The removal of restrictions will be a tremendous help to South Asian expats who would normally be employed in the UAE but who have been stranded outside its borders due to Covid-19, and for those who have business interests in the Emirates but who have been unable to travel there.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) reopened applications for tourist visas from all countries, beginning 30 August 2021. Tourists will need to be doubly vaccinated, with shots approved by the World Health Organisation: AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Sinopharm and Sinovac.
The announcement comes when there the UAE is experiencing a significant drop in Covid case numbers and around a month before the start of Expo 2020, which is to be held in October after being postponed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The UAE’s official news agency, WAM (Emirates News Agency), said that the decision was taken with an eye on achieving ‘… sustainable recovery and economic growth’. WAM said that the decision was applicable to citizens of all countries, even those which earlier had been banned. For those arriving on tourist visas, it is mandatory to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at the airport.
The UAE, which has recorded over 700,000 cases and 2,000 deaths as a result of Covid-19, has been among the fastest to vaccinate its population. It had opened up to tourists in July 2020 but, after the second wave of Covid-19 struck many countries, including India, it reimposed travel restrictions. Not only direct flights, but even transit flights were banned, with exceptions made for UAE citizens and diplomats. Later, the doors were reopened to Indian nationals holding the so-called “golden” long-term residency visas and, at the beginning of August 2021, the UAE authorities permitted the entry of passengers in transit and Indian nationals holding UAE residency permits, provided that they were fully vaccinated.
As a result, not only did many Indians working in Dubai face problems, but so too did students who needed to go overseas for their studies. To travel to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada required taking routes which were far more circuitous and expensive than flights via the UAE.
The new relaxation will not only aid Indian workers in the Gulf, it will also make it easier for Indian businesspeople to participate in the upcoming Expo. The event will showcase the business opportunities, culture and technological advancements of over 190 countries and India’s participation is likely to be substantial. With many Indian businesses participating, it could also provide significant opportunities for start-ups.
Apart from the Indian diaspora in UAE and close business linkages, one of the major links between the two countries is also tourism – Dubai is not just an attractive tourist destination in itself, but also an important transit destination – and, with the removal of restrictions, an increase in the number of Indian tourists visiting the UAE may follow. For now, though, there are two issues which need to be addressed in order to attract more tourists. First, while the Covishield vaccine is recognised, Covaxin is only recognised for those holding Indian residency permits. Second, the UAE has temporarily suspended its visa-on-arrival facility for those holding a visa or residence permit issued by the United States, the United Kingdom or a European Union member state.
The UAE has been reasonably successful in dealing with the pandemic through stringent rules and regulations, and in its rate of vaccination, and this has benefited it. Given the dependence of its economy on global linkages and travel, as well as the fact that tourism is an important component of its economy, the UAE was left with no option but to open up – albeit with strict conditions.
In addition to India, other South Asian countries also have close linkages with the UAE. The recent announcements would have come as a particular relief to citizens of Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh; after India, a significant percentage of the expatriate workers in the UAE are from those countries. The disruptions caused by Covid-19 have resulted in many workers from South Asia returning home and their remittances have been greatly affected as a result.
With the UAE opening up again and air connectivity with South Asia also gradually resuming, there is a ray of hope for those workers. In the longer run, it is also important to bear in mind that with immigration to the West, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand likely to become tougher, the UAE may become an attractive destination for professionals from South Asia. The Emirates have taken a number of steps to reform its immigration system and attract more professionals. As a result of those changes, the UAE may also become attractive for Indian students. A number of Western universities have already set up campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – many universities also have study abroad arrangements whereby students spend most of their time in the UAE and the rest in the US or UK – and, given the proximity of the UAE to South Asia, there is scope for educational linkages to emerge as a stronger link.
In the short term, the removal of restrictions will be a tremendous relief for South Asian expats who are employed in the UAE but who have been stranded due to Covid, and for those who have business interests in the Emirates but who have been unable to travel there.