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Sat 2 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Saudi visa racket keeps momentum

Despite KSA having slashed its Saudisation requirement by half, the illegal sale of visas has not decreased.

Despite Saudi Arabia having slashed its Saudisation requirement by half, the illegal sale of visas has not decreased, according to those operating in the local construction market.

One of the most common reasons suggested for visas being sold illegally has been the tight reign of the Saudi government on foreign workers entering the country.

But with the Saudisation cutback having little effect on the visa racket, industry experts are now beginning to question whether the visa process itself is the root of the problem and needs updating.

"Selling visas is not allowed and is illegal in Saudi Arabia but there is no denying that it exists in the black market," said Ahmed Arees, manager, Saudi Binladin Group.

"The visa fees for labourers have been escalating but this sort of thing cannot be controlled if there is a shortage. And the reduction in the percentage of Saudisation hasn't really made a difference to this problem.

"Some Saudi nationals have been selling visas to people outside the country who have relatives already working here," he added.

Saudi Arabia's visa process has met with criticism by social organisations for being outdated, where visas can be applied for and attained in bulk without specifically being issued to individuals.

A company can apply for a group of visas without having to provide details of whom the visa is being attained for. Many individuals then take these ‘free visas' and sell them to workers in South Asian countries at an inflated rate, or to the highest bidder.

According to a report on Saudi Arabia's visa practices by New York-based Human Rights Watch, the sale of visas in the black market has become a business for many local individuals who register a company on paper and then deal in the visa trade.

The report said: "In the Eastern Province alone, there are dozens of companies which exist only on paper. On the basis of their being registered and licensed, they apply for visas and then sell them."

Much of the problem has been traced back to corrupt labour agents in the workers' home countries, who force them to sign contracts that are null and void in Saudi Arabia, along with the outdated visa application process.

"The visa process in Saudi is more susceptible to problems such as corrupt agents and employers," said Sohail Vakil, managing director, Al Vakil Recruitment Services, a Dubai-based recruitment agent, who also recruits for Saudi companies.

"This sort of system has a lot of loopholes and breeds corruption as the middle-men can sell visas for a high price because anyone can enter the country with them. This is how it works: a company obtains 50 visas, it then goes to the country where it wants to employ workers from and gives them to whoever it wants to.

"In Dubai, for example, it works in the opposite way. You first interview the person and then you apply for the visa. The Saudi government may have brought down the basic cost of a visa but the end users are still paying exorbitant amounts. And it's not the big companies that are doing this, it is the small timers."

According to Christoph Kleiner, general manager, Saudi Liebherr Company, despite following the rules, the company is not always able to employ those it deems best.

"I don't really know about the illegal sale of visas, as this is something we don't indulge in," he said.

"But this is how the visa process works over here: we apply for block visas where we identify what we need, how many we need and which country we will employ from. We then apply for the visas and they run a check on Saudisation levels. Once we get block visas, we then start looking for employees to match them," he added.

"Construction sites need a large workforce that could run into thousands. Many Saudi companies have their own channels for getting workers, which I don't know about and don't want to know about either."

The Saudi Ministry of Labour was unavailable for comment.

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