Expect ‘Emirati Zuckerberg,’ Pitt, Following Naturalization Law, Experts Say
Recent amendment allowing foreigners to be naturalized in the UAE aims first to attract big names and future industry leaders
The UAE announced in late January that it would allow some prominent foreigners to become Emirati citizens. Experts explain this as an attempt to prepare the country’s economy to a post-oil world and rebrand it as a global multicultural hub that values diversity. As a first step, we should expect movie stars and industry giants to receive citizenship offers.
Almost 90% of the UAE’s residents are expats, vastly outnumbering Emiratis in the local workforce. Despite this, obtaining Emirati citizenship was near impossible for foreign nationals until recently. Now, Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said in a tweet that he would “allow granting the UAE citizenship to investors, specialized talents & professionals including scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, authors and their families. The new directives aim to attract talents that contribute to our development journey.”
Dr. Marwa Maziad, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, told The Media Line, “There was no path to citizenship that we know of really throughout the ‘90s and 2000s.”
“The way it was set up is that there are always those expats – either guest workers in building and services and such or professionals – who are supposed to come and leave and be replaced by other individuals in the same categories,” she said, but the intention was never to invite them to stay.
Maziad explains that this has now changed because “the UAE wants to be in tune with the moment, with the zeitgeist, if you will,” of diversity and inclusion. The UAE is trying to distance itself from darker aspects of its treatment of foreign labor reported in the past, she said, and send a message of embracing more liberal values.
The Washington scholar says she wouldn’t be surprised if, as a next step, the Emirati government approaches internationally renowned individuals – Hollywood actors like Brad Pitt, for example – who would be granted citizenship. “Those give the aura and the glitz,” she said, and will help the Emiratis promote this option to prominent individuals.
Mohammed Baharoon, who heads the UAE policy research center B’huth, highlighted another intention of the amendment. “The major driver for the UAE is its post-oil economy strategy,” he told The Media Line, adding that “there have been many decisions” looking to the country’s position “in a world after oil. … The first major policy that marked the shift in the thinking was establishing the first free zone in Jabal Ali and allowing 100% foreign ownership. What we see today is a progression since then,” he said.
The Emirati policy expert is referring to the UAE’s gradual loosening of limitations on foreigners working in the country. In a major shift, a recent amendment to Emirati law has removed a legal obligation that 51% of a local company be owned by an Emirati national. Now, foreign nationals can own most locally registered businesses in their entirety.
Returning to the latest change in citizenship law, Baharoon explained that “there is a specific focus on knowledge-based economy which is the main driver for the UAE’s major projects, including the mission to Mars, the UAE nuclear reactor, renewable energy projects, etc.” Now, he continues, “the UAE is going beyond attracting the big companies and looking to attract young tech startups. The likes of a 22-year-old Steve Jobs or a 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg.” These are the kind of individuals with whom the Emirati government wishes “to share its dream for the future.”
This ties with an additional reason for the change, highlighted by Dr. Maziad: “They’re saying maybe the country would gain by having people, individuals, set roots and feel like they are investing in their own futures, individually and personally.” This change, she explains, is intended not only to attract foreign talent but also to incentivize the country’s foreign workforce. “Knowing that there could be a path toward citizenship,” she told The Media Line, foreign professionals would feel more motivated because “you would know that it’s not temporary and transient.”
Maziad also said that the Emiratis were waiting to see the effects of this change but that they were not the only ones following closely. If this goes well, she says, Saudi Arabia may follow suit in the next five to seven years, designating specific parts of the country for the residence of naturalized foreigners. “The UAE will be a test case. If it works there, then Qatar might do something similar and Saudi Arabia would be better positioned to do that because it’s a bigger country; it can afford to absorb the permanency of those new citizens.”