New Saudi tourist visa opens up the country to Gulf expat travellers

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Keiko Sasaki, a self-described solo Japanese traveler based in Doha, recently took a road trip to Saudi Arabia, something she could never have imagined doing before.

After converting to Islam in 2014, Sasaki went to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tokyo to ask them to facilitate her Umrah pilgrimage, as she could not find a male relative to accompany her to Mecca.

“The Embassy staff helped me draft a letter to higher ups in Saudi Arabia, but it was rejected,” she told Middle East Eye.

Now, Sasaki and thousands of others have started crossing back and forth between the Gulf countries, as restrictions have been lifted in the wake of Covid-19.

The Qatar World Cup started the trend, which has been reinforced by Saudi Arabia’s introduction of a multiple-entry visa that enables GCC residents with “good careers” to enter the kingdom often within 90 days a year.

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Saudi Arabia shares borders with eight countries: Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Yemen and Bahrain.

Before the World Cup, Saudi Arabia and the UAE allowed all ticket holders to enter without a visa; many followers took this opportunity to visit Mecca and perform Umrah, the second holiest pilgrimage in Islam.

Many expatriate fans from Oman, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain crossed from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to watch matches and organize family reunions.

Travelers near a lemonade shop on the Jabal al-Nour mountain in Mecca (MEE/Siraj El Leil)

Ambala Purath Ali Koya, from Malappuram district in Kerala, India, met all his sons and their families living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Dubai when he came to Qatar for the World Cup.

“We lived scattered in Qatar, in the houses of many relatives and gathered in restaurants and parks during the day by planning in our WhatsApp group,” Koya’s son Umer Naseef Ali told MEE.

PK Asheem, a public relations executive in Dubai told MEE that many of those who did not think of traveling to neighboring countries went to Qatar to watch the games.

“Also, the new Saudi visa makes Umrah easier. The trend will only grow.”

The kingdom has long failed to attract tourists other than pilgrims, and only a few non-pilgrims have shown interest in visiting. Visitors have previously complained of hostile treatment at airport immigration services and feared the mutawa, the religious police.

Sasaki remembered her Saudi friends who told her: “If there is an old man at the mall, sitting and reading newspapers since morning, he is a mutawa, and always be careful not to expose your ankles when you get out of the car .”

‘Like fish in the market’

Fazil Firoos, a travel agent in Dubai, told MEE that previously there were only Saudi Public Transport Company buses from the Deira transport hub for Umrah pilgrims, but now there were private buses.

“The number of buses, too, has doubled,” he said.

A hospital administrator in Riyadh said that although these trips were not expensive, they showed the lifestyle changes of the emigrants and their attitude towards disposable income.

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“These trips are weekend trips. For annual vacations, middle-income people go to Armenia and Georgia,” they said.

The Saudi visa was one of the hardest to get in the GCC, but now they sell it “like a fish in the market”, Hameeda, a long-time Indian expatriate in Bahrain, told MEE.

As a member of the “penny saving generation”, he said these new visa policies are encouraging many “young families to make the most of their holidays and budget in any of the GCC countries”.

An expatriate Qatari government official who spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia in January with his family of five broke down the budget this way: fuel for his Land Cruiser, $347, a five-night, six-day hotel stay in Mecca, $427, and a four-day hotel in Medina, $1,200.

He stayed with his relatives in Al-Khobar and Riyadh for the rest of the journey.

“Although I lived in Saudi Arabia and performed Umrah several times, this was special,” he told MEE. “Everyone, including my daughter, drove the vehicle, so we were not exhausted. I will go again after Ramadan and Eid.”

The single men groups spent less than families. A group of three, who took a four-day tour of Riyadh, Mecca, Medina and Jeddah during the new year, said they spent a total of $220, not including hotels.

“In Mecca, a room with five beds only cost us $21.33 at that time, and dormitory beds were available for as cheap as $5.33,” they said.

Data from August 2020 shows that 65.8 percent of the kingdom’s hotels are in the Mecca region. Mecca and Medina have 2,000 hotels, 384,500 hotel rooms and about 1.5 million beds, most of which are unoccupied outside the pilgrimage season.

But many people MEE spoke to said Saudi Arabia was becoming more expensive.

“Only hotel room rent is cheaper,” said the government official.

