Is the UAE more likely to reject the visa applications of Lebanese Muslims than Christians?
While some Lebanese travel agencies in charge of processing UAE visa applications have claimed this to be true, Lebanese diplomats have denied it..
According to Lebanon’s ambassador to the UAE, Fouad Chehab Dandan, some travel agencies started the rumor in hopes of capitalizing on the situation.
The controversy around the discrimination in granting visas erupted after the UAE lifted its visa ban on June 13. The ban was imposed in late May on Lebanese nationals for “security reasons.”
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, Dandan denied reports of religious or sectarian-based discrimination in the visa granting process.
“Since the UAE stopped issuing visas to Lebanese, applications have piled up. When the process resumed, the UAE first processed urgent requests. Some less urgent applications now take several days, usually two to three days, to be approved,” as opposed to the 24 hours period usually required, said Dandan.
“Unfortunately, some dishonest travel agents exploit the situation by asking the Lebanese for a sum of money [ which they claim would guarantee that the application will be accepted].“In the meantime, the file is already being processed at the visa center and the visa is eventually granted as a matter of course,” he added.
The UAE suspended visa applications when a Saudi national was kidnapped in Beirut in late May. However, no official statement on the subject was issued by Abu Dhabi.
“It should be emphasized that the approval or refusal of a visa is linked to the sovereignty and law of each country. As an ambassador, I have no power to interfere in these decisions. Each country has the right to carry out security checks and to take decisions accordingly, whether to grant or refuse a visa application,” Dandan said.
Lebanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Walid Haidar confirmed Dandan’s explanation.
“Due to visa suspension, the number of applications has increased. The UAE is currently giving priority to families and travel for business purposes, then tourism,” Haidar explained.
“There are people who call the Lebanese embassy in the UAE claiming that their visa has been refused. After conducting checks, [we find out that] the application is in fact still being processed. Others complain that they have been refused a visa, but [then it turns out] that the agency they asked to submit the file has not submitted an application,” he added.
“Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot dictate to any country how to process its visas. That is their choice and their responsibility,” Haidar said.
L’Orient-Le Jour gathered several testimonies that contradict the explanations of officials.
Rana, a Shiite Muslim, explained that her 70-year-old mother’s visa was rejected. “My brother works for a major French luxury brand in the UAE. As usual, my mother wanted to visit him. It’s not the first time she’s been there,” she added.
But this time, the application was rejected. According to Rana, the agency handling her case told them that 200 Muslims applied for visas on Monday and were refused.
The agency refused L’Orient-Le Jour’s request for comment.
‘No connection with a political group that is frowned upon’
“I also tried to send an email to the UAE embassy in Lebanon to find out the reason behind the rejection,” she added. In the email, Rana explained the case and asked if she could provide more details to support her visa application. She has still not received a reply.
Rana said that although she was born into a Shia family, “she is secular and has no links with any political group that is frowned upon by the UAE in Lebanon,” in clear reference to Hezbollah.
Dozens of Lebanese nationals, most of them Shiites, were arrested and in some cases convicted or deported from the UAE for alleged links with Hezbollah in recent years. Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group by the UAE government and several other Gulf monarchies.
The arrests came against a backdrop of regional tensions, marked by the ongoing tug-of-war between the Sunni Gulf monarchies and Shiite Iran. In March however, Iran and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement resuming their diplomatic relations. Rana’s story is not an isolated one.
Visa rejected three times
Diala, a Lebanese Sunni woman whose husband owns a business in the UAE, had her visa refused three times since Monday.
“Visa applications have started to be accepted again since Saturday. On Tuesday, I decided to apply [for a visa for] my daughter and I to go and help my husband who is with a foot cast. I first submitted my application as usual at a travel agency near my home in Clemenceau, Beirut. A few hours later, the woman in charge of the agency called and said ‘I would advise you against applying for a visa, as Muslims are being rejected, but it’s up to you.’ I decided to apply anyway, but a few hours later I was rejected,” she said.
She decided to try again. The result was the same. Diala then submitted a third visa application from an agency located in a predominantly-Christian area in Beirut, but with no success.
L’Orient-Le Jour spoke to Worldwide Travel and Tourism in Clemenceau, where Diala sent her first application.
“Since visa applications started to be accepted again, we have received many applications. More than 200 in one day were refused for people who are not Christians. On the other hand, when we submit visas for Christians, they get accepted immediately,” said an agent who declined to be named.
Another office, located in Kfarhabab in Kesrouan, a predominantly Christian area, did not receive a single visa refusal this week. “We have a WhatsApp group with all the travel agents. We’ve heard a lot about this, some visas have been accepted and others rejected,” explained Raymonda Sayegh, head of the office.
“I can neither confirm nor deny this information, but the majority of people whose visa was rejected are Muslims. As far as I’m concerned, [the applications of] all my Christian customers were accepted.”
In October 2021, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, withdrew their diplomats from Lebanon after controversial remarks made by previous Information Minister George Kurdahi about Yemen. Kurdahi’s comments were made before he was appointed to a ministerial post and rapprochement after the incident took place in April 2022.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.