In late January, the United Arab Emirates announced plans to open a pathway to citizenship for a limited number of expatriates. Though the process of becoming a UAE citizen is selective—would-be Emiratis must be nominated for their "exceptional talent"—the mere prospect of naturalization is something new, and follows in a flurry of recent reforms aimed at wooing Western investors as the country transitions to a post-oil economy.
This selectivity is also indicative of something else: Far from cross-cutting, Abu Dhabi's reforms function as little more than a face-lift. Rather than make Emirati society more equitable, they will merely perpetuate its gross, racialized inequalities. While the demographic and political implications of expanding Emirati citizenship to what will be a cohort of wealthy, influential Westerners is still unknown, it will fundamentally alter the perceived status quo of native Emirati citizen versus guest worker dynamic for the latter, a tiny number of whom can hope to stake a permanent claim in Emirati society.
It began with the shock announcement in August last year that the UAE would establish full diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. Then, in November, the Abu Dhabi committed to abolishing a suite of restrictive laws that had criminalized the consumption of alcohol, prohibited the cohabitation of unmarried couples, and permitted honor killings. And now, with the country fully primed for the intake of secular foreigners, comes the new citizenship law.
These reforms are, of course, welcome, but they are undoubtedly an overture to wealthy Westerners and do little to improve the conditions of some 70% of the UAE's workforce: low-paid migrants from Asia and Africa who support their families at home through remittances. Many are Muslim and don't drink alcohol, and their travel is dependent on permission from employers, who seize workers' passports upon arrival in the UAE. These individuals are relegated to the bottom rungs of the UAE's tightly stratified social pyramid.
The new citizenship law is evidence that the UAE only intends to stratify that system further. The application process itself is a parody of Emirati society: there is none. In order to "apply" for citizenship, "talented" expats—such as investors, artists and business people—must be nominated by an Emir, Emirati official, or a designated member of the royal court. The cabinet then offers a final verdict. In short, if you want to become an Emirati, you've got to have a connection with the people at the top.
The reason why the Emirs and their royal courts wield such power is historical. The UAE in its current format is a federation of seven absolute monarchies, or sheikhdoms. Before gaining independence in 1971, (excluding Ras Al Khaimah, which joined in 1972) the UAE's seven emirates were collectively administered in a loose structure known as the Trucial States under British protectorate status, with each Emirate largely responsible for internal affairs.
Following independence, Abu Dhabi, by far the largest of the emirates and the wealthiest in terms of oil reserves, became the federal capital of the UAE. The leading sheikh of the Al Nahyan family, the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, has been the president of the UAE ever since. This position is currently held by the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The Al Maktoum family of Dubai holds the office of Prime Minister of the UAE, currently Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The UAE used its vast oil wealth to build at lightning speed a modern state, with roads, airports, schools, cities. The pace of growth accelerated greatly in the 1990s and beyond.
The UAE simultaneously established a generous welfare state for its citizens comprised of cradle-to-grave subsidies of fuel, free third level education both domestically and internationally, interest free loans and even wedding 'gifts' for Emirati men who marry their compatriots.
It is unclear whether this novel route to citizenship will allow neo-Emiratis to benefit from the UAE's gravy train. Ninety percent of Emiratis work in the public sector, which is almost exclusively reserved for citizens. Given that citizenship will only be available to 'talented' entrepreneurs, scientists and businesspeople, it's highly unlikely that these newfound Emiratis will be relying on the welfare state. However, once citizenship is granted, their families should be entitled to these benefits. What about their children? What about the native Emiratis in the poorer northern emirates such as Umm Al Quwain who may resent a perceived bias towards well-to-do dual citizens? All of this while the UAE seeks to stealthily remove the very perks that essentially bought the loyalty of Emirati citizens by embarking on a campaign of 'Emiratisation': weaning Emiratis off the welfare state and reserving jobs in the private sector for Emiratis.
Creating a new cohort of citizens could have a transformative impact on the balance of economic power in the UAE, where members of the Emirati elite have traditionally held the most influential roles in the country's businesses. Allowing new citizens to establish businesses based on international norms of competiveness and market forces rather than wasta (Arabic expression for "who you know") will inevitably upset the status quo. Sectors where there are monopolies, such as telecommunications, and established Emirati brands like Emaar may find themselves having to compete with more bullish, global-minded and ambitious competitors, who may now hold the same passport, but have a very different approach to doing business.
Conversely, it will be interesting to see how dual citizenship works for Westerners, who will have to forfeit their civil liberties and acquiesce to domestic and foreign Emirati policies.
