The proposed Schengen-like unified visa programme of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would open new vistas for travel and cooperation between six member countries as well as boost ties with many nations including India. As per estimates of the Ministry of External Affairs, an estimated 66 per cent of 1.34 crore non-resident Indians (NRIs), or roughly 8.8 million, live in Gulf countries, as of March 2022. So the proposed Schengen-like unified Gulf visa would be a booster shot for Indians, who will be able to travel to six member countries of the GCC with a single visa. So what exactly is a unified GCC visa? What are the norms to be adhered to get such a visa? To which all countries can a unified visa holder travel and when will it materialise?
The Schengen model
At a meeting of the GCC in Oman in November 2023, it was decided to implement a unified visa to make seamless entry into six member states possible. The Gulf Cooperation Summit held in January this year directed its interior ministers to initiate steps to achieve this. The GCC Supreme Council endorsed the idea of a Schengen-like visa after years of deliberations. The Schengen visa gets you entry to 26 European countries. It was United Arab Emirates finance minister Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri who announced the unified GCC visa on November 9 last year during the GCC summit.
It will do away with the requirement of separate visas to these six countries and also slash costs, in the process facilitating more travel, especially by industrialists. Facilitating seamless travel would be beneficial for all member countries, experts say.
Visa for tourists alone?
Are labour visas included in the ambitious plan or only tourist visas are being considered in the landmark project? The plan is to first roll out tourist visas alone. Once it is implemented the shortcomings and necessities can be figured out. After that steps would be taken to fix the systemic issues and then business and labour visas may also be brought under the purview of the unified visa project. Expats will be key beneficiaries of this unified visa plan as they gain entry to six countries with a single visa. As of now, only citizens of GCC countries are allowed this facility. The line of thinking behind the ambitious project of the GCC is to boost the number of tourists to Gulf countries to 12.87 crore by 2030.
As tourists are permitted to travel to any country within the GCC, this would automatically boost travel. The obvious offshoot of this pragmatic step will be a significant boost to the travel industry and catapult GCC countries as important destinations on the world tourist map. GCC countries have agreed to conduct common marketing exercises, implement unified tourist applications, and set up a common website and online booking facility. Consensus has also been reached to participate in global tourism fairs under the single banner of GCC, which will prompt global tourists to see GCC as a single tourist zone and not as different countries.
Countries under unified visa’s ambit
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain are the six countries that come under the ambit of the unified visa plan. This will also be beneficial to those travelling to the Gulf for Haj and Umra as well as those on short trips. In the first stage, the aim is to maximise cooperation between the GCC countries, which will facilitate the exchange of skilled labour in the second stage. The proposed rail link connecting the Gulf countries also necessitates the implementation of the unified visa regime.
When will it happen?
Although there is no official word on when the unified visa regime will materialise, some reports indicate it could happen as early as the middle of this year itself. Some countries have apprehensions including about the visa providing leeway to those who indulge in criminal activities to flee. There is also no clarity on whether people who were extradited by individual countries would be allowed in other countries. The visa will be valid for 30 days at a stretch. The application process would be akin to the normal visa process.
Interior ministries of GCC nations are chalking out norms and stipulations for the proposed visa regime. Only after this process is over will the visa fee and other details will be announced. Member countries have resolved to protect the sovereignty of GCC nations. In case a member nation objects, entry to that country won’t be allowed. UAE alone accounts for nearly half of the 800-plus tourist sites in GCC countries. The unified GCC visa will also give a fillip to the nearly 200 tourism events in the Gulf.