One of the objectives in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation’s strategy for 2017-2021, revealed on February 15 last year, centred on a remarkable ambition for a small, dark-blue book with a golden falcon on its cover.
“We are seeking to make the UAE passport among the world’s most powerful five travel documents by 2021,” said Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
In 1971, the year of the UAE’s Foundation, such a prospect would have been dismissed as a fantasy. But less than a year after Dr Gargash’s bold announcement, it is clear that the remarkable ambition is well within reach, and that its likely achievement by the time of the nation’s 50th anniversary will be far more than merely symbolic.
For many people a passport is a necessary inconvenience, forgotten at the back of a sock drawer for most of the year and found only after a desperate search scant hours before rushing to the airport for a holiday flight.
For a nation as a whole, however, its passport and the extent to which it grants its citizens visa-free access to the rest of the world is a measure of its status, and diplomatic and economic influence in the pursuit of its interests in an increasingly globalised economy.
The news this month that in the past decade the UAE passport has increased in global acceptance more than any other will come as no surprise to those who have followed the dramatic evolution of the nation in the 46 years since its foundation.
This year’s edition of the internationally recognised Henley Passport Index says holders of UAE passports can now visit 134 countries without a visa, up from 121 in 2017.
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This means the UAE passport is now ranked the 32nd most powerful in the world, up six places since last year.
The authoritative index, compiled by Henley & Partners, an international company specialising in residence and citizenship planning, shows that in the past decade the passport has climbed an “impressive” 28 places – or more, depending on whom you ask.
The alternative Arton Capital Passport Index ranks the UAE passport as the 25th most powerful in the world.
Either way, the achievement is even more revealing when compared with the country’s GCC neighbours.
Its nearest regional rival is Kuwait, whose citizens receive visa-free welcome in only 83 countries, ranking it 58th in the world. Qatar (77 countries) is in 62nd place, followed by Bahrain (75) in 63rd, Oman (71) in 65th and Saudi Arabia (69) in 67th.
Gaining the right for UAE citizens to travel to so many countries without the need to secure a visa means far more than the easing of summer vacation plans for Emiratis.
The growing influence of the little blue book is a product of the UAE’s economic and diplomatic ambitions and increasing status on the world stage.
“There are multiple factors that cause the upward trajectory in a passport’s ranking on the index,” says Marco Gantenbein, director at Henley & Partners Middle East. “But one important attribute of a powerful passport is the effectiveness of its soft power in the face of mounting international challenges.
“A country’s soft power demonstrates its influence or ability to shape the preferences of other people through its most attractive assets, such as culture, education, language and values.”
Opening its doors to expatriates, expertise and investment from a carefully selected range of countries has given the UAE invaluable access to international know-how in every field of industry and technology, from town planning, education and architecture to solar power, satellite technology and nuclear energy.
But it could be argued that perhaps the greatest benefit of that far-sighted policy, initiated in the earliest days of the Federation, has been the reciprocated right of Emiratis to travel abroad, to study, trade and invest for the benefit of their country.
The World Bank has consistently ranked the UAE higher than any other Arab country for the ease of doing business and the nation has steadily climbed the overall ranking, up from 30th place in the world in 2014 to 21st in this year’s report, just one place behind Germany.
The UAE’s far-sighted “build it and they will come” policy – embracing attractions ranging from stunning holiday destinations, man-made islands and world-renowned architecture to ports, airports and technical infrastructure – has also clearly paid off.
The UAE is 17th in the World Economic Forum’s 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Index, assessed on 12 “pillars” of excellence, including infrastructure, technological readiness, higher education and training and health.
Its nearest Arabic rival is Qatar in 25th place, followed by Saudi Arabia (30), Bahrain (44), Kuwait (52), Oman (62) and Jordan (65).
“Wise leadership, a well-diversified economy and world-class infrastructure demonstrate the country’s resilience and strong foundations,” says Mr Gantenbein.
And while these factors attract more inward migration, “it is the nation’s increased bilateral relations, strong diplomatic resources, stability and adoption of global best practices that transfer the power to its passport”.
The UAE’s most recent jump to 32nd place in the Henley league was a result of its visa-waiver agreement with China, which became effective this week.
“This resulted from both the countries enjoying strong bilateral trade relations,” Mr Gantenbein says. “This exemplifies the UAE’s strong co-operation ties with its international counterparts and as a result its growing soft power.”
In 2015 the power of the UAE passport received a boost when the country became the first in the Arab world whose citizens were granted a visa waiver for the 26 European countries that comprise the Schengen states – most of Europe.
But while the UAE passport guarantees visa-free entry to 134 countries, the citizens of only 48 countries outside the GCC can claim the same privilege on visiting the UAE.
Of these, passport-holders from 30 countries – including France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland – are granted 90-day, multiple-entry visas on arrival, valid for six months. Those from the other 18 countries – including the UK, US, Canada, Russia and China – can enter only once and stay for a maximum of 30 days.
Can the UAE passport really reach the top five by 2021? At the current rate of improvement, certainly.
It is now only 44 places behind Germany, whose passport is welcome visa-free in 177 countries and is consistently top of the Henley Passport Index, followed closely by the rest of Europe, Japan and the US.
Unsurprisingly, at the bottom of the table can be found troubled countries such as Syria (28), Iraq (27) and Afghanistan (24).
For the holders of UAE passports, the gift of visa-free access to so many countries opens up untold opportunities, but for the nation it means even more. In an increasingly globalised world, influence goes to those states both willing and able to engage with the rest of the planet on their terms.
In an article in The Guardian in November, Tristram Hunt, the director of the UK’s Victoria and Albert Museum, hailed the creation of Louvre Abu Dhabi as signifying nothing less than “the rise of the nation, from struggling pearl fishing settlement to major geopolitical player”.
The same can be said for the rise of the UAE passport. In living memory, the people of the future UAE made a precarious living diving for pearls.
Today, as the power of a small blue book with a golden falcon on its cover attests, for their descendants the world is their oyster.