The benefits of a UAE citizenship are widely recognised and include medical, educational and housing benefits. However, over the past few years, the UAE passport has emerged as one of the most valuable travel documents in the world in terms of ease of obtaining visas, and, more recently, in terms of an increasing number of visa waiver agreements.
A few weeks ago, the UAE became the first county in the world to qualify for a new visa-free travel scheme for its passport holders to the United Kingdom. This is in addition to a soon-to-be-launched initiative that will allow UAE passport holders to travel to any of the 27 Schengen visa agreement states, expected to be implemented later in 2014. This will include most states in continental Europe, including non-European Union (EU) states such as Switzerland and Norway. Intense negotiations took place between the UAE and certain European states that resisted softening the visa procedures for Emiratis. The UAE first imposed visas on holders of diplomatic passports from these states and indicated that it may impose visa requirements for citizens of states that do not reciprocate the visa waiver. The delicate process was undertaken by Sulaiman Al Mazroui, the UAE Ambassador to Belgium and the EU, who assembled a ‘friends of the UAE’ group of diplomats at the European Parliament and the UAE ambassadors to the EU states, according to his interview with Gulf News.
In May 2013, the UAE foreign minister stated that up to 55 countries offer UAE citizens visas on arrival. However, the UAE’s senior-most diplomat added that this number does not live up to expectations. A few weeks ago, India announced that UAE passport holders would soon be issued visas on arrival in India. Although the Baghdad government does not give UAE passport holders visas on arrival, Iraqi Kurdistan offers a 15-day visa waiver to UAE citizens. Last August, Serbia announced that it would be offering visa waivers to UAE passport holders. Recently, the Henley & Partners Visa Restriction Index 2013 stated that 72 counties offer UAE passport holders visa free travel. However if one considers the list of countries that are expected to offer a visa waiver in the coming months in Europe and elsewhere, then this number will cross 100, making the UAE passport the best Arab passport by far.
The UAE passport is not merely a travel document, but is also an assurance that the government will do its best to assist citizens abroad. At the height of the hostile Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, tragedy struck when a young child went missing in the Nile River. The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately dispatched a rescue team of 28 divers to Egypt to assist in the search and recovery operations, despite initial resistance from the Brotherhood government in Cairo. In July 2013, a UAE citizen tweeted an urgent appeal to UAE Foreign Minister, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, asking for assistance for his ill mother who was in Oman. Despite a constant stream of messages from his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, the foreign minister immediately responded, ordering a special medical craft to airlift the citizen to a UAE hospital. Earlier, in March 2012, a UAE Interior Ministry task force rescued a kidnapped citizen in Nigeria without heeding the kidnappers’ ransom demands after a delicate operation that lasted a few weeks and involved negotiations and diligent police work. In 2010, the UAE Foreign Ministry launched a service named Tawajudi (“my presence”), wherein Emiratis could register their locations while travelling, on a secure and confidential ministry website, that would allow the government to assist them in emergencies.
Two recent significant milestones catapulted the UAE’s relations with what international relations expert Parag Khanna refers to as the Second World, i.e. small and medium-sized emerging economies. First, Abu Dhabi’s successful bid to host the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) in 2009. And second, Dubai’s successful bid to host the Expo 2020 in 2013 — the latter receiving 116 votes out of 168. The behind-the-scenes lobbying and extensive international travel to scores of countries involved in the voting, to win these states’ votes, also served as an opportunity to cement ties with these nations. At one point prior to the Irena vote, for example, the UAE foreign minister was visiting, on an average, one country a day while the ministry’s assiduous team visited more than 70 states in the run-up to the vote.
Although not exclusive to UAE citizens, travellers from Abu Dhabi will greatly benefit from a new a customs pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport — only the 16th such facility in the world — allowing travellers to clear US customs and immigration while still in the UAE. It is also expected that the European visa exemptions will be a catalyst for other states to consider a visa waiver for UAE passport holders. Over the next few years, even more countries are expected to relax visa requirements for UAE citizens turning the country’s travel document into a passport to the world.
This article was originally published in Gulf News on January 14, 2014.