Saudi Arabia grants free visa extension to residents stranded by Covid travel restrictions

Relieved residents welcome the move saying they had no control over flight schedule

FILE PHOTO: A Bahraini man holding Saudi and Bahraini national flags welcomes Saudis as they enter Bahrain, after Saudi authorities lift the travel ban on its citizens after fourteen months due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, at King Fahad Causeway, Bahrain, May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo
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Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered authorities to extend visit, exit and return visas free until June 2 for residents of the kingdom.

The extension applies to kingdom's residents from countries placed on the red list that currently faces a travel ban because of Covid-19 pandemic. The visas will be extended automatically and with immediate effect, authorities said.

For Saudi Arabia's residents stranded in countries worst hit by the pandemic, including India, this comes as a huge relief.

“My wife and kids travelled to see my parents in March and haven’t been able to return as things took a turn for the worse,” said Mohsin Khan, an Indian expatriate living in Jeddah.

"I have lost friends and family members due to Covid-19 and the only thing I want is my family to return and be safe here. King Salman's generosity and understanding of our financial situation helps us a lot because we have no control over flights and cannot bring back our families until the country resumes flights again."

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Expats in Saudi Arabia currently have to pay at least 200 Saudi riyal ($53.33) for an exit and re-entry visa that last up to one month when they travel abroad. Once issued, dates cannot be changed and travellers would need to buy a new entry visa if they extend the time on the one that was originally issued. According to the General Directorate of Passports, the extension applies to iqamas and visitors visas.

The fine for overstaying an exit visa is 1,000 Saudi riyal and the fine for overstaying on visit visa is 100 Saudi riyal per day.

Mr Khan also pays 4,500 Saudi riyal per dependent every year.

"I end up paying more than 13,000 Saudi riyal in total for the family's iqama [residency] renewal every year."

Companies that hire expatriate workers provide and pay for their iqamas or resident permits. But the monthly fee of 400 riyals is  usually covered by residents themselves for each of their dependents.

The Saudi government started charging fee for dependents from July 2017, when the Finance Ministry announced the move in a bid to diversify sources of non-oil revenue.

In an effort to further lessen the financial burden of Covid-19, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) on Monday revealed that the state will cover all medical expenses for Saudi citizens and residents as well as GCC citizens who need hospital treatment after testing positive for the coronavirus during their institutional quarantine upon arrival to the kingdom. The announcement comes in line with the kingdom's efforts at finding solutions for those affected by the virus and for those travelling to and from the kingdom.

The aviation authority guidelines state that all passengers who test positive for Covid-19 will undergo isolation in the institutional quarantine for a period of 10 to 14 days. It says they advise all air carriers to issue a notice on their websites that the Saudi government requires institutional quarantine for all those travelling to the kingdom and that arrivals must have medical insurance that covers the cost of their treatment related to Covid-19.

Saudi authorities, meanwhile, have intensified efforts to inoculate the population.

More than 12.9 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered so far, the Health Ministry said on Monday.

The country has increasedstepped up efforts to ensure implementation of health and safety protocols.

Authorities continue to inspect facilities and arrest those breaching social distancing and gathering limits.

"You can tell that the Saudi government is concerned about both its citizens and residents equally as they continue to provide free vaccines and are now ready to cover hospital treatment during the institutional quarantine," said Lujain Ahmed, a Saudi citizen living in Jeddah.

"We are grateful to live in place that provides safety and care for all those living here. Many of my expat friends from Lebanon, US, South Africa and Pakistan feel safer here than in their home countries," she said.

"The country has undoubtedly laid out strong rules and honestly strict measures are needed at time when our Covid-19 cases are surpassing the daily 1,000-mark. I think the fear of penalties might help public understand how crucial and sensitive the situation is."