In Europe people take freedom of travel for granted. Want to go to France? Of Holland? Or Germany? No problem. Go online or pop into any travel agency in your local town or city and buy a flight ticket. Jump on the plane and off you go. Arrive, flash your EU Passport briefly to the Immigration official, and head on out to the open streets. Easy peasy.
With similar language, religion and culture for the most parts, one might think that the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region is tailor made for freedom of travel and open access to work. But for historical, political, security and other reasons it’s not. Very not.
For Western visitors to the Middle East it’s possible in certain countries to get 30 day visa-on-arrival at the airport. UAE and Qatar being two such examples. Such visa-on-arrival is often not available to non-Western citizens who must apply in their home countries for a travel permit to enter the same countries that Westerners can enter without restriction. Local racism in favour of Whities, some might say. A facility offered to countries with very low rates of unemployment, and little security risk, according to the authorities out here.
But when it comes to work all are treated similarly. Your employer will make you a formal job offer which starts the process of getting your residency visa. You will have to take a blood test (mainly checking for Aids or Hepatitis from what MB gathers), chest x-ray (TB check), finger printing (to ensure you are permanently recognisable and for Police/Security checking), following which you will receive a hard copy residency visa which is stuck permanently into your Passport. This is then scanned at the airport every time you exit and enter the country. Qatar and UAE also have additional high tech eye/iris scanning technology at their airports so there is no way to beat the system. In theory.
The problem faced by many Arabs out here is that MENA countries very often change their rules of entry for different nationalities without any prior notification, and sometimes without any notification at all, even after the decision is made. So your brother may be working in a country for many years past, but you can suddenly find yourself unable to get permission to enter or work in the same country.
MB was speaking to a friend out here earlier this week who provides good example of the Visa dilemma that can impact non-locals in any country in the region. He is Lebanese and was living happily with wife and kids in Saudi Arabia for a number of years. His job finished and he moved (with family) to Abu Dhabi in UAE where he had received good job offer. Unfortunately the project got terminated within a few months of his arrival, and his company then offered him a position in Qatar. All good one might think.
But not really. He had shipped all his household furniture and other goods from Saudi to Abu Dhabi at his own not inconsiderable cost. His kids had already started in a French speaking school (very important for many Lebanese due to their University system at home and their usage of the French language).
Then the Visa issue popped it’s ugly head up. His company discovered that they were unable to get a residency/work visa for him in Qatar, so he presently enters and exits the country every weekend as a tourist and works mid-week, which is technically illegal with consequences if discovered.
The reason that his company is unable to get a visa for him is because the State of Qatar decided some months back that they would not issue any further residency/work visas to any citizen of Lebanon. There is no reason publicised for this decision and many thousands of Lebanese already work in the state. But in all likelihood the decision is related to the fact that one third of Lebanese are Shia Muslims who generally support the Hezbollah militant group; Hezbollah is fighting in Syria with the backing of Shia majority Iran; a perceived enemy of Qatar, and more importantly fighting against the opposition forces in Syria who are supported by Qatar and others. Presently, only the personal signature of the ruling Emir can give the grant of Qatari residency to any citizen of Lebanon.
So MB’s friend is unable to work legally in Qatar which prevents him bringing his wife and kids to Qatar or getting the kids into a school or buying a car or taking a loan or even opening a bank account. In other words – he is goosed in Qatar.
However, his ever-resourceful company have now offered him a position in Kuwait where they have just won a large contract. So he has the possibility to move to Kuwait and move his family there also. But the project will only last for 18 months or so; wife has just received very good job offer in a public hospital in Abu Dhabi; his young kids have made many new friends in their new Abu Dhabi school and are now comfortable again following the trauma of last year when they left all their old school friends in Saudi Arabia. There is also the uncertainty of Kuwait’s position vis-a-vis Lebanese nationals working in their country. And MB’s friend knows that he does not want to continue the present scenario of traveling every weekend. To make matters worse, MB’s friend hates traveling in planes!
So what to do. The choices he now faces are narrowed down to two. Choice Nr 1 – Take the risk of moving the family to Kuwait with all the inherent risks – the company only has this one project in Kuwait with no certainty of others, so what to do at the end of the project; visas may be an issue; he must find French speaking school in Kuwait with available spaces (not easy in the Middle East); kids will be upset again losing new friends; wife will lose a once-in-a-lifetime chance of prestige job. Choice Nr 2 – Resign his very good position with present company and move back to UAE, becoming unemployed in a region with no social welfare or other supports that exist in the West. And look for new position asap.
MB’s friend is back in Abu Dhabi as MB writes this post. He will discuss all with his wife over the weekend and reach a decision. Two choices. Both with major risks and disadvantages. Not easy.
Some pics this week from MB’s Wednesday night visit to the horse racing track in Doha.