The UAE recently became the first Arab Gulf nation to formalize a process to citizenship for a select group of foreigners—an unprecedented move, but a step towards a more diversified, brighter economic future away from oil.
Various measures and strategies have been implemented in the name of diversification, but the magnitude of that challenge is now amplified as the country strikes a delicate balance between alleviating pandemic-induced economic difficulties and executing ambitious diversification plans.
Beyond natural resources, human capital – defined as an individual’s skills, education, experience, and drive – is at the center of the value structure that makes a state economically competitive. It is therefore no surprise that actively seeking to attract and retain highly skilled professionals is a policy priority at both state and corporate levels. Offering citizenship to the world’s brightest minds goes beyond special visa schemes and adds a deeper, more meaningful layer to work in the UAE – it infuses a visceral sense of purpose-driven ownership to a crucial segment of the country’s population otherwise limited by time-bound visas.
While difficult to quantify, the shift comes with significant qualitative implications: It gives top global talent a bigger stake in contributing to the UAE’s national development such that their efforts transcend hollow, profit-centric considerations. On a more fundamental level, the policy shift gives highly skilled residents a new place to call home, adding an emotional connection to their work to channel their talent and ambition accordingly.
On his official Twitter account, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai affirmed the policy’s intent to “attract talents that contribute to our development journey.”
The amendments to the Emirati Nationality Law allow the UAE to grant citizenship to carefully selected investors and high-skilled professionals, including doctors, scientists, engineers, authors, artists and their families. The new policy also introduces dual nationality – new nationals can keep their original citizenship.
The UAE cabinet, local courts and executive councils are tasked with nominating those eligible for citizenship under specific criteria set for each category. In the short-term, this top-down structure comes with positive policy implications: granting citizenship to an select group of high-skilled professionals will strategically fill the crucial gap between public education and pressing labor market demands, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Top-down citizenship nomination will pave a smoother path to economic diversification in the long-term by solving demographic-related structural limitations.
While unprecedented, the most recent amendment serves as the culmination of a succession of growth-oriented policies aimed to attract and retain top talent and investment. These measures include amendments to Emirati Foreign Direct Investment Law allowing foreign investors 100 per cent ownership of businesses, as well as plans to grant ‘golden’ visas of five to 10 years to wealthy property investors, entrepreneurs and “specialized talents and researchers.”
Public awareness key
Public awareness is inextricably tied to successful policy interventions. To ensure public buy-in, it is imperative to relay the fact that an influx of foreign, high-skilled talent will not occur at the expense of local talent or compromise employment chances, but rather create new industries and innovation-centric opportunities beyond zero-sum considerations. Misinformation on this end is a universal issue.
Creating and sustaining an inclusive environment for new citizens necessitates supplemental interventions that ensure the general public is aware of the benefits that come with an influx of foreign talent. Countries like the US have made it a mission to educate Americans – as indicated in the official overview of the H-1B Visa Category – that foreign workers fill a critical need in the US labor market, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
STEM occupations have considerably low unemployment compared to the total national unemployment rate, pointing to a universal demand for STEM workers that exceeds supply – hence the need to attract highly skilled immigrants. On a societal level, the influx of innovative talent will generate fertile soil for the creation of new industries, jobs, and opportunities for economic expansion. It is imperative that this fact is successfully relayed and internalized by the UAE public.
This major policy shift comes at a critical juncture – one in which the UAE is navigating the twin challenges of managing pandemic-induced realities while diversifying its economy away from oil. At the intersection of demographic limitations and talent attraction, the timely new citizenship scheme offers an additional – and crucial – avenue of economic growth that will propel Abu Dhabi to a brighter, more diverse future.