Foreign investors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have a path to citizenship for the first time, following reforms on January 30; however, the move is largely symbolic and only select individuals are likely to be accepted. 

The changes, which allow Emiratis to retain dual citizenship for the first time, set a new benchmark for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, which has resisted naturalising foreigners.

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The announcement comes two months after the government scrapped foreign direct investment (FDI) caps and suggests its commitment to opening up the country has gone up a notch. 

“In the GCC, granting citizenship is not a trivial matter,” says Anshu Vats, a senior partner and global public sector and policy practice lead at Oliver Wyman. “For the UAE to take that step gives an insight into how serious the government is about diversifying the economy and creating industry going forward.” 

The only eligibility criterion at present is ownership of property in the UAE. However, there is no application process; investors must be nominated by the UAE cabinet, courts and executive councils. “My sense is that the government will be very selective in who they grant citizenship to,” said Mr Vats. “It is important for them to retain cultural and societal integrity. This won’t be the typical citizenship-by-investment schemes like you see in the Caribbean.” 

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum — the vice president and prime minister of the UAE, and ruler of Dubai — tweeted that the reforms “aim to attract talents that contribute to our development journey.” Indeed, it’s thought the government will grant citizenship to reward individuals it believes can help shape the country’s economic future. 

Creating stickiness

Historically, individuals have tended to arrive in and leave the GCC region in line with economic cycles. The UAE responded in recent years by liberalising residency rules for expatriates, which represent 80% of its population, including by introducing freelance visas and expanding its 10-year golden visa programme. 

But the possibility of citizenship is its strongest commitment to-date towards the long-term participation of foreigners in UAE society. “There is now the possibility to transition into more permanence, which has been a challenge for the region in terms of retaining foreign experts and investors,” says Mr Vats. This is particularly important for the UAE, whose bid to attract regional headquarters relies on executives and senior leaders treating the country as their permanent home.

Mr Vats expects the change to prompt other GCC countries to consider liberalising their residency and citizenship routes. 

The reforms also allow inventors, scientists, doctors, engineers and other select professionals — and their families — to acquire citizenship.