Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thank you

Dear fellow expatriates, friends and well-wishers,

Today is a great day. Your favorite blog had its 50,000th visitor today. A big thank you to all of you! Within 20 months after starting this blog, the number of visitors, I should say with modesty, is phenomenal. But more important is that so many fellow expatriates in Saudi Arabia and potential expats to the kingdom have benefitted from this. No money can equal that good feeling . This site is viewed by everyone not just as yet another blog but as a reliable source of information on Saudi Arabia.With all humility, I promise to take this to greater heights. Once again, thanks to all of you!

Transfer of driving license details

Expatriates working in Saudi Arabia have to undergo a practical as well as a theory test for obtaining a driving license. Please click here to know the procedure for the same. It is quite common for expats to go on exit and return on a fresh visa. There are also cases where there is an internal transfer of sponsorship. In either case, as long as the license has still not expired, the expat need not give the driving test again just because his sponsor has changed. Here is the procedure for transferring the Saudi driving license details from your old to the new sponsor.

First, you must obtain a new iqama. Until you get your iqama, I would advise you not to drive even though you have a license. This is because, in case of any unfortunate incident involving your vehicle, you would be in deep trouble. There would be too many complications because you would be having a license with your old iqama, but now have no connection with your previous employer.

Once you obtain an iqama, first take an introduction letter from your new sponsor. This should be in Arabic and must specifically contain your new iqama number. Next, pay SR100 in either Riyad Bank or Al Rajhi Bank. You may do it either online or by using the machine in Riyad Bank for the same.

Now take a copy of your latest iqama. Attach all of these with your original license, two passport-size photographs and go to the traffic police station (Muroor) in your city. I would advise you to use the services of your Government Relations Officer for this. A form for transferring the license details is available in the police station. This has to be filled in (Arabic, of course) and submitted to the police along with all the documents mentioned here. After verification, the police will give a date and time when you can collect the new driving license. The details would have now got transferred in the system. You are now free to drive the vehicle until the expiry of the license.

A point to note here. In case your existing driving license is just about to expire, it would be worthwhile to give a fresh test and take a new license. This would save you time and money. Note that this license is valid for driving all over GCC, It goes without saying that having a valid Saudi driving license is definitely a plus point in your resume, while applying for a job anywhere in the Middle East :D

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Procedure for changing profession in iqama

If there is one issue which is so close to any expatriate working in Saudi Arabia, it is the desire to bring his family to the kingdom. My heart goes out to my fellow expatriates who are staying without their families in the kingdom, like the lonely tree above. No other issue causes so much frustration, so much pain and so much anger than the fact that an expatriate cannot bring his family into the kingdom simply because the profession in his iqama does not allow him to do so.

I had covered the issue of profession in the iqama (click here) in an earlier post. There is this famous joke doing the rounds, of a lion in a Saudi zoo forced to eat peanuts, because he came on a monkey's visa! Nothing more could be more frustrating for a person, who cannot bring his family into the kingdom just because he holds an iqama with a non-supervisory profession. In other words, you could be a General Manager of a company, but if your iqama says that you are a painter, you cannot bring your family! Not only that, you cannot even sponsor your family on a visit visa (Click here to see the procedure of visit visa formalities, covered in my earlier post).

I have been repeatedly cautioning all potential expatriates about one thing: Don't be desparate to come to Saudi Arabia without your family. Life isn't all that easy here. It is a well-known fact that there are simply not enough visas in all categories. There are employers who simply bring skilled expatriates into the kingdom on whatever visa is available with a promise that once they arrive, they can bring their families. They are more concerned about running their business than anything else. There are also expats, unaware of the intricacies involved with the visa profession, come to the kingdom thinking that once they are here, they can always bring their families later on. When it later on dawns on them that they have a non-supervisory profession mentioned in their iqama, frustration begins to set in.

The anger and helplessness reaches its peak for those who are qualified and experienced, but are on a visa profession totally unrelated to their job. There was this famous case of a Principal of an International School who had to resign and go back, just because he was on a painter visa and hence could not sponsor his family. By the way, he was a professor with a Phd behind his name!

