The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition -analysis

In a quest to advance their economies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have begun to offer citizenship to a few select foreigners.

SAUDI ARABIA’S envoy and other Gulf states gather in Kuwait in 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SAUDI ARABIA’S envoy and other Gulf states gather in Kuwait in 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

For years, the expats who flocked to the Gulf could only dream of Saudi or Emirati citizenship, although they comprised as much as 33% of the population in KSA and approximately 85% in UAE. Neither the construction workers from Egypt or the maids from Philippines or the engineers Iraq or doctors from India or the UK could get it, even if they lived in Gulf countries for decades and built their homes there. Nowadays, when the global and the local demand for talent is high, the sheikhdoms in the Gulf are changing their attitude while fiercely competing with each other.

Desperately seeking talents:

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. Earlier this year the UAE decided to grant citizenship to “talented” foreign residents that will “add value to the country”. Currently, the opportunity is very limited, and, according to the Saudi media, there is no open application process and the citizenship may be awarded by the state to individuals who will “meet the criteria”. In UAE the 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 exploit this chance, 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 “These Gulf states are aiming at the technologies of tomorrow. They worry about the US pullout from the region, about Iranian attempt to spread its hegemony, and they know that they need the super-advanced technological edge. The Emiratis were leading 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, Riyad and others. The speedy technological development is highly prioritized by the leaders – the MBZ and the MBS” says professor Uzi Rabi, the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University speaking to the Media Line. In fact, Kuwait can be considered as a pioneer who opened up to the foreigners in 70-80-s, but during the last three decades had undone much of its previous success in attracting talent from abroad. Currently if a Kuwaiti women is married to a foreigner, even their children are not entitled to Kuwaiti citizenship. Both UAE and KSA also encourage “emiratization” and “saudisation” of the work market in their respective countries in order to combat unemployment and to develop home-grown talents.

FILE PHOTO: Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah is seen during the Arab summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2019 (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED/FILE PHOTO)FILE PHOTO: Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah is seen during the Arab summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2019 (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED/FILE PHOTO)

Between Dubai and Riyadh:

Notably, there is also a clear aspect of competition between the Gulf States – for tallest buildings, extravagant projects and talented individuals. The UAE “offered” its citizenship to talented expats in January, and reaped the media attention while Saudi Arabia followed suit in November. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia told international companies to move their regional headquarters to Riyad or lose out on government contracts. For now, 44 international companies had moved their offices – mostly from glamorous Dubai, and more companies are expected to join them soon. “This move joins a line of many other decisions that imitate the Emirati policy. The Saudi 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. Internally, Saudi Arabia is experiencing a political weakness for more than three years and it tries to regain its strength through economic development” says Dr. Moran Zaga, an expert on geopolitics of the Gul at the University of Haifa and a policy fellow at Mitvim institute for regional foreign politics, speaking to the Media Line. “These countries are looking for cutting edge technologies, and they know that they can find some of them here in Israel. Some cooperation had existed between our countries for years, and now there is so much more after the signing of the Abraham accords. Will the Saudis reapproach with Israel in order to enhance this cooperation and make it open? They are starting to talk about it, but first significant barriers must be deconstructed’ says prof. Rabi.

“No need for Saudi citizenship”:

According to Arab Youth survey, for the tenth straight year, the majority of  Arab youth polled would most like to live in Dubai and the UAE is the one they would most like their own nation to emulate. The brightest will now have a chance not only to work in UAE or other Gulf states, but also to get the citizenship and full rights and benefit that comes with it. It’s a common belief that many expats who live and work in the Gulf are coveting the Gulf country's citizenship because it comes with an attractive benefits package that includes higher pay and lower taxation. Yet, some expats who work in Gulf countries say that eventually they will return home and there is no need for citizenship of a country that lives according to strict Sharia-dominated legislation. Patrick, a British engineer who works in Dammam (Saudi Arabia), says that his Saudi co-workers pay fewer taxes, whereas he has to pay a special tax for bringing his wife and kids with him. Still, he is not sure that he would take Saudi citizenship if he was given an opportunity. “I would love to pay less tax and get a higher salary. But at the end of the day, I will not live my life here and local traditions are foreign to me and my family” says Patrick talking to the Media Line. He adds that his co-workers from Egypt, Iraq, Ukraine or Russia would probably cherish the opportunity if it were available for them. It will be interesting to check in a few years how many foreign talents eventually got the Saudi or Emirati nationality, where are they coming from, and in which fields they are working. There is no doubt, however, that the headhunting for talents and technologies will keep growing and transform the perspectives and attitudes in the Gulf.