POWER IN THE PASSPORT

UAE 2018 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: VISA RELATIONS

Rankings from the 2017 Passport Index are a tangible reflection of the Gulf nation's foreign diplomatic efforts.

The UAE far and away outshines fellow GCC member states in Arton's 2017 Passport Index, with a visa-free score of 127—meaning an Emirati passport gets visa-free or visa-upon-arrival access to 127 countries. The UAE is tied with St. Kitts and Nevis for 24th in the global rankings. Germany and Singapore tie for first with an index of 159, making the UAE's distance from the front-runners 32 countries.

While Kuwait, the next-highest scoring country in the GCC, trails the UAE with a score of 85, this indicates the power of the UAE passport is closer to that of Germany than the GCC member states.

The remaining Gulf States hover in the range of high 60s-high 70s: Bahrain has 75 countries for which citizens can enter visa free or with a visa on arrival, Oman's index is 71, and Saudi Arabia brings up the rear with 69.

Compared to 2016, the UAE increased five points in the index from 122 and moved up three rankings from 27th.

The notable difference between the UAE's passport index and other Gulf States is the result of enhanced foreign relations and a recent agreement with Europe to allow Emirati citizens to travel more easily throughout the continent. Sulaiman Al Mazroui, the man behind the visa-free agreement with Europe and formerly stationed in Brussels as head of the Mission to the EU, is now the UAE ambassador to the UK.

Ambassador Al Mazroui claims the UK is the most demanded destination for Emirati citizens, and currently, they apply for an electronic visa waiver to enter the non-Schengen country. He would like to see this eliminated and believes greater tourism, investment, and trade could come from a more favorable visa regime—ideally no visa at all.

Another region that allows markedly freer Emirati movement is Latin America. Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Grenada afford UAE citizens visa-free travel, but the same arrangement is not available for citizens of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, or Oman.

This aligns with the visits made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, throughout the region and the opening of embassies and consulates in Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba. Brazil alone represents 67% (USD2.5 billion) of the UAE's total trade with Latin America, according to the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce.

Also, the Emirates have non-stop flights to Argentina and Brazil, and Dubai Petroleum World operates ports in the two countries as well as Peru.

Looking east, the UAE and Japan announced new visa-free arrangements. Beginning July 1, 2017, Emiratis can enjoy multiple entries into Japan for 30 days with registered e-passports.

This simplified visa regime follows a visit by the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation with diplomats in Japan and precedes the appointment of a Japan-UAE Goodwill Ambassador. As the UAE hosts the largest Japanese community in the Gulf region, the ambassador will enhance cultural exchange and bolster bilateral relations.

The UAE has plans for agreements with 18 more countries to come to fruition in 2017 and has also launched the Passport Force Initiative to break into the top-five most important passports by 2021, symbiotically supporting other diplomatic strengths.

One way to further foreign relations would be to reciprocate visa-free access for foreigners wishing to enter the UAE.

As a receiving nation, the UAE only accepts 56 passports without a visa or with a visa upon arrival. Except for Saudi Arabia, which only welcomes five countries, other GCC states are only slightly more welcoming; though, other GCC citizens do not enjoy the same powerful passport as Emiratis.

The imbalance of accessible countries compared to welcomed countries could be an opportunity for the UAE to advance relations and become a top-five most powerful passport.