Traveling to Saudi Arabia is…well, I got back a couple weeks ago and…um…I don’t even know how to begin.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most fascinating place I have ever traveled to. Just getting there was its own adventure. I have had a little over a week to process what I experienced, and I am thrilled to be able to share it.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Step 1: The Visa
As a non-resident, I needed to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia. All visa applications are complicated, and this was no exception. I was applying for a “commercial visa”, and there were essentially 12 steps to take before I could even make my in-person appointment. My colleagues in Saudi Arabia helped provide the needed documentation on their end, including an invitation letter and copy of their commercial register. Once all the boxes were ticked, I made an appointment with the visa office in Bern, which is an hour train ride from Zurich.
I didn’t have to wait long to be called, and as the nice gentleman starting looking through my many, many documents, he paused at the invitation letter.
“You are under 40, yes?” he asked. At first I didn’t know how to respond. Was he trying to flatter me or insult me? I’m pretty sure I look under 40, but maybe I was looking haggard with the new baby.
“Yeah….” I said slowly. “Why?”
“Well, unfortunately you have the wrong invitation letter. Because you are under 40, you need to have a pre-visa issued rather than an invitation letter.”
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. I thought back to the list of required documents…
#12. Women under the age of 40 who are travelling alone will need a Pre-issued Visa.
“But isn’t that what this is?” I asked. “Me being here is the pre-visa, no?”
“No,” he continued. “You essentially need to be pre-approved first.”
Deflated, I boarded the train back to Zurich. I contacted my colleagues and they themselves almost weren’t sure of the process for a pre-visa. They really hadn’t had to obtain one before because let’s face it, not many women from my office had made the trip to Saudi Arabia.
Upon receiving my new documents, I went back to Bern feeling a bit wiser. The same friendly gentleman reviewed my paperwork, and I got a knowing smile. Phew. Under 40, but good to go.
Within 5 days I had my multiple entry Saudi Visa. I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, and couldn’t wait to partake on my journey.
Step 2: Getting There
Once I had my visa, it took a while to coordinate the best time to visit. We needed my trip to fit within the 180 days my visa allowed for while avoiding Eid holidays and the Hajj pilgrimage. When dates were finalized, I booked my travel, making a pit stop in Muscat, Oman on the way.
As I wrote in my blog, Muscat was wonderful. It is a very authentic version of Arabia. My trip was flawless and I looked forward to the short flight over to Jeddah.
As the passengers started lining up to board, I made sure to pull on my abaya, and had my hijab in hand in case I needed it. I noticed many men and women wearing the exact same clothing, and figured they were on some sort of tour group. It was only when it was close to my turn that I realized what was going on – early travel for Hajj.
The man taking tickets immediately pulled me out of line and asked for my visa. It was like I was wearing a red stop sign across my chest.
“Why are you going to Jeddah?” he demanded.
“For work,” I said. “I have a commercial visa that is good for 180 days.”
“No. No, you cannot board. Priority is for Hajj travelers and you are not traveling for Hajj.” (essentially the plane was overbooked)
“What?” My heart plopped into my stomach. After my visa trouble, how could this be happening? I had almost 100 colleagues expecting me in Jeddah the next day, I couldn’t just not show up. I didn’t know what to do.
Everything ended up working out fine and I made it to Jeddah later that evening, but there was something about this trip that just refused to proceed in a straight line. Fate was playing with me and taking me for a few loops to make sure I didn’t soon forget Saudi Arabia.
To back up a bit, Hajj is actually extremely interesting. According to Wikipedia, “it is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the most holy city for Muslims, and a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey.” Those men and women I saw dressed the same were probably part of a tour group, but it was a group organized specifically for Hajj. As much as I disliked my travel troubles, I was a huge fan of such a devout religious journey.
The plane ride was about 2 hours from Muscat to Jeddah. It was uneventful except for one part. As we started to land, all of the men on the plane starting to chant the same prayer in Arabic. They repeated it over and over again, and as we descended into turbulence, their words brought me a lot of comfort. My seat neighbor explained that they were saying a prayer about safe passage. That made it even more meaningful and calming.
By this point, I hadn’t even landed in Saudi Arabia, and yet the adventure was well on its way. Up next, Step 3: The Arrival – it was pretty epic.