The United Arab Emirates has said it will hand out passports to investors, doctors and other foreigners with in-demand skills, in a significant break from past policy.
The aim, according to Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, is to attract talent and investment into the country.
These days the economy is struggling from low oil revenues and the impact of the coronavirus crisis. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s thinks the economy will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
The government said those who can qualify include investors, doctors, inventors, scientists, intellectuals and artists. Their spouses and children will also benefit and all will be allowed to retain their existing nationality.
How many people will be able to claim citizenship is unclear, but there are a number of hurdles they will need to overcome.
Investors will need to own a property in the UAE, for example, while doctors and other medical specialists must be focused on a scientific discipline in demand in the UAE. Scientists are required to be actively involved in research and have at least 10 years’ experience, among other requirements. Inventors must have obtained one or more patents for their creations, while intellectuals or artists “should be pioneers in the culture and art fields” and have won international awards to prove it.
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Individuals cannot simply apply though. Nominations can only be made via the courts of the rulers or crown princes of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, as well as via the emirates’ executive councils or the federal cabinet. It is not yet clear how the process will work in practise.
Until now, citizenship was generally only available to the wives and children of Emirati men. The children of Emirati women who had married a non-local have no automatic right to citizenship and gaining it can take years.
Such strict rules are common around the region, and there have been protests when some governments have loosened the rules. In Bahrain the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2011 included protests against the fast-tracking of citizenship to Sunnis from Jordan, Pakistan, Syria and other countries – a policy which Bahrain’s Shia majority interpreted as an attempt to dilute their position and change the fabric of the society.
Until now, the best option for resident foreigners in the UAE has been to seek a “golden visa” which lasts 10 years. In recent years, other Gulf countries have taken similar steps to provide more security to foreign residents, in an effort to attract and hold on to people with skills and capital. Saudi Arabia, for example, offers a ‘premium residency’ visa for those willing to pay a one-off fee of SR800,000 ($213,000).
The UAE government pointed out in its statement announcing its new policy that “UAE citizenship offers a wide range of benefits includes the right to establish or own commercial entities and properties, in addition to any other benefits granted by federal authorities.” However, it did not say whether that included the ability to access the generous public welfare system which provides free education, healthcare, housing loans and much more.