The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition

Overview of some of the changes (significant but restrictive in scope):

For years, expats from around the world who flocked to the Gulf could only dream of Saudi or Emirati citizenship, although they made up as much as 33% of the population in Saudi Arabia and approximately 85% in the United Arab Emirates. Neither the construction workers from Egypt nor the maids from the Philippines, the engineers from Iraq nor doctors from India or the UK could get citizenship, even if they lived in the Gulf countries for decades and built their homes there.

Nowadays, when the global and local demand for talent is high, the Gulf petrostates are changing their attitudes and fiercely competing with each other.

This week, Saudi Arabia announced that it will grant citizenship to a group of “outstanding” expatriates including doctors, clerics and academics, becoming the second Gulf Arab state to introduce a formal naturalization program for foreigners with exceptional skills this year.

Back in January, the UAE decided to grant citizenship to “talented” foreign residents that will “add value to the country.”

Currently the opportunity is very limited. According to Saudi media, there is no open application process; citizenship may be awarded by the state to individuals who “meet the criteria.” In the UAE, professionals can only be nominated by Emirati royals or officials as well.

Experts say that for now only a few foreign professionals will be able to take advantage of the offer. However, it’s quite certain that the need for foreign talents will keep growing and the citizenship card will serve as an extraordinary perk for job seekers.

Both the UAE and the Saudi Arabia also encourage “emiratization” and “saudisation” of the labor market in their respective countries in order to combat unemployment and to develop home-grown talents.

“These Gulf states are aiming at the technologies of tomorrow. They worry about the US pullout from the region, about Iran’s attempts to spread its hegemony, and they know that they need the super advanced technological edge,” Prof. Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

“The Emiratis were ahead so far, and now Saudi Arabia is stepping ahead as well. They are buying entire systems of knowledge along with the people who operate them, and there are many opportunities for the professionals in Jeddah, Riyadh and other places. Speedy technological development is highly prioritized by the leaders – MbZ  and MbS,” Rabi said, referring to, respectively, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudis see the UAE success and aspire to develop a similar strategy that will also be compatible with the conservative character of the state. Its leadership understands that they will have to open up, but at the same time there is a fear of losing control.

In fact, Kuwait can be considered the pioneer that opened up to foreigners in the 70s and 80s, but during the last three decades it has undone much of its previous success in attracting talent from abroad. Currently, if a Kuwaiti woman is married to a foreigner, even their children are not entitled to Kuwaiti citizenship.

Notably, there is a clear aspect of competition in many areas between the two Gulf states – for tallest buildings, extravagant projects and talented individuals, for example. The UAE began offering citizenship to talented expats in January, and garnered a great deal of media attention, while Saudi Arabia only followed suit in November. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia told international companies to move their regional headquarters to Riyadh or lose out on government contracts. For now, 44 international companies have moved their offices – mostly from glamorous Dubai – and more companies are expected to join them soon.

Source: The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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