Changing the profession in an iqama is not at all an easy affair. This one particular post took me so long to write, because information on this was simply not available anywhere. To add to the misery, the list of professions which are barred from bringing their families keeps on changing frequently and to top it all, is not published in any public forum! The information that I have managed to collect in this particular post is based on first-hand experiences of colleagues and friends, who had to undergo a lot of hardships and finally could get their professions changed in the iqama. I just wish that atleast it makes life easy for other expats who want to change their professions too. A disclaimer: Don't ask me proof for what I am going to write below - there is just no information available anywhere else, so you have to just believe it! As I said earlier, it is based on experiences of my colleagues and is to be taken as a guideline.

First, the bad news. In case your profession in the iqama is mentioned as either 'Labor,Painter,Barber,Secretary,Mason,Plumber,Carpenter or Operator', you can straightaway stop reading further. There is no point in even going through this elaborate and really tedious procedure, because the authorities simply reject these cases. The only way is to go back to your country and return on a fresh visa. The list given here is also not exhaustive. I know it only from people who have been rejected before. No one knows for sure how many professions are barred and which those professions are!

If your visa profession is not any of the above, the next criterion is that you must be either a diploma or a degree holder. If you have crossed this hurdle, then the rest of the procedure is as follows:

Before we begin, a word of caution. This MUST be handled by your sponsor. Expatriates will not be usually entertained when they enter any Government office, so don't even waste your time. There are some sponsors who even charge their employees for this (for those in whose contract family status was not mentioned). The reason is not far to seek. The whole procedure is extremely tedious, time consuming and a big headache, so why would any sponsor help his employee when he is not obliged to do so? Be prepared for this also.

You must first get your diploma or degree certificate attested in your home country. Please read my earlier post (click here) on the procedure for attesting your certificate, in case you are an Indian national. For other nationalities, the procedure is more or less the same, except that it must be first attested by the Human Resources Ministry or its equivalent in your country before being counter-attested by the Saudi Embassy. Note that in case of Indian nationals, if you have completed your diploma in a private institute, it is not recognized and will not be attested by the HRD Ministry.

Next, bring this certificate to the kingdom. This has to be submitted to the Saudi Government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Don't confuse this with the passport office (Jawasat). That's different. A charge of SR30 (thanks to reader MSK for updating me) is levied for this and you will get the certificate back usually on the same day. What they do is just to put their rubber stamp as a counter-attestation to the one done by the Saudi Embassy in your country. By this time, the rear side of your original degree or diploma certificate would be full of stamps/seals/signatures, but don't bother!

Next, your sponsor has to make a letter in his official letterhead in Arabic and put his stamp and signature at the bottom of the letter. The letter should mention all your details, your current job title, your qualification and experience, etc. It must also mention how many Saudis are employed by your sponsor and in which categories. The letter must make a strong justification as to why your profession has to be changed, and also how there are no suitable Saudi citizens to fill in that position. This is the most important part of the letter.

Next, your sponsor must hire a lawyer. Of course, it costs money, and you may probably have to pay for this also if your contract does not mention family status, so be prepared for this also. This lawyer must now go to the Labor Court in your town, fill in a form in Arabic and submit it to the authorities. The court will collect the documents and will allocate a date and time. Usually this is about 2 to 3 months later.

Now comes the difficult part. At the appointed date and time, the Saudi lawyer must be present in the court well in advance. Every case is allocated a certain time, say 30 minutes or 45 minutes. In case the judge is already hearing another case and it prolongs beyond that time, then another date and time will be allocated to your lawyer. Again, it will usually be about 2 to 3 months later. The important part is that if the lawyer has forgotten any document, or something is missing, he will be sent back and will be asked to appear again at another hearing, which will be a few months later.

Finally, when the time does come, the judge will scrutinize all documents. The lawyer must convincingly argue that you are indeed required and that there is no Saudi citizen available to fill up that particular position. If the court is convinced, they will put their seal on the Arabic form which was submitted.

This form has to be sumitted to the passport office (Jawasat). After paying a nominal fee, the passport office will put their stamp in your iqama after making the required changes in the system. Usually this would take about 15 days.

