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US Eases Saudi Visa Restrictions

M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Arab News

RIYADH, 4 May 2005 - US Ambassador James C. Oberwetter says changes in the US visa process would ease travel between the States and Saudi Arabia.

The ambassador's comments come in the wake of the Saudi-US Summit and before a high-profile, 63-member Saudi business mission leaves for the US next week.

"Last week's visit by Crown Prince Abdullah to the United States has given a major boost to the bilateral relations," said Oberwetter. "I am very satisfied with the outcome of the royal visit," he said, referring to the joint communique issued after the talks held by Crown Prince Abdullah and the US President George W. Bush.

He also gave details of the Saudi commercial delegation scheduled to visit the United States from May 7-19. The delegates will hold business talks in several cities including Washington, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Houston.

Oberwetter said once the new system was in place, it will ensure long-term stays for Saudi businessmen or tourists in the US with multiple-entry visas. "It will also reduce the time lag for processing visa applications and interviews," he said, without detailing the proposed system.

However, American diplomats in Bahrain told a press conference recently that a new computer database would streamline the visa process around the globe with the number of applicants in a given country determining the time of the wait, which in some cases could take as little as a day.

Saudi applicants currently wait weeks or months for approval after interview. At present, all nonimmigrant visa applicants regardless of their status are required to submit their applications in person at the US Embassy or consulate.

Although, Washington no longer makes public visa issuance and refusal statistics available, sources say that quite a substantial number of Arabs including Saudi nationals applying for visas are turned down.

Saudi-American contacts suffered because of the stringent visa measures announced after Sept. 11 attacks. Thousands of Saudi students - including 3,500 on government scholarships - were enrolled at American universities before Sept. 11, but many of them returned to the Kingdom after they were caught in the backlash of the attack.



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