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The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition
Saudi Arabia announced that it will grant citizenship to a group of “outstanding” foreign professional expatriates. (Pixabay)

The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition

In a quest to advance their economies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have begun to offer citizenship to a few select foreigners

For years, expats from around the world who flocked to the Gulf could only dream of Saudi or Emirati citizenship, although they made up as much as 33% of the population in Saudi Arabia and approximately 85% in the United Arab Emirates. Neither the construction workers from Egypt nor the maids from the Philippines, the engineers from Iraq nor doctors from India or the UK could get citizenship, even if they lived in the Gulf countries for decades and built their homes there.

Nowadays, when the global and local demand for talent is high, the Gulf petrostates are changing their attitudes and fiercely competing with each other.

This week, Saudi Arabia announced that it will grant citizenship to a group of “outstanding” expatriates including doctors, clerics and academics, becoming the second Gulf Arab state to introduce a formal naturalization program for foreigners with exceptional skills this year.

Back in January, the UAE decided to grant citizenship to “talented” foreign residents that will “add value to the country.”

Currently the opportunity is very limited. According to Saudi media, there is no open application process; citizenship may be awarded by the state to individuals who “meet the criteria.” In the UAE, professionals can only be nominated by Emirati royals or officials as well.

Experts say that for now only a few foreign professionals will be able to take advantage of the offer. However, it’s quite certain that the need for foreign talents will keep growing and the citizenship card will serve as an extraordinary perk for job seekers.

Both the UAE and the Saudi Arabia also encourage “emiratization” and “saudisation” of the labor market in their respective countries in order to combat unemployment and to develop home-grown talents.

“These Gulf states are aiming at the technologies of tomorrow. They worry about the US pullout from the region, about Iran’s attempts to spread its hegemony, and they know that they need the super advanced technological edge,” Prof. Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

“The Emiratis were ahead so far, and now Saudi Arabia is stepping ahead as well. They are buying entire systems of knowledge along with the people who operate them, and there are many opportunities for the professionals in Jeddah, Riyadh and other places. Speedy technological development is highly prioritized by the leaders – MbZ  and MbS,” Rabi said, referring to, respectively, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudis see the UAE success and aspire to develop a similar strategy that will also be compatible with the conservative character of the state. Its leadership understands that they will have to open up, but at the same time there is a fear of losing control.

In fact, Kuwait can be considered the pioneer that opened up to foreigners in the 70s and 80s, but during the last three decades it has undone much of its previous success in attracting talent from abroad. Currently, if a Kuwaiti woman is married to a foreigner, even their children are not entitled to Kuwaiti citizenship.

Notably, there is a clear aspect of competition in many areas between the two Gulf states – for tallest buildings, extravagant projects and talented individuals, for example. The UAE began offering citizenship to talented expats in January, and garnered a great deal of media attention, while Saudi Arabia only followed suit in November. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia told international companies to move their regional headquarters to Riyadh or lose out on government contracts. For now, 44 international companies have moved their offices – mostly from glamorous Dubai – and more companies are expected to join them soon.

“This move joins a line of many other decisions that imitate the Emirati policy,” Dr. Moran Zaga, an expert on geopolitics of the Gulf at the University of Haifa and a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told The Media Line.

“The Saudis see the UAE success and aspire to develop a similar strategy that will also be compatible with the conservative character of the state. Its leadership understands that they will have to open up, but at the same time there is a fear of losing control. Internally, Saudi Arabia has been experiencing political weakness for more than three years and it is trying to regain its strength through economic development,” Zaga says.

Rabi adds that the two countries “are looking for cutting-edge technologies, and they know they can find some of them here in Israel. Some cooperation had existed between our countries for years, and now there is so much more after the signing of the Abraham Accords. Will the Saudis engage in rapprochement with Israel in order to enhance this cooperation and make it open? They are starting to talk about it, but first significant barriers must be removed.”

The UAE normalized relations with Israel in September 2020, when they signed the US-brokered Abraham Accords. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, though they allegedly cooperate secretly in areas of intelligence and diplomacy.

I would love to pay less tax and get a higher salary. But at the end of the day, I will not live my life here and local traditions are foreign to me and my family.

According to the Arab Youth Survey released last month, for the 10th straight year the majority of Arab youth polled in 17 states in the Middle East and North Africa would most like to live in Dubai, and the UAE is the state they would most like their own nation to emulate. The brightest will now have a chance not only to work in the UAE and other Gulf states, but also to acquire citizenship and the full rights and benefits that come with it.

It’s a common belief that many expats who live and work in the Gulf covet local citizenship because it brings with it an attractive benefits package that includes higher pay and lower taxes. But some expats who work in Gulf countries say that eventually they will return home and there is no need for citizenship of a country that lives according to legislation dominated by strict Sharia, or Muslim religious law.

Patrick, a British engineer who works in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, says that his Saudi co-workers pay less in taxes, whereas he has to pay a special tax for bringing his wife and kids with him. Still, he is not sure that he would take Saudi citizenship if he were offered it.

“I would love to pay less tax and get a higher salary. But at the end of the day, I will not live my life here and local traditions are foreign to me and my family,” he told The Media Line. He adds that his co-workers from Egypt, Iraq, Ukraine and Russia would probably leap at the opportunity.

It will be interesting to check in a few years how many foreign talents have acquired Saudi or Emirati nationality, where they came from and in which fields they are working. There is no doubt, however, that the headhunting for talents and technologies will keep growing and transform the perspectives and attitudes in the Gulf.

 

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