The Next Country To Get A US Pre-Clearance Facility Is… Saudi Arabia?!?

Filed Under: Saudia

There are already quite a few airports that have US Pre-Clearance facilities. For those of you not familiar with them, it basically means that US Customs Border Protection officers are stationed at an airport outside the US, so you clear customs and immigration before boarding your US bound flight. That means you land in the US as a domestic passenger.

US Pre-Clearance signage at Dublin Airport

The intent of this is twofold. First and foremost, it’s supposedly to stop any passengers who pose a threat before they even board a US bound flight, rather than only after landing. Second of all, it’s intended to ease congestion at US airport immigration facilities.

The US is looking to expand the program, and in many cases the cost of these facilities is largely being picked up by foreign governments. For example, there’s a pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi, which is largely paid for by the UAE.

The US has the goal of expanding the number of facilities they operate around the world, and it looks like we now know which country will be next.

Per the Saudi Gazette, Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia will soon be getting US pre-clearance facilities. There’s not an exact timeline yet for when this will happen, but it seems that reputable sources suggest this is confirmed.

Saudia-Lounge-Jeddah-Airport - 51
Jeddah Airport terminal

This is puzzling, given how few flights there are between Saudi Arabia and the US. The only airline operating in the market is Saudia, and they split their US operations between Jeddah and Riyadh, as follows:

  • 4x weekly JED-JFK
  • 3x weekly RUH-JFK
  • 3x weekly JED-IAD
  • 4x weekly RUH-IAD
  • 3x weekly JED-LAX

So that’s a total of 10x weekly flights out of Jeddah, and 7x weekly flights out of Riyadh. It’s very puzzling that the US will be setting up these facilities for an airport with an average of one daily flight to the US.

Saudia-Business-Class-777 - 3
Saudia 777

The cost of these facilities is astronomical, given that they’re stationing CBP officers in these countries exclusively to staff the facilities.

In theory I suppose the real intent of these facilities is to stop “bad hombres” before they board their US-bound flights, so perhaps they feel there’s a higher percentage of those on these flights than others? I don’t know…

I’m stumped on this one!

What do you make of the US opening pre-clearance facilities in Saudi Arabia?

(Tip of the hat to Joey)

  1. I though Homeland Security said they would only operate these at airports with flights flown by US carriers after they complained the Abu Dhabi facility benefited a foreign carrier.

  2. The Saudis could be picking up the entire bill, but until I see a press release from DHS.

    IMHO, LHR, FRA, or NRT would make way more sense above all other airports.

  3. Money makes the merry go round. Little odd but why not. If US immigration and custom agents are paid by oil money, it is a win win both ways

  4. pre-clearance at LHR would be a nightmare, way too much traffic I think. The investment (staff) and size requirements would be astronomical.

    Gatwick or Manchester on the other hand might make sense.

  5. 1) Remember that the UAE is picking up the bulk of the cost of preclearance at AUH.

    2) The US government would rather stop people before they get on planes than when they land in the US [although of course the US government already authorizes passenger manifests prior to takeoff, this would be another ‘layer’].

    If there’s anywhere in the world with non-stop US flights where DHS would want this it’s Saudi Arabia.

  6. @Brad B I feel like US pre-clearance at LHR would be a mess – it’s crowded and time consuming as is. Furthermore, there would have to be facilities in both T3 and T5, which are not close to each other.

  7. My understanding is the host airport pays the cost of the facility. Saudi has the money to pay for something like this. Since it’s also a hotbed of terrorist activity, I’m sure CBP thought it was a no-brainer.

  8. I think pre-clearance in some of these airports is primarily a prestige project. Keep in mind that if you are connecting through these airports, pre-clearance actually makes things more stressful as you have more to get done in your connection point and minimum connection times are longer. Plus with global entry and automated passport control things are already getting better.

    I get the logic of having pre-clearance as Canadian airports where many flights from Canadian airports fly to locations in the US where there don’t even have immigration facilities. And also it means US airlines can better serve Canadian customers as connecting in the US means you exit from the plane right into the main terminal on flights from Canada.

  9. It’s to send a political signal that we are close with Saudi Arabia, especially after the vote in congress allowing civil lawsuits about 9/11.

