How Dangerous is the Kingdom? This contribution is in response to an email from an individual whose husband has been offered a job in the Kingdom. However the respective families and friends are trying to discourage them from coming to the Kingdom citing it is too dangerous and unstable. I thought I would share my response to this individual with you: I see you have already been given some excellent advise on this topic and I’d also like to chime in with a few comments. By way of background I was a former career diplomat until I met and married my Saudi husband. The Kingdom has now become my home. Of course your family and friends perspectives are natural reactions; particularly if they have not traveled to this region and rely on the media and press for their information. As we know, if it bleeds it leads. Sad but true. In addition the warnings which have been issued by the US Dept of State can also make one apprehensive and have second thoughts about coming to the region. But remember, the Ambassador of a country is responsible for the decisions taken regarding the safety and security of nationals in the country. Therefore it is not at all surprising that in an area which has had unrest and/or incidents, the official recommendation is severe caution. Above being said, it is also common sense to be watchful in Saudi Arabia as it has had a history of incidents. At the same time, the Saudi officials take security and safety very seriously. The stringent penalties and punishments for crime, murder, rape, etc., due to their severity keep such crimes at low low statistics. I feel quite safe in the Kingdom. There are some areas, depending on what city one may live in, to avoid but that is the case all over the world. Common sense rules! This is a wonderful country in which to raise children. Saudis and their culture are very family oriented. The culture and customs also make it much easier to have a fulfilling and full family life as compared to the hustle and bustle and pressures of the pace of life in the States. You’re in the right place to have your questions answered and equally important, don’t stop asking. And remember, it is you and your family who will need to make the right decision for you and your needs and not at the influence of others. Depending who responds to you and where they are and under what circumstances you will hear many differing views and perspectives about KSA. Some are expats who are here as professionals and are single or here in a singleton capacity. They may or may not live in a Western compound, compound, rented villa in the local environs, rented apartment in the local environs. Each situation has its own differing experiences, amenities or lack thereof. And the cities and regions are also unique, comparable as to whether one lives on the East Coast or in the Deep South.
Embassies & Visas
I know this posting may not make me popular and perhaps generate some controversy but I think these are words which need to be said.
I think especially because of my former career as an American diplomat I routinely hear comments about various experiences Saudis have had when going to the US embassy or one of the consulates and apply for a visa. Unfortunately all of these comments have been less than positive if not downright demeaning or insulting. The more I hear the more it sounds like all those associated with visas to include Americans and the foreign nationals working in visa sections need to have a refresher course in Diplomacy & Courtesy 101.
Now it is true that some Saudi citizens can be “challenging” personalities and accustomed to getting their own way. I am sure when such a personality type comes in for a visa interview this does not necessarily help the temperament of those working in the consular sections. Yet it certainly sounds like most individuals when coming to the embassy are routinely met by aggressive and rude foreign nationals. After first usually waiting in line to gain access to the entrance of the consular services they are then treated in a rough-shod manner where they remove their shoes, allow for all of their belongings to be searched and indifferently directed to go take a number and proceed to wait, yet again. At least by this point they are usually waiting to be seen and interviewed by an American consular official. Again it is a dice roll on whether the official will be polite, indifferent or downright rude. The good news is that I am told most Saudis are received politely by the American officials. The bad news is that is not the case 100 per cent of the time.
If you are not aware Saudi Arabia has one of the best records of nationals who do not overstay their visas in the US. They come to the US, conduct whatever business they have or visits they came to make and then return to the Kingdom. Yet ironically for most Saudis it can be an inordinate wait (sometimes up to 4 months or more) for them to be granted their appointment interview. Why is this you may ask? Well, since 9/11 new procedures were put into place in the name of National Security and most of these measures impact greatest on Saudi nationals. And as we all know, once governmental procedures have been put into place and particularly in the name of national security, it is unlikely they would be quickly changed or reversed.
