Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat-A senior official from the United States’ Embassy in Saudi Arabia has denied the existence of a list of Saudi Islamist activists who are banned from traveling to the US, noting that the previous travel ban was based on confidential information that cannot be disclosed to the public.
Cecilia Khatib, a consul at the US Embassy, said that US privacy laws protecting personal information state that reasons for an individual being banned from travel can only be disclosed to that individual. She added that there is no information about the existence a list.
Ms. Khatib’s statement came in response to information which suggested the existence of lists containing the names of Saudi Islamist activists banned from traveling to the US. She spoke during a press conference held by the US Embassy in the Saudi capital Riyadh, as part of a tour to brief the media about the application procedures in Saudi Arabia to obtain a US visa.
The US Embassy revealed in Riyadh that 92.4 percent of total business and tourism visa applications for Saudis around the world were approved in 2012. Furthermore, it pointed out that more than 70 percent of the visas approved in Riyadh were issued within a week.
According to the information available, the consular section in Riyadh received 80,216 non-immigrant visa applications over the past year, an increase of 22 percent when compared to 2011. Student visas comprised 29 percent of the non-immigrant visa applications in Saudi Arabia.
The US Embassy in Riyadh issued 20,677 student visas last year, 25 percent of which were issued to female students, with the waiting period for a personal interview in Riyadh ranging between one day and one week.
Regarding the Trusted Traveler program, the consul at the US Embassy said that it facilitates procedures at ports of entry to help individuals bypass long queues at airports, noting that this status is given to those who travel to the US frequently.
For his part, US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith said that the volume of trade between the two countries currently stands at USD 60 billion. The main resource obtained by the US is oil which constitutes two-thirds of trade, while US exports to Saudi Arabia total about USD 20 billion.
He said, We are working hard to increase trade between the two countries. US exports to Saudi Arabia increased during the past year by 22 percent. It is also worth noting that 200 American companies have exported to Saudi Arabia for the first time during the past two years.
Smith continued, 80 percent of trade is through small and medium-sized enterprises, and this is a good thing for the US and for Saudi Arabia too.
The number of visas granted in Saudi Arabia has increased two-fold over the past four years, with every year surpassing the previous one. There is much effort that goes into protecting the personal information of Saudi nationals applying for a visa. Smith stressed that his country is open to all forms of tourism, work, and study, and expressed his happiness over the high number of Saudis traveling and studying in the US.
He indicated that the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia has issued approximately 73,000 work visas.
As for the possibility of raising the visa limit for Saudis from five to ten years, Mr. Smith spoke of talks held between him and Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, regarding initiatives that would promote travel between the two countries and the general welfare of both countries’ citizens. He said that progress had been made in this regard, noting that the proposal is currently under study and that procedures, as always, will operate under the principle of reciprocity.
The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia advised citizens wishing to obtain a visa to make plans in advance of traveling, and to be patient when applying. He stressed that 70 percent of the applications are completed within a week, while others take more time. He underscored that all countries wish to know the identity of travelers coming to their shores, and that the biggest problem these countries face is returning these travelers back to their countries of origin. However, he noted that over the past years this has rarely happened with Saudis traveling in the US.
Robin Busse, Non-Immigrant Visa Chief for the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia, said that all around the world those who wish to visit the US-through applying for a visa at their respective country’s US embassy- must conduct a personal interview in order to prove that their desire to obtain a visa is not connected to any desires to migrate permanently.
He added, US immigration law works on the assumption that each visa applicant is a potential immigrant to the US and that it is upon him or her to prove otherwise; the vast majority of people who have their visa applications denied do not meet these criteria. He went on to stress that the other reason visa applications are denied is that the applicants do not deserve a visa to the US, which includes people who have criminal records.
He pointed out that the visa denial rate has not changed significantly for several years, but what has changed significantly is the opportunity to obtain an early submission date for the application, and the time it takes to obtain a visa. He said that all procedures for traveling to the US are similar among all nations.
Mufid Al-Deek, the embassy’s press attaché, said that Saudis applying for visas to the US are not specifically targeted, pointing out that citizens from all over the world undergo the same visa procedures as Saudis.
Returning to Cecilia Khatib, she confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that obtaining a visa does not equate to being approved entry to the country; rather it is an authorization to travel to the country’s ports of entry, as is the case anywhere in the world. She pointed out that the immigration officer at the port of entry must conduct additional procedures which will determine whether or not the traveler will be granted access to the country. She went onto say that if a person holding a tourist visa intends to study in the US, they have violated their visa and thus they will be prevented from entering.
In this regard, Mr. Busse said that the vast majority of people who hold a visa are allowed into the country, however added, The visa may have been issued on certain conditions, but by the time the traveler reaches the airport in the US, new information may have surfaced that prevents that person from entering the country. As for the suggestion that Saudis who have traveled to certain countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria are banned from entering the US, Mr. Busse said that this is unfounded and that such stories are merely hearsay. He stressed that it is within the embassy’s powers to question an individual regarding why he went to these countries, but again emphasized that the claim they will be banned from entering was categorically false.
Ms. Khatib said that the process of denying someone a visa is based on a specific clause of US immigration law, and not on the whim of the consul performing the interview with the applicant.
She pointed out that most immigration applicants in Saudi Arabia are non-Saudis.