Visa Wars and Reciprocity

For the past few weeks, Dawood al-Shirian and his colleagues in al-Hayat have been waging a ferocious war against the embassies of France, Germany, and Italy for what they describe as unfair treatment Saudi citizens have to endure when they apply for visas to enter these countries. Other newspapers joined the campaign, with calls to boycott, especially against France. Meanwhile, the British embassy has been enjoying much praise in the local media for the speed and efficiency of their visa process, which is outsourced to a private firm, and the Americans seem happy that for once they are not the target of criticism.

The government recently weighed in, accusing the European embassies of discrimination. Saudi applicants are forced to submit more documentation and wait much longer than citizens of neighboring countries for Europe’s Schengen visa, the foreign ministry said.

After weeks of giving every kind of lame excuse for the unreasonable delays to secure a visa to his country, the French ambassador came out to admit that the delays are related to the 9/11 terror attacks and to the 2003-2005 Al-Qaeda bombings and murders in the country. He also accused the Saudi media of being unprofessional, which simply won him even more enemies in the local press.

I have to say that I find this matter very annoying. I have had my own bad experience with another European country last year, when I applied for a visa to Hungary. After a long, complicated process, they denied me a visa without offering any reason. However, I have always said that Saudis should not complain about how hard it is to get a visa to any country as long as it is still extremely hard to get a visa to come here. The foreign ministry is not making a good point when they compare Saudis to citizens from other Gulf countries; these countries offer visas to EU citizens on arrival at the airport. It is all about reciprocity.

45 thoughts on “Visa Wars and Reciprocity

  1. I have never gone through a similar experience.
    I understand why they might be “terrorized” but for how long will we have to carry around a sin that isn’t ours. If the press handeled it immaturely, the French ambassador adressed it in a poor manner. His answer shows he’s just trying to stir things up. I respect that the other embassies mentioned, did not succumb to this silliness.

  2. Ahmed:

    I agree completely.

    What an absurdity.

    Perhaps the next item about which puerile complaints will be lodged will be the lack of suitable freedom of conscience for Saudis resident in the European Community.

    Until such a time as our nation is able to provide reciprocal rights to EU nations, we must be sensible.

    Would our nation allow Eu citizens to come freely to and fro? Are EU journalists permitted to freely enter and make reports?

    The answers are clear and require no elaboration.

    Until our society provides reciprocity we must reconcile ourselves to the notion that we will be limited in various ways.

    Such treatments by EU governments, though unpleasant, is not to be viewed as a surprise.

    Just as our nation will for completely baffling reasons deny access, and does so far more routinely than EU nations, to our compatriots, so, too, must we expect to be denied access.

  3. I do agree with u Ahmed .. its often a topic of debate or at least a remark or question by someone here in the UK about “what is so important or fragile in Saudi that visas are close to impossible to obtain” even as tourists and the commission for tourism’s rather shy adverts to come and “see the country”, I find that there is hardly any logic in justifying it … not to mention talking to other Arab nationalities.

    Reciprocity remains a key factor in these issues I believe.

  4. I remember when this debate first erupted in the newspapers, one guy called to boycott (it’s the fashionable thing to do these days) these countries and treat their citizens’ visas the way they treat ours. He was very quiet after it was explained to him that we have astronomically worse visa requirements than theirs.

  5. I’m not so sure reciprocity is an applicable concept here. Discrimination can be odious, but it’s a fact of human nature, and often has its origins in legitimate objections.

    Didn’t Saudi Arabia kick out all the Yemeni citizens during the first gulf war?

  6. Saudis should not complain about how hard it is to get a visa to any country as long as it is still extremely hard to get a visa to come here.
    I agree with you in ur lat point, we should change our policy and allow non-Saudis to enter the country freely ,no need for those silly restrictions. We should be willing to Give and not ONLY TAKE.

