By Rob L. Wagner
16 October 2016
Jeddah – Nesreen, a 28-year-old Syrian, always wondered whether her Saudi husband would ever make good on his threat to send her home.
The couple has been married for two years after meeting through acquaintances. She had arrived in Saudi Arabia from Aleppo with her parents three years ago. She said her marriage was steady and she was happy but occasionally her husband’s temper would get the best of him during a quarrel and he would remind her that he could send her home anytime. The experience put a knot in her stomach.
“He would get his mobile and log on through Absher and say all he had to do was press the final exit visa button and it would be all over,” she said.
But the squabble would be over in a few minutes and they would be looking for a movie to watch on television, she said.
Nesreen attributes the cause of the arguments to two people getting used to one another during the early period of marriage. Those kinds of incidents are long over, she said.
But for many expatriates, domestic spats and even the threat of a looming divorce is much more than just splitting up and going separate ways. A final exit visa issued against their will would have grave financial and emotional consequences for someone who gave up their life in their home country to live in Saudi Arabia.
That changed when the Saudi Ministry of Justice made it impossible for Saudis to obtain a final exit visa simply to settle a score because they want to punish their spouses or get a divorce.
“There were too many abuses in the law,” said one Saudi newspaper columnist. “This evens the playing field and protects the expat.”
The final exit visa regulation was inherently unfair but widely used among Saudis who saw the simplicity and efficiency of the Absher electronic visa system to dispatch someone who was inconvenient in their lives. A legal sponsor of a spouse could log on to Absher, fill out the final exit visa form and hit the button. There was no recourse or appeal process.
Absher is an e-services portal administered through the Saudi Ministry of Interior that allows Saudis and expatriates to register and log into their account to take care of issues ranging from passports and traffic to importing labour from foreign countries. Even job postings are listed.
The electronic system eliminated the need for most paperwork and time-consuming visits to local government offices to process exit visas. By using Absher, Saudi sponsors or expatriates simply log on, enter the expat’s residency permit number, sponsor identification number, visa number and passport number. Exit visas are then automatically processed.
With what is in effect the repealing of the law, estranged foreign spouses are permitted to remain in Saudi Arabia to complete their divorce case. The new regulation also allows domestic court judges to determine how long it would take to finalise a divorce case and stay a deportation order. The expatriate spouse can grant power of attorney to another individual who can follow up on the case in their absence.
Ravi Muhammed, who counsels Indian expatriate workers permanently leaving Saudi Arabia after many years of employment to transition back into Indian society, said abusing the final exit visa option has a far-reaching emotional impact on people.
“These workers have left their homeland and built a life here,” Muhammed said. “Many have achieved responsible positions with their companies. They have invested their entire lives to make Saudi Arabia a better place. Having no concrete connections to their home country could be psychologically devastating to anybody.”
Muhammed said he has not provided counselling to expats experiencing a divorce but has seen more than a few forced to leave employment on a final exit visa in what he sees as punishment for some infraction.
“This new arrangement gives hope to workers that they will not fall prey to being abused through the final exit visa system,” he said.