Remarkable UAE rise in latest Henley & Partners passport rankings

11 October 2019 4 min. read

The UAE has once again climbed the rankings in Henley & Partners latest passport index update.

As the Middle East gears up again following the summer break, some residents of the UAE may be returning for the first time from hassle-free holidays in a number of far-flung locations, including Equatorial Guinea, Mongolia and Peru. For their next adventure abroad, they might now consider a trip to Jamaica, the Central African Republic or perhaps even the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati – all nations which newly or will soon offer easy entry to UAE citizens.

Dubai is the fourth most visited city in the world, but for outbound travellers the latest visa-free or visa-on-arrival additions have furthered the UAE’s remarkable rise up the global passport index compiled by residence and citizenship consultancy Henley & Partners, the nation jumping five places to 15th over the last quarter alone. According to the firm’s analysis, a UAE passport now grants smooth access to 172 country destinations worldwide, with more still to come.

Described variously as extraordinary, dramatic and remarkable, the UAE’s significant jump on the Henley Passport Index over the past three months is just a fraction of its upward momentum in recent times, having added 50 countries since 2016 and climbed 46 rankings over the last decade – almost double that of the next closest nation (Albania, +25). Meanwhile, Syria has slumped 23 places in that time, joining Iraq and Yemen at the very bottom of the list.

 “While the UAE may not be able to compete with Saudi Arabia – the regional hegemon – in terms of military strength and economic power, the projection of its soft power is uncontested in the GCC, making the UAE an embodiment of inspiration for other GCC countries,” said Lorraine Charles, a research associate at Cambridge University’s Centre for Business Research. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a massive tourism push in just recent weeks.

Remarkable UAE rise in latest Henley & Partners passport rankings

Backed by a flashy advertising campaign, the Kingdom has introduced open tourism visas to dozens of countries worldwide – described as a ‘historic moment’ by Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage Chairman Ahmad Al-Khateeb – with a corresponding relaxation of dress codes for female travellers, and an exception for unmarried mixed-sex couples to share accommodation. Over 24,000 tourists have visited in the first ten days, according to officials.

“The introduction of tourist visas in the KSA forms an integral part of the KSA Governments goal to position the country as a key tourism hub in the Middle East. It also forms part of a wider strategy to diversify the KSA from its dependency on oil,” stated PwC. “These developments mark an increasing shift in policy at the Government level and follows on from significant changes introduced in 2018,” – (such as granting its female citizens the right to drive).

It remains to be seen whether these new measures will enhance the mobility of Saudi citizens (the Kingdom currently sits at equal-69th on the Henley Passport Index, with access to 74 countries), but according to Ryan Cummings, Director of African risk management specialist Signal Risk, there’s a broader political basis to the UAE’s recent swag of visa-waiver signatures (including notably with South Africa) – one which the KSA may be looking to emulate.

“The UAE's strategy has been particularly apparent on the African continent, allowing the country to significantly increase its influence in a region of the world that remains key to global economic development,” stated Cummings. Of note here, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and International Cooperation) in 2017 launched the UAE Passport Force initiative, with the aim of pushing the Emirati passport into the world’s top five most powerful by 2021.

But there’s another dimension to consider. According to political science researchers Uğur Altundal and Ömer Zarpli of Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh, who used historic data from the Henley Passport Index and the Index of Economic Freedom, there’s a strong positive correlation between visa freedom and a range of economic freedom indicators, including foreign direct investment inflows, property rights, tax burden, and investment freedom.