There is hardly any doubt that the rise of the UAE as a financial and tourism centre has depended on expatriates who worked day and night in most trying conditions to make it possible. The process began in the 1970s when the UAE, known as British Trucial states, decided to join together after the British left in 1971. Interestingly, Qatar was originally thought to have joined the federation and become the eighth state, but pulled out at the last minute earning a deep animosity with the rulers of the UAE.
Being sparsely populated and lacking technical knowhow, the oil riches enabled the Gulf state to employ expatriates in abundance who now make up the majority of the resident population and more than 90% of the workforce. Citizens make up a small minority of the nine million-strong population of the UAE, which has a huge migrant labour force, largely from South Asia, some of whom are second or third generation residents.
Low-income labourers also played a key role in building the economy, providing manpower for the construction, hospitality, retail and travel sectors, with their earnings often helping to support families back home. Many of them spent years in the country without a formal route to citizenship or permanent residency, and no access to social welfare benefits.
Owing to the insecurity arising out of being in a minority, the Gulf States refrained from granting the expatriates workers rights of citizenship and foreign workers usually lived on renewable visas valid for several years and linked to employment. The Emirates has long guaranteed its 1.4 million citizens a high standard of living through reserved jobs and a cradle to grave welfare system. To protect it, they have seldom allowed naturalisations. The country spends billions of dollars on free education, healthcare, housing loans and grants for its estimated 1.4 million citizens.
Citizenship is not usually offered to foreigners in Gulf countries. It was usually only offered to the wives of Emirati men and the children of Emirati fathers. The children of Emirati mothers who are married to foreigners do not automatically get citizenship but must instead apply for it, a process that can take years. Owing to the changed circumstances in which human rights have become a central global issue, the Oil-rich Gulf states have been forced to consider longer residency and limited citizenship for foreigners as they seek to attract investment and diversify from oil. Until now citizenship in the UAE and some other Gulf states has been reserved for foreigners in special cases, including for service to the state but these changes will formalise and widen such a process.
The UAE also has a growing community of wealthy expats attracted by the low-tax regime and the luxury megaprojects and tourist attractions of the larger emirates. Foreigners in the UAE usually have renewable visas valid for only a few years tied to employment. The government in recent years has made its visa policy more flexible, offering longer residencies for certain types of investors, students and professionals. In 2019 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid launched a golden card visa system offering 10-year residency to various professionals including doctors and scientists, plus high-achieving school students, as well as their families.
Last year eligibility was extended to a wider array of people. To be considered for the new citizenship scheme, investors would have to own property in the UAE, doctors would need to be specialised in areas seeing high demand, inventors would need to have had a patent approved by the UAE and creative people would need to be pioneers in their fields. While low-income workers remain overlooked, the UAE has begun offering longer stays for certain categories of investor, student and professional.
The United Arab Emirates plans to offer citizenship to a select group of foreigners, the first Gulf Arab nation to formalise a process aimed at giving expatriates a bigger stake in the economy. The major policy shift is aimed at attracting talent to the UAE in a way that will boost growth. The decision is part of a wider move from the government to retain exceptional workers and foreign investors, allowing people to establish deeper roots in the country and the nation to benefit from their expertise. It was not immediately clear if new passport holders would be eligible for the UAE’s public welfare system. Expatriates can obtain Emirati citizenship for the first time and the legal changes also mean a person can retain their original nationality, allowing them to become dual citizens.
The new rules do not provide people with a path to citizenship that can be applied for. Instead, skilled professionals would be nominated by government or royal court officials. This includes the Cabinet, the executive council of each of the seven emirates, the rulers’ courts, or their crown princes. The government is yet to set out how nominees would be identified. People eligible for nomination include investors, individuals with specialised professions – such as doctors or scientists – as well as artists and other talented or “creative” people. The changes to the law also allow the families – the spouse and children – of those eligible to receive citizenship. The family may also retain their current nationality.
Doctors and specialists must be specialised in a unique scientific field or one that is deemed high-priority by the Emirates. The individual must have made important contributions or conducted significant studies and research. They also must have no less than 10 years experience in addition to membership to prestigious groups and organisations in their field. Scientists must be active researchers at a university or a private researcher centre. They must have a minimum of 10 years experience and must have made contributions to their field by attaining an international award or research grant. To be eligible for citizenship, they must also be recommended by internationally-recognised bodies.
Talented individuals must have patented inventions registered by the Ministry of Economy and Commerce or any internationally-recognised organisation. They should also submit a letter of recommendation from the ministry. Intellectuals, artists and creatives must have one or more international awards in their field and a recommendation letter from the government institution of their field.
In case of qualifying, and before acquiring the citizenship, the individual must swear the oath of allegiance. The naturalised individual must comply with Emirati laws and inform the respective government agency in case they acquire or lose another citizenship, a UAE Government statement read. The UAE citizenship offers a wide range of benefits including the right to establish or own commercial entities and properties, in addition to any other benefits granted by federal authorities after the approval of the Cabinet or local authorities. The citizenship can be withdrawn on breach of these conditions.
Dubai has already announced a retirement visa programme that allows residents to retire in the emirate as of September last year. The five-year retirement visa allows Dubai residents older than 55 to live in the emirate, provided they meet certain criteria. Applicants must have valid UAE health insurance and satisfy one of these three requirements: earn a monthly income of Dh20,000; have Dh1 million in cash savings; or own Dh2m worth of property in Dubai. Last year, Dubai also launched a remote-working programme that allows professionals to live in the emirate while being employed overseas. The aim was to encourage employees around the world to relocate to Dubai and benefit from all the services permanent residents of the emirate enjoy. This includes phone and internet, utilities, schooling and tax-free salaries. TW