It does not seem that Saudis and Americans will easily overcome the effects of the terrorist attacks that shook the world on Sept. 11, 2001. However, both Saudi Arabia and the United States have a strong desire to overcome these obstacles, a desire that has manifested itself in a number of developments. Several US and Saudi specialists have examined these developments and used them to compare American policies before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was interesting that the US Ambassador to Riyadh, James B. Smith, was sworn in on the 16th day of the ominous month of September in 2009. The US Embassy in Riyadh refused to comment on whether or not his mission in Saudi Arabia seeks to help both countries overcome the 2001 events, yet the Saudis have admitted that it is indeed part of the mission’s goals. Abdallah al-Sidyari, head of the visa application department in Riyadh, said that “the US Embassy has adopted a new approach in processing the visa applications of Saudi citizens, an approach that completely differs from previous years.”
Sidyari, who has spent the past 17 years processing visa applications to the United States and a number of Western countries, added, “initially the US Embassy was randomly approving or rejecting visa applications from Saudis. However, things changed when they discovered that Saudis are kind, peaceful, and have nothing against American people and are not involved in any disputes or wars. Currently, it takes between two to four days for visa applications to be processed for Saudis, and around a month for foreigners residing in Saudi Arabia.”
According to Sidyari, the same applies when it comes to entering US territory. He notes: “Five years ago, when I travelled with my colleagues to the United States, airport personnel investigated us for a number of hours. Now, things are completely different.” He says that this change occurred as a result of Americans having “discovered the true nature of the Saudi people.”
According to Sidyari, the best part about applying for a US visa is that even if it takes weeks to process — which is the case with non-Saudis residing in the kingdom — most of the time officials will tell the applicant whether or not he or she will receive the visa during the interview.
On another note, as hundreds of Saudi students travel to the United States to continue their education, Ashraf Hisham, director of EF International Academy, says: “We have noticed recently that the US Embassy is facilitating the visa process. In previous years, obtaining a US visa took months; however, now it takes between 20 to 30 days at the most. Hundreds of students have gone to study at our institutes in the US, and did not face any problems.”
Saudi media personality Habib al-Shimri describes with great passion how the embassy personnel stamped the visa on his passport during his interview. He says that during the tenure of the current ambassador, Saudis are no longer experiencing difficulties in obtaining visas.
These picture-perfect stories are offset by other not-so-ideal incidents. Even though these other incidents are not very serious, they still reveal the presence of issues. When the US Consul opened the door for questions on the Facebook page of the US Embassy of Riyadh, he received a number of complaints, which of course do not represent the majority of applicants. Muhammad Yahya Khawjah said: “I applied for a tourist visa along with my mom and dad, and then we all completed the interview. My mom got her visa in a week; however, my dad and I have yet to receive the visa. When we asked the embassy about our case, we were told that the delay is due to administrative processing.”
Riham al-Sobhi voiced a complaint on the same page. She said that she came to Saudi Arabia on a vacation and “was surprised by an email sent by the embassy saying that my visa had been canceled, even though it was due to expire in 2015. They set a date for its renewal; however, it has been a month now and I have not yet received a response. I have been studying in the US for many years and my son is a US citizen. I do not have any problems with my university. We tried to find out the reason behind the decision but we still have not received any response. Why was my visa cancelled? I still have another semester before I graduate and then I am planning to return home. Please clarify.”
Regarding the human rights issue — which is a more sensitive topic — Dr. Muflih al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, has said during an interview with Al-Hayat that “we are witnessing obvious improvements taking place.” He added that “American diplomats have met with various members of society and have promised to implement more positive measures. However, this does not negate the fact that there are still some negative effects from the Sept. 11 attacks that are impeding progress in a number of sectors.”
According to Qahtani, the area that has witnessed the most improvements is “the wait time for attaining a visa.” He says that the current problem is that “there is prejudgment regarding some Saudis and there is selectivity when dealing with their applications. This is in addition to the laws that are also being adopted on an international level and are affecting some aspects of human rights.”
There is an old Arab proverb that says: “The critical eye will always spot the defects, while the eye that does not seek to criticize will not focus on the defects.” The Saudis — through their comments and blogs — seek not to focus on the defects of the United States and have given the latter the benefit of the doubt.