"Many countries have applied the idea of the smart card but in a limited scope," Ahmad bin Attiyat Allah al-Khalifa, deputy head of the national centre for statistics, said on Tuesday.

"We intend to allow citizens to carry one card instead of the many cards they have to carry."

Al-Khalifa said the "comprehensive" Bahraini programme would be the first of its kind in the Arab world and only the third globally after Malaysia and Hong Kong.

The United Arab Emirates said in October it would launch a similar national card.

The Gulf state said it was working with French telecommunication and electronics company Sagem to develop the programme, but without giving a launch date.

British debate

Britain also announced in October it would implement a compulsory national ID card, citing the need to be in harmony with similar programmes in other European Union states.

But British civil liberty groups fear the introduction of such a system would give the government too much power to track individuals.

Authorities, however, see such cards as vital tools in fighting crime and terrorist groups.