UAE’s paradigm shift on naturalization

The country is pioneering a new approach to attract professional excellence, expertise and talents from around the world

Dubai skyline reflection with burj khalifa, United Arab Emirates. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Dubai skyline reflection with burj khalifa, United Arab Emirates. Image used for illustrative purpose.

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The UAE announced in January a law to grant Emirati citizenship to certain foreigners, based on their profession, accomplishments and talents, using specific criteria and conditions.

The new UAE law is the latest in a series of changes to residency and citizenship requirements that the country has recently introduced, such as the so-called “golden visa.” However, establishing a fast and merit-based pathway to citizenship is the most profound development, especially in the Gulf, where naturalization is quite limited and emphasizes family links to citizens. Long-term residency is also linked more to humanitarian considerations and family ties than professional qualifications. The criteria for selecting foreign workers are left almost entirely to the private sector and the free market.

The new amendments reorient the UAE’s residency and naturalization processes toward a skills-based approach. Announcing these changes, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, tweeted in January: “We adopted law amendments that allow granting the UAE citizenship to investors, specialized talents & professionals including scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, authors and their families.” Sheikh Mohammed also said that the changes were designed to attract talents that contribute to “our development journey,” adding: “The UAE cabinet, local Emiri courts & executive councils will nominate those eligible for the citizenship under clear criteria set for each category. The law allows receivers of the UAE passport to keep their existing citizenship.”

In 2019, the UAE enacted a long-term residency visa scheme known as the golden visa system, which enabled foreigners to live, work, study and own businesses in the UAE without the need for a national sponsor. These visas are issued for five or 10 years and may be renewed automatically.

In November last year, the UAE approved the issuance of 10-year golden residency visas for more classes of professionals. They can now be offered to investors, highly skilled professionals and people with special talents, as well as academics, researchers and bright students with promising scientific capabilities. Ph.D. holders, medical doctors and some categories of engineers can also get the new residency visas. Students with high grade point averages in approved universities can get golden visas. And, earlier this year, foreign university students enrolled in UAE universities became able to sponsor family members, as long as they can afford suitable housing and satisfy other requirements.

In September 2018, the UAE approved a law offering retired residents over the age of 55 a long-term visa for five years. For retirees to qualify for the renewable retirement visa, they must invest in a property worth 2 million UAE dirhams ($544,000), have savings of no less than 1 million dirhams or have a monthly income of no less than 20,000 dirhams.

The path to citizenship is offered according to criteria specific to each category. For example, for scientists to qualify, they must be specialized in unique or rare disciplines that are highly sought after in the UAE. The applicant must also have a proven record of scientific contributions, studies and research of high scientific value and practical experience of not less than 10 years, in addition to membership in relevant professional associations. Inventors can qualify if they possess one or more patents that are approved by the UAE or a reputable international body. Artists and intellectuals may be considered for citizenship if they are recognized as pioneers in the cultural and artistic fields and have won one or more international awards.

With these dramatic changes, the UAE is pioneering a new approach to attract professional excellence, expertise and talents from around the world. It is joining other magnets for the best and brightest, such as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, there has been an active debate in recent years about the most appropriate approach to immigration. Those who favor emphasis on highly skilled immigrants cite their larger potential to push outward the frontiers of knowledge in the country. As such, they are more immediately economically beneficial as they can engage or start new businesses, pay higher taxes and receive little or no welfare support. The Trump administration favored a merit-based approach, but experts have pointed out that it was not consistent, as it imposed a blanket ban or cap on certain categories of immigrants regardless of their talents.

President Joe Biden’s administration is expected to weigh in on this debate in its forthcoming proposal for immigration reform. He has already removed the ban on some immigrant groups, but there are calls for him to remove or raise the cap on skills-based immigration to meet business needs.

In the Gulf, the UAE’s new citizenship rules have sparked a lively debate. Some have raised concerns about their effects on the employment prospects of nationals, especially in places where their unemployment rate is in the double digits. Others raise questions about national security implications for smaller countries.

These are legitimate concerns, but the UAE’s new rules appear to have taken them into consideration. For example, in addition to professional criteria specified in the law for each category, there are legal requirements that are common in the naturalization processes of other countries, such as pledging the oath of allegiance and committing to abide by UAE law. It is also clear from the wording of the law that discretionary conditions are important, as a letter of support from a UAE ministry is required for certain categories.

There are undoubtedly other checks and balances throughout the nomination and approval process described in the law, which also prescribes that citizenship may be withdrawn upon any breach of the conditions under which a candidate was approved. These discretionary measures ensure that the law achieves its intended goals, while maintaining the ability to calibrate the process according to developmental needs, including the employment of nationals and national security precautions.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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