Dammam, Washington D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- There is deep concern among Saudi students with scholarships to study in the United States, following the introduction of enhanced security search measures affecting passengers from 14 states, including Saudi Arabia. These measures have been taken against the backdrop of the attempt by a Nigerian extremist to blow up an American airliner on 25 December 2009. The fear of these students is all the more acute as they have returned home to spend the New Year holidays with their parents. Groups of these students have started to return to the United States as the New Year holidays come to an end. Meanwhile, the sequestration of a Saudi student at Amsterdam airport in the Netherlands, for two days, has fueled these fears. In fact, many students fear a return to the measures that were taken in the wake of the 11 September incidents: enhanced checking of Saudi passengers, delays in granting entry visas, and other complications that followed the blowing up of the World Trade Center in 2001.
Ahmad al-Kaabi, a Saudi scholarship student in the State of Texas, in the United States, returned to Saudi Arabia a few days before the attempted airliner bombing. He said that he had noticed a great deal of concern among his fellow scholarship students, and mainly the fear that the enhanced security checks would affect their entry into the United States and their return there to finish their studies. Al-Kaabi pointed out that the particular treatment of Saudi nationals at checkpoints on their way to the United States is not the result of this incident; in fact, it has been in force for years, but the announcement that Saudi travelers are part of the list of the nationals of 14 states who will be subject to enhanced security searches will further complicate the situation. Al-Kaabi added: “During our trips to the United States we notice that we are treated differently by the security agents as soon as they see the green passport,” which is a sign of Saudi identity.
In the same context, Osama al-Naqli, director of the information desk at the Saudi Foreign Ministry, said in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat that the ministry, through the Saudi Embassy in Washington, has asked for clarifications about the enhanced security checks that will be imposed on Saudi nationals traveling to the United States. Asked about the details of this clarification request and the measures that will be taken to follow up the situation of Saudi scholarship students, Al-Naqli said that an answer to this question will be given later.
For his part, Dr Muhammad al-Isa, cultural attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said that these measures will not affect the situation of Saudi students who are sent to study in the United States. This will not affect students and should not frighten them, and the measures in question are quite normal, he said.
Moreover, the students in question have been dealing with these measures by exchanging advice and consultations through their Internet forums so that their return trips may take place safely. The first advice shared by the students is to change their travel itineraries to avoid stopping in any European country before arriving at American airports.
Mansour al-Ghamidi, a Saudi scholarship student in the State of Boston, said that the best option to avoid what he described as the “unfair” measures against Saudis is to look for direct flights from Saudi Arabia to the US, without any stop-over. He warned his fellow students against stopping-over in European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. Shared student advice includes warnings not to carry any liquid in suitcases to avoid passengers being subjected to additional complications. In this context, a jar of honey carried by a passenger caused the closing down of an entire airport in California last Tuesday.
Foremost among the advice, the students urged each other to recite invocations and supplications of God to ensure that the search measures pass safely. There are 22,000 Saudi scholarship students in the United States. They are studying at the bachelor, masters, and doctorate levels in various domains.
For its part, the US State Department said that it wants to encourage people to continue traveling to the United States. A US State Department official said to Asharq Al-Awsat: “The United States wants to encourage all legitimate international travelers, both Americans and foreigners, to go to the United States for visits, work, or study.” Concerning the new security measures, she added: “We have also to take responsible measures to ensure the safety of all passengers.” Answering a question that Saudis as well as the states whose nationals are subject to enhanced security measures at American airports may have second thoughts about studying in the United States, the official said: “We hope that a record number of Saudis will continue studying in the United States.” She added: “Encouraging academic and intellectual exchanges between states is essential to build greater mutual understanding, and to bolster and secure the economic prosperity of the United States.”
The official continued: “We are encouraged by the fact that more that 20,000 Saudi students have chosen to study in the United States, and that a record number of Saudi travelers is visiting the United States every year for work and leisure.” She stressed: “We have worked hard in recent years to improve visa services in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran.”