For many years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has thrived as a result of its ability to attract talent from abroad. On Jan. 30, 2021, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, announced on Twitter an amendment to the law that is designed to entice and retain foreigners by permitting a select group of expatriates to become Emirati citizens without giving up their original nationality.
Although the announcement made headlines, the debate about extending citizenship to a select group of highly skilled expatriates is not new. In 2013, Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati political commentator and member of the Sharjah ruling family, broke the “citizenship taboo” by advancing the idea that allowing non-nationals to acquire UAE citizenship would encourage cultural assimilation, bolster the tax base, support an increasingly ageing population, and help to diversify the UAE’s economy before the post-oil era begins.
Why now? COVID-19 and the competition for foreign talent
The offer of citizenship is the most recent manifestation of a policy enacted for expatriates seeking long-term residency in the UAE. The Golden Visa program, for instance, provides a 10-year residency on a renewable basis for investors, entrepreneurs, chief executives, scientists, and outstanding students who meet specific requirements. While the Golden Visa initially proved to be successful in offering greater stability to those seeking to build long-term careers in the UAE following its introduction in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted its intrinsic limits. As mobility restrictions increased and economic conditions worsened, the absence of a social safety net for expatriates forced many workers who might benefit from the program to leave the country. A recent Standard & Poor’s report found that due to the economic fallout of the pandemic and the accompanying drop in oil prices, the population of the Gulf region declined by just over 4% in a one-year period (January to December 2020), mainly as a result of migrant outflow. Dubai’s population fell by 8.4% in 2020, the steepest decline in the Gulf region. This is generally attributed to last year’s recession, which led to a rise in unemployment numbers, and thereby forced many expats whose residency visas are linked to their jobs to head back home. GCC governments are also increasingly implementing policies to boost nationals’ participation in the private sector, mainly through measures that limit the hiring of expats. Standard & Poor’s projection suggests that the number of expatriates in the region will continue to fall, even if some will return once the economy recovers.
Considering that foreigners make up 90% of the UAE’s population, the specter of a mass exodus of laborers is a significant concern. The timing of the citizenship announcement, as Rohan Advani, senior policy associate at think tank the Century Foundation, points out, “is somewhat related to the uncertain economic and political outlook of the global economy,” and is especially linked to the country’s commitment “to retaining highly skilled labor in the UAE and not suffering from the prospect of widespread brain drain in the wake of the pandemic.” Offering citizenship may not only be a “way to keep highly skilled labor in the country,” but also an instrument to keep them as “consumers and investors.”
This need for investors is pressing. The UAE has put a great deal of effort and money into its COVID-19 vaccination program with the aim of expediting economic recovery. Part of this recovery will involve making the country safe for foreign workers to return to. Adding to this pressure is competition with other Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have developed economic diversification policies on similar trajectories, particularly in regard to high-tech projects, business start-ups, and tourism. Jim Krane, from the Baker Institute for Public Policy, notes that this “diversification rush” has resulted in an environment in which “competition for expatriate talent is heating up.” The UAE’s citizenship initiative may represent an attempt to create “a class of educated citizen elites who can push the private sector to outperform those in neighboring countries,” said Krane.
Expatriate outlook: A sign of tolerance or deeper division?
The citizenship initiative falls within the narrative of tolerance and multiculturalism that has become one of the hallmarks of the UAE’s public discourse in recent years. The country has promoted a more migrant-friendly society, and highlighted the contributions of expatriates and migrants in state-building and economic development, partly in response to criticism from Western countries and NGOs. Dr. Nathalie Koch, of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in New York State, said the move should not be seen as a surprise but “as a logical extension of the Emirati government’s effort to encourage high-net-worth individuals to invest and reside in the UAE.”
Despite the tolerant veneer of the initiative, Koch draws attention to its selectiveness. “It’s clearly targeted at elites and not at ordinary people who have potentially resided in the UAE for generations,” she said. Neha Vora, an anthropologist at Lafayette College and author of Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, also stresses the elitist nature of the initiative. “It still privileges economic citizenship over other forms of belonging, and it will only impact the most elite immigrants, who already have wealth-based privileges.” It leaves unanswered the issue “about permanence for noncitizen children who have been born and raised in the Gulf.” This sense of uncertainty, according to James Sater, an expert on migration and citizenship at the University of Malta, is due to “arbitrary decision-making and an intrusive security apparatus [that] will always linger in the mind of residents, for themselves and their children. In turn, the UAE will also retain the right to withdraw citizenship from unwanted citizens and has already built a mechanism that does not render anyone suddenly stateless.”
