Denied Saudi Arabia visa


I was part of a group of eight Americans scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Oct. 22-Nov. 2, 2006, under the auspices of Advantage Travel & Tours. I was the only member of our tour group whose visa was denied. I also was the only member of the group who was Jewish and so indicated on the visa application form question asking us to list our religion.

My travel agent had assured me that the “official policy” of the Saudi government is they do not discriminate on the basis of religion.

My letter respectfully requesting an explanation of my visa denial was ignored by the Saudi Arabian government. I never heard from them.

In addition to sending a letter to the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, I sent copies to the Saudi Arabian Consulate General in New York; the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah; the Bureau of Consular Services at the U.S. Department of State; Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Advantage Travel & Tours.

I have had phone conversations with the owner of Advantage Travel & Tours regarding this matter, and the West Coast Regional Manager of Saudi Arabian Airlines informed me he forwarded my letter to their New York office, but I have not heard from anyone else.

I understand that being granted a visa is a privilege, not a right.

My passport did not have an Israel stamp in it.

I have been to over a dozen Islamic countries and have always been treated with courtesy and respect.

It was my understanding that Saudi Arabia is trying to encourage non-Muslim tourists to visit their country. Here I was, meeting all the prerequisites of an acceptable visitor. I think it is important for other travelers contemplating a trip there to be aware of my experience.

MALCA B. LEBELL

Santa Barbara, CA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia (601 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20037) and received no reply. ITN also wrote to Advantage Travel & Tours and to Saudi Arabian Airlines and received the following replies.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the unfortunate situation Dr. Malca Lebell experienced regarding her application for a Saudi visa.

For the record, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s official policy is they will not deny visas on the basis of religion. I had reaffirmed on a personal visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with high-level officials in the tourism department three years ago and with subsequent e-mails and phone calls that this policy was in effect for our 2005, 2006 and 2007 tours.

No one can say for certain why Dr. Lebell’s visa was not issued, although it is likely religion played a significant role. Both before submitting her visa request and then after the denial, she and I had several lengthy discussions about submitting applications for Saudi Arabia showing “Jewish” as a religious preference. She, understandably, did not want to deny her religion, and I strongly supported that. In fact, I pointed out that if the situation were reversed, for a person of Muslim faith the punishment for denial of his or her religion, according to Shari’a (Islamic) law, is death.

Saudi visas for American tourists are sponsored only by Saudi Arabian Airlines, unlike business or religious visas. Before submitting Dr. Lebell’s application, I had several phone calls with Saudi Airlines about the current policy and they encouraged us to submit it as she requested — they, too, reiterated that the official policy of Saudi Arabia is there is no religious discrimination. In fact, the airline representatives assured us that people of declared Jewish faith had been granted visas in the past.

Saudi Arabia has made a significant effort to attract tourism to the country, in part to provide job opportunities for some of their unemployed populace and to promote better understanding of this remote kingdom. It is hard to believe that this unfortunate event reflects the attitude of the leadership of the country. As I reconstructed this scenario, I think that someone in the visa-approval chain managed to “lose” Dr. Lebell’s request before it reached the upper management levels.

In my estimation, Saudi Arabian Airlines went above and beyond to try to rescue her application. There was back-channel communication between the highest levels of the airline’s management and the Saudi Ambassador. I believe all parties in the U.S. acted in good faith to try to clear her visa. I think that prejudicial attitudes somewhere in the administrative chain in either Riyadh or Jeddah managed to sidetrack these efforts, and her visa was not cleared in time before the group departure (seven other visas for our group were issued).

I have been assured that the negative attention that was focused on the Saudi visa process following this failure will result in more expeditious processing in keeping with the official Saudi policy.

I applaud the patience and perseverance that Dr. Lebell showed and the dignity with which she handled this affront. She has traveled with us in the past, and I can attest that she is an excellent representative of America.

I am torn by the potential for a dual standard of religious tolerance that may exist among some elements of Saudi society and the greater good of continuing to promote tourism and cross-cultural understanding there.

I believe Dr. Lebell was satisfied with the follow-up that she had from Saudi Airlines and their efforts to get her visa broken free, but the end result was a bust. She was reimbursed for her Saudi tour cost, including visas (at a loss to Advantage Travel), and she ultimately joined the rest of the group in Bahrain as they continued on to the Gulf States, but she was denied an opportunity to visit what is in our estimation the crown jewel of the Gulf region.

N. ROBERT PARDA, Owner, Advantage Travel & Tours, 12625 Gate Dr., Poway, CA 92064

Having looked into this matter, I can confirm to you that the applications for visas by Mrs. Lebell and the others in her party were all submitted at the same time to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jeddah.

For reasons unknown to us, her name was not among the list of those approved by the government to receive visas. We then attempted to have the visa issued locally through the embassy in Washington, D.C., but were not successful in doing so.

The issuance of visas is a function of the government agency involved, in this case the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia, and the airline itself has no authority to grant or deny visas.

I very much regret that Mrs. Lebell was unable to visit Saudi Arabia on this occasion.

THOMAS B. QUINN, Manager, Marketing & Sales The Americas, Saudi Arabian Airlines, 80-02 Kew Gardens Rd., Ste. 401, Kew Gardens, NY 11415