Religion is the engine that drives Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry, but when it comes to medical tourism, where the kingdom could provide high-quality healthcare to Muslim patients, the kingdom falls flat.
Despite being considered one of the world’s top countries in healthcare, with Western-trained surgeons and technologically advanced hospitals, Saudi Arabia lags behind the United States, Costa Rica, India and Thailand in terms of medical tourism.
A relatively new niche, medical tourism caters to patients who travel abroad for anything from cosmetic surgery to organ transplants, usually to save money.
Saudi Arabia is in a unique position to do well in medical tourism, given its religious significance to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
In its report on Saudi Arabia, the American International Journal of Contemporary Research noted that a combination of sophisticated marketing campaigns in other countries and the difficult process of issuing medical visas in Saudi Arabia conspired to make the kingdom an also-ran. Pilgrims with an umrah visa and people with a business visa may find healthcare, but medical visas are harder to come by.
Medical tourism in Saudi Arabia seldom even crosses most European tour operators’ radars.
“I’m unaware of any services [in] Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Premhar Shah, CEO and medical director of the United Kingdom-based Medical Tourist Company.
Shah said his company has turned its attention to Dubai, which has improved medical care and has increased its number of accredited hospitals.
“Most patients from Dubai and the Middle East travel to Malaysia and the UK for treatment, but now there is improvement in Dubai and we see patients going there,” Shah told Salaam Gateway.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, already has the infrastructure in place for medical tourism. The kingdom has 95 medical facilities, including 74 hospital programs, accredited by the Joint Commission International, which certifies medical facilities worldwide. Overall, Saudi Arabia has nearly 400 hospitals.
It also has a reputation for groundbreaking surgery. Since 1990 Saudi surgeons have separated 34 sets of conjoined twins from 20 countries — all free of charge — at the King Abdullah Specialist Children’s Hospital in Riyadh.
Perhaps the most significant treatments — if not the most lucrative — are organ transplants, which are generally unavailable to foreign patients. The kingdom is a desirable destination for organ transplants among GCC citizens because countries that used to provide low-cost transplants, such as war-torn Iraq and Syria, are no longer stable.
Dr. Faisal Shaheen, director general of the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation, said transplants increased 40 percent in 2015 from a year earlier. But he did not expect an increase in foreign patients because Saudi citizens and expatriates with legal residency are the first to receive care.
Shaheen said that government Saudi hospitals conducted 1,031 liver, kidney, heart and lung transplants in 2015, but that was largely due to Saudis unable to obtain transplants in other Middle Eastern countries.
“Lebanon and Jordan have started to become more rigid in their requirements for commercial transplants,” Shaheen told Salaam Gateway. “These countries are where most people from Saudi Arabia go to.”
To complicate efforts to open Saudi Arabia to foreign patients, an estimated 6,600 Saudi and expatriate patients are already on waiting lists for transplants.
“Only about five percent of the cases for transplants are non-citizens,” Shaheen said. “A foreigner must be in the kingdom for a year and have an Iqama (residency permit). We can’t accept patients with a visitor’s visa.”
Shaheen said that private hospitals offer a glimmer of hope for foreign patients. Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital and the Saudi German Hospital in Jeddah and the SAAD Specialist Hospital in Al-Khobar provide transplants for medical tourists.
Fakeeh Hospital, which is the largest private hospital in Saudi Arabia with 600 beds, established a Medical Tourism Department that helps issue medical visas and coordinates with tour companies to arrange transportation.
“In Saudi Arabia we have the private sector that can help issue a visa to be treated,” Shaheen said. “But (the visa) must be from an accredited center like SAAD, Soliman Fakeeh or Saudi German Hospital.”