Security checks must be conducted with a myriad of differing governmental agencies in the interests of Homeland Security. Unfortunately not all the databases are fool proof in the sense that names can be transposed or confused. Whereby an individual who may appear to meet all the green light requirements to be granted a visa but if there is a “hit” where their family name matches or correlates with a person of interest who is viewed as a security threat, then the applicant will be denied a visa. They’ll be told they can reapply in “xx” time but they may not have been told exactly why their visa was denied. And again, if it was due to a hit on a name, they can reapply but will probably be denied again and again.
Now going back to how is it determined whether an individual qualifies for a visa. The requirements are clearly stated on the visa application. If one meets those requirements then it is a matter of passing the security database checks and the visa interview. The consular officer interviewing the applicant will have the visa application and information. However due to the volume of visas and applications processed the officer may not have taken much time to review the application. Demeaner, mannerisms, appearance and how one responds to questions during the interview plays a role as well. Never forget, you only have that one chance to make the first good impression. Don’t go to an interview in a dirty thobe or old blue jeans. Students also look less professional if they go for their interview looking “punk” wearing tight jeans, dark glasses and long hair. They may be of the best of character but such an appearance still lends itself to a negative stereotype.
The mindset and mood of the consular officer should not be a factor but in reality it can be. As one individual whom I personally know and not doubt his word said that on a past trip to the consulate in Jeddah when he was applying for a visa for his wife (he already had a valid multi-entry visa) the official must have had a rough day for he said “How in the f*** do I know she’s not going to overstay her visa or that both of you wouldn’t try and overstay?” Needless to say the wife was denied her visa. There may have been other circumstances not known to the Saudi but was it necessary for the official, an official representative of the US Government and the USA, to have used such offensive and vulgar language?
The recently arrived new American ambassador is aware that there are issues which need fixed in regards to visa services. He is making positive remarks which indicate sincerity on all fronts to fix some of these problems. And I am sure that the fact that the embassy remains an unaccompanied hardship post also adds additional pressure in regards to the amount of work; impact on historical knowledge; and overall ability to thoroughly learn a new region, customs, cultures and be effective. I say this because as an unaccompanied hardship post most of the diplomats posted to KSA arrive for what is on paper a 1 year tour of duty. In actuality due to special R&R (rest and recreation) plus other leaves, this reduces down to about 9 months. So in 9 months one needs to learn all aspects of the job, the customs, the culture, build their network, interact and liaise with their diplomatic counterparts and effectively represent their home country. It’s being done but it is a tall order to fill as well.
Is Saudiazation going to work?
The Kingdom’s ultimate goal is to successfully implement Saudization by replacing much of its expat labor force with Saudis. However this is not going to be an easy or a fast fete to accomplish. More than 60 per cent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia is made up of expat workers. In addition, 60 per cent of the Saudi population is under the age of 25. Educational reforms which are necessary to prepare Saudis for entering into the workforce are underway but moving at a snail’s pace. At present, 33 per cent of the educational curriculum is focused on religious studies and less than 10 per cent is focused on sciences. These are some of the serious factors which present challenges for Saudization. Although many countries around the world have instituted internship programs to college students so they may begin to gain exposure to the work environment, this is not yet the case in Saudi Arabia. Saudi university students typically do not contemplate taking a job until after they have graduated and in most cases, the job is obtained through WASTA. While educational reform is likely the most important aspect for successful Saudiazation, changes also need to occur in the work ethics and mindsets of Saudi nationals. Those who have been educated outside of the Kingdom tend to have higher work standards and ethics than those who have remained in the traditional conservative environment. At the same time though, Saudi Arabia has had difficulties in identifying qualified Saudis for the various positions it hopes to Saudize due to lack of education, exposure and work ethics on the part of the Saudis. Saudization is an excellent initiative in principle and much needed in the Kingdom given the large and increasing influx of students who will be graduating and entering the workforce. However I think it is unrealistic to even think that ultimately expat labor force would be replaced. If the expat workers ever decided to go on a three day strike billions of riyals in revenues would be lost as well as the infrastructure falling into total chaos. So in conclusion, the good news is that Saudi Arabia is taking initiative for educational reform and successful Saudization. The bad news is that there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration for it to be successful while will take lots of time and changing the mindset for success is going to be a real challenge.