FLYING DRONES IN SAUDI ARABIA
I recently got back from a 10-day trip full of flying drones all over Saudi Arabia. The main cities we flew in included Riyadh, The Red Sea near Jeddah and Al-Ula. I flew in many different historical areas outside these main cities as well and have some breathtaking aerial cinematography and photos from these locations.
During my trip, my most frequently asked question was “How are you able to fly legally in Saudi Arabia?”
To start off, I was invited to Saudi Arabia to film these locations with Gateway KSA who provided us with a temporary work visa and permits from GACA, aka the General Authority of Civil Aviation which is the governing body for airspace in Saudi Arabia similar to the FAA in the U.S.
Customs and immigration officials had all the clearance and paperwork on hand so that when we arrived, we had a smooth transition with our equipment.
That being said, even with papers my DJI inspire 2 was held at customs at the Riyahd International Airport for 16 hours whilst they checked it for reasons unbeknownst to me. The drone was released the next day and delivered to the hotel that we were staying in.
Flying in Riyadh
I was able to fly the DJI Mavic Pro 2 at a historic site called Masmak Fort. Built in 1865 and the site where the infamous battle of Riyadh took place, these are the grounds of the old city of Riyadh.
We had permission to fly here, the only place we could fly our drone in the city, as there are sensitive government buildings in Riyadh as well as the Royal Family residences in various locations. This is no different to anywhere else in the world, a great example being Washington D.C and its blanket ban near the white house. We must adhere to the no-fly zones in areas like these all over the world.
Edge Of The World
This location is about a 2 hours’ drive outside of Riyadh in the desert which consisted of being off road for the majority of it. Along the way, I flew the drone from the car and did some expansive car shots. From the air, I spotted some camels whilst flying which made these shots a bit more interesting on the journey out to the edge of the world.
When we arrived at the location, we had to hike for about 20 mins with all the gear. The view was very reminiscent of Utah with a huge cliff edge that wrapped around and into the distance, an epic scene with a birds-eye view from the drone. The detailed rocks and spires carved out in the cliff face made for some dramatic drone shots as you’ll see in the image below. Wait until you see the aerial cinematography from this location… Video to come!
Jeddah & The Red Sea
After three nights in Riyadh, we flew to Jeddah for another 3 nights. I was looking forward to flying the drone in the old city of Jeddah called Al-Balad, which translates to “The Town”. Upon arrival, I was told we couldn’t fly here for some reason, a frustrating turn of events as I really wanted to get some low altitude aerial photos and video of this historic town. Our distance from the Jeddah airport was 23km so I don’t believe we were in any restricted airspace. When you’re in Saudi Arabia and you’re told you can’t fly the drone, you respect the decision…as frustrating as it may be.
On day two in Jeddah, we went on a boat to go diving in the Red Sea. When I think of Saudi Arabia, I don’t think about crystal clear blue waters with coral reef and a sea full of life, but there we were surrounded by all of the above. I was able to fly and launch off the bow of the boat to capture some beautiful aerial photos pictured below.
It was great to have an underwater team of photographers and videographers on this day as well. Couple that talent with our drone shots for an epic overall production of the day.
Breathtaking is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of our third and final destination located 359 miles from Jeddah or a 1 hour 30-minute flight from the new Jeddah international airport. In my opinion, this area was the most spectacular region in terms of landscape scenery and ancient historical sites in Saudi Arabia. If I got lost out here for a few weeks, I certainly wouldn’t be mad about it. Just give me a place to power some drone batteries, and I’m good to go!
There was no problem flying drones and we were lucky enough to have full access to the Archeological site of Mada'in Saleh.
Please note that the sites of Madain Saleh are currently closed to the public whilst the Royal Commission develops the area to allow for future tourism. I received an official invitation allowing me to film and document these sites to share it with you.
To have access to this historical site that dates back to the Nabatean kingdom 1st century CE was truly an honor and privilege. Looking back on it, I wish I was able to spend an entire week at this site to really explore and capture more spectacular aerials as there were many tombs and areas with carvings and openings that I could see in the distance. As an aerial cinematographer and photographer, this place is the definition of our kind of playground.
