Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Visa collection rituals

Spent the last three days engaging with the visa collection process at the Saudi consulate in Dubai. My work largely revolves around the Kingdom, so this is not as strange a temporary relocation as it might sound. The first step to gain entry into the Holy Land is to find yourself a sponsor of very high standing. Of course the need to have a sponsor to live and work is the stuff of common currency among residents of Dubai and other Gulf emirates. In Saudi however even a brief visit requires some form of local support. You might, if you're a journalist attending a government-related event, be rushed through the process. However the interior ministry would still have had to sponsor you, while the final “tick” will have to have come from the foreign ministry to which the consulate obviously reports.

On this occasion I have been lucky enough to secure support in the Kingdom and thus received a fax with the crucial visa authorisation number that has to be presented at the consulate in Dubai. However there is no point showing up at the consulate without a typed visa application in Arabic that a handy, round the corner, office located at one end of a supermarket will for a modest fee provide for you. If it is before mid-day, the deadline for lodging your visa application at the consulate, then you will have to elbow your way in alongside the “mandabs”, the attaché briefcase wielding agents who, for a fee, service your application…by the gross, or more. I am, by dint of personality and company budget, a solo operator.

Having got to the supermarket in the afternoon two days ago I found myself enjoying a super efficient service from the friendly and mainly Egyptian male typing pool there assembled. At 830 am sharp the next morning, heaving taken a pleasant late July stroll down there, I sweatily fought to ensure that, having arrived outside the door of the consulate first, that I would be granted the much prized ticket number 501 and thus have a reasonable chance of being served first. I was. I then paid a sizeable fee and was told to return the next afternoon.

This was the second time of going through this process, but I still marvel at its risible elements. Arrive before opening time at 2pm and you can, luckily, sit in the AC cooled waiting area for your lucky number to come up. You can however soon feel the increasing tension as the professional visa agents swoop around, checking for the right body language on the other side of the glass to confirm that their waiting might soon be over. These often big men with thick set features and hands like plates of meat, prowl about, waiting to jump when the passport largesse gets distributed. After 20-30 minutes the grubby plastic trays of passports replete (in sh’allah) with visit visas, are placed in position and the scrum rapidly forms. Those with the right numbers try to elbow their way to the front, past burly mandabs with ethnic and attitudinal advantages over many of the solo operators. My turn came fairly soon. A visa to visit the Kingdom. Free at last, Lord God Almighty, free at last.

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