Passports passe in United Arab Emirates

Holders of Dubai's e-gate border control card can skip the passport line, swipe their card, leave a fingerprint and be on their way.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates--The United Arab Emirates is trying to make passports passe.

Dubai, a small province on the Arabian Peninsula, is expanding how it uses its e-gate border control card. Instead of standing in long lines waiting to get a passport stamped, e-gate card holders can show up at a terminal, swipe the card, give a fingerprint and head off to baggage claim.

Since 2004, the system has been used at Dubai International Airport, but the Naturalization and Residency Department announced this month that it will expand the program to three more airports. Children under 15 without e-gate cards will also soon be able to go through the expedited process if traveling with parents that hold cards.

In addition, Dubai will begin a trial with the United Kingdom, which has begun looking into a similar program. Hence, an individual going from Heathrow to Dubai will not have to carry a passport at all.

The success of the program--roughly 200,000 e-cards have been issued, according to the government--has spawned commercial tie-ins too. Travelers can combine the card with an Emirates Airlines Skywards frequent-flyer card, so you only have to carry one card. Global banking group ABN AMRO, meanwhile, lets users get an e-gate card for 100 dirhams ($36) when they obtain a credit card from the bank. Alone, the card costs 150 dirhams ($53).

The card reflects two ongoing trends in Dubai. One, people who live here travel quite a bit. With development exploding, between 60 percent and 90 percent of the residents are actually citizens of other nations living here on work visas. Getting home typically involves a plane flight.

"Why stand in line?" asked Rabea Ataya, CEO of Bayt.net, a local Web-based job portal similar to Monster.com. "You stick your card in the reader and put your finger on the (fingerprint) reader."

Two, the city is in the midst of a push to become a regional technology hub. Dubai has set up 23 free zones in which companies are exempt from income tax for 50 years and can also qualify for property and housing subsidies. Dubai Internet City, a massive business park built in 12 months back in 2000, counts Microsoft and Cisco as tenants.

Adopting new technologies effectively serves as a marketing tool for the effort. Dubai Internet City, for instance, also sports the world's largest VoIP deployment, according to Ismail Al Naqi, director of Dubai Outsource Zone, a sister tech park scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2006.

Though most of the foreign companies have only installed sales and marketing offices, the government hopes to change that. "We're trying to move from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one," Al Naqi said.

The e-gate card could pass for a gym card or security badge. It includes a person's name, address, nationality and picture. Citizens and foreign nationals with work visas can get cards.

The United Arab Emirates also uses iris scans to identify foreign nationals when they get work visas, though the practice causes some to grumble. The government states that it uses the system to prevent criminals or people with expired visas from entering the country.

One engineer, however, said it also cuts down on switching jobs. In Abu Dhabi, another emirate, people who quit a job lose their work visa and can't get another one for six months. Random iris scan checks at airports, and any subsequent penalties, effectively help the government keep people from leaping from job to job.

Dubai had a similar provision but relaxed it earlier this year. If a person quits a job, he or she leaves the country but can come back almost immediately under a new work visa from the new employer, the engineer said. Work permits can be granted in as little as 24 hours, according to Al Naqi and others.

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