Greetings from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I’ve arrived on the final leg of my Monster Trip of 2009.
I’ve wanted to share some of the details behind my visit to Saudi Arabia for a while, but as you read this article, you’ll probably see why I had to wait before writing about it publicly. Also, fair warning that this will not be a short story.
But first… hey everyone! Important Notice
I’ll give you the full, unedited version of how things went down in Riyadh, but before I do, I want to clarify that I do not go out in the world looking for misadventures. Sometimes I see travel writers focus on what went wrong in an exaggerated, bragging fashion, and I think that’s a sign of an amateur. I do not purposely double-book myself on two flights home from Asia, for example, nor do I enjoy the process of getting put out on the street at midnight in Mongolia. Those things may be part of the journey, but if I could get a do-over, I’d take it.
All that to say when I write about nearly getting deported from Saudi Arabia after arriving without a valid visa, I would have much preferred to have had a very non-eventful arrival. If you get the chance to go to Saudi Arabia – well, to be honest, I’m not sure you’d want to, but I’m getting ahead of myself – I’d definitely advise you to do things properly and wait for the incompetent embassy staff to give you what you need before you jet off to Riyadh.
Long before I left on my trip, I dutifully applied for a 72-hour transit visa that would allow me to hang out in Saudi for a while in between Kuwait and Hong Kong. The forms were tricky (much of the information was only in Arabic) and not very welcoming – I had to sign a waiver about the death penalty, among other things. Thankfully I’m not a woman, or I wouldn’t have even been able to get started with the process.
I sent the forms off with my duplicate passport and waited. After a week went by, I started calling the Saudi consulate in New York. “It’s coming,” they said, although they said so without looking up my information.
When I called again, they couldn’t find my application. Then they did a background check and said my request was denied. When pressed for details, we figured out that they did the background check on my dad. Uh, wrong guy – he’s not coming along. Then they said I couldn’t come because I didn’t have a business sponsor. Uh, I only applied for a 72-hour transit visa, which doesn’t require a sponsor. You kind of see how this is going, yes?
I kept calling and kept being told it was on the way, but I knew better than to expect much. I left for my trip on a Sunday, and opened the mailbox on Saturday afternoon with a mixture of dread and resignation. Alas, it wasn’t there.
At this point I had to leave, but since I could still travel with my original passport, I kept up hope. I continued to call in via Skype, Jolie pitched in to make some calls as well, and a friend in New York did some checking in too – the idea was to sufficiently annoy the consulate to the point where they’d hand over the visa just to get rid of me.
After a couple of days and many phone calls, they gave in and agreed to issue the visa. Success! They would issue it by 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, and a friend in New York would pick it up for me early on Thursday morning. I’d be coming into JFK late on Saturday night, leaving again on Sunday night, and my friend would leave the passport for me at my hotel.
What could go wrong?
And then, the big letdown…
The next day, my friend went to the consulate in Manhattan to pick up my passport. At first there was some confusion. “Chris who?” My friend went through the story with them. Then they found it – or actually, they found my name on a list.
“Oh, we mailed that to Portland, Oregon this morning. We knew it was urgent, so that’s why we put it in the mail.”
Yep. Can you believe it?
After six hours (true story, no exaggeration) of repeated phone calls, lots of double-checking, and so on, they finally gave me the visa – but sent it to my home instead of keeping it in the consulate so I could actually get it in time.
When I got the news, I shook my head in dismay, but I also got online and started researching. If the passport could arrive early enough to Portland, maybe I could receive it by FedEx in Amman or Kuwait just before flying to Riyadh.
Unfortunately, even with FedEx, there wasn’t enough time. The passport still hadn’t arrived in Portland, and due to the 4th of July weekend, it’s arrival was almost certain to be delayed by at least a day. No luck there.
That was out, so what could I do? Rerouting the trip at this point would be costly and tedious – I had just rerouted in Portland before leaving, and that took several trips to the American Airlines counter. While it is technically possible to reroute from anywhere in the world, this kind of ticket is dependent on people who understand how it works, and I couldn’t be sure of that where I would be.
The Idea (“In the name of Allah the merciful”)
I finally settled on a third way. The passport couldn’t make it to me in time, but hopefully it would at least arrive in Oregon before I went on to Riyadh. If I could get a high-quality scan of the visa page, maybe I could convince the Saudis to let me in.
I wrote a short letter explaining the situation, and had a friend write an Arabic translation. Friends in the Arab world or students of Arabic, feel free to enjoy this PDF.
(I left out the part about “Even though I am not a Muslim, at least I am not a woman, so I hope you will allow me in” – probably better not to get into that.)
As I was coming off the plane, I had a bad feeling that it wouldn’t work out. To be fair, I often have pre-trip anxieties and other funny feelings along the way, so I can’t say my premonition scale is very accurate. This time, however, my premonition turned out to be closer to the truth.
I looked at the various counter queues and prayed for a sympathetic official. It didn’t really matter, though, because someone else pulled me out of line before long. I was taken to the office of the immigration supervisor, where I had the chance to plead my case.
I went through the whole story, explaining the delay in processing the visa from the New York consulate, how I had been traveling while the visa was approved but hadn’t been able to get the passport, and so on.
