A liberalized Saudi visa regime has practical and spiritual benefits
Granting visas to foreign nationals to enter a country is an expression of sovereign authority by a visa giving nation. While granting this formal permission, authorities ensure that security and financial aspects are fulfilled, that the person applying for an entry visa has a clean security record and can support his stay in a foreign country financially.
Some diplomatic missions interview the applicants to verify the nature of their visits. The aim is to sift genuine businessmen or tourists from others. These procedures are cumbersome and time consuming, and nations encouraging tourism and investment have come up with innovative ideas in recent years, regarding their visa regimes.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has recently adopted a more liberal visa regime. 49 countries’ nationals will be able to get electronic visas and will not have to apply to the diplomatic missions of the Kingdom, for this purpose. This will not only reduce the unnecessary work load in Saudi consular offices around the globe but also promote tourism to the Kingdom. Apart from this, Indian and Pakistani nationals shall get visas on arrival, at any of the Kingdom airports. However, this facility will be available to only those with US, UK or Schengen visas stamped on their travel documents.
Having lived and worked as a diplomat in the Kingdom, I am aware of the enormity of work at the Ministry of Interior. Millions of foreigners work in the Kingdom in all categories. They include top level consultants, skilled and unskilled workers. Many foreigners have set up their businesses, in partnership with Saudi nationals. Giving them entry and exit visas is, in itself, a demanding job. Exit visas are essential to ensure that the departing person does not leave behind any liabilities.
And then, millions of Umrah and Hajj visas are issued every year to pilgrims. Previously, those going to the Kingdom on visit visas had to be sponsored and they could not perform Umrah. Now all Muslims using the new facility will be able to perform Umrah, except during Hajj days. Visas granted on arrival will be valid for a year and for multiple entries, each up to three months of stay.
With a large diaspora in the US, UK and Europe, many Pakistanis visit their families back home at least once a year. A large number of them would now like to transit through the Kingdom and perform Umrah. This will not only benefit Saudi Airlines but also the hospitality industry in Jeddah, Makkah and Medina.
These are tangible facilities which have been appreciated by the Pakistani government and its people. Pakistan figures in the top-most countries as far as Umrah pilgrims are concerned.
The new visa system is very transparent and hassle free. The applicants will no longer be at the mercy of travel agents. The fee is fixed and known to everybody. Moreover, payment at the port of entry will be through credit cards only. Those getting these visas will be allowed to visit all the nooks and corners of the country. It will encourage religious rites and tourism, at the same time.
The Kingdom is opening up according to the vision of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Vision 2030 envisages extensive facilities for tourists. The country has fascinating deserts, clean beaches and several modern cities. Few foreigners know that it has attractive historical sites like Madyan Saleh and the fascinating Museum of History in Riyadh. This is the area where modernity embraces conservatism.
With a large diaspora in the US, UK and Europe, many Pakistanis visit their families back home at least once a year. A large number of them would now like to transit through the Kingdom and perform Umrah. This will not only benefit Saudi Airlines but also the hospitality industry in Jeddah, Makkah and Medina. In addition, it will promote people to people contacts between the countries. Pakistanis who have relations living in the Riyadh Region and the Eastern Province can now also go to the Holy Lands when they visit family and friends.
The new liberalized visa regime is forward looking. Apart from Muslims, it also benefits non-Muslims. It opens up new vistas and fresh business opportunities. The Kingdom, under its wise and forward looking leadership, has opened its arms to the world, and it is now for the world to benefit from emerging opportunities.
Pakistanis are certainly very happy and grateful. Ours is a multi-dimensional and open-ended relationship. After all, worldly business has its expiry date but spiritual links live on for ever. And they are now more accessible than ever before.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.