UAE's new visa regulations: what we know

Cabinet decision paves the way for long-term stays and seemingly means companies based outside of free zones to no longer require an Emirati partner

The UAE will soon offer visas of up to 10-years for specialists working in medicine, science, research and technical fields.
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Major changes to the way expats are employed, their legal residency status and the ability for foreign companies to be owned without a local partner were outlined on Sunday night.

The decision by the UAE Cabinet could have far reaching consequences - but raises many complex questions.

As businesses, government officials and the UAE's workforce await more details of a plan said to be ready by the end of 2018, here's what we know so far.

What was announced on Sunday night?

  • that the UAE will soon offer visas of up to 10-years for specialists working in medicine, science, research and technical fields - plus their families. This would include doctors and engineers for example.
  • that foreign investors establishing a business or putting money in the country could secure a visa of up to 10 years.
  • that foreign companies could own 100 per cent of their business in the UAE. At present they must offer an Emirati partner a substantial stake, unless they're based in a free zone.
  • students would also be able to secure five-year visas and "exceptional" graduates could remain in the country for 10 years. At at the moment students must apply to renew their visa every year.

Why are these changes being made?

The Government says it wants to make the Emirates as competitive as possible as it tries to shift to a knowledge-based economy and away from a reliance on the oil and gas sector. Drastically fluctuating oil prices have shown the vulnerability that brings - and countries that are over reliant on the revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons, in the Middle East and further afield, have suffered the most.

Making it easier for foreign companies to base themselves here and bring the people they need is seen as key. Closer to home, there is already a big push in schools and universities to ensure there is homegrown talent too, which means encouraging young Emiratis and expats already here to study useful technical and scientific subjects.

Andrew Parsons / The National
Andrew Parsons / The National

Is this a 10-year employment visa or 10-year residency visa?

This is the key question. The Cabinet did say visas for those working in medicine, engineering, science would be residency.

But - in a country where the vast majority are tied to their current employer and could lose their job in a downturn - it's unclear how significant that is.

If the residency visa worked as a US-style 'green card' - you could live independently of your employer and move around - it could be a game changer.

We don't know this yet and many will be eagerly awaiting more details of the new system.

Who exactly is eligible?

This has yet to be spelled out but a visa of up to 10 years will be for those working in medicine, science, research and technical.

We know this will include doctors and engineers, as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, on Sunday, gave this example at the Cabinet meeting.

It may well include professionals involved in the UAE's space projects.

We don't know if this would extend to science teachers or post-graduate researchers for example.

A telescope sits on the outdoor deck of a skyscraper overlooking the city skyline towards the Burj Khalifa tower, center, and the Address Sky View, center right, under construction by developers Emaar Properties PJSC, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Transformed into a flamboyant city state from an impoverished Gulf port in less than 50 years, Dubai defied geology to build skyscrapers and elaborately shaped islands in the sea. Photographer: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg
Christopher Pike / Bloomberg

How could this benefit the property market?

Expats typically have their eye on the short term and channel their money into property or savings schemes abroad.

In fact, in 2017 alone, expatriates remitted Dh164.3 billion ($45 billion) home, according to state news agency Wam.

These are funds that could be spent in the local economy if they had the option to settle here long term, observers said.

The industry believes that many would buy a home and settle down semi-permanently, if not retire here, if that was an option.

Greater flexibility for retirees has been discussed before, though there was no specific mention of that at Sunday's Cabinet meeting.

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Antonie Robertson / The National

How significant is allowing 100 per cent ownership of a foreign-owned company here?

Companies from across the globe can already base themselves in the UAE and many choose to do so in a free zone - meaning they can own 100 per cent of their business here and operate as they wish.

But not every business can trade in a free zone - take most shops and restaurants as an example.

Most are based domestically in the UAE, under local law.

It is these companies that are often 51 per cent owned by an Emirati partner, and these businesses that are likely to benefit from the new flexibility.

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Do the changes go far enough to attract new interest from abroad?

The UAE's existing visa regulations don't exactly put companies off doing business here. Just think how many global brands choose the country as their regional base, and how many start-ups operate here.

But it is likely to send a message that the country is trying to ease bureaucracy, welcome new investors and encourage innovation in the Emirates.

It will also send a signal to science and research companies that they will be welcomed with open arms.

And removing the need for students to apply for a visa at the end of every semester will put a smile on the faces of anyone subject to that.