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Progress at last

Since returning to Saudi Arabia in September with my Work Visa, I have been able to make great strides forward with my living arrangements. First thing was to get was the Iqama. This is a residential permit, and effectively my company have to award me it from their quota through the relevant Ministry. My obligation was to have (another) medical – nearly identical to the one I had in Harley Street a couple of months ago. Blood, urine and stool samples and a chest x-ray. The results were sent directly from the medical centre to the Ministry, and simultaneously my company sent copies of my employment contract etc etc to the Ministry. A week later I had my Iqama couriered to me. I was also given an improved health insurance card – one which mercifully the Saudi hospitals will take as payment authorised, rather than me having to pay cash and reclaim through BUPA.

Having an Iqama now lets me have restricted items such as a personal mobile phone, as well as the company issued one (however for some reason I had been able to get one in April after I arrived, but since then the rules had been tightened and only Citizens and Residents are permitted to obtain them now).

Having a Resident's permit issued meant that my Work Visa was cancelled, and I was not allowed to leave the country. My employer has had to apply for an exit / entry visa to let me come and go. Fortunately that took only three days, but it was a worrying period, being imprisoned in a foreign country and praying that nothing untoward was happening at home that would require me to go back urgently. This visa is valid for six months only, so I will have to remember to reapply for an extension - If I am still here in six lunar months' time. 

I have also been able to obtain a bank account with the Iqama, and am now the owner of a current account and credit card at the SABB (Saudi Arabian British Bank). SABB is part of the HSBC Group, but I had not been able to open a HSBC account in the UK and use that to get an account in KSA. I had tried, and back in March had wasted an entire afternoon in the HSBC branch in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. The very helpful New Business Manager there had done lots of form filling, credit rating, money laundering checking etc before being blocked. Of the 200+ countries where the HSBC has branches and affiliate partners, only Saudi seemed to require an Iqama for opening an account. But, seven months later I can now get money from a hole in the wall without it having been sent to the UK as salary and then withdrawn by me paying international transfer rates and losing a bundle in the process. Yay!. And one bright side (for me at least) after the pound’s collapse post Brexit vote is that as I am being paid in SARs I have essentially received a 10% pay increase, at least on what I transfer home. Yay again! Opening the account was not straightforward – filling in forms on line and then three visits to the actual bank. I had to get my employer’s permission to open the account (they are my “sponsor” in KSA and need to authorise almost everything I do) so that meant another letter with authorisations which had to be sought. At least the bank didn’t ask for a medical, although I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had.

I was asked if I wanted a joint account for my wife(s), which I declined. A useful feature is that every time there is activity in the account I get a text message to advise me what has happened. This must be handy for keeping an eye on one’s chattels’ activities.

The Iqama means that I could get a driving licence, which was a necessity as I was only supposed to have used my UK issued International Driving Permit for six months. The process for applying for the KSA License was quite interesting. I had to go to the local Driving School, and luckily there is one in North Riyadh not far from my office. It seemed somewhat bizarre driving to it, bearing in mind the reason I was going there! Once parked, a Bangladeshi chap approached me and asked what my purpose for the visit was. Fortunately one of the other chaps in my office had forewarned me about the system. Essentially I would not be able to navigate it by myself as it is so Byzantine. This Bangladeshi was to be my guide, and he charged 50 SAR (GBP 11.00) . This is some of the best money I have ever spent. Firstly he checked my documents – Iqama, UK driving licence and passport. Then it was a 15 minute journey in his car to a health clinic which specialised in medicals for driving tests. Only blood and eyesight tests this time. A medical form was produced and I paid for that. Back in his car to the Driving Centre, and into more small rooms and more paperwork. I also had to pay 50 SAR to have my UK licence translated by a chap with a PC.

I had to pay for the test and also the license at the same time, and was issued with an A1 sized laminated card that had all the road signs, road markings and other symbols on it. Fortunately it was bilingual in Arabic and English. 90% of the signs are recognisably similar to European signs, but there were a few new ones too. Camels crossing was easy, not to be confused with humps on the road (that one didn’t have legs and a head). More tricky was the “no parking” suite of signs. There was one with a “I” (one) with a line through it, and another with a “II” (two) struck through. This means no parking on odd and then even days. What is not clear if it refers to Hirji or Gregorian days. And of course, if you have been paying attention to these blogs, Saudis do not know when the new month has started until the actual day – the Grand Mufti has to glimpse the new crescent moon to declare that the new month has started. As I have never seen a traffic warden / blue meanie / parking enforcement officer in all my time here, these restrictions may be hypothetical.

I went to the Appointments window to book the test date, and was told to come back at 8.00 am the following day. Next day, I presented myself at 8.00 am and was again told to “come back tomorrow”. This I argued and I was accepted onto that day’s cohort of examinees. I was directed to a group of 20 or so hopefuls, and we sat together in a room. The examiner came in and looked at me (I was the only white person there) and asked me why I was there. Resisting the temptation to give a sarcastic answer, I said it was for my driving test. He asked if I had an American or European driving licence and I showed him my UK one, and the International one too. He then asked if I had been driving in Saudi, to which I replied yes. He then took my papers and stamped them as having passed the test. I was sent to the license issuing counter and 30 minutes later I left with a freshly minted card in my pocket. On my way out I glanced in the room where the students had been sitting, and there was now another cohort there and the examiner was asking them collectively what the various signs meant on the A1 card. My cohort had moved onto the practical test. I watched this for a few minutes. Three students at a time were taken into a car, and on the internal road system each was required to drive for less than two minutes. They started, did some turns, indicated one way then the other, and stopped. Students then swapped places and the next applicant did similar manoeuvres. Not the most rigorous test I have ever seen. Looking at the numbers of students there, I reckon that was another 100 or so likely to be turned loose into the mayhem that is Saudi driving.

But most importantly, having the Iqama means that I can invite family out to visit me, and I have started down that administrative adventure pathway. I suspect it might take several weeks.

I can look onine at the Ministry of Interior's "Absher" system. This allows personal login, and shows some of my reords - length of Iqama, driving record, registered dependants etc. So in some ways there is more access than some of us have in the UK.

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212