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Dubai: From a sheet of paper to one of the world’s most powerful booklets, the UAE passport has rapidly risen from regional obscurity to global prominence, in line with the country’s increasing distinction on the world stage.

In December 2018, the UAE was ranked as the most powerful passport in the world by the Passport Index of Arton Capital. The ranking is based based on the following criteria: visa-free travel, international tax laws, happiness and development, dual citizenship and personal freedom. 

This achievement is a true reflection of the legacy of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE. It also underscores what can be achieved through positive diplomacy, reflecting the UAE as a confident and engaged force at the global stage.

– Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan [2018]

Humble origins: Travel paper for each emirate

Before the union and formation of the country in 1971, there was, of course, no such thing as a UAE passport. Instead, each emirate, initially, had its own sheet of paper in place of a passport, called Barwa.

This travel document’s main use was for getting a permit to Gulf countries. Once used, and usually valid for six months to a year, it was discarded. Even before, in the 1940s, British authorities in the area, known then as the ‘Trucial States’, used to issue a single-sheet identification paper with the name and photo of the person.

Emirate-wise passports

In 1960s, separate emirates started issuing their own passports (in all shapes and sizes and colours), mostly good for travel to Arab countries, and India and Pakistan. These emirate-specific passports were signed by the ruler of the emirate.

Archives: Mohammed Al Hadi, a retired Emirati statesman, shares his collection of passports and currencies of the UAE with Gulf News in 2018.
Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

UAE identity: The first passport

All that changed with UAE’s formation in 1971. After the formation of the Union, the first passport was issued in black color. It was issued and renewed by the Directorate of Passports of the Federal Ministry of the Interior and by the diplomatic missions and UAE consulates abroad.

This passport, according to the Federal Authority For Identity and Citizenship (ICA), was valid only for two years from the date of issuance and could be renewed twice for similar periods, so that the total period of validity of the passport was six years from the date of issuance. Later the colour was changed to the current navy blue. 

By 2018, in just 37 years, the navy blue UAE passport had jumped to Number 1 as the world’s most powerful passport — on the eve of the country’s 47th National Day celebrations — according to Passport Index. (A country’s position on the index keeps changing according to how many other countries accept its passport for visa-free travel, visa on arrival, or visa required).

By 2018, in just 37 years, the navy blue UAE passport had jumped to Number 1 as the world’s most powerful passport — on the eve of the country’s 47th National Day celebrations — according to Passport Index.

Accepted virtually everywhere

The UAE held the top spot until early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted global travel. At that time, a holder of the UAE’s passport could travel to 178 countries; 118 destinations offered visa-free travel and 60 offered e-Visa or visa on arrival at the airport.

It is ranked as the most powerful passport in the Arab world.

The latest: Secure and sleek

In 2011, the Ministry of the Interior began to issue machine-readable passports or electronic passports to UAE nationals. Also, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation recently launched the UAE Passport Force initiative, with the view to place the passport on the list of the five most important passports in the world by 2021.

The newly designed passport carries new digital codes that contain the highest international security standards. The codes encrypted in the passports are considered the most important security feature that helps verify passports when people travel, making the UAE the first Arab country to implement this type of digital upgrade of passport code. This enhances the security and trust of UAE passports globally.

The ePassport has a microchip in the passport’s last page, which holds encrypted biometric data to prevent forgery. The photograph, signature and fingerprints are printed and cannot be modified, authorities say.

The first page contains a watercolour outline of the outer frame of Shaikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi and the last page contains a drawing of the actual mosque with domes and columns.

Citizenship and passport for expats

Recently, the UAE announced that expatriates, if they meet certain conditions, will be able to obtain Emirati citizenship, granting them passport rights.

Renewing the passport

The UAE’s government portal says the validity of the passport, usually, is five years from the date of issuance or until all its pages are fully used, whichever happens earlier. After the passport’s expiration, the applicant must apply for a new passport, as an extension is not possible.

To renew, documents needed include the original and a copy of the Emirates ID card; original and a copy of the family book; and a recent photo. Also, the applicant must hand in his or her old passport.

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