x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A National ID in the wallet but nowhere to show it

It took nearly two months of effort to acquire the new United Arab Emirates National ID card. But the question remains: what is it good for?

The border beckoned like the peak of a bureaucratic Everest. After 58 days of effort, a mission that included four cab rides and a two-hour jaunt to the far-reaches of Mussafah, I was itching for a chance to show off the new contents of my wallet.

In my possession as I rolled up to the Al Darah crossing with Oman was the country's most elusive document, indisputable proof of residency and identity.

A newly minted United Arab Emirates National ID card. Biometric data and all.

"We don't need this one," said the UAE immigration officer as I handed him the hologram-heavy ID, quickly deflating my enthusiasm. "But," I stammered. Don't need it? "I'm very proud of it. It has this little chip with all my information, and ..."

"Not yet. When they finish all people," he said. "But not yet."

Not yet? In truth, I was kind of expecting the cold shoulder, though not necessarily from the UAE government. For months the Emirates Identity Authority had been warning residents and Emiratis alike that they faced stiff penalties should they fail to acquire their ID by the new year. As a relative new comer to the country, I took these warnings at face value.

Needless to say, when the deadline for obtaining one of these essential accessories was moved, I was somewhat miffed. And yet, the more I survey fellow expats, the more my original disappointment morphed into an over-inflated sense of pride, the type that demands a retelling.

Consider how rare these IDs are. Precise figures are sketchy, but assuming that the UAE has a very conservative 4.5 million residents, at the current pace of card production - a reported 10,000 daily - it will take many months to get every resident and national outfitted. And that's if everyone self-registers, a task only a third of the country got around to last year.

Indeed, one colleague, who's lived in the UAE his entire life, says he knows no one inside his extensive network of friends and family that has ever succeed in pulling one of these babies from the clutches of the bureaucratic maze. "A perfect storm" of luck is how he described the course of events that conspired to make it happen.

For me the journey to ID acquisition started with a trip to the Abu Dhabi traffic and licensing department. As I found, American expats can't get a UAE licence without a National ID. It took me three visits to the licence department to figure this out.

When I returned for a fourth time I was politely told that I'd now need to be fingerprinted and retinal scanned, all part of the official National ID application process. "Where do I get that done?" I asked with a sigh.

The fellow behind me in line - let's call him Steve - wondered the same thing. Like me he'd been given the run-around and was growing frustrated. And like me, he was committed to ticking items off his to-do list. We agreed to team up.

It would be an understatement to call this a wild goose chase. I'm a pretty experienced outdoor navigator. And Steve - he's a former British military officer who has traversed some of the world's most inaccessible and hostile places on Earth. Together, it took us nearly two hours of driving in circles, map and GPS in hand, before we found the appropriate office in Mussafah. A half-dozen people helped us locate this place as we motored around the emirate. If it weren't for them, we'd probably still be driving.

Steve parked. We jumped out. After a little negotiating with the security guard we were ushered into a massive room with dozens of service counters, a 100-plus seat waiting area, gleaming computers monitors - and about five customers.

I think I can speak for both Steve and I when I say, thank goodness that's over. Not until our IDs expire, in 2013, will we have to apply again. I've also since got my drivers licence. Steve has his too.

But like a perfect coda, this story has one more twist.

"Merry Christmas and glad to know you have got your ID card," Steve wrote to me in an email last month. "I have had a text saying it will be ready on 3rd Jan, but when I telephoned to speak they had no record of me on system. How did you get yours delivered?"

Honestly, I have no idea. We applied on the same day. With the same agent at the same time, in fact. Maybe, to quote my colleague, I was graced with a perfect storm of luck.

Either way, I do have one consolation for Steve and everyone else navigating this process: at least you don't need your National ID to take a day trip to Oman.