UAE revamps residency rules

Around 88% of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) population come from other countries, and its government is hoping to swell that number even more by shaking up its residency rules. The new plans will see wealthy expats such as tech entrepreneurs, airline bosses, doctors, investors, and even former professional footballers granted UAE nationality to boost its economy.

The UAE was hit hard by the pandemic, but there is hope that these reforms will help reshape the Gulf state for its post-pandemic future. At the start of the pandemic, there was a mass exodus of foreign workers leaving the UAE, estimated to be just over 8% of Dubai’s population. It was a stark reminder that expat families can be encouraged to leave the UAE if the primary earner in the family loses their job.

Citizenship U-turn

Gulf states have long resisted offering permanent residency to the millions of foreign workers who come to work there. They have instead vigorously guarded the substantial privileges only enjoyed by the country’s citizens. However, the 2014 oil price slump and now the global pandemic has led to a surprising U-turn which now seeks to entice wealthy people to stay in the country. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have both taken steps towards enabling some expats to have permanent residency.

Last year saw the UAE scrap the need for companies to have Emirati investors in a significant shake-up of foreign ownership laws to attract foreign investment into an economy that is feeling the pinch. The country is confident that these plans will succeed, and it intends for these changes to last for several decades as part of a structured long-term residency programme.

But the plans are not without their critics. There is some disquiet over granting so many of these new passports to foreigners, especially as the country has fiercely opposed such an idea in the past. However, the government is determined to carry on with its plans and ignore any criticism. After all, in the UAE, public displays of disapproval are uncommon as security services take a zero-tolerance approach to any complaints.

Recipients of UAE citizenship

The recent months have seen dozens of passports handed out to foreigners, which is a significant change to how the UAE has traditionally treated expats. Previously, foreigners were encouraged to leave once they had finished their business in the country. However, boosted by the success of the country’s Coronavirus vaccination programme, Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed now wants people to consider the UAE as their permanent home. Of course, this will also mean that these people will bring their skills, talent and investment along with them. There are also plans for a new visa that allows expats to retire in the UAE. According to ExpatRoute, people spend up to 80% of their income in retirement. The UAE is keen to make the most of this by positioning itself as an attractive location for expats.

The first few recipients of the passports include the veteran president of Dubai’s Emirates airline, Sir Tim Clark, and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways chief executive. Meanwhile, the Spanish footballer Michel Salgado, who owns and runs a football academy in Dubai, has also been issued a passport. Also, the founders of two of UAE’s successful start-ups, e-commerce group Souq.com and Careem, a ride-hailing app. With UAE citizenship, a person can travel around the Gulf states without a visa and can purchase property anywhere, rather than just in the zones allocated for foreign buyers.

Long-term residency programme

Before the government revealed the new rules, anyone wishing to reside in the UAE had to get a 10-year golden visa. But only the wives and children of Emirati men were eligible for citizenship. Children of Emirati women who were married to a non-local do not have an automatic right to citizenship, and to get it can take several years. Such strict rules are relatively common in the region. And while similar proposals in the past to loosen the rules have been met with protests from residents, other Gulf countries have also taken steps to provide expats with more security to attract and hold people with vital capital and skills. Saudi Arabia is offering a premium residency visa to people prepared to spend at SR800,000 (£150,690) at least every three years and agree to undergo HIV/Aids testing. The UAE government says that the new rules will offer a variety of benefits. However, it has yet to say whether the benefits include the ability to access the country’s welfare system, which offers many generous benefits, including free healthcare, education and housing loans.

In another milestone for the UAE that will bring the country more in line with general western norms, there may also be changes regarding decriminalising homosexuality and the opening of casinos to boost tourism. While these reforms could attract more foreigners, they could also incite considerable disquiet among those conservative Emiratis who are already hesitant at opening the country up to more expats. However, the government seems determined to continue with its plans, despite any discontent.

Eligibility criteria

Those who qualify for the new passports include academics, scientists, doctors, investors, artists and inventors. Their families will also benefit while being allowed to keep their existing nationality. It is not clear how many people will claim the new citizenship, but they will have to overcome several hurdles to qualify. Investors must own property in the UAE, while those in the medical field must specialise in disciplines that are in demand in the UAE. Scientists must have at least 10 years of experience and be actively involved in research. Meanwhile, inventors should already have at least one patent for their creations. Artists and academics should be recognised pioneers in culture and arts and have received international awards to back this up.

For anyone looking to take up the opportunity of residency in UAE, it is not a case of simply completing an application. Nominations must go through the courts of the rulers or crown princes of the seven emirates that make up the UAE and the emirates’ executive councils. Even once citizenship is granted, the government can choose to withdraw it following a breach of any of the conditions.

The idea of issuing new passports to foreigners is undoubtedly a radical new chapter for the UAE, but whether it will attract enough foreign skills, talent and investment, remains to be seen.

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