The whole process takes about 7 to 9 months, if everything goes smoothly.

If despite all this, you are unable to bring your family, then maybe it is time to draw a line and set right your priorities. It is better to go back and be with your family than continuing to suffer in silence. You are qualified and experienced and the world is full of opportunities, you should not worry about losing your job. There is always another one around.

Hope this post was useful.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Money transfer from Saudi Arabia

Excactly a year back, I had written a post about money remittances from Saudi Arabia (Click here to read that post). A lot of water has flown down the river since then, new exchange houses have come up, new rules have been framed and it is about time that I updated some additional information for the benefit of the readers.

There are many exchanges and banks from where you can send your hard-earned money home. There are no restrictions on remittances from Saudi Arabia in the sense that 100% of your earnings can be repatriated back home.

However, not all the banks are popular. The exchange rates, particularly in some of the banks, are extremely unfavorable. To top it all, there is no such thing called a customer service or an ombudsman in these banks. Some of the staff in such banks have nothing but utter contempt for the expatriates, as though they are here as bonded slaves, going by the way they treat them. Naturally, these banks are the ones having the least expat crowd. An absolute textbook case of how not to run a business!

On the contrary, some of the exchange houses work 12 hours a day, Saturday through Friday, except for prayer times and on Friday mornings. There are several counters and the staff are manned by expatriates too, who are courteous and understand the problems of fellow-expats. The exchange houses have, what is known as 'Correspondent Bank' arrangement. What it means is that when you send money through these exchanges and you have a bank account back home in one of these correspondent banks, money transfer is immediate.

Usually there are two ways of sending money home. The first one is the traditional Demand Draft whereby you pay the money plus the commission of the exchange house and get a Draft. Make sure that the draft is signed by atleast two authorized officers of the bank for amounts greater than SR10000 (this is usually the norm unless confirmed by the bank that it is not required). I have personally seen people walking off with drafts, without having even one signature. People simply assume that they are signed when they are issued, so do make sure to double check before you leave the counter, because without a signature these drafts will not be honored back home.

The other method, and more convenient one, is money transfer direct into your account. The commission for MT is a bit higher, but is very safe and almost instantaneous. My personal favorite is the MT.

A word of caution is not out of place. Some of the expats have a habit of accumulating their savings over a couple of months or more and send them as a lumpsum amount. When the amount becomes big (typically amounts above SR20000), questions are raised. You will have to take the printout of your bank statement with the rubber stamp of the bank and also the mini statement from the ATM machine of your bank. As per the new rules of Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), these will be verified by all banks and exchanges as a measure of safety against money laundering, so it is better to go prepared with these documents to save your time. Also, SAMA has now made it mandatory for all banks and exchanges to have the iqamas and the passport copies verified for everyone, particularly when any of these documents are renewed.

The exchange houses are not complaint-free, though. The most common problem with these exchanges happens in case of Demand Drafts. As long as things go smooth, there is no problem. The moment a Draft is struck up somewhere, then there is a long-drawn process before you can get your money back. This is why it is so important to keep the counterfoil of the form which you have filled in, till you are sure that the money has indeed reached your account back home.

You must take care to fill in all the details correctly in the form. Afterall, it is your own money and you do not want to throw it away. You must know the email address / phone number of your bank back home. This is to ensure that in case of a delay or non-delivery of your money, you can immediately mail them and sort things out.

Finally, as most expats do, it is advisable to keep multiple accounts in the various exchanges. All it needs is a photocopy of your iqama and that of your passport with your company's stamp to open an account. This is just to ensure that you get the best exchange rate available. Remember, the exchange rate you see in the newspapers is not what is offered by the banks / exchange houses.

You will find different rates in different exchange houses, all in the same road, so you have to be alert, keep your eyes and ears open and strike the best bargain. After all, the happiest day in the life of an expatriate is the day his hard-earned money goes into his bank account :)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Road safety in Saudi Arabia

Which country has the dubious dinstinction of 153000 traffic accidents, 2800 injuries and 3500 fatalities every single year in road accidents? And which country has these figures rising exponentially each year? Sadly, the answer for both these questions is Saudi Arabia.
The shocking figures mentioned above point to just one reason - attitude. There is just absolute disregard for road safety and fellow drivers. Defensive driving is something which every person on the road needs to follow religiously. Among the GCC countries, the easiest place to get a driving license is Saudi Arabia. Maybe a compulsory examination on road safety is not out of place, before issuing and renewing driving licenses.

