x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Visa impediments harm bilateral ties

Unfair visa requirements for Emiratis travelling to the United States are an unnecessary impediment.

According to the US-UAE Business Council, the UAE is now America's largest export market in the Middle East. The country has business ties with every one of the 50 US states, and with hundreds of flights, including Etihad and Emirates routes, operating to the US every week, getting back and forth has never been more convenient.

But while Americans can get their travel visas at any UAE airport, Emiratis visiting the US still have to go through a Byzantine procedure before getting theirs.

As The National reported yesterday, leading business figures in the UAE are calling for visa requirements to be relaxed, with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry saying that including the UAE in the US visa-waiver programme would improve the business and tourism ties that already exist. The programme, extended to 36 countries, allows a visit of up to 90 days without the need for a visa.

Emiratis and other travellers who require a visa are currently advised by the US consulate's website to apply four months in advance of the travel date. That kind of timetable all but precludes flexible plans. This is especially damaging if urgent trips for medical or business reasons are required.

To be sure, since the September 11 attacks, the US and European countries have significantly ramped up security at their borders. Even Canadians, who for years could enter the US with almost any identification papers, are now required to show their passports on entry. For travellers from the Middle East, the security checks can be particularly painstaking. In some cases, the process feels suspiciously like racial profiling.

And it is not just the US that has tightened security. Visa requirements to Europe are often just as complicated.

These days, most countries issue biometric passports, making security checks far more efficient, not to mention quicker, while ensuring the maximum safety. Including the UAE in the waiver programme would mean travellers could get prior, streamlined approval by registering at the online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation.

If ties between the two countries are to grow, it is important that it is as easy for Emiratis to enter the US as it is for Americans to enter the UAE. It is a basic pragmatic necessity as well as a point of fairness.