Posted by: englishdubai | December 16, 2009

The Thin Green Line

Despite the chaos that often ensues at various airports around the middle east the one that I feel most apprehensive about is any of the ones in Saudi. I have had the pleasure of standing for hours in queues in Riyadh, Jeddah and Damman over the last couple of years.

With the end of the year fast approaching it was important that I made a visit to Saudi to ensure that everything would be smooth as we closed out the year.  I knew from the moment I left home that this trip would have a certain amount of excitement attached to it.

Three hours before the flight left Dubai I headed for the airport – usually that is a huge amount of time. I don’t like to be rushed and prefer to get to the airport early where I can catch on email and phone calls. No such chance on Sunday. It was raining in Dubai. From my previous posts and experience the meerest splatter of rain in Dubai causes traffic chaos and widespread flooding. This Sunday was no different.

As we queued down the Sheikk Zayed Road I watched impassively as the minutes then hours passed. As we headed up the ramp to departures still in huge traffic the taxi driver made a desperate plunge for a gap to drop us off. I glanced at the clock, the flight was leaving in 30 minutes and the gate closed 15 minutes ago. I sighed and thought I would end up getting on the late flight at 10pm.

I walked up to the desk I asked hopefully “Riyadh?”

“The flight has closed”

“Oh” and I sighed again

“You have luggage?”

“Not today”

Within 20 seconds a boarding pass was thrust in my hands and I was told to run.

I promptly did and 10 minutes later I was sat on the flight. I thought my luck must be in. Then we landed in Riyadh.

The queue at immigration was huge. I mean anybody who has been there will understand when I say that the hall was full and the queue was back up the stairs.

The number one tip for arriving in Riyadh airport is stay to the right. Sure enough they opened up some other immigration desks. Great I thought as I was caught up in the rush for a new one. Soon enough I was at the desk.

“Where is your visa?”

“Umm…it is the one right there” I said pointing at my very valid Saudi visa

The guy tapped the number in three or four times. Then calls over the big officer – a quick exchange of Arabic and the guy looks at me again.

“Where is your visa?”

I point again. The huge queue behind me is providing the “Please hurry up body language”

The supervisor comes over – grabs my passport and stamps it. I am waved through. Lucky I thought.

I walked outside only to find the driver from the hotel is nowhere in sight. After a look around I negotiate a price into the city from one of the many guys looking to make a buck. I find a nice dude from Yemen who drove safely and only charged my $10 over the odds for a ride to the hotel.

The next couple of days pass without incident but in the back of my mind I am worried, worried that there will be an issue at immigration.

I got dropped off early for the flight and am amazed that there is nearly no queue for check in at the Saudi Air desks. Typically I budget 30-45minutes to check in. I grab my boarding pass and head for immigration. A nice young chap looks at my passport. Checks the visa carefully and enters the number.

“You speak Arabic”

“Mafie Arabie” I reply

“Your visa has expired by 11 days”

My eyes widen in disbelief.

He looks at me sadly and heads over to his supervisor. This chap is not interested and I am told to go to the immigration office.

“Where is it?”

“Walk to the end. Four terminals, then go downstairs”

I start the hike and after about 15 minutes I find the place.

The chap there looks at my passport. He throws it back at me

“Go to the immigration office in Riyadh. Cancel your ticket”

He tells me as he points at my boarding pass.

My heart sank. Could this really be happening? Then a 1000 scenarios run through my mind. The top one involved me being thrown into Saudi Gulag – a vivid imagination is a powerful motivator.

I get on the phone and start calling the local office, the rest of my team. In fact anyone I know who speaks Arabic. As luck would have the rest of the sales team were enjoying a leisurely pizza in the airport. I found them and they told me not to worry. I was in super panic mode and a little jittery.

Their theory was that when I last left Saudi early November despite my passport being stamped I was not entered into their immigration system correctly as having left Saudi. So in the immigration officers eyes I had overstayed my 14 day allowance and I needed to go explain myself to the Immigration office in Riyadh.

Together we headed over to immigration and the local sales guy starts to explain the issue to one of the immigration officers. This goes on for about 30 minutes and it gets quite animated but from what I could tell all very polite. They ask to see my exit stamp out of Dubai – sadly I am using egate so I don’t have that. They can’t find my entry stamp on arrival either. Thinks are looking grim. We are sent back to the other end of the airport to the immigration office.

We find the same chap at that office. He is really not interested. He threatens my colleague as to why he is getting involved in this and why is our local sponsor not here representing me? He tells us the only man who can help is Colonel Azziz.

“Where is he?”


We leave empty handed and Ahmed my colleague goes into super hardcore Saudi red tape beater mode. We see another immigration official and we ask for Colonel Azziz. We are directed to the immigration desks at arrival. To get there we have to explain the situation to the security team. We are scanned and let through.

At immigration there is huge queues and we find the supervisor. There is a pretty sharp exchange in Arabic between Ahmed and the senior official. He says one word I couldn’t catch and we head back up stairs.

At the departures immigration desk the guy who listened to our story to begin with was there. I handed him my passport and boarding card. Ahmed mentioned an Arabic word to him. They took my documents back to the supervisors office there and a lot of frantic keyboard tapping started to take place followed by photocopying of my entire passport.

I looked at my watch. The flight was leaving in 20 minutes.

“Ahmed, am I stuck here for the weekend?”

“Inshallah it will be fixed”

Five minutes later – my passport was stamped. I kissed Ahmed said shukran to the immigration officials and ran for the flight. When I reached my seat I mumbled a payer and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

I admit. I was scared. Not for having to stay in Saudi for a few more days. But the fact that I could be stuck there indefinitely as this type of thing can often take days and perhaps weeks to clear up.

When I look back at it. My visa and everything was valid just there was a glitch in the matrix. The word on street is that they will say no 5 times and then it gets fixed, but you need to be speaking in Arabic and be super persistent.

I will remember this when I next have to come to Saudi. When that will be, only time will tell.


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