For keen travellers, possessing a dog-eared passport whose pages are peppered with a colourful mix of entry and exit stamps can be an oddly gratifying achievement. As a tangible record of fulfilling and exciting journeys overseas, it is enjoyable to flick through it from time to time, reflecting on memorable moments and happy experiences. Many people even tend to keep expired passports as a reminder of those thousands of kilometres travelled and all the ups and downs that came with them. What is much less enjoyable is the bureaucratic and frequently exasperating process of applying for visas and travel permits to go from one country to another in the first place.
In the Gulf, currently it is only GCC citizens who enjoy free movement between the bloc’s six nations. Most foreign residents of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman often require visas to travel around the region, even for a weekend trip. Many international visitors, keen to explore the rich heritage of the Arabian Peninsula, frequently need to apply for different visas, or at least visa waivers, if they want to visit each of the Gulf countries. It’s a less-than-ideal state of affairs for those who want to explore and learn about this part of the Middle East with as little fuss as possible.
However, it seems that things are about to change, with recent statements suggesting that a pan-GCC visa is in the works. Last Monday, Abdulla bin Touq, the UAE’s Minister of Economy, told state news agency Wam that a single unified tourist visa system is being developed with the aim of simplifying travel within the GCC and boosting tourism. According to the minister, it is hoped that the new system will be introduced some time between 2024 and 2025.
The idea of free travel around the Gulf has been around for some time and in May this year, Bahrain’s Tourism Minister, Fatima Al Sairafi, reportedly told a panel discussion at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai that such a development could happen “very soon”.
A GCC-wide visa is an idea with real merit, and the potential benefits are many: more tourism; closer co-operation between the Gulf nations; and a boost for the countries’ efforts to diversify their oil and gas-focused economies. It is not difficult to imagine the positive reception such a streamlined process would receive; just as travellers currently talk about “visiting Europe” – that is, travelling to several neighbouring countries on a Schengen visa – so people could conceivably talk about “visiting the Gulf”. A journey that begins in the 21st-century metropolis of Dubai, takes in the natural beauty of Oman’s Salalah during khareef and ends in the ancient Saudi oasis city of AlUla would be quite a trip.
As with any significant policy change, however, there are challenges to overcome. Right now, the GCC countries have different visa requirements for different passport holders – some qualify for a visa on arrival while others must apply and pay in advance. Some can come without a visa at all. The bloc will need to develop a common application and processing system, something that will require detailed ministerial engagement, technological harmonisation and border co-ordination. And with more visitors comes additional challenges, such as developing tourism in a sustainable way, offering options for people on different budgets, and making sure the infrastructure and facilities are in place that could handle an increased influx of holidaymakers and regional travellers.
Nevertheless, the potential benefits for the GCC should outweigh such concerns. The organisers of Expo 2020 Dubai recorded more than 24 million visits during the six-month world’s fair – no mean feat given the way in which the Covid epidemic affected international travel at that time. Last year’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar also showed that it is possible to successfully manage a huge wave of visitors from around the world. The tournament’s success will have been closely watched by other GCC states, several of which experienced an economic boost of their own thanks to the event. Hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi recorded increased business, and Saudi Arabia capitalised on the sporting extravaganza by offering 60-day visas to all those who held Qatar-issued Hayya cards during the event.
The first World Cup in the Middle East is not the only precedent for flexible approaches to visas. Although holders of a Schengen visa can explore 27 European countries, this is not the only example where obtaining one permit gives travellers access to other destinations. A valid US tourism visa, for example, allows certain passport holders to enter more than a dozen other countries – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similar arrangements are in place for holders of Canadian or British visas or residency cards. Other common-visa systems exist, such as the Single Central American Visa that allows travellers access to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
There is still some way to go, and some questions remain – for example, will foreign residents of GCC countries be able to avail of the new system? Many would welcome a new system that makes travelling around the region easier. Nevertheless, we could be about to see another major change in how the Gulf engages with the world. It may just be that a pan-GCC visa is an idea whose time has come.