Muscat: The GCC countries are planning to launch a European-style Schengen visa by mid-2014 to allow Gulf-based expats and foreign businessmen to move easily across the borders of the six-member bloc, according to a report published in Arab News.
The GCC interior ministers are working on the details of the project, which many believe will boost tourism and trade in the region, and cut out lengthy bureaucratic delays, said Abdul Rahim Hassan Al Naqi, secretary-general of the GCC Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
"The Gulf countries are currently working on the technical details of the project, especially an automated system that will link the member countries."
Abdul Rahman Al Zamil, president of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called it a positive development. "The move is significant, keeping in mind the growing number of foreigners visiting the Gulf states for business and tourism."
Call to speed up project
He urged the GCC officials to speed up the project, and said the single visa would facilitate the movement of about 15 million foreign workers residing in the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Expatriates living and working in the GCC countries represent 31 per cent of the Gulf population.
Saudi Arabia, which has the most foreign workers despite stringent visa regulations, is home to about nine million foreigners.
Asked about the benefits of the single visa, Al Zamil said, "The introduction of the visa will have impressive benefits for the Gulf economy and will boost the income of citizens, mainly in the tourism sector."
Shahir A. Hamid, a local travel agent, said, "In fact, anyone who has travelled regularly within the GCC will have their own horror stories about the length of time they were forced to wait at passport control."
The Gulf countries do need to have an electronic link between themselves to exchange data and, therefore, ease the implementation of the common Gulf tourism visa, he noted. "I have heard that the GCC visa could be issued soon. It will not replace the member states' individual visas," he added.
Modelled on Schengen visa
The GCC single visa will be modelled on the Schengen visa.
Citizens of the 26 EU Schengen countries and the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia do not require visas to enter the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
However, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait still require most nationalities to apply for visas. Those barred from a GCC country for legal reasons or those who have already been deported would not be considered for the unified visa.