  7. I don’t think this have anything to do with reciprocity, because Saudi visa laws have very much been the same for decades (with a few changes here in there). I don’t think European will be lining up infront of our embassies abroad to get visas even if all the entry restriction were relaxed. We simply don’t have the tourism infrastructure in place yet, top it off with cultural, and religous restrictions that make it difficult for the average European tourist to move around freely.

    I think it is all about profiling of Saudi citizens, and being discriminatory toward them. The French embassy in particular is the worst offender, where their visa employees act smug and obnoxious toward Saudis. The interesting fact that despite of the economic down turn, Saudi tourists out spend any other tourists. So who gives a damn about going to Paris, we all just have to stick with London, and other Eastern European countries for the time being.

  8. Persona_non_grata
    Not just profiling, but a bit of reciprocity as well.
    We are the ones who are asking the world to come in and participate in the development of our economy while giving them a hard time to obtain visas.
    Please ask Amr ALDabagh about the war his agency is waging with our embassies abroad to implement a law that was decreed by King Abdullah a long time ago.
    Embassy employees are acting independently to either block or grant entry in many cases. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
    Western embassies and governments practice profiling as you kindly stated in your comment, and a lot of it too. But that should end as soon as an accurate and reliable database is completed.
    The UK has an extensive network of informants., as well as a superb intelligence agency, plus the best monitoring system in the world today. They don’t need to use primitive nor discriminatory methods to screen people.

    Rowdy Saudi
    Right you are…
    This issue needs volumes and ages to discuss!
    But in many cases it is private individuals in public places and not official entities who misinterpret our actions or fear our presence out of ignorance. It happens here a lot as well.

  9. “The French embassy in particular is the worst offender, where their visa employees act smug and obnoxious toward Saudis”

    The French act smug! no way ;-)

  10. Oh, it’s not just Saudi citizens that suffer this fate. Walk past any of the EU embassies in Damascus and you will see Syrians being herded like sheep outside the buildings. We Arabs are such a security threat that we have to ask for permission to enter the country through a hole in the wall. No dirtying of their lovely embassy carpets.

    The British Embassy is so paranoid that it has banned Syrians from applying at the embassy now. It has to be done by post.

    Sasa, the Syria News Wire.

  11. Sasa:

    I would caution against a personalisation of the issues.

    Certainly, we who are Saudis, and other Arabs do indeed face discrimination.

    However, the comment “We Arabs are such a security threat that we have to ask for permission to enter the country through a hole in the wall.” lends itself to a ready retort by EU citizens to the effect of:

    “We EU nationals are such a security threat that that security services must assign employees from the mukhabarat (security police?) to follow us ceaselessly and transcribe our every movement while in Syria.”

    As such, reciprocity must be understood to affect both sides of a situation.

    So long as Arab nations too frequently view EU citizens as a contagion to be tightly contained and mistrusted, it will inevitably be the case that EU nations will similarly view Arab citizens.

    One must be accepting of this reciprocity and therefore not expect the EU to change while simultaneously expecting no such changes from one’s own nation.

  12. Actually Andrew I don’t know a single visitor who has been “followed ceaselessly”. At least not in recent years.

    And that’s quite astonishing, considering the Israeli attacks (Mughniyah, the Damascus airbombing, and the Raqaa attack, plus the Lattaqia bombing) in the past 5 years.

    And I only know of two people who have had visa applications turned down (although it does still takes 4 days to get a visa in the first place, which hopefully will change).

    I don’t know about Saudi, but you certainly can’t compare the way the EU treats Syrian visitors to the way Syria treats EU visitors.

  13. I am no expert on Syria, I surely confess.

    I only know about these matters through anecdotes.

    Do you have statistical data on the activities of the Syrian “security police is a proper translation?)” and their surveillance of EU nationals?

    Statistics on those disapprovals for visas for EU nationals would also be useful.

    A challenge that I find is that one often is discussing items in the absence of data.

    Moreover, I am extremely wary of those who seek to bring in unrelated issues related to our enemies elsewhere.