The supervisor and his deputy listened and nodded during key points of the story. At the end, he smiled and said, “No English.” Under normal circumstances, I would have found that funny, but as it was I needed to be understood. I showed him my Arabic letter, which both of them read while looking back and forth at my documents.
The supervisor phoned someone else up who turned out to be the deputy manager of the airport. After a while, I was handed the phone. The deputy manager explained to me (in English, naturally) that there was no way I would be able to enter Saudi Arabia. I objected and asked for his help.
“I know, my friend, but I can not allow you into my country. It is forbidden. You will have to change your ticket and go back to Amman.”
I tried appealing on various grounds, but was interrupted at each step. What to do? Finally, I asked, “Sir, are you here in the airport?” He said yes, and I asked if I could meet him in person. It was partially a stalling tactic and partially an attempt at making a more personable appeal. There was a pause, but he said yes.
Great. On to the next step.
I had 40 minutes to wait, which of course was an incredibly long time when you have been told you are in the process being deported. The upside of waiting so long, however, was that with each passing minute, I knew the odds of going back on the flight I came in would go down. (Those flights turn around quickly, usually in about an hour.)
I started running through the possibilities —
Option 1 (best): Convince the authorities to let me enter the country. This was still the goal.
Option 2 (not good): Convince the authorities to let me enter the transit area, where I would stay for more than 50 hours before my flight to Asia on Cathay Pacific. Hopefully they’d have some kind of internet access in the transit area, but everything else would be very basic.
I know what you’re thinking: staying in the transit area for more than two whole days was the second-best option? Yes, really – that’s why I was worried. I don’t normally count airport stops, but if I was forced to camp out for 50 hours in Riyadh’s airport, I might be willing to make an exception.
Option 3 (not good): Get deported back to Amman, buy a one-way ticket on Saudi Arabian airlines two days later, use that to return to Riyadh in legitimate transit this time, and transfer to my Cathay Pacific flight.
Option 4: Re-route the OW ticket yet again. See above: this would be very difficult to do on location in the Middle East. Just as with Option 3, I also wouldn’t be able to say I had been to Saudi Arabia, thus necessitating another trip later.
By this point at least six officials from the airport had become involved. Two of them spoke English, and the deputy airport manager was slowly warming to me. He told me of a recent trip he made to visit his brother in New York. For some reason they also went to Arkansas, and so I immediately became an expert on Arkansas. “You know that’s where President Clinton was from, right? And Wal-Mart, too?”
I do what I have to do. After more than half an hour of discussion, I could tell their tone was changing. Since I don’t understand Arabic, I mostly kept smiling and offering helpful suggestions whenever I could chime in.
In the end, they let me go, subject to the supervision of Royal Jordanian (the airline I came in on) and the Sheraton hotel. This made for a comedic couple of days, because every few hours someone from the hotel would call my room to check on me. “Is everything OK, sir?”
“Well, I can’t find the minibar, but otherwise, I’m great.”
“OK, sir. We’ll call again shortly.”
By now most of you know that I write more about the process of travel than the destination. Some people love this and others don’t, but the thing is that there is no way I could possibly be an expert on everywhere I go. Other people do that much better than me, so I generally leave it to them. As far as I know, I’m on the short list of people who are willing to crash-land in places like Saudi Arabia and try to talk my way into the country.
Anyway, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia. I was there a short time, but it’s fair to say that I’m not really a fan. Women have effectively no rights. Foreign women aren’t even allowed into the country without being accompanied by their husband or father. Ladies, if you don’t have a husband and don’t want to travel with dad in tow, it seems you’re out of luck in Saudi.
Not that you’re missing a lot. I went to happy hour at the Sheraton, which offered a choice of orange juice, apple juice, or tonic water. Under ordinary circumstances I would have asked for a little orange juice to go with my vodka, but after the airport experience I was beaten into submission. Since the hotel staff were already calling my room every three hours to check on me (“Sir? Just making sure everything is alright?”), I decided that no other troublemaking would take place.
During the day I worked out in the fitness center and went to shopping malls. That’s pretty much all that a non-Muslim, Western visitor can do in Riyadh, so that’s what I did.
I ate light meals in the Club Lounge at the Sheraton. No one checks ID there, presumably because no one ever comes to crash the apple juice happy hour. If you ever find yourself without plans in Riyadh and get tired of the mall, head on up to the 5th floor of the Sheraton and enjoy some free cheese and crackers. If you’re lucky, you might even get a Sprite Zero.
After receiving four phone calls and two knocks on my door during the final day, I checked out and headed to the airport in a taxi. The local manager of Royal Jordanian came by the Cathay Pacific counter to deliver my passport and ensure I went through the immigration area. “We want to make sure you get to your flight,” he said. Thanks, I thought. I’m sure you do.
I went in the airline lounge, where more orange juice and tonic water was on offer. A couple hours later I boarded the Cathay jet. One hour after takeoff I had a glass of cabernet and looked down at the desert below. I went to Hong Kong and then on to Kuala Lumpur, where I’m based for most of this week before going home.
Image: “Ladies Only” Shopping Mall