The first UAE residents to benefit from the newly-introduced 10-year visas for academics have backed the scheme, saying that it has encouraged them to make the UAE their home.
The first batch of visas were awarded this week to 20 finalists for the Mohammed bin Rashid Medal for Scientific Distinction.
The new long-term visas were announced in May last year as part of a shake-up of visa rules, and offers visas of up to 10 years to sought-after professionals, such as specialists in medicine, science, research and technical fields, as well as their families.
The move was designed to encourage them to relocate to the country, stay longer and invest.
While the first recipients of the visas are already resident in the UAE, many of the scientific academics told The National that they thought the new rules would help attract other leading academics from overseas, with universities across the world battling to recruit the best talent.
They also said they felt the decision to recognise professors and researchers first sent out a valuable message about how much academia is valued.
“Any major scientific discoveries require time. To work on grand projects you need to have security and know you’re going to be there for a long haul,” said Hassan Arafat, 45, a professor of chemical engineering and an expert in water desalination at Khalifa University.
“Now, I’m emboldened to work on longer-term projects.
“I look at this as an investment by the UAE in my future and it means I will be invested in the UAE as well. It makes this country feel more like home and I can think about serious long-term plans for my children.”
The father-of-three said he had received messages of congratulations from friends in his native Jordan and believes the scheme would prove a “game-changer” for the region. He expects similar moves to be adopted by other GCC countries in the future.
“My friends abroad see it as a major thing,” he said.
“People in academia value the opportunity to be stable. Countries like the US, Australia, Canada already have programmes like this to attract talent.”
The 20 academics were surprised with their new visas as there was no application process and the visas had not been officially rolled out until now.
Previously residency visas were only available for up to three years.
It was “a great honour and a privilege” to be among the first to receive the extended visa, said Professor Lakmal Seneviratne, professor of robotics at Khalifa University, who has lived in the UAE since 2010.
A British citizen born in Sri Lanka, he is involved in recruitment at the university and said the 10-year visa would help create more attractive packages when speaking to potential new employees.
“People look at various factors when they decide to take a job, but the more robust package we can offer the more competitive we will be,” the 60-year-old said.
“I think for many people, if they have long-term stability, they are more likely to come.”
According to Ernesto Damiani, 58, an Italian computer science and data expert based at Khalifa University who was also awarded the new visa, the extended permits will help create a stronger research community.
“I believe this programme will allow the UAE to recruit rising stars,” Professor Damiani said.
“Results cannot come from a single man sitting at a desk with a pencil – you need a community and infrastructure.”
Other academics to have been awarded a 10-year visa include Ghaleb Husseini, professor and associate dean of engineering at the American University of Sharjah and Andrea Valerio Macciò, associate professor and program head of physics at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he works in space science.
“Having an Italian passport, I know I am unlikely to face problems renewing a visa,” Professor Macciò, 43, who came to the UAE in 2015 after working across Europe, said.
“But having a 10-year visa makes me feel more welcome than I did before and it feels nice that the country is investing in us.”
The new visas would also give academics more freedom, according to Professor Husseini, 43, as they would not feel tied to one employer.
“This programme, I believe, is going to help the country,” said the chemical engineer, who is working on developing advanced chemotherapy treatments.
“I think this is the way to go. The UAE is very appealing – there are a lot of advantages to being in the country. If you can get long-term residency people will be more willing to leave their jobs and continue their work here.”
Institutions also backed the scheme for "creating a culture of inclusion".
"It contributes not only to our success, but also to the richness of the remarkable faculty, staff and researchers that we can attract” said Kate Chandler, a spokeswoman for NYUAD.
“The new long-term visa programme will help to further our contributions to the UAE's knowledge-based economy and enable us to continue to grow as an employer of choice in the region, attracting leading professionals.”