Evolving notions of citizenship in UAE and the Gulf

Evolving notions of citizenship in UAE and the Gulf
Comment: UAE's plan to expand citizenship reflects a nation keen to shore up its assets while protecting access to this traditionally exclusive status, writes Courtney Freer.
4 min read
05 Feb, 2021
This isn't the first time UAE has moved to incorporate its 'most valuable' expatriates [AFP]
The UAE recently announced its plan to grant citizenship to a select group of foreigners. Notably, expatriates will not automatically be eligible to apply for citizenship, but instead must be nominated by Emirati officials or ruling family members, with the cabinet ultimately determining their suitability.

Citizenship laws across the GCC states have been restrictive since the start of the oil era due to the handsome benefits associated with citizenship, often including public sector jobs and housing, in addition to free education and healthcare. So any expansion of criteria for citizenship is noteworthy, even though this change is being explained primarily as an economic strategy to speed up recovery after the hit caused by Covid-19.

While this is the first major announcement on citizenship, it's not the first time the UAE has made moves to incorporate those expatriates whom its leaders consider "most valuable" into longer term so-called "golden visa" schemes as a means of securing both their talent and investments in companies and in real estate.

In late 2019, Saudi Arabia announced the launch of a programme through which select foreigners could gain permanent residency that would allow them to purchase property, start businesses without Saudi sponsors, sponsor family visas, and change jobs without contacting sponsors. 

Citizenship laws across the GCC states have been restrictive since the start of the oil era due to the handsome benefits associated

The UAE repatriated 2,500 people around the same time through a golden visa scheme, which grants 10-year residency for five types of expatriates: investors, entrepreneurs, chief executives, scientists, and 'outstanding' students. The granting of citizenship, however, represents an upgrading of these other previous offers, which, at least in Saudi Arabia, came with a hefty six figure price; it is unclear what cost, if any, would be associated with the UAE's new citizenship plan.

Despite the importance of the shift from long-term visa to the offer of citizenship, the expatriate population is still being described as useful primarily insofar as they are considered economic or intellectual assets.

Some quirks of citizenship laws illustrate the mindset that expatriates remain outsiders, at least socially. Indeed, Sheikha Jawaher al-Qasimi, wife of the leader of Sharjah, pointed out in a tweet that children of women with non-Emirati men still are not granted citizenship - a policy common throughout the GCC.

Read also: UAE to offer citizenship to select expats in rare move for Gulf

In fact, financial incentives are in place to incentivise nationals to marry other nationals, and UAE Vision 2021 specifically lauds marriages among nationals: "Marriage among Emiratis is a vibrant facet of our culture and will remain fundamental to building strong and stable households, and bonding them together."

While some expatriates will be offered citizenship (and will be allowed to maintain their other citizenship) as part of the new scheme, it is unclear how much social integration will take place.

The announcement comes amid reports of an exodus of expatriates from the GCC after the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the cancelation of employment contracts to which residence visas are attached. In October, Oxford Economics estimated that the UAE could lose 900,000 jobs, potentially leaving 10 percent of its residents displaced.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, moves toward labour force nationalisation have been sped up, particularly in Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, amid the crunch on government finances. Reports also emerged last summer about expatriates feeling socially marginalised as financial burdens, and thus largely unwanted in GCC societies after the start of the pandemic.

The UAE has made some efforts to retain some of its expatriate workforce, which makes up 90 percent of its total population. Indeed, last year, it announced the start of a retirement visa for those over 55 who met a financial threshold, as well as a visa for remote working professionals to obtain tax-free salaries.

Will other policies like those that restrict Emirati nationality being passed down to children of non-Emirati men be changed?

In addition, at the end of 2020, the country, in an effort to "consolidate the UAE's principles of tolerance," ended a ban on unmarried couples cohabitating and decriminalised alcohol. Such changes are an important signal, particularly to expatriates and to the world ahead of the Expo, that the UAE hopes to become a more hospitable social environment for expatriates - or at least for some of them, mainly western white-collar workers.

Currently, Emirati citizenship will be made available to investors, doctors, scientists, and skilled and talented individuals (including artists and intellectuals), along with their families. It remains unclear what the threshold will be for individuals to be considered investors eligible for citizenship, as well as what rights they would obtain - for instance, would they ever be able to vote in elections for the Federal National Council? And will other policies like those that restrict Emirati nationality being passed down to children of non-Emirati men be changed? 

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.