    I find myself weary of those from our Arab nations who are consumed by grievances against the West and yet are often oddly silent regarding the many. many internal problems that we face.

    We surely can and must do better.

  14. “The British Embassy is so paranoid that it has banned Syrians from applying at the embassy now. It has to be done by post.”

    As Syria provides a welcoming home for members of both Al Qaeda and Hamas, there is a real risk of an attack on an embassy.

  15. Andrew, you know as well as I do that there are no figures for mukhabaraat following tourists! And the same for visa rejections. It’s just what I’ve come across, but if you have examples to the contrary, I’m always interested.

    If you want to do something very anecdotal – have a look on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. You’ll find almost unanimously visitors don’t report any problems with the police/being followed etc.

    I completely agree it is all too common to finger point. I have often said we, as Arabs, are the Palestinians’ worst enemy. We use their suffering for our own West-bashing routine, while refusing to offer any help at all.

  16. “As Syria provides a welcoming home for members of both Al Qaeda and Hamas, there is a real risk of an attack on an embassy.”

    Oh please. Do you actually know anything about Syria? And if that is the case, please explain why the US embassy is still open to visitors.

    Syria has been battling Al Qaeda while Bill Clinton still refused to acknowledge they were a threat. Colin Powell thanked Syria for the intelligence they shared over Al Qaeda. And a few weeks ago, Britain and Syria worked together to arrest two British Al Qaeda suspects who had travelled from Britain to Syria.

    Educated yourself before you throw ridiculous statements around.

  17. I have, of course, no such data statistics.

    As noted, I am no expert on Syria,

    However, when I do hear such anecdotes from Westerners, I am loathe to dismiss these anecdotes as being unreliable.

    I know that such things happen here in our country.

    have no reason to believe that they do not happen there, and the absence of any such independently verified data would lead me to suggest that these anecdotes cannot be so easily dismissed.

    I am also weary of the issue of Palestine and our enemies.

    I seek a discussion and solutions for issues affecting our nation, rather than a set of issues about which I am certainly not expert.

    I would also note that we Saudis have, in fact, offered and provided help to Palestine.

    I know less regarding the actions of other nations, because this too, is a subject about which I am not expert.

  18. True Ahmed…
    As you know I reside in the UK. It still takes me over 5-6 weeks (off-peak times of course!) to go for a weekend in France… that’s just poor effort!

    A few weeks ago, I was not able to participate in TWO academic conferences held in Brussels and Geneva! Why? Because I hold a Saudi Passport.. More specificity, I needed 15 working days to process my application—and I was only informed that my papers got accepted to the conference 3 weeks before the conference!(which is the norm in my field of work) So as an academic, I lose out, and I really cant excuse that…

    And even more recently, I bought a ticket to Paris, paid for two weeks accommodation, and thought I would travel around the south of France for the remainder of my stay (as you do!) Last week my passport was sent back (along with my £60 receipt), and I was informed that my visa application was refused, as I did not produce a hotel voucher for ALL of my stay! (Even though I have over a dozen previous Schengen Visas!!) Now that just taking it to absurdity! I’ve resided in the UK for over 23 years! Surely they can see I am not a threat! There is no logic to what they are doing other than the fact that they can get away with it…

    I truly understand that we make things difficult for non-Saudi’s to enter our country, but to be honest, I kind of expect that of us. We are usually slow, bureaucratic and have little care of Image! However, I do expect a little more from the Schengen states! (If we are a little backwards… then she should lead the way, not go in the same direction of us!)

    The bottom line is this; as long as I hold a green passport, I’ll be asked to produce more documents, wait longer, and pay more to enter Europe than anyone else! Despite the fact that Saudi citizens play a huge role in the EU tourism, and little role in EU terrorism… we need to be heard, and we need to ask to be treated like our counterparts!… at the end of the day, we contribute immensely to their economy… I am just glad that the Saudi Foreign Ministry is listening to us, and demanding… now they just need to add a little pressure, and some good old fashioned persuasion!

