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It’s the Age of Asia When it Comes to Passport Power

By Sarah Nicklin

As the global economy transforms and centers of power shift, Asia’s dominance appears to be unfaltering. Entering into the final quarter of 2019, Japan and Singapore retain a firm hold on first place on the Henley Passport Index, each with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 190 out of a maximum 227. For most of the index’s 14-year history – which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the top spot has been held by a European country or by the US. However, this shifted dramatically in 2018, with Asian countries now firmly established as world leaders when it comes to both global economic activity and global mobility.

With visa-free/visa-on-arrival scores of 188, Finland, Germany, and South Korea remain in 2nd place, while Denmark, Italy, and Luxembourg are in 3rd place, with citizens of those countries now able to access 187 destinations worldwide without requiring a visa in advance. With a score of 184, the UK and the US remain in joint 6th place – the lowest position either country has held since 2010 and a significant drop from their 1st-place ranking in 2014.

While the positions on the index’s top 10 have remained relatively stable since the last update in July, there have been some striking shifts further down the ranking. Most dramatically, the UAE has climbed an extraordinary five places over the last three months after gaining visa-free access to a number of African countries, including South Africa, and now sits in 15th place, with UAE passport holders able to access 172 destinations without a prior visa. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan remain at the bottom of the ranking, with visa-free/visa-on-arrival scores of just 29, 27, and 25, respectively.


Passport power and economic freedom
Dr. Christian H. Kaelin , Chairman of Henley & Partners and the creator of the passport index concept, says: “Our ongoing research has shown that when we talk about ’passport power‘, we are discussing more than simply the destinations a holder can travel to without acquiring a visa in advance. Often, there is a strong correlation between visa freedom and other benefits such as business and investment freedom, independence of the judiciary, fiscal health, and property rights.”

Using historic data from the Henley Passport Index and the Index of Economic Freedom , political science researchers Uğur Altundal and Ömer Zarpli of Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively, found a strongly positive connection between visa freedom and a variety of indicators of economic freedom, including foreign direct investment inflows, property rights, tax burden, and investment freedom. Altundal and Zarpli observed that “countries that have higher visa scores also rank higher in economic freedom, especially in investment, financial, and business freedom”. One especially striking example of this positive correlation is Singapore, which ranks highest in nearly all economic indicators and holds the top spot on the Henley Passport Index .

Brexit, the EU, and the wider global implications


While Brexit is – in theory, at least – only weeks away, the focus is firmly on how it will affect migration policy to and from the UK. As Madeleine Sumption from The Migration Observatory at Oxford University notes, these questions remain unanswered, even as the deadline looms. “Unlike trade policy, the future of immigration policy in the UK does not depend fundamentally on whether or not the UK leaves the EU with a deal. In either scenario, there will be a ‘transitional period’ until at least December 2020, in which free movement of EU citizens to the UK will continue more or less as it operates today. After that, the UK is expected to introduce a new immigration system. The full details have not yet been announced, but it will make long-term settlement much more difficult for EU citizens. And UK citizens who want to move to EU countries after Brexit will also face more restrictive immigration regimes.”

In terms of Brexit’s potential wider global impact, Dr. Parag Khanna , Founder and Managing Partner of FutureMap, says: “For more than a year, former UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has been saying that Asia would need to be a pillar of the country's post-Brexit global economic policy. If indeed the UK is able to advance more free trade in services with Asian countries, this will require more British citizens to spend time in Asia to generate business across sectors such as finance, advisory, education, and others. At present, however, Asian markets have not prioritized individual free trade agreements with the UK over their current negotiations with the EU.”

The UAE, Africa, and shifting foreign policy goals


While uncertainty over Brexit and its impact has yet to affect the UK’s position on the rankings, foreign policy decisions in other parts of the globe have resulted in some dramatic changes. The UAE’s remarkable upward momentum on the Henley Passport Index has been attributed to a number of factors, including the nation’s determination to position itself as a prominent player within the Middle East. Lorraine Charles at Cambridge University’s Centre for Business Research says: “While the UAE may not be able to compete with Saudi Arabia – the regional hegemon – in terms of military strength and economic power, the projection of its soft power is uncontested in the GCC, making the UAE an embodiment of inspiration for other GCC countries.”

Commenting on the number of visa agreements the UAE has recently signed with African countries in particular, Ryan Cummings , Director of Signal Risk, observes that “the UAE's strategy has been particularly apparent on the African continent, allowing the country to significantly increase its influence in a region of the world that remains key to global economic development”. He further notes that “Sub-Saharan Africa continues to make tentative progress in terms of improving its accessibility by easing visa restrictions, with Namibia and Sierra Leone being the most recent examples of states that have relaxed their visa policies as a means of attracting foreign investment, revenue, and skillsets to augment their economic development goals”.

Countries with investment migration programs demonstrate strong progress


As they have done throughout the index’s history, countries offering investment migration programs have performed strongly. Moving up from the 16th-place position it held last quarter, Cyprus for instance, now holds 14th place, with Cypriot citizens able to access 173 destinations around the world without a visa. Malta retains its strong 7th-place position with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 183, while Antigua and Barbuda has risen to 28th place with a score of 149 after gaining access to Russia.

Commenting on these results, Dr. Juerg Steffen , CEO of Henley & Partners , says: “In terms of the connections between visa freedom and indicators of economic freedom, countries with investment migration programs are among the best examples. Malta, for instance, has one of the strongest passports in the world and is performing exceedingly well in terms of fiscal health. The country expects to post its fourth fiscal surplus in as many years in 2019, making it one of the most financially dynamic countries in the EU. It is also the fastest growing nation in the EU, with an unemployment rate of just 3.8%. These statistics speak for themselves, as does the growing interest in the investment migration industry from investors seeking global mobility and sovereign states looking to strengthen and diversify their economies.”