How the UAE im­mi­gra­tion land­scape im­pacts busi­ness mo­bil­ity

Murtaza Khan dis­cusses the role of im­mi­gra­tion reg­u­la­tion in de­vel­op­ing strong foun­da­tions for busi­ness


Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Depart­ment of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment in Dubai, more than 22,000 busi­ness li­censes were is­sued in 2015, rep­re­sent­ing a 17.4 per cent growth from 2014 de­spite the chal­leng­ing eco­nomic environment.

This growth high­lights the at­trac­tive­ness of the UAE as a lead­ing re­gional busi­ness hub, of­fer­ing multi­na­tional in­vestors a sound environment to set-up and to do busi­ness.

The ques­tion is: how has Dubai and the UAE man­aged to grow in at­trac­tive­ness de­spite an over­all mar­ket slow down? Part of the an­swer lies in the coun­try’s ded­i­ca­tion to creat­ing a well thought out busi­ness environment, which en­com­passes ev­ery­thing from e-gov­ern­ment so­lu­tions to trans­par­ent reg­u­la­tions on mi­gra­tion and em­ploy­ment of for­eign na­tion­als.

Ac­cess to global talent is one of the most im­por­tant fac­tors that busi­ness own­ers take into con­sid­er­a­tion when de­cid­ing on a busi­ness lo­ca­tion and, in the con­text of the re­gion, the im­mi­gra­tion land­scape lies at the heart of this.

In the UAE, im­mi­gra­tion reg­u­la­tion is rel­a­tively lib­eral and con­stantly evolv­ing to fa­cil­i­tate more flex­i­bil­ity for both job seek­ers and em­ploy­ers. For ex­am­ple, a new law that came into ef­fect in Jan­uary last year now makes it eas­ier for skilled ex­pat em­ploy­ees to trans­fer to an­other spon­sor with­out re­ceiv­ing an au­to­matic em­ploy­ment ban. The six­month in­terim pe­riod ap­pli­ca­ble to lowskilled work­ers on fixed-term con­tracts has also been re­laxed.

Sim­i­larly, it is rel­a­tively easy for pro­fes­sion­als to travel into the UAE with 47 na­tion­al­i­ties el­i­gi­ble for visa on-ar­rival and con­firmed plans to ex­pand the list fur­ther. Al­though these visas have lim­i­ta­tions on pro­fes­sional op­er­a­tions, cer­tain busi­ness-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties can be con­ducted in­clud­ing busi­ness meet­ings, con­fer­ence at­ten­dance and train­ing. Hold­ers of res­i­dence per­mits is­sued by other GCC coun­tries can carry out sim­i­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, how­ever, this cat­e­gory is now sub­ject to ob­tain­ing ap­proval be­fore en­ter­ing the UAE. Al­though visa ap­pli­ca­tions may in­cur ad­di­tional time, the process is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward and ef­fi­cient. For com­pa­nies in the UAE, this means they are able to invite pro­fes­sion­als from around the world with ease.

In ad­di­tion, hold­ing a valid UAE visa also makes it sig­nif­i­cantly eas­ier for many ex­pats to ob­tain visas to des­ti­na­tions that would oth­er­wise be dif­fi­cult to en­ter from their coun­try of ori­gin. This means that busi­nesses can send their em­ploy­ees abroad for train­ing, in­dus­try con­fer­ences or busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties with less has­sle.

Things to keep in mind

There is still some room for im­prove­ment when it comes to the im­mi­gra­tion land­scape of the UAE.

More clar­i­fi­ca­tion is needed on the reg­u­la­tions per­ti­nent to em­ploy­ment across dif­fer­ent ju­ris­dic­tions. For in­stance, cur­rently work­ing for an en­tity other than a spon­sor is re­stricted and ob­tain­ing ap­proval can be dif­fi­cult. The new Abu Dhabi Global Mar­ket free zone has taken steps to over­come this with the in­tro­duc­tion of a dual li­cense, which al­lows trad­ing within the free zone in ad­di­tion to the wider emi­rate.

Also, the avail­abil­ity of short-term em­ploy­ment per­mits is some­what lim­ited and does not al­ways fit in with the needs of to­day’s busi­nesses. For ex­am­ple, em­ploy­ers on the main­land can only spon­sor the most pop­u­lar type of short­term work au­tho­ri­sa­tion – a mis­sion work permit. More­over, it is de­signed ex­clu­sively for a sin­gle en­try and en­tails post de­par­ture de-reg­is­tra­tion re­quire­ments. Al­though the per­mis­si­ble ac­tiv­i­ties are quite straight­for­ward here, it is not nec­es­sar­ily the case for other cat­e­gories of vis­i­tor visas.

There are also other com­pli­ca­tions that can af­fect busi­ness mo­bil­ity in in­dus­tries that can po­ten­tially pose a risk to na­tional se­cu­rity such as oil and gas or nu­clear power, re­quir­ing ad­di­tional se­cu­rity clear­ances and passes avail­able ex­clu­sively to Abu Dhabi visa hold­ers.

The road ahead

With the col­lab­o­ra­tion of busi­ness own­ers and im­mi­gra­tion spe­cial­ists, the UAE can fur­ther im­prove its stand­ing as a busi­ness hub by mak­ing small changes that re­sult in favourable em­ploy­ment con­di­tions. This will in turn help to at­tract qual­ity talent from across the globe and en­cour­age pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships with lo­cal and multi­na­tional em­ploy­ers.


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