The UAE has pinned its recent fortunes on two main pillars — oil and foreign labour. While its oil reserves are among the world’s best (currently at more than 111 million barrels), heightened global competition for talent means that foreign labour is becoming increasingly scarce. 

Expatriates make up 8.92 million of the UAE’s 10.08 million population, according to figures published by Global Media Insights in March 2022. This means that for every UAE national, there are nearly eight expatriate residents. 

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The UAE’s reliance on migrant talent is even starker in the private sector. In 2013, only 0.5% of the private sector’s workforce was Emirati nationals, according to a 2015 report by the Gulf Research Center. Of these, Indian, Pakistani and Filipino nationals make up the top three migrant groups. 

As talent becomes the main input of production in sectors across the knowledge economy, many industries in the Gulf country are facing mounting competition from other geographies to attract and retain migrant professionals, particularly in high-demand sectors such as healthcare, which has prompted the country to expand its visa programmes to remain competitive. 

Global competition for expat talent

“To a different extent, the UAE has always been aware of its heavy reliance on foreign labour”, says Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco, a researcher at Trends Research & Advisory, a think tank in Abu Dhabi.

“What has changed [in the past few] years, if compared to the previous decades, is mounting competition at regional and global levels in attracting expatriates with a high level of education, and talented, innovative minds.” 

Anoop Achuthan, managing director at Overseas Development and Employment Promotion Consultants (an initiative by the state government of Kerala, India, to aid the overseas recruitment) comments: “Earlier, the Gulf was the primary destination for Keralites. In the past, we’ve sent up to 500 nurses to the UAE annually. But the trend I’m seeing now is that these nurses are migrating to Europe.”

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According to a report by the UK’s Nursing and Midwifery Council released earlier this year, 37,815 Indian nurses were qualified to work in the UK in 2021/22. This is a nearly 34.1% increase from 28,192 in the previous year. 

In the European Commission’s annual report on skill shortages and surpluses in 2020, 22 EU countries reported a shortage of healthcare workers including nurses and doctors. 

Global labour shortages are not restricted to the healthcare sector. According to the British Computer Society’s latest State of the Nation report, there were more than 64,000 tech vacancies in the UK in the third quarter of 2021. This is up by 191% since the same period in 2020. 

“The UAE sees [global] competition as being not just for capital,” says Khaled Al Jaberi, founder of Growth Consulting, an Emirati consulting firm specialised in innovation and entrepreneurship programmes. “Capital is not a scarce commodity right now. The scarce resource is talent worldwide. The war is not for capital, it is for talent.”

The golden visa

In response to growing competition, the UAE introduced a ‘golden visa’ scheme in 2019. The visa offers select foreign talent the opportunity to live and work in the country for 10 years without the need for a sponsor. Since its introduction, its eligibility criteria have expanded several times — most recently in July 2022 to include nurses. It is due to be reviewed again in September 2022. 

“For nurses [from Kerala], the UAE offers a good lifestyle, but it is expensive and without guarantee for the future,” says Mr Achuthan. “If they go to Europe, they can get free education, healthcare and eventually, nationality. But the golden visa changes things — it’s a way for the UAE to give good support to the nurses.” 

One of the perks offered to visa holders is the Esaad privilege card, which gives the holder discounts across sectors such as healthcare, education, hospitality and entertainment. Visa holders are also given access to exclusive health insurance plans. 

“The main benefit of the golden visa is that you don’t require a sponsor,” Hareb Al Mheiri, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Residents Office, tells fDi. “[Expatriate] workers can remain in the country without worrying about having a job or getting fired. It provides safety and security for their future.” 

In addition to the golden visa, the UAE government has taken several steps to make the country more accessible for foreign talent. In July, the requirement for foreign nurses to have two years of experience in their home countries and to pass the Ministry of Health’s examination prior to being able to practice in the country was scrapped. 

Pivot towards diversity 

Over the past decade, both the global public and private sector have acknowledged the importance of diversity in creating successful economies. The hunt for international workers acknowledges this by looking beyond a country’s borders for resources to grow its economy. 

“The UAE’s leadership has witnessed the positives of a diverse workforce in driving the development and progress of the country,” says Mr Al Mheiri. “There is a wider long-term strategy towards sustainable development.” 

“To ensure substantial momentum for its pivot toward a more diversified economy, based on knowledge-based and high-end manufacturing sectors, the UAE is reshaping its socio-economic fabric in order to create an environment conducive to the inflow of skilled expatriates,” Mr Mazzucco comments.

The UAE’s golden visa scheme has set the scene as more countries join the race to attract workers from across the globe. Following this, Saudi Arabia launched a similar Premium Residence scheme for eligible expatriate workers, and in May 2022, Kuwait announced similar plans to extend residency periods for migrants.

This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.