Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

October 30, 2016

Huge Spike in Saudi Visa Fees

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

30 October 2016

Jeddah – New visa fees intended to boost non-oil revenue and narrow Saudi Ara­bia’s near $100 billion budget deficit have gone into force and are likely to have a significant effect on pilgrims with the price of a haj visa rising five-fold.

An estimated 1.86 million pil­grims performed the 2016 haj, about 1.32 million of them foreigners, ac­cording to Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organisa­tion said Saudi Arabia had 18 million international visitors in 2015.

Visitor numbers dropped by about 600,000 in 2015 from 2014 but did not have a significant effect on the nascent tourism industry centring on heritage sites in Mecca and Medi­na and tourist destinations such as Yanbu and Taif.

The price of a haj visa skyrocketed from $94 to $533. The hike sparked protests among South African Mus­lims. Moulana Ebrahim Bham, secretary-general of the Council of Muslim Theologians in South Africa, said a 10,000-signature petition was submitted to the Saudi Embassy and General Commission for Tourism and National Heritage seeking relief from the fees.

The price of a visa to perform um­rah, a pilgrimage that may be per­formed at any time of the year, also rose sharply. Ahmed Bilal, an expa­triate worker living in Taif, said the new fees will make it difficult to get his family to Saudi Arabia on umrah visas. “It makes it not easy to get the visa and it means I might have to take on some extra work,” he said, “but we will find a way.”

Short-term and transit visas is­sued by Saudi Arabia are close to what other countries charge. Short-term Saudi visa fees are slightly higher than Schengen visas issued by some EU countries. However, visitors incur greater expenses the longer they intend to stay in Saudi Arabia.

The visa fee hikes were imple­mented to boost income as Saudi Arabia struggles to wean itself from oil revenues and develop a sus­tainable economy. Measures taken include privatising 13 ministries, which will require public sector em­ployees to reapply for jobs once the ministry goes private; taxing vacant land to encourage construction; slashing government employee bo­nuses and allowances; and raising fuel prices.

“The measures are intended to help raise much-needed non-oil revenues. Businesses will have to pay an extra cost for travel as per global fee structures. The fee comes from a relatively low base and re­mains competitive,” John Sfakiana­kis, director of economic research at the Gulf Research Center, told Saudi Arabia’s Arab News.

A Saudi economist in Jeddah said the increased fees would have little effect on the number of internation­al visitors.

“Saudi Arabia is riding a big wave in interest from foreign Muslims who want to see the land of the two holy mosques,” he said. “Visa re­quirements are easier to meet and, although it may be more expensive now to get here, it’s every Muslim’s dream to come to Mecca and Medi­na.”

The new fees would have little effect on large companies doing business in Saudi Arabia, he said, adding: “Large corporations see this as the cost of doing business and can absorb the costs but small and medium-sized businesses that rely heavily on expat labour may pass those costs to the consumer or cli­ent.”



May 28, 2013

‘American Bedu’ blogger Al-Ajroush dies at 53

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By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

28 May 2013

Carol Fleming Al-Ajroush, the popular American blogger who chronicled Saudi society and covered expatriate issues as American Bedu, died yesterday following a battle with breast cancer. She was 53.

American Bedu was widely read in Saudi Arabia and the United States for its insight of the Kingdom through the eyes of Al-Ajroush, an American expat married to a Saudi. Her stories and observations about the lives of expats in a closed and conservative country won legions of followers who respected her frank, but fair commentary on Saudi issues. Al-Ajroush was particularly eloquent in writing about Saudi women’s issues, including the right to seek employment, to drive an automobile and to live full lives.
In addition to her coverage of Saudi issues, she also blogged about breast cancer awareness after she returned to the United States for treatment. She participated in public service campaigns and served as a speaker at cancer awareness events. She was a member of the Lake Norman Breast Cancer Support Group.
Many of her stories of her Saudi experiences were published in “Bridges: An Anthology.” Her work was also published in Oasis Magazine.
Carol A-Ajroush had been a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, at the time of her death.
Al-Ajroush was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Her family had a long history of cancer. In an interview with reporter Amber Shahid for Arab News, she openly discussed her illness.
“My grandmother, aunts and cousin died of breast cancer,” she said. “My cousin was only 31 years old and she had two young children. These thoughts ran through my mind when I learned of my diagnosis. By the time I reached my 40s, however, I guess I naively considered myself safe.”
A native of Espyville, Pennsylvania, Al-Ajroush was born on Oct. 9, 1959. She graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Following graduation, she served as an American diplomat for 20 years, including an assignment in Pakistan where she met her husband, Saudi diplomat Abdullah Othman Al-Ajroush. They moved to Saudi Arabia in 2006 after a long courtship in several countries. She resigned her post to get married.
Abdullah Al-Ajroush died in 2010. She is survived by a son, Jon Carmichael; a brother, Michael C. Lebhaft; and a nephew, Matthew Joseph Wells.