  10. Some airports that seem to make the most sense (LHR, CDG, NRT) would actually be a nightmare for passengers. The ideal airport is large enough to have lots of US-bound traffic, but small enough that only 1-2 carriers handle the bulk of XXX-USA traffic so that consolidating it all in one place wouldn’t be terribly inconvenient for connections, lounges, etc.

    AUH is actually fairly ideal in this way.

  11. When I flew on JED-JFK nonstop on Saudia last year, the plane was half-full (only 8 business class passengers and I think 2-3 in F.) I’d imagine this facility in JED/RUH would be easier to manage in terms of volume unlike the one in AUH. I do wonder what the skyteam lounge would be like after passing through the preclearance facility since the one in JED was so-so at best.
    I do agree that it’s all about $$$ and the fact that the US is not paying for it. If it means the immigration queues in JFK Terminal 1 will be shorter now then that’s good for me 😉

  12. Please don’t ruin LHR or NRT/HND with pre-clearance. I’ve done it in AUH and DUB, and in both instances, the waiting area post pre-clearance is downright depressing. Out of the ones I’ve tried, only the Canadians get it right.

  13. How do I get that job. Talk about a low workload. I wonder if they will just contract it out like they do gate agents. I also think that in response KSA should have made it easier for US Tourist to visit. It’s near impossible without being Muslim or connected.

  14. The new airports being built in both cities are intended to become international hubs similar to others in the gulf region. SAUDIA is also said to be expanding its presence in the US in the next few years so it makes some sense to me.

  15. @DaninMCI
    They just did, passengers originating from the US and laying over in the kingdom can now get a 72 hour visa and that’s the first step towards making it easier to get there.

  16. I don’t understand why this is puzzling. Considering the terrorists and not to mention the “crazies” living there.. Im more surprised not more countries pre-clear Saudi .

    Oh and white people save your PC whining.

  17. @Psched
    “Considering the terrorists and not to mention the “crazies” living there”

    i think you are confused, the pre-clearing is coming to the USA, not for americans going the other way

  18. Not really so shocking in historical perspective. Saudi Arabia is, after all, famous as a place where no efforts were spared by to make life in Saudi as domestic-feeling as possible for American workers. Camps and worksites are designed to look and feel like they’re just another place somewhere in West Texas (including, for some time, segregation. *Vitalis, Aramco World, p 160-171.)

    So, I don’t know if this is an effort to bolster the sense of fluidity between the two places for the many, many Americans that go back and forth, but it doesn’t shock me that this would seem a reasonable place for one. Maybe not in terms of flights, but historically, its par for the course.

    Also, @Todd, don’t thank Google too much, because your Arabic translation is wrong.

  19. Based on my experience, I didn’t think the security screening/preclearance in DUB was as meticulous as it would’ve been at a US airport, so I’m not sure how effective that would be in keeping “bad hombres” out.

  20. This is a gift to our “friends” in Saudi Arabia — not that they deserve it.

    That said, I found the U.S. pre-clearance experience in Abu Dhabi annoying — the UAE guards interpreted the U.S. security rules more strictly than a power-hungry TSA agent and I still had to wait a long time for my luggage in NYC anyway. Adding insult to injury, the “domestic” luggage belts at JFK broke down due to all the bags from the Etihad A380.

    I also wonder about the global ramifications of more and more U.S. pre-clearance facilities. The obvious reason for it is to keep “bad hombres” out, but what if the Schengen member states or the UK also start demanding these facilities? When does it stop? Why is it fair the U.S. gets these facilities to keep “bad hombres” out but not France or the UK or Japan?

  21. Well, I have not heard this at all from work. The ones that I know for sure that are opening in 2017 is Stockholm and Toronto (downtown airport), and I believe Punta Cana is already operational or opening very soon. I have never even heard Saudi Arabia mentioned. I can’t see how CBP will staff these airports under the current model, nor do I know any officers who would even volunteer for it. There will have to be a very big incentive for this one I think. They can barely get people to volunteer for Abu Dhabi…(Though there are more volunteers than people selected which i know first hand)

  22. I don’t get why foreign airports or governments would pay for this.

    The airlines, maybe, as a marketing feature. Aer Longus makes a big deal about this in Dublin and Shannon.

