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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Drones in Saudi Arabia: laws and regulations

Recreational drones are illegal in the kingdom, but many find a way around it

A drone is used to record a military parade by Saudi security forces in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP
A drone is used to record a military parade by Saudi security forces in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP

Saudi Arabia’s unmanned vehicle law constitutes one of the most stringent and unique sets of drone regulations in the Arab world.

Recreational remote controlled drones of all types without government issued permits became illegal in Saudi Arabia on December 2015. The only exception to this rule is by obtaining approval from the president of the General Authority of Civil Aviation, Gaca.

Unlike the UAE, where recreational drones are allowed but heavily regulated, Saudi Arabia maintains that recreational drones are banned “to maintain air safety within the Kingdom’s airspace”.

In addition to a ban on airport and military airspace, drones are not allowed to be flown in what is referred to as “prohibited or restricted areas” of the Kingdom.

Palaces, royal residences and other facilities belonging to high-ranking members of the Al Saud ruling family fall under the restricted area framework.

The recent trend of equipping drone systems with camera guidance systems also presents a breach of privacy.

Saudi Arabia cyber-crime law prohibits taking pictures of strangers in public, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and a 500,000 Saudi riyal (DH490,543) fine.

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But the law for prying into the privacy of homes, or attempting to capture imagery of uncovered women is more severe.

In some Saudi homes, traditional elements of Arab architecture — accessible rooftops and in-house courtyards — remain central gathering spaces for families, especially during the winter seasons. Those areas are open air spaces and easily viewed from drones.

However drones are still imported into the country with law enforcement on the subject being lax at best.

Gaca underlined the possible dangers posed by drones, saying that some of them are imported through the Kingdom’s customs as “toys”.

Some of these drones are then equipped with cameras, posing a threat to general security, high-security locations and other flying aircraft.

Saudi Arabia has been on alert since the Yemeni government said Iran began supplying the Houthi rebels with drones to attack the Kingdom.

Last week, Saudi Arabia air defence system intercepted two drones from rebel-held northern Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, intervened in the war in Yemen in 2015 in support of the internationally recognised government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

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Although drones became recreational items over the last few years, its use as a weapon remains a reality. Countries gathered in 2015, during the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to discuss.

Gaca urged the owners and operators of drones to abide by the law, and warned that violators will be prosecuted by the concerned government agencies.

ICAO held a global conference earlier this year to discuss possible ways to regulate the usage and operation of drones, so as to ensure the safety of civilian air traffic.

Since then, the UN aviation agency is backing the creation of a single global drone registry, as part of an effort to limit the potential dangerous usage of the vehicles.

Much of the technology found in modern recreational drones originated from the controversial development of unmanned vehicles technology for military usage.

Several companies specialising in selling drones contacted by The National said they could "guarantee" the delivery of drones into Saudi Arabia, despite the regulation governing their usage.

It is yet unclear if the sale and purchase of drones is considered illegal.