DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (UA) – Travel agencies in the Middle East and Africa say the United Arab Emirates has temporarily suspended issuing new visas to its citizens, a hitherto inexplicable ban on visitors amid both the coronavirus pandemic and of the UAE normalization deal with Israel.
Confusion over the UAE visa ban targeting 11 Muslim-majority countries, in addition to Lebanon and Kenya, erupted after a document surfaced this week from a free zone at Dubai State Airport, announcing restrictions on a number of nationalities.
Emirati authorities have not acknowledged the impending stop, as the UAE welcomes Israeli tourists for the first time throughout history, the coronavirus pandemic has increased throughout the region, and those looking for work in the federation of the seven sheikhs are increasingly staying on their tourist visas amid a cascade of business shutdowns and layoffs.
Citing an order from the country̵
The revelation covered social media and news outlets around the world, highlighting the UAE’s global status as a magnet for immigrant workers and visitors, outnumbering locals by nearly nine in the country.
Asked by the Associated Press about the order, the country’s immigration department said it was “not aware of an official list of nationalities requiring visa waivers.” The Dubai Free Zone at the airport confirmed the authenticity of the document to the AP and said it was awaiting further clarification from officials.
Meanwhile, agencies and authorities across the region say citizens are barred from entering the UAE.
Travel agents in Pakistan say the UAE has banned single men under the age of 50, although family travelers can still obtain visas. Last week, Pakistan’s foreign office said it had “learned that the UAE had temporarily suspended the issuance of new visas” in a course “believed to be linked to the second wave of COVID-19”.
Bestways Travel south of Islamabad was skeptical. “With such specific age and gender restrictions, this obviously has nothing to do with the coronavirus,” said Agent Jamchit Aga. He said it was more likely to be related to security concerns or fears about young men staying for visas to find work in Dubai, the region’s financial center. Dubai relies on millions of low-paid immigrant workers from Southeast Asia.
Several travel companies in Afghanistan also said the UAE had stopped issuing visas to citizens without providing explanations.
There has been speculation in Kenya that the country has been blacklisted by the UAE over a series of fake certificates showing negative test results for coronavirus used to travel to the UAE, which detained 21 people on Thursday. Four travel agencies in the capital, Nairobi, have said they are seeking clarification from the Emirati authorities after dozens of tourist visas were denied. Travel Shore Africa, one of the agencies, said 40 of its customers traveling to Dubai were blocked from boarding their flights at the last minute on Thursday.
Two travel agents in Lebanon, a country that has sent legions of skilled workers to the UAE with the sinking of its own economy, have confirmed that visa applications are currently on hold, except for those with a foreign passport or residence in a third country. Both companies have stopped issuing visas until they receive clear instructions.
For the past two weeks, travel agents in Damascus have been struggling to understand why Syria has been removed from the list of countries that can apply for visas online. An agent suggested that the pass was a technical problem, until a colleague told him that authorities had also stopped issuing visas to Syrians.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said Iraq had not been officially informed about the travel ban on emirates against its citizens, but the country was aware of the reported blacklist and monitored through diplomatic channels. An employee at Dubai’s budget airline, FlyDubai, in Baghdad, said the company accepts far fewer visa applications, pending instructions expected next week.
Saeed Mohammed, an agent at Arabian Nights Tours in Dubai, said he often faces difficulties in obtaining visas to enter the UAE for Iranians, Turkish citizens and those from the rebel-held capital of Yemen due to growing political tensions. The recent UAE normalization deal with Israel, which now allows Israelis to visit the cities covered with skyscrapers of the emirate without visas, sheds light on the changing Middle East. Gulf leaders have come to see Israel, a former enemy, as a key ally against shared threats from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite long-standing visa problems, Mohammed said he had never seen a 100% visa waiver in the past week, with a dozen visitor visas being denied every day by Yemen, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and other countries.
“We can only assume that there has been some change in the law, but in reality no one knows,” he said.
Mohammad Hosseini, in charge of Iran’s case in the UAE, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that he was contacting the Emirate’s foreign ministry after hearing that the visa ban was applied to 13 countries “temporarily and until further notice.” A travel agent in Tehran said Iranians had not received visas to enter the UAE since early August.
A travel agent in Istanbul said she was not at all surprised by the ban, especially given the UAE’s growing tendency to deny Turkish visas in recent months, a result of political rivalry rather than a coronavirus, she added.
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad; Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan; Susan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Robert Badendik in Istanbul; Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya; Zeina Karam in Beirut; Qasim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad; Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.