We recently had the opportunity to talk with Doctor Mohammed Qunaibet while at the US-Arab Economic Forum in Houston. Dr. Qunaibet, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Majlis Ash Shura, the Consultative Council, since 1997, has served as Chairman of the Economic and Energy Affairs Committee. He is currently Vice Chair of that committee. We asked Dr. Qunaibet for his assessment of US-Saudi relations, especially in the business-to- business arena and for a discussion of political reforms and the Majlis Ash Shura. Our discussion of US-Saudi relations turned to the problem of visa processing for Saudi students and business people trying to visit the United States.
The barriers to travel between America and the Kingdom have been recognized by many as an impediment to maintaining the health of the relationship. When SUSRIS talked with Assistant Secretary of State David Welch in March, he addressed the problems Americans and Saudis face to travel to each other’s country and said he didn’t want to see, “a situation, ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road where we take a look at the Saudi cabinet of the day and we don’t see people like we see today — like Prince Turki for example, who had been educated in the United States, like Prince Saud, who had been educated in the United States. Those are links that are enormously beneficial for us in cultivating the kind of relationships needed to succeed in our foreign policy objectives there, but also enormously beneficial for Saudis in bringing to development in the kingdom some of the experience that they gain here in America.”
A session of US and Saudi corporate, government and trade promotion representatives held on the sidelines of the US-Arab Economic Forum last month addressed the problems in getting American businesses more involved in the Saudi economic boom. The impact of visa processing delays led the list of problems encountered by Saudis who wanted to engage American business people in the US and among American businesses who had projects in the Kingdom that required training in the States for non-US workers employed in the Kingdom. Those present acknowledged the necessity of sound procedures to ensure border security but asked that the responsible agencies step up their efforts to resolve the logjams.
That brings us back to our conversation with Dr. Qunaibet. Just as visas and promoting connections are on the minds of US and Saudi Arabian business people, so too did he want to share his assessment of the visa issue based on his personal experiences. That issue occupied most of our discussion of US-Saudi relations, provided here.
Dr. Qunaibet was interviewed at the US-Arab Economic Forum, Houston, Texas on June 28, 2006
“America is not a fortress; no, we never want to be a fortress. We’re a free country; we’re an open society. And we must always protect the rights of our law — of law-abiding citizens from around the world who come here to conduct business or to study or to spend time with their family.”
— President Bush Signs Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act
Dr. Mohammed H. Al-Qunaibet
Vice Chairman, Economic and Energy Affairs Committee
Majlis Ash Shura
SUSRIS: Thank you, Doctor Qunaibet for taking time to talk with us about US-Saudi relations and the Majlis Ash Shura. Last year King Abdullah and President Bush met in Crawford, Texas, in what many thought was a turning point in rebuilding the relationship. The summit set in motion the US-Saudi Strategic Dialogue, a structure to address key elements of the relationship. The conventional wisdom is that the government-to-government relationship is back on track. Where do you see the ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia at this point?
Doctor Mohammed Qunaibet: The relationship between the President and the King was, and is, and will be, excellent. The problem is the gatekeepers around them. It’s as if they are out of touch with the White House. King Abdullah was the first head of state received twice in Crawford, Texas. It shows that there is a very special relationship. Yet if you try to relate this relationship between the governments with the visa issue for Saudis to travel to the United States, especially compared to other countries, it is unexplainable. A Jordanian can get a visa in 48 hours; for a Saudi it takes six months.
SUSRIS: Is the visa issue among the main sticking points in moving the relationship forward?
Doctor Qunaibet: From my point of view it is. Our kids cannot come to the United States to study without being delayed for six months. I was told by His Excellency the Ambassador of the United States to Saudi Arabia, that there is a backlog of 7500 Saudi students waiting for visas.
It took my cousin six months to get a visa. A friend of mine, he’s retired, he’s out of the [security screening] risk group. I helped him on the Internet to get a visa interview appointment. The earliest available was November 7th, five months waiting. If he was from the United Arab Emirates he can get a visa in 48 hours. Our relations, the Saudi Government relations with the United States, the White House are much better than the one between the United Arab Emirates and the White House. And yet there is discrimination, pure discrimination against Saudi nationals.
