The UAE announced Saturday it is opening a path to citizenship for select foreigners, in a rare move for the Gulf where the status and its welfare benefits are jealously guarded.
Dubai ruler and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum said "investors, specialised talents and professionals including scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, authors and their families" would be eligible for naturalisation under the new amendment.
A major oil and gas producer, the UAE’s economy has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices, prompting tens of thousands of expatriates to leave.
Citizenship has always been notoriously difficult to obtain in the Gulf and is rarely offered to foreigners. Typically, residency for expat workers in the UAE is tied to employment and must be renewed every two or three years.
Now, investors, doctors, scientists, “talented individuals”, intellectuals, artists and creatives, and their families, will also be able to retain their current nationality, allowing them to become dual citizens - which is mostly banned in the Gulf. Nominees will be decided by UAE authorities.
The UAE has also been loosening its rules on long-term permanent residency in recent years in a bid to attract top foreign talent.
In 2019, it announced the launch of the “golden visa" 10-year residency scheme aimed at high-level professionals. Last year, it introduced a 5-year retirement visa for those older than 55, who met certain financial criteria, and a remote working visa promising digital nomads tax-free salaries.
Late last year, the UAE set out a raft of legal reforms aimed at expatriates, decriminalising alcohol and suicide, allowing the cohabitation of unmarried couples and criminalising honour crimes against women.
Dubai-based Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla says introducing citizenship seeks to address the “huge demography dilemma" the UAE has due to its reliance on foreign labour. It’s estimated that expatriates account for 90 per cent of the country’s population.
He says the raft of law amendments is an attempt by the UAE to “modernise and update” laws established 50 years ago “that were not necessarily reflective of new realities”. However, he does not think citizenship will be opened up to the general population any time soon.
“That’s not part of the social contract we have with our expat community. They come to work and they eventually have to go back.”