May 3, 2050 hours.
The King Khaled International Airport, Riyadh immigration reception area is swarming with people, glazed eyes weary in the
face of an apathetic and laconic Saudi bureaucracy. There are scores of Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Africans mixed with pockets of Western businessmen and women in long lines waiting to gain entry into baggage claim. They shift from one foot to the next, place bags on the ground, pick them up, adjust hijab and abaya, and peer intently at the immigration clerks. They, like me, are waiting for this process — whatever it is supposed to be — to actually proceed.
The clerks are all young Saudi men with neatly trimmed beards. They wear crisp white thawb and red and white gutra (or “keffiyeh”) held upon their heads in a variety of rakish folds by the black corded agal. They all share the same impassive look upon their narrow, almost feminine faces. I find them striking, clean, and exotic — and determinately lazy, distracted, and inefficient. I’m watching and drawing conclusions. They routinely leave their posts, greet each other with three solid pecks on the cheek, only breaking their stoic facades to laugh and joke among themselves. They return to their posts and text on their iPhones, stare at computer screens, then readopt their cold demeanor before calling another traveler forward.
The six lines to the left of the immigration area are intended for first-time arrivals to the Kingdom. In the center are lines for diplomats and visiting businesspeople who have secured their iqama residency permits; to the right are the booths for citizens of the Gulf Cooperative Council, or GCC, which consist of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Despite the line distinctions, uniformed Saudis regularly shift travelers from one line to another — most of the time taking people from the back of the lines and moving them to the front. As I stand there,I watch the line behind me disappear, and the line in front of me grow.
In some cases I get it. Women and family are given preferential treatment to the throngs of single male travelers trying to get through. Only, after standing in line for three hours, I wonder if my progress will continue to be trumped by new arrivals. I’m thinking that I may never get through, that perhaps my flight had crashed and I’m really in purgatory and doomed to suffer an eternity waiting for a line to proceed forward that never will.
I become opportunistic and am punished for it. I bounce from line-to-line yet my progress remains halted. I analyze and explore the situation. I try to look at it philosophically, try to discern a lesson. I come up empty. I meet people in line, and we share our befuddlement. There’s the Detroit consultant from KPMG in a suit and sneakers who’s breaking fundamental Saudi conventions by staring at all the women in line; the French software developer who says that it’s much worse in Belgium, and then the epic biblical filmmaker who doesn’t even have a visa. None of these people are staying longer than a week. I’m staying a year. I’m here to help train the Saudi Ministry of the Interior’s Security Forces. Don’t they know who I am? Did no one anticipate my arrival? I’m not just anyone.
In the end I am the absolute last member of my Air France flight to reach the immigration desk. Still, I am thrilled. The clerk takes my passport, snaps my photo and digitally scans my fingerprints. All I need is the stamp and I’m on my way. He stares at his computer screen and taps his fingers. He looks up at me and I smile and reach for my passport.
“Please have a seat,” he says.
“Is there a problem with my visa,?” I ask.
“No, the system is down.”