SUSRIS: How do you see this affecting the business ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia?
Doctor Qunaibet: It has a lot of impact on business. I came to Houston representing the Shura Council. Our team was supposed to consist of four members. One of them declined to come because of the visa issue. He is a well known businessman who has a very large industrial company, a publicly traded company. He said he met a US consultant visiting Saudi Arabia and talked with him about a tender for $250 million of equipment. The Saudi businessman said the only restriction was no American companies please. Why? We cannot get our technicians to the United States for training. We do not know when they will be accepted or admitted. We do not know when they will get their visas. So why should we hassle with the Americans? We can find the same equipment somewhere else.
SUSRIS: So businesses are purposely avoiding the US specifically because the exchange of people has become so difficult.
Doctor Qunaibet: Absolutely, if you are a businessman and you know that to get a visa will take you five months, you will avoid this country.
SUSRIS: Aside from the visa issue, let’s talk about the other components of the relationship. What is your assessment of the other areas being addressed in the US-Saudi Strategic Dialogue, for example: energy, economics, military affairs, counter terrorism and consular affairs?
Doctor Qunaibet: I think all these areas can be done in the right way as good friends — friends as in a mutually supporting relationship that has lasted for about 70 years. But I don’t know why the visa issue is out of touch. I cannot explain it at all. In Britain they had a terrorist attack last summer. Spain had a terrorist attack. Yet, getting a visa for Britain or Spain for a Saudi did not change. It takes about one week for Britain, about two weeks or less for Spain. So what is going on with Americans?
SUSRIS: As a member of the Shura in Saudi Arabia do you get official explanations about the issue?
Doctor Qunaibet: We can’t get any answers. As a Shura member — I’m Vice Chair of one of the most important committees, the Economic and Energy Affairs Committee — we don’t get any answers.
I met the US Ambassador in February and I told him my cousin was coming to study in the United States and he had an appointment for the 29th of May. He might miss the summer semester in Oregon because he didn’t know when they would issue the visa and the summer session started June 6.
I met a businessman in Dubai and I was really depressed when he told me he got his visa from the US consulate in Dubai in 48 hours.
SUSRIS: What about travel by American business people to Saudi Arabia. As Vice Chair of the Economic Affairs committee in the Shura what is your assessment of the interest and ability of Americans to travel to the Kingdom in view of visa problems, travel warnings and so forth?
Doctor Qunaibet: I think the American State Department and Homeland Security Department are a little bit paranoid about security. Not all Western people find Saudi Arabia the same way. It’s not as if it is easy to distinguish Americans from Europeans.
It is just pure paranoia, that is all I can say. As far as American businesses in Saudi Arabia, if you don’t count the military deals I think the amount of American products coming to Saudi Arabia is very small, because there is fierce competition from Southeast Asia and Europe.
If you take the automobile industry for example, the US share in our market barely reaches 10-15%. Saudi Arabia imports about 50% of cars from Toyota alone.
So between the problem of getting visas to do business in the United States and the reluctance of American business people to come to the Kingdom people will just dump US products.
US Government – Visas
US-Saudi Summits – SUSRIS Special Section
Perspectives on US-Saudi Relations from Foggy Bottom: A Conversation with Assistant Secretary of State
C. David Welch – SUSRIS Interview – Mar. 30, 2006
More Saudi Students in U.S. – SUSRIS IOI – Dec. 18, 2005
Treat Us Like Human Beings, Saudi Reporter Tells US Ambassador – Arab News – Dec. 8, 2005
The Impact of U.S. Visa Policies: Implications for America’s Economy – An Initial Inquiry – National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce – SUSRIS IOI – Sep. 12, 2004
Education Official Calls on US to Simplify Student Visa Procedures – Arab News – May 3, 2005
Foreign Students’ Toughest Test: Getting In – By Susan Taylor Martin – SAF IOI – Feb 24, 2004