The UAE Opens up to Foreigners in a Move to Attract Top Talent and Investors

17 June, 2018  

dubai rules

Last month the United Arab Emirates announced it would ease restrictions on foreign business ownership and residency rights in a move to increase investment and attract fresh talent.

The changes -- expected to be implemented by the end of the year -- will allow full foreign control of businesses outside of economic free zones and long-term residency visas of up to 10 years for skilled professionals and students.

It is the latest in a series of reforms by Gulf nations to diversify their economies and boost growth, as many try to decrease their reliance on oil. In 2016, Bahrain allowed 100% ownership to certain foreign companies, and in 2017 Saudi Arabia announced a plan for a green card-like program for expatriates and Qatar approved a law granting permanent residency to some skilled workers.

"The region is competitive, you need to stay ahead and move with the times," says Tim Fox, chief economist at Emirates NBD, one of the largest banks in the region.

At present, skilled workers and students can only stay in the UAE if they are employed and all businesses outside of a special economic free zone require a local partner to own 51%. Fox suspects that Gulf rivalries, combined with a period of sluggish growth in the non-oil sector, has spurred on the government to abandon some restrictions on foreigners.

So how will these changes directly impact people's lives? CNN takes a closer look at three areas already earmarked to benefit.

The Student

Universities expect an influx of new talent once residency visas for students are extended from one to five years -- and for academically "exceptional" students, as long as 10 years.

Cedwyn Fernandes, pro-vice chancellor of Middlesex University in Dubai, predicts their number of students to rise by at least 10% (from the current 3,200) in the first year of the new visa policy -- a combination of more students coming from overseas and young expatriates deciding to stay in the country for higher education.

The new policy would mean students could complete a three or four-year course in just one visa process.

Maria Antonenko from Russia has just finished a four-year course at Middlesex Dubai. "Every year I had to apply," she says. "It's such a headache. You have to do the medical test every time ... you also need to pay." Visa renewal is not cheap, costing around AED 4,000 ($1,088) each year.

Antonenko's visa expires in September, but she is determined to stay and work in Dubai. "Our results come out at the end of July," she says, "and it's difficult to apply to jobs without them ... that gives me a month and a half. It's scary, I don't want to leave Dubai."

"The employability options provided by an international dynamic city like Dubai are a major factor in students choosing Dubai as a study destination," Fernandes explains. "Providing visas beyond the study period will provide a greater opportunity to find jobs after graduation."

The Doctor

Dubai is already a popular destination for doctors, with state-of-the-art technology and generous pay.

As one of the fastest-growing cities in the world -- its population is increasing at a rate of 10.7% annually -- healthcare services are racing to keep up. The city has also become a hub for medical tourism, ranking first in the Middle East according to a recent Knight Frank report. By 2020, the emirate aims to attract 500,000 medical tourists, up from 325,000 in 2016.

To lure in investment and medics, the government has introduced a number of initiatives such as healthcare free zones and compulsory health insurance. The latest pull will be the 10-year residency visa for specialists in medical fields.

"It will give a lot of people a lot of confidence, especially the doctors who have their own setups," says Shehzad Jamal, education and healthcare partner at Knight Frank. "They don't have to worry about a visa every two years."

Dr. Aline Abi Khalil, a Lebanese family medicine specialist, who has practiced in Dubai since 2013, greets the news with a sigh of relief. She says it will give her whole family more stability. "So long as the market is demanding and there are opportunities for doctors, a ten-year visa is much better," Khalil says.

The Investor

The other big beneficiary of the reforms are global investors. Under the new rules, non-Emiratis can control 100% of the company anywhere in the country, without needing to find a local partner or a free zone.

Foreign direct investment in the UAE has remained stagnant for several years. Despite it leading within the Gulf, foreign investment in the UAE has dropped from a peak of $14.2 billion in 2007 to $8.9 billion in 2016, according to data from the World Bank.

"(The new policy) reduces the cost of doing business in and out of the UAE," says Khaldoon Tabaza, the founder of iMena, a UAE investment company specializing in the consumer internet industry, thus making it easier to establish startups and entrepreneurial businesses.

Ray Dargham, CEO and founder of Step Group, a digital media company that runs tech and startup conferences, agrees that the changes will benefit fast-growing startups with limited funds.

Longer student visas will also help. "Startups will be able to hire more fresh grads for internships or jobs without worrying about their visas," Dargham adds.

But the long-term benefit will be for the Dubai economy. "Companies will have a wider and cheaper talent pool to choose from and more expats will reinject their income into the UAE economy, instead of investing it back home," Dargham says.