Saturday, December 26, 2009

Changes to family visa policy in Saudi Arabia

This is one of the best news which expats working in Saudi Arabia have been waiting for since such a long time. Finally, it is now official.

For the past 10 days, since the arrival of the Saudi crown prince from abroad after his successful medical treatment, expats in Saudi Arabia have been treated to a very special gift. Family visa rules had been relaxed. All one had to do was just to pay SR25 towards visa application fees and everyone who applied was issued a family visa. Yes, you read it right, a permanent family visa irrespective of one's profession. Word spread like wildfire and soon crowds started swelling in passport offices all over the kingdom. Years and years of pent up frustration in not being able to bring one's families, just because the visa profession was not supervisory, simply changed into uncontrollable joy for the thousands of expatriates who were without their near and dear ones.

The crowds became uncontrollable and soon the passport office had to put a ceiling that not more than 1000 applications per day would be considered, due to the huge and unexpected response. This was THE day which people were expecting. As usual, there was no official announcement and everything was just by word of mouth. But who cares, as long as the work gets done.

Well, the news has now become official, but with a rider. An income ceiling, which is yet to be confirmed, has been proposed to regulate the milling crowds. My sources tell me that pending the decision on the minimum income, issue of family visas has been temporarily put on hold and is likely to be resumed within a week's time. In the meantime, take a look at this link for the "official" version in the local press:

The myriad complicated procedures must hopefully be a thing of the past. A cursory look at my previous post on family visa (click here) and the over 300+ comments from desparate readers wanting to be with their families, shows the pent up frustration of expats in not being able to be with their kith and kin.

12 years back when I landed in the kingdom, the Principal of an international school, a Phd qualified gentleman, quit his post in disgust as he was on a painter visa which was not entitled to sponsor a family, never mind that his actual profession was a Principal. Hopefully, all such nonsensical procedures should soon be a thing of the past. As usual, this blog would come out first with any developments on this, so watch out for this space. Meanwhile, on this happy note, let me welcome the arrival of the New Year with a warm wish to all my readers.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Procedure for replacing lost SIM card in Saudi

Several months back, I had written an article about telecommunication system in Saudi Arabia (Click here). To give a quick recap, there are three telecom operators in the kingdom - STC, Mobily and Zain. The market leader, due to historical reasons, is STC. Most expats prefer to buy 'SAWA' card, the prepaid chip from STC due to the lesser hassles of paperwork.

As has been mentioned several times in the past, as long as everything works smooth in paradise, nothing will go wrong. But things DO go wrong and horror of horrors, no one knows where or whom to approach to when they do go wrong. Which was why this blog was started in the first place. One such issue is when you have a prepaid SAWA card, as most expats do, and the unthinkable happens - you lose it! Ask me, I have first hand experience!

Well, the first thought which would come to your mind when you lose your SIM card is obviously to contact 902. Rule # 1: Don't expect a friendly operator to pick up the phone and answer your call! After going through the machine-recorded ordeal of STC's latest promotions and offers, you are lead through a series of buttons you have to press. After half a dozen options, when you finally press the button for prepaid mobile phones, you are greeted with a recorded message - no surprise - "Please use your own mobile to make your complaint". Oh dear! Why would I make a complaint if I had a mobile with me in the first place?

The next thought which would come to your mind would be to go to the nearest STC outlet, right? Wrong! STC have opened sales outlets in several places which work till 10 pm, but when you lose your SIM card, none of these outlets can help you. After visiting a couple of them, the truth realized on me that these outlets are, as the name suggests, only sales outlets - nothing more, nothing less. You have to personally go to the STC's customer service office in your town.

My next destination was the STC customer service office. Their office works only between 9.30 am to 2 pm, Saturday through Wednesday - so much so for customer service! Okay, after undergoing the embarrassment of asking time off from my boss, I finally made it to STC's office on a weekday. After about 45 minutes of wait in the queue, I got my turn. I explained to the guy in the reception my problem and he kept nodding his head all the while. I thought that I was through, but it took me some time to realize that I got it all wrong. My problem was not my losing the card. My latest problem was that I knew only English and this guy knew only Arabic! Excellent communication in a telecom company!

Finally after looking around, I got hold of a friendly Bangladeshi janitor who did the role of a translator cum mediator between us. Just when I thought that my problems had come to an end, I realized that they had just begun.
I was told to go to Arab National Bank, pay SR50 and then bring the receipt back to STC. Oh dear! Why don't they just take the 50 riyals and be done with it? I asked the guy whether I could pay this amount online in my own bank - after all I pay my monthly phone bills online. The answer was a big NO. You've got to pay ONLY in Arab National Bank! By then it was already time for the afternoon prayers and I thought it was best to come back another day!