April 7, 2013

Ministry of Interior outlines stiff penalties for iqama violations

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By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

7 April 2013

Employers and expatriate workers face steep fines and jail time if they violate iqama and visa laws established by the Ministry of Interior, according to the ministry.
Saudi businessmen and women responding to the Ministry of Labor’s raids over the past week have gone to social media to promote and discuss the Interior Ministry’s “Iqama System Violations & Penalties” web page that outlines Iqama and visa violations, and their consequences.
The ministry outlined 34 violations ranging from expatriates failing to provide proof of residency to forgery to employers hiring workers on a visitor’s visa. Fines range from SR 1,000 to SR 50,000 depending on the violation, according the MoI.
Ibrahim Muhammad, who is retired from the Ministry of Interior, said yesterday that the Ministry of Labor should emphasize the guidelines every time an expatriate renews or replaces his Iqama. “More light should be placed on the issue by the media and business people to make sure there is no misunderstanding of what can happen to people who violate the law,” Muhammad said.
Expatriates found violating routine regulations, such as failing to renew an iqama three days before its expiration date, face relatively light fines. Those fines may include paying double the Iqama fees. A resident failing to prove that he holds an Iqama faces a SR 1,000 fine for the first violation, SR 2,000 for the second offense and SR 3,000 for the third violation.
But agents who help expatriates obtain forged documents or employers who harbor overstayers or employ an undocumented worker face much more severe penalties. Saudi citizens who help an expat obtain a forged Iqama face fines of up to SR 15,000 and three months in jail. Expats who forge Iqamas or visas face up to three months in jail or a SR 10,000 fine. Individuals sheltering overstayers can expect to pay as much as SR 30,000 in fines and have their names published in the local press. Fines are multiplied for each overstayer involved.
“That’s what I call justice,” said a Saudi sponsor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It should not just be expats who are fined or put in prison.”
The Ministry of Interior also targets Haj and Umrah pilgrims who refuse to leave after their visas expire. Haj and Umrah pilgrims who remain in the country and become self-employed could be imprisoned for one month and receive a SR 10,000 fine. Haj company owners who transport pilgrims outside established routes face up to SR 30,000 fines and six months in jail.
The stiffest penalties are reserved for employers “allowing his employees to work on their own account or in return for payment to the sponsor.” Penalties range from SR 5,000 fines and one month in jail up to SR 50,000 and three months in jail for the third offense. Employing undocumented workers could also mean a SR 50,000 fine and three months in jail.

December 22, 2011

Christmas in Saudi Arabia: Cheerful But Chaste

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Kuwait Times

22 December 2011

In Land of the Two Holy Mosques, authorities overlook quiet celebrations

Christmas in Saudi Arabia. The phrase doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But celebrating the holiday in some areas of the kingdom is possible as long as expatriates use a subtle approach.

Christmas has always been kept under wraps in the kingdom as a holiday celebrated in the privacy of one’s own home. There are no church services in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, but private services are held in Christian homes and residential compounds. Holiday parties complete with festive decorations are commonplace in virtually all the compounds, although they are usually kept indoors.

Outward displays of non-Muslim religious symbols or prostlyzing can lead to nasty experiences with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but a personal copy of the Bible is allowed into the country. However, Saudi attitudes toward Christmas vary.

“We had Saudi friends with kids who had lived abroad and used to enjoy Christmas, not as a religious holiday, but as a social one,” says a 41-year-old Christian Arab-American, who lives in the port city of Jeddah and asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of Christian holidays in the country.

Given the pressure to keep one’s faith close to the vest, celebrating Christmas for Saudi Arabia’s 1.2 million Christians  is a tricky proposition.

