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Obama Administration Ends Post-9/11 Restrictions on Saudis Entering U.S.

ABU DHABI -- The United States, a decade after Al Qaida strikes in New York and Washington, has opened its doors to Saudi nationals.

Diplomats said the administration of President Barack Obama has removed most restrictions on the entry of Saudis to the United States. They said the percentage of visa approvals for Saudis has reached unprecedented levels.

"The United States aims to raise the number of visas that it issues annually, particularly to Saudi nationals, who represent an important group," Joseph Hood, U.S. consul-general in the Saudi city of Dhahran, said.

Hood cited economic reasons for the easing of restrictions on Saudis. He said Saudi businessmen and students have been allowed to enter the United States in record numbers, with a 60 percent increase since 2010.

"They form a large segment of travelers to the United States, while they also represent an important economic factor," Hood said. "In addition, Saudi Arabia also sends a large number of students to the United States, and the number of Saudi students in the United States rivals those from India."

The U.S. consulate in Dhahran reported issuing 100 visas per day to Saudis. In 2012, the total number of visas reached 21,000, nearly 30 percent of which went to Saudi students or their relatives. About 15,000 Americans were reported to be based in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province.

The administration decision came amid a series of incidents in which Saudis were implicated in criminal and security offenses. In February 2011, a Saudi student was arrested on charges of plotting to bomb the home of former President George Bush in Texas. Diplomats said more than 70,000 Saudis were registered as studying in the United States.

Earlier this month, a sergeant in the Royal Saudi Air Force was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in Las Vegas. Mazen Alotaibi was identified as a member of a U.S. training program of Saudi military personnel at the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland near San Antonio, Texas.

But diplomats said the rate and process of approvals would be enhanced in 2013. They said the United States has approved more than 95 percent of visa applications for Saudi Arabia. Those rejected were told they had provided insufficient documentation.

"The consulate has gotten rid of many of the negativities that occasionally contributed to the delay in the visa application process, including the language factor, hiring staff that excel in speaking Arabic and English to facilitate our dealings with visa applicants, especially those who aren't fluent in English, particularly as it is mandatory for all visa applicants to be interviewed," Hood was quoted by the Saudi media as telling a news conference in December.


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