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Postcard From Saudi Arabia – The Amazing Transformation of the Immigration Police

November 22, 2014


Welcome to Saudi Arabia. Once upon a time, the words that greeted you when you arrived at any of the Kingdom’s international airports seemed a little insincere when set against the experience that awaited you during your first hour or two in the country.

At peak times, crowds of people were herded by scowling officers of the Jawazat, the immigration department, into a series of lines whose designations were clear as mud, except that expatriates went to the left and Gulf Cooperation Council citizens to the right. If you were a resident, and you found yourself in a line of new entrants, you could wait for an hour or more while those in front of you were being photographed and fingerprinted. Meanwhile those in the GCC lines were already riding off in their cars.

Nothing odd about streaming by nationality or regional origin. It happens in the US and across the EU. But in Saudi Arabia each type of visa has its own set of rules. You have the resident visa, the dependent visa, the business visa and the Haj or Umrah (pilgrimage) visas. Some people turn up with pieces of paper. Some fill out entry cards, some don’t. No apparent guidance as to what you should produce other than your passport.

My standard practice was always to bring a good book and prepare for the worst. If you were lucky, and managed to get into the line nearest to the GCC lines, sometimes the floodgates would open when all the GCC nationals had gone through and you would be beckoned to an empty booth. If you were unlucky, your arrival might coincide with the shift change, in which case you would be standing for a long period in front of an empty booth.

In short, you were left with the impression that you were entering on sufferance, and that every opportunity to deny you entry was eagerly seized upon as an act of patriotism.

The fun didn’t end once you were through immigration. You then had to form another line, at the end of which equally grim-faced customs officers took what seemed to be a malicious delight in rifling through the contents of your bags. Should they discover magazines, newspapers or photos with images that they considered pornographic, such as women with visible cleavages or parts of their limbs exposed, the offending items would be confiscated and you would be required to sign a document promising not to bring such offensive material in again. Bottles, Christmas puddings and cakes from Granny were opened, unwrapped and sniffed for signs of alcohol.

Eventually you would stagger out into the throng of unlicensed taxi drivers trying to entice you into their dodgy vehicles and wearily hook up with the person who was there to collect you.

Seasoned expatriates used to resort to sneaky tactics to avoid the worst of the ordeal. The Jawazat would often take pity on women with small children – especially if the kids were screaming – and send them to the front of a line. I know of at least one shameless mother (not my wife, I should make clear) who would pinch her child on the leg to induce the necessary volume. It had the desired effect, apparently. Others swore by the practice of placing a layer of grubby clothing at the top of their bags in order to deter squeamish customs officers from probing more deeply. I never tested that one, but I’m sure the officials would have got wise to the tactic, held their noses and plunged in.

In recent years, after the arrival of X-ray machines, the customs ordeal diminished. But the scowling, barking Jawazat still held sway at the immigration desks.

Until very recently, that is.

In what has been one of the most miraculous behavioural transformations I have ever witnessed, the whole process of dealing with arrivals has been turned into something dramatically different. I’m talking about Riyadh here, but I would be surprised if the same changes weren’t being introduced at other airports.

Gone is the barrier of desks guarded by forbidding men in uniforms. Now we have gleaming white free-standing stations manned by the same people in national dress – thobes and gutras. An animated two-dimensional official sends out encouraging messages in Arabic explaining what happens next. Smiling officials are standing around ready to look at your passport and send you in the right direction.

I’m reminded of the scene from The Life of Brian, in which Michael Palin, armed with his clipboard and in the manner of a solicitous holiday camp greeter, asks the bedraggled line of prisoners the critical question: “crucifixion?”.

After a short wait, you get to the desk, the officer greets you with a smile, stamps your passport and sends you on your way.

It’s as if the officials have had a total attitude transplant. You could almost believe that they’ve just spent a few months learning the tricks of the trade in a 5-star hotel in Dubai. I’d like to know who was responsible for the training programme that achieved this miracle. They are geniuses. They will never be out of business, especially in a region where sullen, unhelpful and downright obstructive attitudes in customer service are commonplace across all industries .

But actually I’m not sure I’m right about the attitude transplant. Saudis are by nature welcoming and hospitable people, even if in some areas they are more reserved than in others. What these trainers have done is to unlock the true natures of the trainees, and the abandonment of uniforms will have gone a long way towards the transformation. It’s amazing how uniforms dictate behaviour. They can turn ordinary human beings into officious pains in the backside. On the other side of the equation, people usually treat those in uniform with caution, if not fear. And just as dogs seem to sense fear in humans, and moderate their behaviour accordingly, so uniformed officials seem to behave more aggressively with those who fear them. Take away the uniforms and you take away much of the fear, and everybody can behave as normal human beings again.

It’s interesting as a side observation that while the Saudis have de-formalised their dress code, in my country, the United Kingdom, it’s gone the other way. In times past, officials at the immigration desks wore their own clothes. Nowadays, they’re dressed in smart uniforms, which gives an entirely different impression. Perhaps our increasing paranoia about immigration has something to do with it. Politicians rarely miss the chance to make a cheap point, so presumably the uniforms are designed to send a message that we’re serious about not letting in the wrong people. Ironic really, given that Saudi Arabia is supposed to be the doyen of controlled immigration.

So full marks to the Saudi government for realising that the first impression of a country is often the lasting one, and for blowing away the idea that its people are incapable of changing the way they do things. There’s much more work to be done, but changes in other areas, such as the introduction of electronic systems for visas, suggest that they are serious about making the stereotypical stone-faced wall of officialdom a thing of the past.

Officials in other G20 nations, such as the Russians and the Chinese, can learn from them. And they could teach the hard-ass immigration people in New York a thing or too about manners as well. As for the Jawazat, I’m not sure that their new-found attitude on the immigration desks matches their tone when rounding up illegal workers in the big cities. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

Saudi Arabia has many imperfections for which it is criticised by international observers.  Unfortunately, when the government makes constructive changes it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

So it’s good to have the opportunity to say well done, and I’m sure that many thousands of fellow-visitors will feel the same way.

  1. Interesting article. I like how you candidly observe the small facets of society with an analytical eye.

    • Thanks Amitra. I wrote about 12 postcards on different aspects of Saudi Arabia last year. I hope you enjoy them. S

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