An American blogger who writes under the name Susie’s Big Adventure told The Media Line her early Christmases were unlike any she had ever experienced. “My first two Christmases in Saudi Arabia were pretty non-existent, except for my son and I watching our favorite Christmas movies all day,” says Susie, who is married to a Saudi.

Subsequent holidays brightened when she purchased a small tree, lights and glass ornaments. “Our Christmases have been very low key,” she adds.

Yet Christians celebrating Christmas and the retailers who cater to the expatriate population, which numbers about eight million, have taken a page from the St. Valentine’s Day playbook to ensure that all the trappings of the holiday are recognized: Christmas tree ornaments, tinsel, colorful wrapping paper, material for Santa Claus suits and food.

To cater to the increasing popularity of St. Valentine’s Day, florists traditionally stock up on red roses. Lingerie shops carry more stock and prominently display playful red and white-laced lingerie. Christmas celebrations in some regions of Saudi Arabia follow a similar pattern with varying degrees of success. Riyadh and the rural villages and towns are barren of any signs of Christmas. And Madinah and Makkah are closed to non-Muslims. However, cosmopolitan Jeddah and communities in the Eastern Province are islands that subtly mark the holiday.

“I feel the Christmas season every year,” says Filipino expatriate Bayani, a Christian, told The Media Line. “I work at a big department store in Jeddah and about two months before Christmas we get a shipment of displays and inventory that sell the Christmas spirit.”

Christmas often immediately follows the Islamic holiday of Eid. The Eid holidays follow the Hijri calendar and are held at different times of the Gregorian calendar. Department stores order inventory and displays to reflect the festive nature of Eid, and by doing so ensure that Christmas-style decorations pass through customs without interference, says Bayani. This Christmas season provided challenges for the department store since the holiday arrived three months after Eid.

“We still managed to dress the store in red and white, maybe a little tinsel,” he says. “It doesn’t scream ‘Christmas’ but customers get the idea.”

Islam does not recognize specific dates as holidays except for Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Saudis often ignore birthdays, including the birth date of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis, however, celebrate the prophet’s birthday with elaborate meals and singing, which perhaps comes closest to how Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet some expatriates say that Saudis are not blind to the emotional resonance of Christmas.

Australian expatriate Steve Smith, 37, of Jeddah, told The Media Line that he and a Briton are the only non-Muslims employed by an information technology company. He expected a lonely Christmas.

“We worked Christmas Day, of course, but after work my Saudi boss invited us to his home for a Christmas dinner,” Smith recalls. “He had his cook make us a full dinner with trimmings. I was gobsmacked. We didn’t talk about Christmas at the dinner table, but it was his way of saying he appreciated that we were alone in a foreign country and that we needed this holiday.”

Yusef A., 57, a Saudi who supervises about a dozen Western non-Muslims at an Eastern Province company, told The Media Line that he makes it a habit that his Christian employees have something to do during the holidays. Speaking on the condition that his full name is not used, he says that he usually schedules a private room at an upscale restaurant or hotel for a dinner or to contribute funds for a party if they live in a residential compound.

“They are a long way from home and Saudi Arabia can be tough on foreigners,” he explains. “Besides, I want to keep them here and working for me.”

While religious authorities take a dim view on any hint of public Christian holiday celebrations, one Saudi businesswoman, who asked not to be identified, says that some Saudis are learning the holiday is more secular than religious for many Christians. As a result, some people take a relaxed view. She said many Saudis studying in the U.S. and Britain appreciate the holiday atmosphere, department store displays and home decorations.

“My husband and I studied at MIT in Massachusetts in the’90s, so after five years we were fully exposed to the holiday and were often invited to parties by our non-Saudi friends,” she says.. “We’ve come back to Saudi Arabia with the habit of giving each other one gift on December 25. It’s pretty harmless and reminds us of the old good days in the States.”

An assistant manager at an upscale hotel on Jeddah’s Corniche at the edge of the Red Sea says he notices a surge in dinner reservations on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day is another holiday largely unnoticed since Saudis follow the Hijri calendar.

“A lot of people come in on Christmas and New Year’s with their families, and even Arab couples, although I don’t see any Saudis,” he said. “I see couples exchange gifts at the table. It’s not a big deal.”

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