Good connections, or wasta, can help informal nonprofits operate but not necessarily clear the ultimate hurdle of registration.
The Maria Christina Foundation, which last year brought six Bangladeshi slum children to study in Dubai, had top connections.
The Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak personally sponsored their visas so they could enrol for the entire school year after their visit visas for the summer programme ran out.
When he visited their school in early January, the founder of the group, Maria Conceicao, mentioned the difficulty of not being able to open a bank account and raise funds.
For now, she relies on in-kind donations – donors pay the school directly to cover tuition, and families offer to house the children.
Ms Conceicao is also training five hours a day to trek 100 miles (161 kilometres) to the North Pole. Her supporters will log on to mariacristinafoundation.org to pledge one dirham for every mile she completes. She is also seeking corporate sponsors, whose flag she will plant at the North Pole.
Sheikh Nahyan asked the Red Crescent to help her out.
“We will help them collect funds and enable UAE donors to contribute to the projects through us,” UAE Red Crescent Dubai manager Muhammed al Zaroni told The National at the time.
More than two months later, however, the foundation remains in legal limbo.
On March 14, the Dubai office told her in an email it was waiting for a response from the main branch. Mr al Zaroni did not respond to requests for comment.
“People think, OK, she’s got the sheikh with her, she’s got all the support... but it’s not true,” Ms Conceicao said. “We want to empower people but we need to be empowered. There’s so much more that we and local groups could do.”
Other groups have had more success by petitioning the Ruler’s Court, said Anisa Al Sharif, who oversees social development, policy and strategy for the Dubai Executive Council.
“If they have connections, sometimes they can be established by a decree,” she said.
But Ms Al Sharif, who has advocated establishing a legal framework under which all nonprofit groups can register, questioned if relying on personal connections was sustainable. “I don’t think this is a good model,” she said.