The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) approved a Schengen-style visa for all country members during a meeting of ministers on 9 November 2023.
With a single visa, tourists can explore the six-member Gulf bloc – the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait with ease of travel.
“The unified Gulf tourist visa is a project that will contribute to facilitating and streamlining the movement of residents and tourists between the six GCC countries and will, undoubtedly, have a positive [impact] on the economic and tourist sectors,” said GC Secretary General Jassim Al Budaiwi at the 40th meeting of GCC interior ministers in Oman, where the announcement was made.
The GCC expects the one-visa system up and operational between 2024 and 2025 across all six member countries.
According to the Arab Times, technical committees for each country will set visa requirements.
Applicants will be able to apply for the visa through one website or app. It will be subject to scrutiny by all countries and it’s possible that entry may be for approved countries only if objections arise.
Implementing a unified visa system for the GCC countries was initially proposed in 2015 but didn’t materialize for various circumstances and reasons.
It was again brought up in 2022 when Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup finals when an electronic platform similar to a passport to all the Gulf countries was introduced.
In May 2023, the proposal found its footing in a conference held in Dubai when the ministers from the GCC countries expressed their desire for unification to encourage tourists to travel across borders, similar to Europe.
Making travel to the Arabian Peninsula more accessible
The one-visa will allow its holder to visit all six member countries of the GCC, eliminating the need for different travel documents when visiting the region.
Currently, only citizens of the GCC member countries have free movement among the six nations in the bloc.
On the other hand, foreigners who reside in the Gulf nations must still obtain visas to travel within the region, even for short trips.
Visitors from other countries outside the Arabian Peninsula also require multiple visas or visa waivers to visit each of the GCC member countries.
Plans for a connected tourist route linking the six GCC member nations are also being considered. With the visa, it may be possible for travelers to extend their visit for more than 30 days.
It’s important to note that the approval of GCC’s unified travel permit program does not guarantee consent from all six countries. Travelers with visas may still face border inspections.
The unified visa will play a significant role in achieving the GCC 2030 tourism strategy, increasing the sector’s economic contribution through increased regional travel and hotel occupancy rates.
The goal is to attract 128.7 million by 2030, an increase of 136.6 percent compared with 2021.
GCC countries maintain visa-free access to the UK
The GCC unified visa aims to ease travel between the member countries Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
It is a welcome convenience to streamline the immigration process for pre-verified, low-risk travelers. Additionally, it could be a step closer to visa waiver status.
The one visa is likened to the Schengen visa, which makes visiting the Schengen common travel area convenient for tourists.
It comprises 23 of the 27 European Union (EU) member countries and country neighbors Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein that have abolished internal border controls.
However, citizens from more than 60 countries, such as Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, do not need one for short visits. They only require an ETIAS, or Electronic Travel Information and Authorisation System.
Currently, only citizens from the UAE enjoy this visa-free status when traveling to the Schengen area. Talks are underway to give nationals of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia this visa waiver status.
On the other hand, all GCC nationals maintain visa waiver status in the United Kingdom (UK), which is no longer part of the EU or the Schengen zone.
Citizens from the GCC member countries do not need a visa to visit England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. They only need an electronic visa waiver (EVW) or the new electronic travel authorization (ETA).
Qataris already use the ETA to travel to the UK; the rest of the Gulf nation citizens will follow suit in 2024.