  19. I am absolutely disgusted to read of the unequal treatment of Saudis by these infidel embassies. I demand that Saudis be treated with the same courtesy (none), respect (none) and efficiency (bukrah insh’allah) that Saudi embassies treat Europeans unlucky enough to be seeking a visa to visit the magic kingdom.

  20. Rafid Fatani:

    You indicate that: “I truly understand that we make things difficult for non-Saudi’s to enter our country, but to be honest, I kind of expect that of us.”

    we all share this belief.

    We all have this set of low expectations for ourselves and our government.

    A question to consider might be, how do EU nationals view this?

    I truly believe that Ahmed is correct regarding the issue of reciprocity.

    So long as we expect a great deal more of others than we expect of ourselves, it serves to perpetuate a stereotype of our nation as being indolent, hypocritical, and narcissistic.

    I do not except myself from this problem.

    We must all, however, work to acknowledge that a set of values that accepts the fundamental notion that we are non-reciprocal in our treatment of others powerfully serves to reinforce discriminatory attitudes about our people.

    Can we expect foreigners not to view us as greedy, self-righteous and hypocritical, if we ourselves hold to a standard that expects to receive more than to give, that expects to speak of religious obligations of justice while privately holding to injustice, and that demands of others a standard of respect that we never intend to provide ourselves?

    And, if our excuse for this is that our nation is rich, and that such values are excused by our wealth, can we not expect to incur prejudice and dislike?

  21. “one guy called to boycott (it’s the fashionable thing to do these days.)”
    I get what you’re saying, that boycott might not be the solution, I agree. I still think boycotting has its benefits, it kick starts local production of previously exported goods(which we desperatly need), it’s a peaceful & effective way of protesting, it makes people feel powerful in knowing they are practicing their free choice not to buy something.

  22. I agree and disagree with looking at the issue through the lens of reciprocity… I agree with the concept, as I think its fair in International Relations (IR).. I disagree with looking at this particular scenario (as it may be the case for other counties that is able to offer cheap and easily accessible Visa’s to other nationals), as it is common to have ‘unspecific’ reciprocity in IR. By that I mean, although we may not be able to offer Visa’s accessibly (due to lack of cultural, religious and touristic groundwork for foreign tourism—and not forgetting the problem of mass illegal immigration that we endeavour due to theological pilgrimage), we in return already offer cheap oil (and I don’t mean this as a political weapon–I am bored of hearing that myself!), trade agreements, foreign Aid… these are all things that can play in the power of ‘unspecific’ reciprocity.. So indeed we can/do offer a lot, what we get in return that is important (oil for money is not sometimes everything—sometimes citizens just want common courtesy)…
    This in my opinion is an ideology crisis—I think they make it difficult for Saudi citizens to say –“Hey! Look, we don’t really view you as equals yet, but if you want.. put pressure on your government for reform, and maybe then we can sort things out!” Maybe I am just playing their game arguing this point, but If I believe hanging my dirty washing in the public domain will help me (as a Saudi citizen achieve my goal of accessible visa’s to other states, then maybe its worth it!) apologies if I have misunderstood your point!

  23. Well, if Saudi Arabia wasn’t a bastion of militant religious extremism, general intolerance, racism, and mysogyny, it probably wouldn’t be any harder to get a visa….

  24. Saudi Arabia has one of the largest humanitarian aid budgets in the world. In the last four years, the kingdom has given $billions in 149 recorded humanitarian donations, sent to a total of 44 different countries. It is one of the biggest contributor to world economies through trade. Saudi has had excellent success in recent times in battling with terrorists, in and out of the country, as well as being one of the biggest contributors to intelligence to fight global terrorism… I am not sure, if your referring to the citizens of Saudi Or the government…

    Either way, I suggest Mr Vestener, you take your ramble else where! or at least take a minute to educate your self a little.. in your case, you might want to start with the alphabet!

