Many visitors to foreign lands have to take the first step to apply for an entry visa to their intended destinations. And for some it can be an experience fraught with worry or distress as the fear of being turned down consumes them. For much of the Arab world, such was the case following the events on Sep. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Centers in New York were attacked.
In recent times, the process of applying for visas has been relaxed by many western countries, eager to recoup much of the tourism dollars lost during the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic. The British recently announced the Electronic Visa Waiver (EVW) for Saudis and other GCC countries — the visa waiver being a quick, digital alternative to the regular visit visa and which ensures all the necessary security checks are carried out in advance of travel.
But that was not so sometimes back. During my last visit to the British Consulate in Jeddah to apply for a visit visa, I took in the process with interest. Located in the northwest part of the city all bathed in white, the Consulate is an easy place to get to. Parking was a blessing, unlike at the US consulate.
It was about 9:00am when I walked in, greeted politely by security guard at the door who suggested I take a number from a number dispenser on the wall. My number was 224, and the number currently being served was 208. After filling out the visa application, I took a seat on a long wooden bench situated in front of the application windows. There are three such windows.
To the side is a door leading to the interview rooms for those whose applications fall short of dubious. Another wooden bench seats those hopefuls who are waiting their turn at the interview, before a visa is granted. Off to the corner is the seating section for ladies.
The visa hall was surprisingly packed, and I had not expected this fairly large number of applicants, what with the summer holidays a distant memory, and the school year into its second robust month. While seated, I could not help overhearing the frustrated outbursts of some of those crowding the hall.
One gentleman was relating to another how he had taken his place in the queue outside the building just after dawn and well before the place had opened. His turn at the window was a couple of numbers away. Another kept approaching the window every few minutes and would walk back to the bench muttering impatiently.
I noticed that only one of the three windows was manned, and progress was excruciatingly slow. When 209’s turn came after about a 45-minute wait, I was hopeful that the processing would speed up. Little did I know? While 209 was at the window, the visa officer disappeared. Now all three windows were unmanned. Another 20 minutes went by before someone showed up, this time another face. He looked like someone just coming off a traditional English tea break.
With time to kill, I made acquaintances with this pleasant chap seated next to me. He was from India and was employed in a well-known toy distributorship outfit in the kingdom. After exchanging business cards and obtaining his assurance that I would be first in line for a new go-kart for toddlers that was to be launched soon, I had some measure of satisfaction. My son’s sixth birthday was coming up, and boy, would he get a surprise! A consulate is a great place for bargains!
After I was there for about an hour and a half, 210’s number was flashed. At this pace, I was disconsolate. Afternoon prayers were approaching soon, and the numbers moved ever so slowly. 212 was impatiently vocal. He had to pick up his mother at the airport in about 20 minutes. I gently suggested to him that his mother’s well-being was more important than waiting hopelessly for his turn.
Remarkably he agreed, and as he got up to leave, he tossed the 212 chit at me. I had suddenly moved up, and very rapidly. My hopes were revived, and my eyes kept wandering to the figure of 211 at the window. The other two windows remained unmanned and desolate as when I had walked in.
Finally, 211 moved, and I quickly squeezed past him to present my application and visa fees. This done, I turned around to leave when I was approached by a Pakistani waiting his turn for a personal interview. He asked me what kind of answers could he provide to the interviewer to favour a positive result. “Just tell them how much you cherish the Queen” I quipped.
On my way out, I figured some of the unlucky ones would most likely be still there at dusk. The sun does indeed set on the British Consulate!
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena