48 hours after President Bola Tinubu spoke about pulling down walls negating against smooth bilateral trade relations with Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities have dealt Nigeria a blow below the belt.
They cancelled the visas of 264 passengers airlifted by Nigeria’s major carrier, Air Peace, on arrival at the country from Kano this Monday.
The President participated in the Saudi-African Summit on Friday.
Next day, Saturday, the President, according to a statement from his office, began his deliberation with the captains of Saudi Arabian Industry at the Nigeria-Saudi Investment Roundtable by making it clear that every negative perception or notion about what Nigeria has represented in the past with respect to the ease of doing business, monetary policy, and trade cooperation was no longer applicable.
Two days later, a Nigerian airline and 264 passengers got a bitter taste of Saudi hospitality. They were ordered back to Nigeria though they had valid visas. The visas were cancelled on arrival.
They insisted that the airline should return theThey insisted that the airline should return them to Nigeria.
Reports said that the flight took off from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, via the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano on Sunday night and arrived in Saudi Arabia’s major city, Jeddah, today without issues.
One source said that all the passengers and the airline personnel were shocked at the cancellation of the visas because during check the passengers went through the Advanced Passengers Prescreening System, APPS, which was also monitored by the Saudi Arabia authorities before the flight left Nigeria.
The source wondered whether what happened was a strategy to discourage the airline from operating to the destination because since it started the operation it has been recording a high load factor and even the flight expected to leave on Tuesday to Jeddah was already fully booked.
When the Nigerian embassy waded in Saudi authorities were said to have reduced the number of passengers that would be returned to 170 from 264.
Saudi Air has been operating directly from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and since Air Peace started flight service to the Middle East nation at relatively lower fares, it has been receiving high patronage and as a Nigerian carrier, it helps to conserve foreign exchange for the country.
A source from the Nigerian embassy in Jeddah said that even the Saudi immigration personnel said that they didn’t know who cancelled the visas but that they were cancelled when the airline was already airborne to Jeddah.
According to the source, “The airline was exonerated in all this as the APPS, which is live between both countries would have screened out any invalid visa and its passenger. The system accepted all affected passengers and passed them on.
“Those deported were 177 passengers and Air Peace has already left with them back to Nigeria. They are on their way to Nigeria now.”
Meanwhile, stakeholders in the sector have attributed the development to aeropolitics.
Stating that it is a way to force the Nigerian operator out of the route; unless the government intervenes, adopting the principle of reciprocity.
According to industry experts and the Chief Executive Officer, Centurion Aviation Security and Safety Consult, Nigeria, Group Captain John Ojikutu, the action of the Saudis is aero politics and diplomacy.
He also requested that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should step in immediately and intervene in the case.
He said that what happened showed why it is important for the Nigerian government to stand strongly with any Nigerian carrier designated to operate international destinations.
Ojikutu said that Nigeria should designate Nigerian airlines approved to operate out of the country as flag carriers, noting that the United States has no national carrier but all the airlines are supported by the government and are designated as flag carriers.
“The action of the Saudi Authorities is shocking. There is geopolitics there and there is also diplomacy. There is the need for the Nigerian government to stand firmly with Nigerian carriers and also designate them as flag carriers; so that other countries will know that they represent Nigeria.
“Government must come out and intervene. The government must be behind Air Peace now to ensure that it is not denied its rights as contained in the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) between the two countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must not keep quiet. Nigeria must not keep quiet. Ideally, the government is expected to stand behind any of the country’s airlines that it designates to fly overseas,” Ojikutu said.
Meanwhile, Tinubu told a meeting of Saudi officials and investors “I believe in this team that I have brought from Nigeria. When I took office, I declared the immediate commencement of bold and fundamental economic reforms. We have executed them, and we sustain the reform process. Today, I declare that red tape is gone!
“I believe in the full application of free market economics. Your money will flow easily in and easily out. The arbitrage around our nation’s old foreign exchange policy regime and the corruption that was associated with it is also gone!
“We took on those bold endeavours from day one in preparation for serious investors like you seated here. The greatest opportunity for any entity to prosper lies in its human capital. My team is prepared. We can produce. Our market is full of Nigerian youths who are brilliant, highly educated, industrious, and passionate about innovation and engagement with world-class services.
“The navigation of the ship of this great nation lies in the membership seated here. We are ready to answer all of your questions directly, even into this night if need be. The sky is not just the limit, but it is the destination for our two countries and peoples,” the Nigerian President confidently affirmed.
Saudi Arabia’s Trade and Investment Minister, Kahlid El-Falih, noted the passion and candid expression of the Nigerian leader, saying that after listening to the President speak from his heart without any written remarks about what is possible between the two nations, Nigerians can expect that the Saudi investment community will respond not in words alone, but with substantial new investment across several sectors of the Nigerian economy.
“The Minister of Commerce and I will be visiting Nigeria either before the end of this year or very early next year with a very large delegation of Saudi CEOs from all key sectors. We know you are ready for business, so we do not want to come to Nigeria for any exploratory discussion. We are coming for implementation. It is an action visit.
“Mr. President, you agree with me that good intentions alone will not take us anywhere, so we will prepare well with your team and our investors will align with your officials, beginning now, to develop a concrete work plan of investments in the key sectors for takeoff when we meet again. When we meet soon in Abuja, it will be to sign and begin delivery on all agreements. We will also use the opportunity to formally inaugurate the Nigeria-Saudi Business Council.
Saudi Arabia’s Commerce Minister, Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi, previewed how Saudi Arabia can further contribute to the soft infrastructural reforms needed to unlock game-changing quantums of foreign direct investment in Nigeria.
“We have signed an agreement with the World Economic Forum on the reform of the services sector in Africa. In developed economies, the services sector contributes enormously to GDP. But in the developing world, we tend to focus on goods. So, we would like to make Nigeria the pilot country in this agreement with WEF to study Nigeria’s service challenges to make it seamless and make the supply chains across sectors streamlined and raised to international standard to enhance Nigeria’s economic and investment viability over the long-term,” he stated.
● Additional report by Vanguard