-A1; Chevron, Shell, Air BP

Credit: Fuel cards and contract fuel

Maintenance: Yes

Lav service: Yes

Catering: Airlines

Fees: Landing, handling, approximately $2,500-$3,000

Security: Excellent, provided by a Saudi government agency tasked with airport security. Airport guarded 24 hr./day by armed security patrols aided by remote cameras. Lighting and fencing in good condition. General aviation terminal is relatively isolated from other facilities at airport, located approximately 6,000 ft. from main passenger terminal.

Ground transportation: Prearranged cars and drivers

Distance and driving time to downtown: 35 km/22 sm; 25- to 45-min. drive, depending on traffic during rush hours

BCA appreciates the assistance of Rockwell Collins Flight Information Solutions in the preparation of this report.