Criticism from within: Understanding Emirati attitudes toward citizenship
The issue of citizenship is sensitive not only among expatriate communities, but also within Emirati society. Just as the UAE’s workforce is highly segmented along national, ethnic, and racial lines, there are different types of citizenship for nationals. The first category is “full citizen Emiratis,” which consists of those who are able to trace their lineage to the original families making up the country around the time of its foundation and those who possess the family booklet khulasat al-qaid. The second category is those who have become citizens by marriage, and applies primarily to foreign women married to Emirati men. The third category includes those who have been granted citizenship via naturalization. There are also locals that hold a passport but do not possess the khulasat al-qaid or Bidouns who are UAE residents and who possess neither the passport nor the khulasat al-qaid. Holders of passports who are not full citizens may be granted some or all of the benefits by the individual emirate in which they reside, but it is by no means guaranteed. The narrative of an Emirati “exclusive citizenship” is crucial not only in maintaining a loyal citizenry, but also in legitimizing the state as the ultimate protector of the national population.
Sheikh Mohammed’s new initiative might also lead to a call for reform of existing citizenship laws for Emiratis. As Sheikha Jawaher al-Qassemi, the wife of the ruler of Sharjah, noted in a Tweet, though Emirati women are able to pass citizenship to their offspring if they marry a foreigner, these children have to apply for Emirati citizenship at the age of 18, with the outcome of the application not guaranteed. This contrasts with Emirati men married to foreign women, who can pass on citizenship to their children with ease. Given the fairly high divorce rates among nationals, a drop in the birth rate, and increasingly smaller family sizes, the preservation of social cohesion and family stability is a priority for the UAE government. The implementation of the new citizenship initiative is therefore likely to be measured, limited, and controlled, so as to maintain the Emirati social fabric.
Another concern about the citizenship initiative is that because the UAE offers very generous welfare services and social benefits to Emiratis, increasing the number of citizens might financially burden the system. However, as Marko Valenta from the Department of Social Work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology points out, “Those who gain citizenship are people with skills and resources. Experiences from other countries teach us that the inclusion of residents with resources and human capital does not burden the welfare system.”
New laws, old ways: How the citizenship amendment continues the UAE’s policy goals
Though UAE citizenship is now attainable for expatriates, not everyone will be considered eligible, and the process will be difficult even for the elite group of wealthy investors, scientists, engineers, and artists targeted in the initiative. Meeting the eligibility requirements does not automatically assure the granting of Emirati nationality, and the final decision rests exclusively with the central government. The process of vetting future citizens will be largely entrusted to the security forces of the Ministry of Interior, which will assess whether a candidate has demonstrated “allegiance” to the Emirates with little transparency as to how they determine this. Unlike other countries, where specialized lawyers assist private individuals through the naturalization process, there are no lawyers in the UAE that work on citizenship acquisition.
The absolute discretion of the ruler in granting citizenship seems to reaffirm the general view held by Gulf Cooperation Council governments, that citizenship is a concession unilaterally made by the monarch to his subjects. In this framework, it is not a right granted to individuals, but a gift, or as Zahra Babar maintains, “a privilege accorded to a few.” Whatever system is created for this new citizenship initiative (e.g., quotas or other institutional arrangements), what it is certain is that this effort, in Advani’s words, “is part of a wider process of centralization, which often occurs during time of crises.”
The UAE citizenship reform is therefore less revolutionary than it might seem at first glance. It fits into the state-sponsored Emirati narrative of tolerance and confirms the continuity of two trends characterizing the UAE’s political discourse: the granting of citizenship as a unilateral, top-down concession based on “government nomination” and the development and economic success of Emirati nationals as the state’s priority, with citizenship being extended to a specific category of expatriates only to maintain this order.
UAE officials are bound to face major challenges in balancing the need to attract expatriates to drive development and economic diversification with the preservation of the elevated and exclusive status of Emirati nationals, who strongly oppose any downward revision. Even though there are some who disagree with the new citizenship initiative, as Krane notes, “The downsides of maintaining Dubai as a temporary city are far worse.”
Dr. Kristian Alexander is a researcher at TRENDS Research and Advisory in Abu Dhabi and an adviser at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a research assistant at GSA. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images
 Jim Krane, Interview with authors, February 6, 2021.
 Nathalie Koch, Interview with authors, February 8, 2021.
 Neha Vora, Interview with authors, February 12, 2021.
 James Sater, Interview with authors, February 19, 2021.
 See Manal A. Jamal. 2015. “The Tiering of Citizenship and Residency and the “Hierarchization” of Migrant Communities: The United Arab Emirates in Historical Context,” International Migration Review, Volume 49, Number 3, pp. 601-632 and Noora Lori. 2011. “National Security and the Management of Migrant Labor: A Case Study of the United Arab Emirates,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol. 20, Nos.3-4, pp. 315-337.
 Rohan Advani, Interview with authors, February 8, 2021.
 Marko Valenta, Interview with authors, February 16, 2021.
 Noora Lori. 2011. ‘National Security and the Management of Migrant Labor: A Case Study of the United Arab Emirates’, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol. 20, Nos.3-4, pp. 315-337.
 Zahra Babar. 2017. ‘The “Enemy With”: Citizenship-Stripping in the Post-Arab Spring GCC’, Middle East Journal, Vol. 71, No. 4, p.530.
 Rohan Advani, Interview with authors, February 8, 2021.
 Jim Krane, Interview with authors, February 6, 2021.