Whilst seeing another archeological site on our tour with Gateway KSA I was lucky enough to run into Neil Smith from FalconViz.com who has been operating his drone company in Saudi Arabia for 6 years. Neil and I sat down and had a chat about what he’s up to and what you should do if you're a drone pilot looking to visit in the future.
Please watch this YouTube video here to see our interview -
For more information on flying drones in Saudi Arabia visit the GACA website - https://gaca.gov.sa/web/en-gb/page/home
The Journey home
After 9 days of flying drones at all these epic locations, it was time to pack up and head home. With 5 domestic flights in Saudi Arabia under my belt, I had no issues whatsoever with my equipment at the various airports other than Customs & Immigrations holding onto my drone upon arrival until the following day.
This all changed when attempting to leave Riyadh International Airport to head back to Jeddah and onto LAX.
Ready for a rant? Here we go.
After 3 other international guests on our trip checked into their flights and got through security without problem (and one with a drone), I personally had a very hard time getting my boarding pass with Saudi Airlines. For some strange reason, my passport wasn’t on record even after flying 4 other domestic flights with the airline.
After finally being able to check-in, boarding had already started by the time I arrived at security. With 40 minutes to the scheduled take-off, I was concerned I was going to miss my flight and wonder if my bags would make it on the plane.
I proceed to security as I’d done before at this same airport with the exact same carry-on equipment and lipo batteries.
So what happens next? Security flags the bag with the Mavic 2, batteries. Now hear me out. This kind of flag typically happens at security in airports around the world. Security usually gives them a check, maybe a swab for explosives then moves me along my merry way.
At this point, I’m alone and don’t speak the Arabic language. The security guard surveying my equipment gets the head of security who proceeds to tell me that all my batteries and hard drives must go in the trash or get checked in as cargo under the plane. This is where it all gets very interesting (read: extremely frustrating). As drone pilots, we’re all very aware that these lipo batteries must be carried onto the plane, so for him to send me out to check this bag was very irresponsible of him and shows his lack of knowledge on battery safety. After arguing for quite some time and desperately trying to explain that these are carry-on items, I contacted our Gateway KSA Guide who was luckily still in the airport. She met me at the airline check-in counter where I proceeded to check a bag that shouldn’t have been checked under the plane with all my batteries and hard drives. Keep in mind that the boarding door was closing in 15 minutes…and I was back at the check-in counter.
I’m now thinking that it’ll be a miracle if the bag makes the flight. I then proceed back up the escalator to the dreaded security checkpoint and go for another line in hopes to not get hassled by the same security guard yet again. At this point I’m left with my two cameras, my lenses and a very small tripod…crossing my fingers I pass with flying colors. Just as I start to rejoice in getting through security and smell the fragrances of duty-free and spot sweet, sweet freedom… I get stopped by the general head of security AGAIN.
He seems to yell at the lower ranked security officer who let me and my poor tripod through. He starts telling me that my tripod can’t pass now and has to be checked only after telling me to check the other bag 15 minutes earlier. Poor communication much? I was lucky to have the Gateway KSA Guide still outside the security checkpoint making sure I got through this time. At this point, I’m starting to lose my cool at the stupidity and ignorance of this whole process. I look at the tripod, say my goodbyes and give it to our Guide through the metal detector.
As the security guards are arguing with the Gateway KSA Guide, I slowly walk away and fade into the fragrance section. In a sprint, my feet take me all the way to the gate where I hear the final boarding. I barely make the flight and spend the next two hours at 30,000 ft wondering if my valuables were underneath the plane or not.
As nightmarish as this airport checkpoint was, I can say my bags and I made it back to the U.S safely and in one piece.
When I think about the future of KSA, I can’t help but feel that when the country does open up to tourism, they will need to educate their immigration and security officers at airports on what passengers can carry-on. As a photographer and cinematographer and invited guest in the country, it was very disappointing to end the trip on this note. As media, we should’ve had government papers or a government official helping us through the airport with all our sensitive equipment. Hopefully this is something they can improve on.
In saying all the above, my time in Saudi Arabia was one to remember, and I want to thank Gateway KSA for the invitation. I truly feel I have unfinished business in this country and would love to head back again to explore and do more filming in the many untouched locations that make up KSA. The people were so welcoming and accommodating to us at every stop along the way. I know that tourism will help this country and its progression on the home front and on the world stage.