By Anita Chalke, Regional Operations Manager, Middle East, Proven
In September, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced a lift in travel restrictions enforced earlier this year due to COVID-19. The long-awaited reopening of the Kingdom promoted a sense of relief across many GCC-centered corporations that desperately anticipated the end of lock-down while attempting to mitigate financial damages. Thousands of jobs were lost, and the unemployment rate among Saudi nationals jumped to 15.4% from 11.8% between the first and second quarters of 2020. This was expected, but dreaded. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030, with its elaborate set of programs, has put a lot of emphasis on eradicating unemployment among Saudis.
Lock-down has derailed much of the Vision’s ambitious plans, but it is now coming to an end. With promising talks of a vaccine and a January 1 date of resuming travel activity, business, not only in the Kingdom, but globally also is on the pick-up.
For some sectors, the impact was too grave to recover from. The travel sector may never recover; in April, passenger numbers dropped 94% compared to the year before. 30 million passengers travelled worldwide that month, a number last seen in the 1970s. Alongside these devastating numbers, tourism crumbled, crashing entire economies.
Much of travel now looks like the old times; border restrictions, paperwork and high expenses. However, in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, business travel resumed very shortly post-lockdown. The UAE even allowed tourists to enter in July. The Kingdom is now issuing business visas, and prioritizing business-related travel activity. Many Saudi consulates are issuing business visas now, some in fact are crowded. The United Arab Emirates has launched a new remote work visa, allowing people from all around the world to live in the UAE while working remotely. This is further emphasis that mobility is essential for business, the GCC being a global hub for business practices.
It is noticeable, though, that many of the tech giants are going for a virtual office setup. In a way, our culture of business is now more aware of the potential remote work truly has; anyone, from anywhere can do almost anything. Microsoft, LinkedIn and IBM are still working from home, almost competitively, in an attempt to prove that technology is the future of business. The GCC states are a bit more reliant on mobility; tourism and business are crucial to the nutrition of their economies. Most of the UAE’s residents are expats; they come from all over the world, and contribute to the economy by living and working in attractive cities like Dubai and Abou Dhabi. Tourism is another vertical to the Emirati economy. In 2019, MasterCard’s Global City Index revealed that Dubai alone welcomed over 16 million tourists from 233 countries. Without these numbers–without growing them, Dubai might struggle.
For the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is a lot deeper than just an economic crisis. Hajj and Umrah practices are limited to a great extent without flexible travel activity. In 2020, Hajj ceremonies were conducted by a socially-distanced crowd. The potentially permanent change travel and mobility are undergoing might permanently change how religious pilgrimage to the Kingdom is organized, affecting the lives of the 2 million, or more, annual pilgrims.
The same formula applies to other GCC states, most of which are putting in great efforts to emancipate their economies from natural resources like oil and gas. Since July, governments across the region resumed business visa issuance, indicating that the only change occurring is that upon visiting the Kingdom or the Emirates, you will see a lot more empty seats to keep passengers socially-distant.
“Barely anything has changed in terms of how the business visa is issued. It varies depending on which consulate one is applying from, but the major changes are exclusive to the act of travel itself.” – Proven Immigration Team
As for openness, the Gulf region has no plans to shut down.