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How the UAE immigration landscape impacts business mobility

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 six-month interim period applicable to low-skilled 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 short-term 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.

Murtaza Khan is a partner at Fragomen

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