In fact, if you’re hoping to fly into the country, you won’t even get past the check-in desk. Similarly, if you arrive at one of the land borders, you will be quickly, and perhaps aggressively, turned back. Muslims find entry to the Kingdom much easier, the issue of visas for religious purposes (the Haj and Umrah visas) being a well-controlled, well-administered process. There are strict national quotas per country for these visas, which are issued annually, because the volume of people wishing to visit the holy places is enormous.
You must be particularly careful with dates shown on Saudi visas, which conform to the Islamic ( Hijra) calendar. Overstaying your visa by even 24 hours can lead to fines and further delays.
Note also that there are no shortcuts that the individual himself can take with the immigration authorities and the rules applying to visas. Rejections and refusals can be permanent. Note also that Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf state where passengers in transit, by air or land, also require a visa, known as a transit visa.
If you’re changing planes at a Saudi airport and therefore have no option but to temporarily stop in the country, a 24 or 48-hour transit visa is required. You must surrender your passport to the immigration authorities, who will return it on your departure. If you’re driving from Bahrain, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Jordan, you might be granted a seven-day transit visa. Those driving between Jordan, Yemen or Kuwait via the Kingdom are usually allowed a three-day transit visa. When crossing Saudi borders, it’s essential that your papers are in order and your transport plans are absolutely clear. Check the procedure with the Saudi embassy or consulate in your home country and seek permission from the destination country. Also be aware that, although transit regulations are written down, they’re occasionally open to local interpretation, particularly at border points. Expect the unexpected.
At present, there’s no substantial tourist industry in Saudi Arabia, so few tourist visas are issued, although things are changing gradually and the intention is to build a limited tourist trade. To obtain a tourist visa, you must be invited by a company or individual (the higher his standing and influence the better) who will act as your sponsor and undertake responsibility for you during you stay. The sponsor applies for the visa on your behalf and obtains a serial number. You must then approach a Saudi embassy and obtain a visa stamp in your passport, for which there’s a small charge. Without the serial number, you cannot obtain a visa.
Although not officially sanctioned, it’s sometimes possible to have a visitor visa converted to a residence visa (see below) while you’re in the Kingdom. Strictly, you should return to your country of domicile to await the official process, but if your sponsor has sufficient clout, many things are possible.
Note that it’s extremely difficult for young, single women to enter the country unless it’s clear that they’re closely related to expatriate workers. Business women will encounter serious obstacles to entry unless they’re members of a Saudi family or have the sponsorship of a powerful Saudi national.
Residence Visa & Permit
Obtaining a residence visa is usually a lengthy procedure – around a couple of months – with a considerable amount of paperwork on the part of the employer and individual. Having been given a contract of employment, you must present your contract, academic and/or professional qualifications and the results of a full medical examination, including HIV test either to the Saudi embassy or consulate in your home country or to the authorities in Saudi Arabia via your sponsor. You will then be issued with a visa number, with which you can proceed to a Saudi embassy or consulate to obtain a stamped residence visa, which will be converted to a residence permit after your arrival in the Kingdom (where you might be asked to take the medical again!). Your residence permit (Iqama) includes your photograph and must be carried at all times, your passport having been retained by your sponsor.
Should you go on leave or undertake a business trip outside the Kingdom, your sponsor will obtain an exit/re-entry visa, which is a stamp in your passport, and temporarily withdraw your residence permit. Having completed your stay or contract, you’re issued with an exit-only stamp in your passport and are required to surrender the residence permit.
The requirement of an exit visa to leave Saudi Arabia while working there is a tedious restriction on your personal freedom and in an emergency can be problematic, if your sponsor isn’t readily available to process papers. Fortunately, this rarely happens and the sponsor often has a deputy authorised to sign for him. In an emergency, your embassy might assist by intervening on your behalf.
If an expatriate holds a senior position in his company (e.g. Managing Director or General Manager), he might be able to obtain a multiple exit/re-entry visa, usually valid for six months. This visa allows easy passage in either direction but isn’t automatically renewable.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Gulf States & Saudi Arabia. Click here to get a copy now.