The Saudi Arabian IT company Sejel Technology Co expects to shortly complete a contract for Saudi Arabian Airlines to automate the issuing of transit visas. The project also includes the establishment of a data centre.

"We should be closing the deal in a matter of weeks and this would represent a major step in the next phase of our development," said Ahmed Alawi Ghamri, chief executive.

Sejel came into prominence as a key player in Saudi Arabia's continuing e-government programme that involves several ministries and makes use of private sector expertise as well.

In its first project, which went live last year, Sejel connected three key Saudi Arabian ministries to allow the online processing and issuing of visas for pilgrims going to the Holy Cities.

They were the Ministry of Haj, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"From a process that was totally manual, Sejel has been able to automate the entire procedure with regard to the application and issuance of visas for the pilgrims," said Ghamri.

"Not just that, the programme is also able to track every detail of the pilgrim's stay, including details as to which quarter he is billeted. We have found that pilgrims are willing to pay more to get better services."

Each year Saudi Arabia receives 2.5 million Umrah pilgrims, 2.5 million international Haj pilgrims, and 250,000 Saudi-based Haj pilgrims. Religious tourism is a major income earner for the kingdom, and it experienced a 20 per cent increase in the last year, in spite of the SARS scare and regional war threats.

The pilgrimage season — which extends seven months — brings in an estimated 14 billion Saudi riyals annually.

Historically, international pilgrims faced extensive visa procedures that often took more than two weeks to process, and bogus tour operators were rife, causing confusion and legal and financial problems among those wishing to make the Umrah and Haj pilgrimages.

For the project, Sejel built and operates the data centre. It has been licensed to do so until such time it issues 20 million pilgrimage visas, which could take "five to eight years", according to Ghamri.

Meanwhile, Sejel has just launched an e-payments gateway for visa applications.

In 2003, around 2.5 million visas were issued, and this year the company is targeting the three million mark.

Sejel was set up two years ago as a venture that brought together such heavyweight Saudi Arabian groups as Xenal, Jeraisy and Gama.

The Sejel IT infrastructure brings together solutions from Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and Tibco. Currently, an extensive upgrade is being conducted on this platform.

"Our project represents the first cross-ministry e-government project undertaken in Saudi Arabia. There have been individual projects but they have been more or less confined to a single ministry," said Ghamri.