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A Desert Interlude, Getting to Saudi Arabia

February 17, 2012

January 11, 2012

Saudi Arabia is effectively closed to westerners.  Though as many as 100,000 expats–mostly from the US, UK, and Ireland–are employed in the various camps of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, western tourism is unheard of.  Even when one has the advantage of a sponsor, a sister stationed in the eastern province town of Dhahran these last ten years and more, the acquisition of a visa can be tricky.  Add to this the short vacation times afforded the typical working American–Saudi is 170 degrees of longitude east of my home in San Francisco; recovery from jet lag would take a week–and the general unrest in the region as portrayed in western media, and one might sympathize with my delayed visit.

But with winter booming in the north Pacific and Murre tucked away safely in Nawiliwili, there was no better time.

“Your first step is to call our Houston office about a visa,” said my sister when I phoned to arrange travel.  “Speak to Mr. Mahomet.  I can’t do this for you.  He’ll talk only to you.  You’ll need to send him your passport.  And be ready.”


“You have not sent your passport I hope, “said a heavy voice when I rang Houston and stated my purpose.

“I have not,” I replied.  “That’s why I’m calling.”

“You have a brother in Saudi?” asked Mr. Mahomet.


“A father?”


“You cannot visit unless you have family in the country to sponsor you,” he said.

“I have a sister who works in Dhahran.”

“A sister…hmm…but she is female…?”

“As I recall…”

“This may be difficult.  Is she married to her husband?”

“Yes,” I said, momentarily unsure.

“And are you married?”

“Yes,” I said, and then quickly, “to my wife.”

“And your brother works at Saudi Aramco?”

“I don’t have a brother.”

“So your sister is not married to your brother?

“No, but…”

“Oh, this is not good,” said Mr. Mahomet sharply. ” As I said, the embassy will not extend a visa unless you have family in the country.”

“Let me clarify,” I said. “My sister and her husband–my brother-in-law–are both married, married to each other, still married, and both work for your company.”

“Ah yes, but do they live in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?  Aramco is a global company, you know.  For example, I am from Jeddah, but I work in our Houston office, this is in Texas, and we also have offices in New Delhi, Shanghai, The Hague…”

“Yes yes.  They both live in Dhahran.”

“And you are married?”

“Yes,”  I said, ” to my wife.”

“And it’s your wife’s brother who is married to your sister?”

“Nope.  My wife’s only related to me.  Not by blood, mind you, she’s not my sister or even a cousin or anything like that…”

“Cousin!  Now you are confusing matters,” said Mr. Mahomet.

“… but I mean my wife has no family in Saudi.  My wife’s really not in this.  She’s not going with me.  It’s just my family in Saudi.

“Your brother and sister.”


“Good,” said Mr. Mahomet after a pause, “here’s how we’ll proceed…do you have a pen?  You’ll need to take notes…”

In addition to my passport, Mr. Mahomet would need to prove my existence and my relationships with a copy of my birth certificate, my marriage licence, a copy of my sister’s birth certificate and that of her husband, their marriage license and the their work visas.

“That’s quite a list,” I said, gasping.

“Not done,” said Mr. Mahomet.  “I will fax over a three page application that must be completed entirely.  It must be sent in with the above and along with two additional, current passport-type photos, not large, but passport size.  If you look different now than when the original passport photo was taken, that needs to be explained in a note appended to the photos.  Please sign and date the note.”

“I need to explain to you why I now have a beard as long as Abraham’s?” I asked.

Mr. Mahomet did not laugh.  “Now,” he said, “I need all those documents, in that order, overnighted to my office in one package.  Do not send things separately–they will get lost (Mr. Mahomet did not say by whom, but I had a hunch).  It would be best if they arrived before Friday.”

“And how long before I get the visa?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “we must wait for approval first.  Maybe one month.  Maybe two.  Many things must be checked.  Not long.”

I deplaned in Frankfurt in the gray of dawn, heavy with the fud of a  New York red-eye and craving to commence my six-hour layover with an espresso and a croissant.  With some surprise I observed that my much-anticipated first experience of northern Europeans within their own boarders would be a group of white-shirted German businessmen crowding the airport bar, heaving up yellow ale from tall glass steins, and wolfing red sausages whose rich odor had penetrated even the jetway.  From such a breakfast, I wondered, comes the precision of German engineering?  “It is zee lunch,” stated the bar tender when I asked about a poached egg and toast.  I had been mistaken about the time–the quality of morning light being the brightest a high-latitude winter can produce.

Night was full when my Lufthansa flight made its bee-line for Dhahran.  On the TV monitor our virtual plane passed over Turkey and Cypress before jogging right to avoid troubled Syria 39,000 feet below; then a straight southeast course was resumed, and we passed quietly over the vast, black reaches of empty Arabia.   The attendant had brought dinner accompanied by generous pours of red wine, but as we crossed into Saudi air space, dry as a desert by religious decree, our glasses were retrieved and a pad lock clicked over the liquor cart.  Next a customs form was distributed which contained, along with the usual requests for information, a box for my mother’s maiden name and my religion .  These had featured prominently on the visa application completed months before, but that form had also required I divulge my blood type, my university and GPA–anemic, slacker-atheists of a certain family line were unwelcome, would at least be watched closely.

Stamped at the head of the customs form were bright red letters that resolved into the sentence, DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS, and served to remind that my country of intent was not of the usual sort.  I am not a drug trafficker; I am not even a hobbyist, but as we touched down at King Fahd International Airport, my mind raced through the bag I’d checked and wondered if a generous supply of aspirin or mouthwash would damn the likes of an anemic slacker atheist.

Midnight and the airport was quiet.  Its grand hallways, plushly carpeted and doors of gold, had the air of an old, abandoned casino.  But instead of slot machines, here and there, prayer nooks were cordoned off.   At the customs room, uniformed young men huddled, talking softly over their rifles as the Germans and I formed one long, neat line.  We waited in silence.  Our flight’s only female, a mother with her husband and two children, excused herself to use the toilet and returned in a full abaya.  A Saudi couple, both in traditional garb, entered and walked directly to the head of the line.  They were waved through by the officer-in-charge without so much as a second glance.  He appeared to be in his late twenties; the officer manning the customs booth was even younger.  The line crawled.

Then with a whoosh the room filled with a hundred short, dark men in pastel tunics.  Another plane had landed.  “Laborers from Pakistan,” said my neighbor, “they do all the work around here.”  The men wore heavy coats against the cold (70*) and black dress shoes.  Suddenly the officer-in-charge came alive.  He barked orders and another booth opened.  He barked again, and the tuniced men moved haltingly to form two lines.  He barked, and the lines attempted, with poor results, to become orderly.  He waved a customs form above his head and the men, realizing none had it, abandoned their lines and moved bodily off to a corner desk.  Forms fluttered into the group, and the men gathered into large knots, sharing in turn the three pens they had brought with them.

My opportunity came at last, and I handed my papers to an officer whose face was more fuzz than whisker.  He did not look up, but talked with the inflated authority of youth into the headpiece of one cell phone while he punched texts into another.  He nodded toward a camera and my picture was taken.  He motioned, palm down, at the glass desktop where I put both hands and each digit was recorded by a green light three times.  He checked his computer screen.  Then he leaned back casually cross-legged to talk and text for several minutes.  The screen beeped.  He leaned forward without coming out of his relaxed posture, stamped my passport with the hand not texting and I was through.  He had not said a word to me. 

“DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS…”, I repeated as my luggage was lifted from the X-ray belt by yet another boy-officer whose only concern was to double with laughter at an obscure joke told by his partner.  My bag and I passed without notice to the main gate, beyond which the press of Pakistani men awaiting their companions formed a narrow, undulating gauntlet at the end of which my smiling sister in her abaya and her husband in a yellow polo shirt stood out in absurd, welcome relief.

A Desert Interlude

  • Getting to Saudi Arabia
  • Dhow Diving the Red Sea (coming soon…)
  • Riot Free Bahrain (coming soon…)
  • A Goat Grab in Hofuf (coming soon…)
  • Avoiding Arrest in Madain Saleh (coming soon…)

  1. monica carroll permalink
    February 19, 2012 8:47 pm

    your conversation with Mr Mahomet sounded like Abbott and Costell’s Who’s on first. My friend Valerie is Lavonna’s friend. I have many Iraqi refuggee friends here in Buffalo,NY and about 5 couple’s I know ARE married to their cousins

    • March 6, 2012 12:55 am

      Yes, it was very Abbott and Costello, except that Mr. Mohamet wasn’t kidding. I felt very fortunate to have received my visa, and in a very timely manner. I got to spend time with Valerie, and lots of Lavonna’s friends…all of them, in fact, I think…all very nice, fun folks.

  2. February 20, 2012 5:27 am

    Well there’s no hope for me ever visiting SA. I’m married to my wife, but never got married to her brother, so I’m relegated to reading your adventures instead. Besides, I have a very common blood type which is probably of no value.

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