  25. Rafid Fatani:

    First let me thank you for your response.

    I agree and disagree with elements of it.

    I agree that one should not look narrowly at visas in regards to reciprocity. For example, we offer religious pilgrimage visas and virtually no other nation does so, because of course very few other nations have sites of religious pilgrimage (although I confess that I am not expert on all the world’s religions so there may be more such than I imagine.)

    Yet I disagree that because we offer economic inducements (petroleum, foreign aid, etc.) that the need for reciprocity should disappear.

    One of the problems that I feel that exists is that much of the world does not view us as truly equal, and that there are negative stereotypes that are quite strong and that are and will harmful to us.

    We are perceived as a nation that is arrogant due to its petroleum wealth, notwithstanding the fact that such mineral wealth was not earned by the Saudi people but is essentially a matter of chance.

    We are also perceived as highly insular, fanatically ideological, hostile to outsiders and extremely backward-looking.

    The harmful consequences of such powerful stereotypes may be kept in check by our perceived wealth for a time.

    However, as a longer period problem, we must recognize that such negative views by outsiders will over time serve to harm our people.

    Many foreigners openly speak of their longing for the day that they can develop alternatives to petroleum and permanently cease all contacts with us.

    And, such views are not insignificant.

    Reciprocally, of course, there are elements of our own society that speak longingly of a future in which we could cease all contacts with non-believers.

    And, such views of ours are not insignificant.

    We must all strive for a reality in the future that does not assign our people some form of global exile from humanity.

    It should trouble us that so many within the world view our nation as a “necessary evil” (do I have that idiom correctly?).

    That means that they view us as intensely undesirable, but nevertheless necessary.

    Moreover, such views are not confined to the West.

    Such views are also held by some within Arab lands.

  26. Andrew I like the way you think and present your analysis. Kudos to you! (and yes, you have used “necessary evil” correctly.)

  27. maybe the Saudis who complain should try pretend they are forieigners and try get a visa to Saudi Arabia. Let alone the exist visa

  28. It’s not only the length of time it takes to be issues with a visa to enetr KSA! Despite the fact I was travelling on a multi-entry/exit visa from UK and had already been fingerprinted and photographed on a previous vist, I still had to queue for two and a half hours at Riyadh airport the other evening to gain entry!! What a shambles!! And KSA wants to get into the Top 10 of ease-of-doing-business countries by 2010? No chance!!!!!

  29. To be very candid, saudis have no one to complain to except for themselves. after 9/11, a saudi passport is looked with suspicion all over the world, especially in the west (in arab countries, perhaps not). But keeping that aspect aside, its an open secret that foreign businessmen have to go through pains to secure a visa even when they have a saudi sponsor who vouches for them and i know from personal experience as well as some relatives and friends who also had business interests in saudi and the gulf region. I know personally, that with my Canadian or EU passport, i can easily without any hassle or harassment, secure a visa on arrival at doha or dubai while for saudi, i have to wait for months at an end and go through such a cumbersome process, despite having a shared business with my saudi partner. In fact both of us relocated our business to dubai—since he couldnt get his share of profit until i could travel to saudi to balance the books and send it to my european head office who would pay me both our shares. All this despite the fact that my company employs and trains about 400 saudi nationals, and the saudi govt. still acts arrogant and delays visa issuing. good bye saudi and hello dubai!!

  30. I agree, but how is it the Saudi citizens fault? I’m not the one that made it hard to get a Saudi visa, the government did! If it were up to me, I’d make it a get-at-the-airport type of visa to come here.

  31. Tony Smith: for a Saudi to re-new his/her visa in the UK, one must complete a 53 PAGE application form, and repeat it again for each dependent! so if you have a family of 4, its going to take a day or two, not two and a half hours! and with this applicant you must pay just under £400 and an extra £75 for each dependant.. and if you don’t want to wait 6-8 weeks, you can go in person and pay £500!! thats just sending the application, if your application is accepted.. you then need to hitch a ride to Cardiff, and get a biometric iris and finger print test! and pay an extra £150.. this is just a renewal! So you have already been granted a visa in the past and just want to extend it! And in most cases you probably will get it done before your visa even expires anyway.. So I am sorry Tony if I feel you get it easy buddy!