    But personally I think it can be a pain as you have to get to the airport much earlier, and I’ve seen people miss their flights. Also if there is only a lounge before security, like in DUB, then you end up kicking your heels at the gates

  23. The simple logical way to decide where to put these facilities would be to look at the list of passengers denied entry on arrival in the US and what airport they embarked from and open these facilities at those airports. Currently if someone is denied entry the airline has to fly them back at their cost so maybe the airlines flying from those airports can be asked to chip in. Regarding getting rid of congestion there are much cheaper ways of doing it than pre-clearance e.g. fully staffing the already available counters at US airports when a number of international flights arrive at the same time

  24. As Gary mentions above, a purpose of these facilities is to screen prior to arrival on US soil. And funding is not planned to use US Taxpayer dollars; this was an issue back in 2013 for the pre-clearance operations in Abu Dhabi.

    Combined with Extreme Vetting procedures starting November 9th, the pre-clearance operations in SA will help keep us safe!

  25. Special relationship 😉 Goes back to the Kissinger petrodollar deal in the 70s and continues with Saudi Arabia being the largest contributor to the Clinton “Foundation”, one of the world’s largest purchaser of US armaments / tools of global terror (US being the world’s number one terrorist nation going all the way back to the Vietnam War and countless wars since). Needless to say I have no intention to _ever_ travel to either country (again), hence not so concerned about any public comments.

  26. So is it actually Americans who staff this facility/service?

    Perhaps the Saudis are admitting their own security is inadequate. Every time my hand luggage has gone through the X-ray at Riyadh airport I’ve yet to see a security person look at the monitor. They’re usually chatting with a friend or looking at their phone.

  27. I’m an American EXPAT that lives and works in Saudi Arabia. I have altered my travel to take advantage of the Pre Clearance in Abu Dhabi simply for the convenience of trying to make a connecting flight in the U.S. on the other side.

    Given the number of flights, this seems like an odd choice. Saudia is usually not the carrier of choice for expats going to and from the kingdom, as the service and amenities are not on par with the other Gulf carriers or even those that route through Europe.

    There is an effort underway to improve the airports in KSA, cleaner, better immigration and customs, etc. I see this as one more step in that direction. Though timelines to achieve these upgrades could extend over a long period of time.

    Unless there are better carriers, and or routes direct to the U.S., I’m not likely to change my flight arrangements to route through Riyadh or Jeddah and will route through another gulf city or Europe.

  28. I assume that Saudis are playing fully for this and footing the whole bill.

    My issue is how well are the flights check. Both from a customs and immigrants point but also from agricultural, CDC and wildlife enforcement.

    Also that money that is removed from the local economy and will be focus on saudis.

  29. Actually most passengers who are using the Abu-Dhabi pre-clearance facilities are Saudis (Saudi students to be more specific), so I think the proposed Saudi pre-clearance will simply complement the Abu-Dhabi one; so Saudis who will fly Etihad to the US (or even Emirates or Qatar Airways) will go through the Saudi pre-clearance instead of the Abu-Dhabi one.

  30. The US would see pre clearance at nearly every airport if they could. The rights of applicants for admission are far fewer and subject to the vagaries of local law in such facilities.

  31. It actually makes more sense to have something like that in Saudi Arabia than a European country like Germany. Saudi travelers are more likely to be turned back at US airport than Europeans.

    As a Saudi, I worry every time I arrive in the US, which would take flying of at least 12 hour and could go up to +24 hours with connecting flight. When I get there, I am really tired, and if I was asked to go back where I came, it’s going to be a nightmare. I recall once after 22 hours of flying I arrive at ATL, went to that side room (back when NSEERS was in effect), and a person right in front of me was put back on a flight. Yikes! That’s why now, many Saudis fly from AUH. We have about 100,000 students on scholarships in the US, add to that family/friends that might visit them, and people going there for business or pleasure.

    Saudi Arabia picks the bill this? : Why? and why not?

    Why? : When Saudis go to the US they spend money, and that adds to the US economy. If a passenger arrives there and was asked to turn back, who picks that bill? Likely the US Government. Many that come are students, and they do not have a return ticket.

    Why Not? Saudi Arabia sends a lot of students, government officials for training, etc, and the government pays for their travel. It would be a waste to fly them, then have them turned back at the border.

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