A visit to Saudi Arabia: Part I

It is nearly impossible to visit Saudi Arabia. If you have a business there, you can travel on a business visa. If you are going to visit Mecca on a hajj (pilgrimage), you can get a visa. Otherwise, you have to be an invited guest of the government. My trip came in the form of the latter. But, that does not make it any easier. Let me give you a few pointers about how to get there and prepare for the visit in this blog.

 

1)  Plan many months in advance. It is a continually circuitous process. You cannot buy a ticket without having the visa, you cannot get a visa without showing an airline ticket, and you can do neither without showing you have been invited on official stationary.  

 

2)  Get an official letter from a government agency inviting you to do something that a local citizen cannot do. In my case, it was giving pathology lectures on a really obscure field in medicine. The letter must include exact dates, times, topics, and places, and further include the person's full name, title, address, phone number, and email address.

 

3)  You must registry first with Enjaz, the official money laundering application portal (https://enjazit.com.sa/). You have to pay a visa service fee. There is an application fee, a processing fee, and a delivery service fee. You can actually use this site to hire someone to do all of this for you, but that is another fee -- which in general is 2x the amount of the above (which is about $165 for a US citizen).  

  a)  Alert your credit card company before you do this transaction, as it will automatically be denied -- and your credit card locked. Probably as a anti-terrorism precaution, your credit card company will view this as "supporting a foreign government" in the middle east, and block your transaction. 

  b)  Use a credit card that you otherwise don't use often, so you will not be adversely affected if you are blocked for the next few hours to days. 

 

4)  You must fill out a Visa application, which can be downloaded from their website (http://www.saudiembassy.net/files/PDF/VisaApp.pdf). Remember, everything is from right to left, so filling in the forms is a challenge, especially when it comes to street address numbers, dates, and times.

 

5)  Two parts of the Visa application will catch your attention -- and you must follow them to the letter, otherwise you will not be returning -- because you will be dead:

  • 2. I am aware that all alcoholic beverages, narcotics and other illegal drugs, pornographic materials or publications that violate the social norms of decency and all other publications that are disrespectful of any religious belief or political orientation are prohibited and shall not be brought into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; 
  • 3. I am also fully aware that the crime of smuggling narcotics and other illegal drugs into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is punishable by the death penalty;

6)  If you are a woman, you cannot travel alone. If you are a woman who will be traveling with your husband, you will have to produce your original (ORIGINAL) marriage license. You have to show it at the time you present your completed application and your Enjaz filing fee and proof of payment. The embassy personnel are exceedingly friendly and very helpful, but have no qualms about you coming back 6-8 times to get things correct. They will only point out the most glaring error that time. When you solve that problem, they will point out the next one and send you on your way. So, take the original license with you. If you are common-law, engaged, or anything other than married, you will probably not get a Visa. If you are gay and married, you also will not get a Visa.  Just go as friends traveling together. 

 

7)  Be patient. Expect to go to the embassy or communicate with them several times. 

 

8)  The Visa is only good for 30 days from the date of issue, your airline ticket has to be purchased before you get the Visa application, so this can be tricky. You have to calculate back from the date you are leaving the country, include the length of time for the visit (10 days is the usual visa), and then add 10-14 days to process the Visa. All in all, it is very nerve wracking -- and if you are going to be traveling to any other country that you need a Visa for also, you will have to include time to get the passport back and forth. 

 

9)  If you are a woman, you must arrive at the airport in full covering garments (This includes a hijab and an abaya). No exceptions -- unless you just want to sit in the airport and transit through.  

 

Good luck -- and here are a few shots of what you will see when you get there. 

 

The amazing Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel spa--but for men only!

Bathroom signs leave nothing to the imagination or room for mistinterpretation

The sands of Saudi will get into everything.

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Wow!  Thanks for this fascinating contribution, Lestertheinvestor.  I was exhausted just from reading the directions for applying for the visa.  It is quite obvious that Saudi Arabia doesn't want infidels visiting them.

 

A few questions you might know the answer to:

 

1)  Is the process stream-lined for a Muslim wanting to go to Mecca, and what kind of proof do they need to have that they're a Muslim?

2)  Do you have any rough idea how many hours you spent on this process?  Ball-park guess would do.  My instinct is that you likely spent more time getting a visa than you actually spent in Saudi Arabia.

3)  I understand the need for women to cover themselves fully, but are there also dress requirements for men?

 

I'm really looking forward to hearing how the visit went and to seeing some of your great photos!

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

1)  The process is easier for a Muslim who is going on a hajj. However, unless you are native born, you must present a document from the Imam of your mosque documenting your status as a Muslim in good standing. For a Caucasian woman who is a converted Muslim, you must still get permission from your husband or a male relative, along with the letter from the mosque to allow you to make the hajj. 

2) Between my wife and I (she actually presented our documents each time to the consulate in Los Angeles), getting the flights, letter of introduction, proof of occupation (to show I was qualified to speak), registration, completion of the visa application, back and forth to the consulate and finally getting the documents, in the range of 24-28 hours (over a 50 day period). 

3) There were no dress requirements for men. However, you were expected to dress conservatively (no knees or arms showing) when in public places. In many respects, the clothing is a specific development from the hot environment. The flowing garments and nearly complete covering allows for limited sun exposure (no melanoma or sun burn) and air flow around the billowing garments keeps you cool. There is also the obvious religious overtones also, but my wife was more than happy to be in a flowing garment that required no thought. She did not have to match colors, coordinate outfits, match shoes, or anything else. In Riyadh, black is the only color allowed (other colors can be worn in outside, more rural communities), and so your choice is simple. The black does draw the heat, but the men are in white -- so at a distance it is very easy to know the gender of an approaching person and make necessary alterations or corrections in behavior. By Koran direction, a woman is to cover her head at all times while in public to hide her beauty. So, by extension, the women who are the most covered are revered as being most likely to be the prettiest. They should not bring attention to themselves, and so the covering neutralizes any untoward attention. 

Originally Posted by Travel Luver:

What a bureaucratic nightmare!  I wonder if there are countries that make it harder to visit than this one?

My wife and I have visited 119 countries, with China, Bhutan and Saudi Arabia the most challenging to enter. 

My husband and I were invited to live there for two years while he did a medical fellowship in genetics. The challenge for me was that I am a very independent traveler, and I could not imagine how I would deal with the restrictions on women.  In the end, those restrictions influenced our decision to go to Germany for two years instead. However, after having seen your photos, I am curious to see more. I regret that I do not know this part of the world.

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