x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

New visa system launched

The new visa system was inconsistently applied on day one, with some officials saying they did not have key information about the new rules.

ABU DHABI/DUBAI // The new visa system was inconsistently applied on day one, with some officials saying they did not have key information about the new rules. The changes, which mainly affect non-exempt people from countries such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia, came into effect yesterday, but staff at Abu Dhabi International Airport and a major embassy said they had not received official notification of the new regulations, and were still working under the old rules. At Dubai International Airport officials said the rules were applied, although some requirements - such as compulsory health insurance - were waived because the necessary infrastructure was not in place.

People entering the UAE now must apply for a tourist visa, through a registered tourist company or hotel, a visit visa sponsored by a direct relative living in the UAE, or one of 14 other visa types, such as a conference or a medical visit visa. Anyone wanting to work in the UAE needs a work permit sponsored by an employer. The regulations also require people to leave the country when any existing visa expires, and those seeking to re-enter immediately are unlikely to be granted another visitor visa.

The rules, from which 33 nations are exempted, are intended to give officials better information about people entering the country, including the specific reason they are here. A Ministry of Interior official said immigration departments had implemented the new system nationwide. "It has been applied across the board," he said. However, officials at centres affected by the changes such as embassies and airports said they had been unable to implement the new rules fully.

It was "business as usual" at Abu Dhabi airport, said an airline official who did not wish to be named because he was not authorised to comment. Airline staff, responsible for checking the validity of passengers' visas before they board a plane, were not given clear instructions about the visa changes. The official said no one at the airport knew what the new policies were or whether immigration or airport staff should be collecting fees for tourist visas.

He also questioned whether immigration staff had installed the infrastructure for the changes. "Whilst these proposed changes are well-intentioned, the way they have been communicated to date could certainly have been better. There appears to be an information vacuum regarding exactly when the changes come into force and, critically, what airport processes are being put in place to make them run smoothly," he said.

"Clarification is urgently required on these matters so that the airport authorities and airlines can best advise passengers of how these changes will affect them." All passport systems at Dubai Residency and Naturalisation Department (DRND) border points were shut down for 10 minutes for the system changeover at 11.50pm on Monday. Brig Obaid bin Suroor, the acting director of the DRND, said: "We supervised the transition at the Dubai International Airport departure and arrival passport control counters to ensure the switch was completed smoothly. The systems were switched off at exactly 11.50pm and restarted at 12.00am to handle the large number of passengers on both sides."

According to the DRND, the main offices and centres also had a smooth transition to the new visa regime. "There were no issues to mention. We continue our campaign to raise awareness amongst the public and offer an overview of the requirements to our key strategic partners about the new amendments and the list of visas and prerequisites." The DRND assigned 44 extra IT staff to supervise and follow the transition process of the new system. Brig Suroor also formed a team of senior officers to answer queries from individuals, corporations and public relations officers about the new visa regulations.

The Indian Embassy said yesterday it had not received any official letter from the immigration office about the new visa rules. A spokesman said the only information it had was from media reports. Travellers said they were largely unaffected by the changes and many passed through immigration on visas arranged under the old system. But some said they were concerned about the impact when the rules were fully implemented.

Tarik Shehzad, who was waiting with his family at the entrance to Abu Dhabi airport, said: "I haven't a clue what is changing or what is going on." Another visitor, Mr Jai from India, said: "I came on a tourist visa expecting lots of problems but I walked through with no problems, which surprised me. My uncle applied for me a few weeks ago, so it was all organised for my arrival." A man representing a Jebel Ali-based electrical company who was waiting for 90 men to start work for the company in the free zone said there had been no difficulties getting them into the country.

"About half of them are out already," he said outside the arrivals gate. "None of them have said anything about problems passing through. Our company's HR department organised all their work visas. There are no problems if the paper work is in order." It was calm at the Al Hili border crossing between Al Ain and Buraimi in Oman. Hundreds of people made visa runs across the border before today, according to a hotel operator in the area.

"Daily, I normally have around 150 guests in the hotel, staying to change their [UAE] visas," said Jamal al Safar, the manager of the Al Salam Hotel in Buraimi. "But, in the last few days, I have had around 250 people trying to change their visas before [yesterday]." @Email:newsdesk@thenational.ae