GCC road trippers

Six months before Saudi Arabia introduced in March 2022 visas for a wider range of GCC residents, two western expatriates set up a Facebook group called “Doha to UAE Road trippers”.

After Riyadh rolled out new visas for a wider group of expatriates in September, the group’s name was changed in October to Doha for GCC Road tourists. When last checked, it had more than 11,000 members.

Travelers post questions in the group, and travelers provide tips, advice on shortcuts and information about vehicle and health insurance.

Some members write short travel apps and an admin puts up a downloadable “How To” PDF.

Ambala Purath Ali Koya from Kerala, India met his son and all their families living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Dubai when he came to Qatar for the World Cup (Ali (MEE/Umer Naseef))
Ambala Purath Ali Koya from Kerala, India met his son and all their families living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Dubai when he came to Qatar for the World Cup (MEE/Umer Naseef)

Page administrators did not respond to MEE’s messages asking for more information.

The group also shows several people talking about not getting visas and problems with refunds for canceled travel plans.

“​​​​​​I just received a 12 USD medical insurance refund. That’s also after four months,” said one member on a post.

This is likely because applications are being refused due to the applicants’ listed professional status in their resident visa description.

‘In Mecca, a room with five beds only cost us $21.33 at that time, and dormitory beds were available for as cheap as $5’

– Qatari expat officer

Although the list of eligible Saudi occupations is so large that it includes art therapist, youth pressure manager, philosophy specialist, youth care supervisor, microfilm clerk, verbatim reporter, media censorship specialist, folk medicine specialist and manager, that there aren’t enough of those professions. in the same name in some other countries.

For example, a driver who works for a real estate businessman in Qatar said he was denied a visa to Saudi Arabia last month because his Qatari ID occupation was “cook” and only “cook” is listed in Arabic.

This issue is not limited to Saudi Arabia. Last month, an events manager in Jeddah said he was turned away from the airport by a Saudi official because the Qatari list did not include his occupation as “general manager”, but only “manager”.

“The second time, a wise officer came at the right moment to portray ‘general manager’ as a manager too,” he told MEE.

A travel agent in Abu Dhabi said Bahrain also has this “good reputation” clause, but waives it during the week, when it doesn’t expect “wealthy” travelers.

Evergreen Oman

AM Jaheer, a grocer in Dubai, said the trend was so widespread that “people suddenly say while sipping their tea, ‘I’m going to Qatar or Oman this evening'”.

He said the new trend reminded him of the “forced” trips UAE expatriates have taken to Al Buraimi and Khasab in Oman over the past decade, while waiting to change their visa status from job-seeking visitor to resident.

“Travel agencies made a lot of money arranging buses to those locations,” he said.

Oman, hosting the all-time favorite picnic spot in Salalah, remains a wonder for nature lovers. While GCC residents with “good” professional visas arrive at its airports, road travelers need a 10-day visit visa under $25.

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Rub-el-Khali Highway, a 725 km desert road that opened in December 2021 between the sultanate and the kingdom, makes the trip to Oman easier.

Long a magnet for adventurers and expeditionists, the Rub-el-Khali – known as the Empty Quarter – is the “largest continuous body of sand” and the largest desert in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes parts of Yemen, Oman, the Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.

The new highway eliminated the need to go through the UAE to reach Oman.

“We no longer need to take UAE visas twice when going to and from Oman,” Habeeb Rahman, a public relations officer, told MEE.

To help other travelers, he wrote a post in Malayalam telling them where to stop for food and fuel, as the route involves long deserted stretches without shops.

Jordan, which is not part of the GCC, also gets too many of these tourists, while Kuwait stays away from the fray.

“The only visa issued in Kuwait is for newborn children born abroad to resident expatriates. There are no visas for investors, tourists and family visitors,” said a longtime Kuwaiti expatriate the day with MEE.

“The authorities are promising to open up visas after the pandemic, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.”

The migrant expressed the need for a stable government in Kuwait to announce new policies.

A travel agent in Sharjah said it’s easy to apply online for a Kuwaiti tourist visa with minimal documents, “but you won’t get the actual visa”.

For serious applicants, he says, “We arrange a visa by leveraging our contacts. We have often been asked by Kuwaiti officials ‘What is there to see in Kuwait?'”

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