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Visa hassles

I am currently in possession of a Business Visa for Saudi Arabia. This is a 180 day permit which allows me to visit the Kingdom to undertake trade and interact with businesses here. It is endorsed for multiple visits, maximum length 30 days for each, and categorically states "Not Permitted to Work". Despite this, I am clearly working and my company is charging our Saudi clients for my time and expertise. 

Ideally I want a Work Visa, which will allow me to  do much more than what I can do just now. When I get a Work Visa, I will be able to apply for an Iqama which is a residence permit. The Iqama will allow me to open a bank account, buy a car, have a mobile phone, have access to the internet, and most importantly allow my family be able to visit or stay with me here. There are ways and means around things here and rules are applied at the whim of the official on the day (Maxim #1 of Saudi life). So it is that I do have a mobile phone, have access to the internet and can hire a car. But having an Iqama would mean so much more to Elaine and the family. You would think that in wanting an ex-pat with specialist skills the process would be relatively simple, but no - here is the list of documents and permissions that I need to get a Work Visa. Are you sitting comfortably? Here goes:

  1. Completed Visa application form; 
  2. Passport with at least 6 months validity and two adjacent blank pages available;
  3. 2 photographs - passport quality;
  4. Copy of a visa block (shows the nationality and job title being applied for);
  5. Copy of my job contract stamped by both the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi Chamber of Commerce in KSA;
  6. My CV;
  7. Original degree certificate and a copy which has been attested as genuine by the UK Saudi Consulate office in Chiswick, then stamped by a UK Solicitor / Notary, and then Apostillised by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office;
  8. A letter of power of Attorney from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
  9.  A letter from the employer in KSA written in Arabic confirming all personal details;
  10. If there is a live Saudi visa in the passport (such as my Business visa), a Letter of Cancellation of said visa from the sponsoring company in KSA;
  11. An original copy of a Police Report from the UK declaring that the applicant is not a criminal and not wanted for anything in the UK;
  12. A valid Medical Report declaring that the applicant is free from a long list of diseases, and including test results of a chest x-ray, blood test and a stool sample.

Simples really.  I had employed a Visa Agent in London, and in conjunction with my company's legal affairs assistant in the HR function over the course of 3 months we had amassed the evidence required to submit the application. I had to apply for the visa in person, so flights were booked from Riyadh to London, and allowing up to a week for the process to be completed (estimated time was 4 days), and return flight a week later. On the up-side this allowed me a free journey back to the UK and, a chance to see the family and a week away from the sandpit.

I caught the BA flight from RUH to LHR on Thursday night 10 days ago (a 777 with reasonable legroom and semi-reclining seats, and alcohol served once clear of Saudi airspace) and arrived into Terminal 5 at Heathrow at 06.10 on Friday morning. I had no idea that T5 was so huge. There are actually 3 buildings, A, B and C which are connected by an underground transit system, a guided rubber tyre on concrete train not dissimilar to some of the Paris Metro lines, protected by platform edge doors. From the plane door to passing Immigration and collecting baggage the travelling and processing time was in the region of 45 minutes and that was without delays. It reminded me of why I much prefer simple small airports, such as Kathmandu, Prestwick or Southampton, all much more civilised. It was of course a further hour to get to Paddington via Heathrow Express and onwards by tube to the medical in Harley Street, a tight for time journey and I just made the 09.00 appointment.

After the medical (much peering, poking, prodding and poo-ing), I met up with Elaine who had come down to London the day before to bring some of the documents needed for the process. Much to my surprise and delight, daughters #2 and 3 were with her, and we trooped en mass to the visa agents office. At the agency we completed the last of the forms, and they would submit the bulk when the medical results came through, but I had to hand-deliver the passport, letter of cancellation of the Business Visa and the new Visa Application form in person.

It was at this stage that the process moved from the merely Byzantine to the surreal. On arrival at the Saudi Embassy in Charles Street at 11.30, the Visa Office door was shut. I pushed the buzzer and a voice answered "We are closed. Please come back on Monday to Friday 09.00 to 12.00". Having checked my watch, I said "But it's only 11.30". "Yes", said the voice, "please come back on Monday to Friday 09.00 to 12.00". "What day is it today?", I asked, having a slight panic that in the overnight flight I had somehow gone through a timewarp and landed on Saturday. "Friday" came the reply. "What time is it just now?" I asked, concerned that my Kuwaiti cheap Rolex had gone wrong. "11.30", said the voice. "So why aren't you open?" I asked. After a slight pause, the voice said "We shut early on Fridays". And then as an afterthought, "What do you want anyway?" I explained that I had to hand forms in, and the voice, clearly relieved that it wouldn't have to do anything active advised me to go next door to the Embassy proper and hand the forms in there. I went next door and tried to hand the forms to the concierge (or whatever the job title is of someone who is employed to deter visitors or prevent efficient business). He asked why I was cancelling my visa when it was still valid, and after I had explained I was upgrading to a Work Visa he told me I couldn't do so, and could only apply for this within two days of the existing Visa expiring. He told me to go away and come back in September. Stunned, I walked away. I did consider the possibility of helping the medical process along by pushing a fresh stool sample through the Visa section door letterbox, but thought the better of it as it might slow the process further and change the status of document no.11 on the above list.

When I got back to the Visa Agent, they were surprised and phoned the embassy to check, and were given confirmation of this recent change in the process. I pointed out that one of my colleagues had recently returned to his country (not the UK) and had been able to cancel and upgrade his Business Visa there. "Maybe so", said the Agent, "but the Saudis here are a law unto themselves".  So true (maxim #1). 

As you can  imagine, my company was less than impressed too, having shelled out for return flights and losing chargeable days to the client. So, roll on September, here's hoping it will work next time. But on the upside, I got a week at home at no cost to me. Silver lining.     


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