LOS ANGELES – For years, the United States has fingerprinted and photographed visitors from countries whose citizens could pose a security risk.
But Saudi Arabia, once considered one of America's staunchest allies in the Middle East, was never one of them. Now things have changed, and both countries are eyeing each other’s people with suspicion.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia — the country that was home to Usama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists — joined the list of countries whose citizens America fingerprints and photographs when they come to the States.
The Saudi Sept. 11 terrorists came to the U.S. on valid visas. Many Saudi students said the new rules made it impossible for them to continue their studies.
The government said it was a necessary step to ensure America's safety from future attacks. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that if such a system had been in place in 2001, it might have helped ferret out the terrorists who had overstayed their visit and stayed in the U.S. on expired visas.
Now the Saudis have started a similar policy for Americans traveling to their country, and that has some Americans steaming.
"This is clearly just a symbolic retaliation by the Saudi government for the new policies that have been imposed by the United States government," Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said.
Some 30,000 Americans live in the kingdom.
If that sounds too small-minded for international diplomacy, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif admitted as much in a recent interview with the Arab News.
"Our dealings (with other countries) will be reciprocal," he said. "We'll deal with every country in the same way as they deal with us."
While Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites of Islam, is not exactly a figurative mecca for American tourists, thousands travel there each year. Among them is Carolyn MacIntyre, of Geographic Expeditions, who is going to the kingdom to look into arranging tour groups. She said she's not bothered by the extra hassle.
"I don't really mind," she said. "I wish there was another way, I wish there were ways where everybody felt comfortable to the point where it wasn't necessary for anybody to do that."
But some politicians were less forgiving.
"What's alarming about this is that it reflects an attitude on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government that perhaps they are in some way being threatened by the people of the United Sates or we are no longer their friends," Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., said. "At a time when their people attacked us they should be bending over backwards to appeal to our friendship."
Neither the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., nor the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles would comment on the new policy.
But some see this move as more than an inconvenience. They say it's just another sign that Riyadh may not be as friendly to U.S. interests as it once was.