  32. “The French embassy in particular is the worst offender, where their visa employees act smug and obnoxious toward Saudis.”

    Not French but have visited Paris as an American and the French are in my experience what you described. I find Middle Easterners much more open and friendly…despite my American passport!!

  33. I went to Syria in late January. No problem getting a visa from the Syrian embassy in Washington, and we had a great time! I don’t think anyone followed us everywhere … except my Syrian friend and we wanted him with us. :-) The Syrians never questioned us at the airport though those in Turkey and Chicago did on our return home.

    Interesting discussion.

  34. rafid: You miss the point! I’m not talking about renewing my visa when I’m already in the country, I’m talking about the difficulty in getting into the country in the first place! I understand that a saudi citizen can apply to the British embassy in Riyadh and obtain a visa to UK within 24 hours?!! Not quite like that with the saudi Embassy in London!!! And when you arrive at Heathrow I know it can be slow sometimes but nowhere near as bad as Riyadh airport!!!!

  35. The UK Visa process is awful for everyone that needs one (not just Saudis). You have to pay a couple of hundred pounds for it and they reserve the right (and commonly act upon it) to reject a person’s application for no reason. I’m British so I’ve never experience any other European system (luckily!).

    Having said that, getting a Saudi visa is just as bad (as well as many other countries). India is horrific if you have any connection whatsoever to Pakistan and vice versa. Most countries are bad so none of the governments can’t really complain.

  36. I’m just curious if Saudis are required to provide blood and other bodily fluids before getting Visas to other countries, as we are, prior to getting Saudi Visas?

    If the matter was addressed in previous comments, my apologies. I’ll be back later to read them when I have time.

    Reciprocity… Thanks for addressing it Ahmed. And, from the comments I did read, it looks like others have something to say about that too. Reciprocity is not supposed to be one-sided…

  37. If the system is reciprocal then Saudi nationals should be made to change there religion to Christian or have to write Non Christian on the UK visa form as the Saudi Embassy in London now requires all applicant to put “Non Muslim” on the form if they are not Muslims and do not allow any other religion. Also they try to make it as hard as possible to get a Business visa. I have just tried to obtain 20 visas for an aircraft manufacturer who needs to send its engineers to service some planes for the Saudi Air Force. Good to see them try and fly planes that don’t work because of stupid religious bureaucracy

  38. “Muslim” or “Non Muslim” are put in the application for the sole purpose of controlling the number of people who enter Mecca because of the problem of overcrowding.
    The overwhelming majority of Muslims who come to Saudi for business try to make it to Mecca for minor pilgrimage even though they’re not allowed to do so. It creates a nightmare for the authorities because the Holy Mosque could handle a limited number of people at one tome or another.
    In light of the above mentioned situation it is in fact easer for a non Muslim to obtain a Visa.
    It is not a religious issue at all. We have 4.7 Million non Muslims living in Saudi.
    If you had a holy shrine in Briton that had 1.3 billion potential visitors you’ll would implement the exact same policy!

  39. Bull Sh#* This has nothing to do with it Why would a Christian Englishman want to visit mecca. Do Muslims want to visit the Vatican to pray with people they want to kill..NO

  40. Christian visiting Mecca!!!
    What are you talking about if I may ask?
    You talked about “Muslims or Non Muslims” being part of the application to enter Saudi.
    You tried to turn it into something it isn’t.
    I’ve answered you.
    Had you limit you comment to the difficulty of obtaining a Saudi visa or how complicated the process is, I would’ve concurred. But you didn’t.
    Looking at your last sentence, I find problems and issues that need to be taken care of by a professional psychiatrist or psychologist. Unfortunately I lack in that department….

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