Not that there are no laws. In fact, there are very strict laws in place. The problem is in implementing them in letter and spirit. It is not uncommon to see some of these morons get away scot-free simply because they have the right wasta (influence) in the right place.
The most serious offences range from jumping the red light to practising "wheely" or joyriding. It was reported in the local newspapers that bored youths in the western city of Jeddah recently planned a dangerous game. At 2 am, they all assembled in the heart of the city and conducted a car race. The one who reached the airport first, a distance of over 15 km, without stopping at any of the traffic lights inbetween, was the winner. Thankfully, no one was hurt and some of them were caught by the police patrol. No one knows whether they got away using wasta or whether they were indeed punished.
The biggest problem an expatriate faces in the kingdom is the language. Sadly, most policemen take undue advantage of this. In case of an unfortunate accident, particularly involving an expat and a Saudi, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the 'fault' (as recorded in the police records) would always be that of the expat - if not fully, at least partially!
The first thing an expatriate working in Saudi Arabia needs to remember, if caught in an accident, is not to move your vehicle till the police arrives. Do not be bothered about the traffic behind you. Typically, your iqama would be taken away by the police when they arrive. You have to go to the traffice police station, where everything would be in Arabic.

I would advise all expatriates to never ever drive your vehicle without a license and an insurance. You must always carry these along with you, including your istemara (car registration card). Make sure that you have a photocopy of your iqama always in the car, because you will have to attach this with other documents in the police station. Preferably, go in for a comprehensive insurance, rather than a third party insurance which is mandatory.

Never ever sign any document in the police station unless you are sure of what is written above. Call your Government Relations Officer or your sponsor to the police station. If you are caught in a situation where you are forced to sign somewhere, do so but with the sentence above saying "I do not understand what is mentioned above". Believe me, this would save you from a lot of trouble.

Once, a Saudi driving a GMC hit my car from the rear while I was waiting at the traffic signal for the lights to turn green. The boot of my car was badly damaged. Anywhere in the world, if someone hits your car from behind, he is at 100% fault. When I reached the police station, I could not understand a word of what was being spoken. The GMC man and the cop had a very long conversation. I was finally asked to sign a form (all of which was in Arabic). In good faith, I trusted the cop and signed it, thinking it was some kind of a First Information Report.

When I visited the police station the next day with another Saudi friend to assist me with the translation, I was shocked to know that I had actually signed a document in which it was mentioned that everything was 100% my own fault and that I am absolving the other party of any liability! I protested saying that I signed under duress, without knowing what was written above and under instruction from the cop, but it was of no use.

Thankfully, my car had a comprehensive insurance. The insurance company initially refused to pay, saying that whenever someone hits your car from the rear it was 100% the fault of the other party, but I stood my ground and said that it was a comprehensive insurance which meant that the company had to pay, irrespective of whose fault it was. Finally, a compromise was reached in the office of the Captain, the highest officer in the police station, where the insurance company, the other party and I had to share the cost of repair. It left me with an experience I would never forget and without a car for over 20 days! It sometimes made me wonder whether I was better off without a car.

I have always wondered about the psyche of these people. How many every times have we seen cars while waiting at the traffic lights, to slowly inch ahead and almost stand bang in the middle of the cross section of the road obstructing the way of other cars! All this, just to ensure that they are the first ones to zip ahead of other cars when the lights turn green, as though following any other car is below their dignity!

One of the important things which expatriate drivers in Saudi Arabia need to keep in mind is to control one's road rage. There are a lot of idiots on the road and if someone wants the first right of way, give him the same rather than trying to compete with him. And finally, do wear your seat belts, keeping in mind that you have a family back home waiting for you. Wishing you a safe driving in the year ahead!