Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, and South Korea are the only other countries that have been granted this favored nation status, which is designed to make entry into the U.S. easier for low-risk foreign travelers.
According to Fox News, the decision was made in January after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met with Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism issued a report on March 20 stating that the Obama administration’s decision to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s status was a sharp change from 2010, when that country was among 14 whose travelers had to undergo extra screening in reaction to the attempted Christmas 2009 bombing over Detroit.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) told the IPT that including Saudi Arabia in the Global Entry program for “trusted travelers” was wrong.“I think you have radical Wahhabism in certain elements in Saudi Arabia,” he said, referring to a fundamentalist Islamic sect. “And I think to be more lenient there than in other places would be a mistake.”
“There were 15 [hijackers] from that country,” Wolf added, “and there is a lot taking place in that region.”
After agreeing to the change in status in January, Napolitano said, “I am proud of the bond between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and today’s meeting marks another major step forward in our partnership.
“By enhancing collaboration with the government of Saudi Arabia, we reaffirm our commitment to more effectively secure our two countries against evolving threats while facilitating legitimate trade and travel.”
Some officials are questioning why Saudi Arabia gets to reap the benefits of the program, when key U.S. allies like Germany and France are not enrolled. Israel has reached a deal with the U.S., but that partnership has not yet been implemented.
This is not the first time that the program has sparked controversy. Critics objected in late 2010 when Mexican citizens were included in the program, raising concerns that drug cartels would quickly learn how to exploit loopholes in the plan. DHS officials, however, insisted at the time that people who attain trusted traveler status don’t get a free pass and are still subject to random searches.
According to the IPT report, Global Entry, which was started in 2008, streamlines the screening process at airports for trusted travelers, allowing customs authorities to focus on those travelers they know less about, in order to more effectively identify potential threats and keep our borders and country secure.