How visa-free travel can open new horizons
Russia is preparing intergovernmental agreements to allow visa-free travel from 11 countries, including Gulf states Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. What new horizons might these open for both Russia and the GCC?
The first benefit will be new opportunities for learning about each other. Russians are currently most familiar with the UAE, with 1.2 million tourist trips last year. More than 14 million tourists visited Dubai in 2022, and Russia was fifth in terms of tourist flow to the emirate. None of the other Gulf states is comparably popular with Russia tourists. Opening up travel will encourage more Russians to visit the Gulf, creating cultural and economic opportunities. These are important for Russia’s sanctions-hit economy, as well as the economic diversification efforts of the Gulf states.
According to statistics from 2020, Russian tourism to Saudi Arabia in 2019 was worth $1.22 billion, a growth of 19 percent from 2018. The Kingdom expects Russian tourism spend to reach about $2.2 billion in 2023. There is already evidence of the benefits of lifting visa restrictions: Since Saudi Arabia introduced electronic visas in 2019, the number of tourists has increased by up to 15 percent.
This will be fundamental to fulfilling national program aims, such as Saudi Vision 2030, which features several gigaprojects to attract tourists and create other revenue streams. These include Amaala, a resort on the northwest coast; the Red Sea Global development in the south; and the NEOM “smart city” in the north. More Russian tourists would contribute to these economic diversifications plans, and help the Kingdom reach its target of 30 million visitors a year by 2030.
Oman is also interested in increasing the number of Russian tourists. Oman Air resumed flights to Moscow last October after an absence of two years. Oman expects 13,000 Russians to visit in 2023, an increase of 4 percent on last year. We may also see Russian cultural performances at the Royal Opera House in Muscat.
Visa-free travel from the Gulf may also bring an increase in the number of flights. Estimates suggest up to 10 daily flights from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah by Emirates, Etihad, Flydubai, and Air Arabia; three a dayfrom Bahrain, via Gulf Air; a daily flight from Doha via Qatar Airways; and four per week from Muscat on Oman Air.
Eased visa restrictions will also encourage academic and scholarly engagements across Russia and the Gulf. The changes coincide with the creation of 1,000 scholarships for Vietnamese students to study in Russia free of charge. With the GCC the situation might be the way around, with Russian students obtaining scholarships from Gulf states, and more Russians attending scholarly symposiums, workshops, and conferences that have for years been dominated by Western academics. All these steps are taken with the hope of “winning minds and hearts” in both directions. As a former diplomat to one of the Gulf states told me, new Russian schools in Dubai, Abi Dhabi and elsewhere are indicators that Russians are there for the long term, and these are new realities we should live with.
Despite these positives, as Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Ivanov has said: “It is important to understand that the process of negotiating such international treaties is a two-way street, and the pace at which they are signed depends equally on us and on our partners.” Further developments in the Ukraine conflict, or possible pressure from Washington, may slow progress. Nonetheless, as recent policies pursued by all the Gulf states have shown, they increasingly prioritize their national interests.
They will continue to do what benefits them, and if that brings new economic opportunities and cultural engagement, why not see more Russians at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Nizwa Fort, or the historic oasis city of AlUla?
- Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). Twitter: @Dr_GaleevaDiana