So, I had to undergo the same ritual of asking time off from my boss (who looked at me like a worm!) and proceeded to Arab National Bank. I filled in the cash deposit form for SR50, stood in the queue for about 20 minutes, and finally when my turn came, the cashier tells me that I have to fill in another form specifically meant for STC and not the usual cash deposit form. Don't tell me! The cashier gave me a concession, though. He said that I could come straight to his counter bypassing the queue, after filling in the right form. Thank God for small mercies.

After wading through the piles of forms, I finally got someone to help me out with the STC form. No surprises, every single word in the form was in Arabic! So, after getting a Saudi to fill in all the details, I finally paid the money and went back to STC triumphantly - afterall half the battle is won, isn't it?
No, how wrong I was. There was a shortage of SIM cards and I was supposed to come and try another day. I almost had a heart attack and the image of my boiling boss came to my mind! Drained of all energy, I went back to the same Bangladeshi janitor and asked him for a favor. I wanted his mobile number so that I could enquire the availability of SIM card in the office before coming. He took pity on me and gave me his number.

This morning I called up the janitor (who was more helpful than any of these customer-service guys) and I was asked to come urgently. So, hopefully for one final time, I approached my boss and before he could reach for his gun, quickly left the room to reach STC! An hour and a half later, I finally got the replacement SIM card. No, my problems aren't yet over. I was told that the card would be activated after one hour. Well, it is almost going to be a day as I write this post, but at least I have the SIM card in my mobile - never mind that it doesn't work still!
So, to make the story short, here is the summary when you lose your chip:
1. Go to Arab National Bank, fill in the form in Arabic and pay SR50.
2. Find out from the STC customer service center whether and when the SIM card is available
3. Take a copy of your iqama (for verification) and the receipt for SR50 which you paid in Arab National Bank.
4. Get the chip and after putting it in your mobile, enter the PIN number. Now wait........don't ask me how long, I don't have an answer for that.
While waiting for my turn in STC office, I did some fact-finding. For those of you who are on exit and want to surrender your landline as well as DSL connection, you have to first find out your balance amount from STC, go to any bank (yes, you read it right, ANY bank) pay the amount and bring the receipt to the STC customer service office. Fill in only the landline form (not DSL form) for cancellation and hand it to the counter along with the bank receipt and you should be through.
Hope the above post was useful.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Labor courts and your contract

Ignorance is bliss, goes the saying. For expatriates working in Saudi Arabia, ignorance is dangerous. My earlier article (click here) about the importance of work contract evoked a lot of response from readers of this blog. To this day, the biggest hurdle facing expats is lack of information on just about anything concerning them. Information on labor courts is one such thing.

Sadly, contrary to popular belief of those who want to work in Saudi Arabia, this is neither a place of easy tax-free money nor does milk and honey flow in the streets of the kingdom. Life is definitely tough here. Just take a look at the number of cases in the labor courts and it is more than proof enough.

There are two types of labor courts, also known as "commissions". There is a so-called "Preliminary" Commission and a "High" Commission for settling labor disputes in the kingdom. The preliminary commission has jurisdiction only for small-causes, i.e., for labor disputes up to SR10,000. This commission also takes care of issues like termination of contracts. The High Commission, on the other hand, has more powers and deals with labor disputes involving sums above SR10,000. Once can appeal the decisions of the Preliminary commission to the High commission.Both the commissions have legal powers to inspect the premises of any firm and their record books, when a dispute is involved.

Expatriates must be aware of certain important issues before approaching any of these commissions. As per Article 222 (1) of the Saudi Labor law, you must definitely take up your case within 12 months from termination of your contract or from the date of occurrence of the cause of the dispute, otherwise your case will not be entertained. Note that once a judgement has been passed by the High Commission, there is no further appeal. One good provision in the Saudi labor law is that there can be no abstentions by the judges - either you get a judgement in favor or against.

The biggest problem in the system is that it may take literally several months or even years before you get the verdict. This is what pisses of most expats, as no one has the time or money to sustain the legal battle for so long. Unscrupulous sponsors take advantage of this. Which is all the more reason why I keep emphasizing the importance of your written contract. Never ever ever go by verbal assurances. Remember, if it is not in paper, you don't have it!

On another note, this blog has had its 150,000th visitor this morning. What started off on a small scale has grown so fast within just above 2 years. Never did I ever imagine that this blog, which was started based on my own experiences and the need for information, would become so highly popular. If my writings have helped reunite families and to make lives of my fellow-expats easier, then the purpose of this blog has been achieved. To all my readers and fellow expatriate brothers and sisters, with all humility, a big thank you from the bottom of my heart!