With my international driving licence wearing away I decided it was time to grit my teeth and take the trip to get my licence. The international licence had come in handy as it allowed me to hire a car for the first few months. But the international licence does not last forever so I started by trying to work out the requirements to apply for a Saudi Arabian driving licence:
Medical form: These are presumably present at the licensing office. Most large companies have a department or at least a person dedicated to helping foreigners negotiate the various official requirements. The form is issued by the General Traffic Department ( Ar. idaarat al-aamah lil muroor). The medical exam is quite cursory and the signing doctor confirms your blood group, eyesight and whether or not you are disabled in any way that will impair driving. No mention of heart attacks, epilepsy, stroke or diabetes is mentioned. Don’t forget to get the piece of paper suitably stamped, nothing like a good old round gleaming stamp.
Photocopies galore: I count the papers carefully making sure I have everything:
1. Identity card (known as your iqaamah or hawiyyah)
2. A copy of my current licence (European and N American licenses qualify),
3. A copy of my passport
4. A copy of the visa entry page in my passport
Letter of Introduction: A letter known as a ‘Letter of Introduction’ (Ar. kitaab ta’reef), this paper is essentially a letter from your employer confirming your are employed with your company. It should be on an official letter head addressed to the Traffic Department.
Eight photos, yes 8, two less than the total number of fingers that most people usually have. What happens with the eight copies of the photos is unclear but rest assured make sure if you come to live in this part of the world always carry a ready stash of photos in your wallet. Tip: Photos are cheaper than in the West, most studios will give you a digital copy of your photo which you can carry on a USB stick, it will save you some time when you ask for more copies. Carry two sizes a small and a normal passport sized one to cover most situations.
The fee, it is a very reasonable 75 Saudi Riyals for a five year licence. Just in case you could flash your Visa card take a deep breath. Fees must be made via an ATM machine directly to the government, so far so good. But one slight problem, it seems only certain banks are linked into this system. Most foreigners tend to have a fair degree of doubt about the efficiency and reliability of local banks. They tend to opt for banks that are familiar to them back home but come unstuck when they need to pay the various government fees. Local banks such Al-Rajhi are fully linked to the payment system. Where foreigners do not have accounts with such banks they usually find someone who does and pay them in cash and request a payment on their behalf. The ATM spits out a receipt which has the payment receipt, reference and your iqaamah or ID number.
Cash: You also need to carry 75 Riyals in cash to pay for the translation of your licence. This is separate to the 75 riyal fee above.
Having counted all my papers I made my way to the assisting department, a day was set for me to be taken to the licensing office and we were off:
08:45: Left place of work. We weaved across Jeddah via Madeenah Road, then Tahliah, then Makaronah, right at Ameer Maajid (aka sab’een road), left at Garnata street and then right at Arbaeen street. A U turn about half-way down and a right just after Manarat school. Roughly 1 km down the road we turn right and park the traffic office lies on our left.
09:10: The outside of the traffic department was a sea of people and make shift cabins where people were seeking help to fill in their forms. Photocopiers powered by petrol generators dotted the pavement and customer support staff were hawking the streets looking for people who looked a bit lost and tried to guide them to their shop. Walking quickly behind my guide I avoided their queries and we were soon through the gates entering into a building probably built in the late 60′s or 70′s. Soon we were through the front door and into a chaotic mass of people. The first thing that struck me which was unexpected was the presence of large easily read signs. They were written four different languages (Arabic, English, Fillipino, and one Indian language) were clearly numbered and easily read. I was looking around for a sign that would give some helpful instructions but could not find one. My guide asked me to join a queue while he waited for my arrival at the front.
Counter 1: the queue moved quickly, a man stood inside with a cup of cold coffee in a polysterene cup carefully placed on the inside ledge keeping him company. He was the ‘have you got all the papers’ man he would quickly glance at the papers and make sure all the paperwork was in order. He gave my papers a quick look and then with a flourish that he probably maintains for the first 2 hours of work he stamped my form. Forms in hand we moved to the next stop.
Counter 2: Eyesight test, I walk into a room a man sits with a long cane behind an empty desk. I sit down on the only other chair in the room and look at a mirror which reflects an eye chart from the wall opposite. Armed with his cane he looks rather sinister and blows a puff of smoke into the air. The cane is manouvered onto a letter – I repeat the letters and three letters later I have bagged another stamp and signature and move on. As I leave the eyesight testing counter I spot a room where blood tests are being performed on an industrial scale, blood groups are done locally I take a mental note.
Counter 3: The translation booth, I give my 75 riyals and hand over the card part of my licence. A few minutes of standing and the licence is translated. I dispense with paper part deciding making things complicated would slow things down – nobody blinks an eye and we soon move on.
Counter 4. A ticker tape system stands on the right and a dull red sign hanging overhead with numbers changing regularly. I instinctively head towards the ticket dispenser and take a ticket. My guide has decided to ignore the system and makes his way pushing through the people at the counter with my papers. He waves my papers at the officer standing on the other side hoping to avoid the queuing system. I sit down waiting to see what would happen. To my surprise he is politely rebuffed and asked to get a ticket number. I wave the ticket in my hand and let him know I have a ticket, he joins me and we sit down on the provided chairs. A moment to pen some of my observations down.
Soon our number appears and we submit our papers and use the ATM paid 75 riyals to submit the payment. We pay at the cashier pick up a receipt and the first stage comes to an end. My licence will be ready sometime later the agent tells me and he will pick it up and bring it back to my workplace. I look at my watch and to my surprise it is only 09:23.
As we leave without my new Saudi licence I wonder when I will get it, I am told by the guide about 2 days. As we return it turns out he is a second hand car sales man. After discussing what type of car I was looking for he just happens to have a car waiting outside the car park which he can show me. I have a quick look at the car and nearly faint at the strong smell of smoke that permeates the fabric of the car. I thank him and say sorry the car is not one I would be looking for. I am not too sure whether this disappointed him or not but the 2 days stretched themselves into 2 weeks, no clear explanation was given but I eventually acquired my credit card sized licence. I don’t complain as I am suely becoming acclimatised to the slower pace of life in this part of the world.