For example, a Canadian-Emirati might hold strong views on China's repression of Uighur Muslims, or the war in Yemen. As a Canadian, they can speak openly about their views on these or any issues. As an Emirati however, they will have to obediently accept the UAE's stance: that, or just self-censor their opinions. Then there is also the question of Emirati women, who are not automatically entitled to pass on their nationality to their children.
The UAE also has a number of stateless bidoon (Arabic for "without"), whose legal status is still unresolved. The bidoon are stateless Arabs of the Gulf region who weren't recognized as citizens when the Gulf nations became independent. Gulf governments cite reasons such as a lack of family lineage tying them to a country, illiteracy which meant they failed to register on time, and principally, that they were Arab migrants from countries like Yemen who had no right to benefit from citizenship. These people have occupied a twilight zone of statelessness for decades.
In the UAE, there could be anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 bidoon. Bidoon suffer from gross violations of their human rights. Unlike citizens, they cannot access free healthcare; they cannot travel abroad as they have no nationality, ergo no passport; and they are excluded from accessing the rights and privileges that other Emiratis enjoy. The UAE came up with an Emirati solution for an Emirati problem. Rather than grant bidoon Emirati citizenship, the UAE plotted a bizarre arrangement with The Comoros: the UAE paid the Comoros government to grant Emirati bidoon Comoran citizenship. Now, some 40,000 'Comorans' reside in the UAE.
They have no historical links to the Comoros; they have never lived there and know nothing about their 'homeland'. They can now travel with a Comoran passport, but as 'Comoran residents' of the UAE, they don't have any of the rights they ought to hold as citizens. It's fair to say that Emirati bidoon are unlikely to be enthused by this expansion of citizenship that they are excluded from.
The UAE's policy changes only complicate these historic grievances and anomalies. It's unclear how the UAE intends to continue to marry the status quo of authoritarian, absolute monarchy with capitalism, and the kafala system that enables the systematic exploitation of workers' rights. The kafala or sponsorship system ties a resident or migrant to their employer, Unlike the Western norm of a work permit or visa, workers in the UAE can only work and reside in the country if sponsored by their employer.
The cost of organizing the residency card and work permit falls on the employer. However, this has created a mentality of 'ownership' over migrants. Migrants cannot switch jobs since their entire right to reside in the country is tied to their employer. The Kafala system, which is pervasive in the Gulf, has led to the exploitation of workers by their employers.
None of the UAE's glitzy reforms will benefit those subject to the kafala system, whose squalor is casually overlooked by Emiratis and Western expatriates alike. Indeed, these wealthy Westerners are only able to enjoy the UAE's opportunities at the expense of workers who dutifully scurry around and cater to their every whim. Expecting the lion's share of the Emirati workforce to be quiescent as their rights are overlooked—and others' are enhanced—is not a sustainable model.
In the UAE—and the wider Gulf region—there is an unspoken yet accepted social pecking order of status, influence, and power built on racial discrimination and de facto indentured servitude. No amount of propaganda espousing social cohesion and tolerance will eschew the reality that the UAE pursues a policy of economic and racial exploitation at the expense of equality and human rights. However, it doesn't seem to bother Abu Dhabi; arch-rival Qatar is currently embarking on tentative reforms to its labor codes—including the abolition of kafala, and the usually competitive UAE seems unfazed. Qatar, under intense international scrutiny as it prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, perhaps felt compelled, both from a financial and reputational perspective, to reform its labour laws that have caused the deaths of 6,500 migrant deaths since its bid to host the World Cup was announced.
The UAE, which prides itself on leading innovation, modernization and reform in the region, doesn't appear concerned that it isn't leading in this most basic area of upholding workers' rights and dignity. The UAE hosts innumerable international events; Expo 2020, which will now take place later this year, being the most prominent to date. If it had felt it needed to reform its kafala laws in order to appease Western actors, it would have done so already. The West could and should apply pressure on the UAE, but time and again, the West has shown that money, rather than morals, talks when it comes to the UAE, and the Gulf generally.
The reality is that the UAE doesn't feel there is any financial incentive to reform its labor laws. Western businesses, governments, tourists, and residents seem indifferent to the thousands of men toiling in the searing heat on Dubai's skyscrapers, who wear their ubiquitous blue uniforms and work at great risk in substandard health and safety conditions before being jammed into minibuses and sent back to overcrowded dorms or labor camps, far away from beach clubs and brunches. Or the maids in pink or blue uniforms, overburdened in Emirati shopping malls as they try to supervise unruly children and negotiate the endless demands of their "madams."
The UAE offsets the rare rumblings of discontent from Western embassies by promoting a veneer of tolerance and a liberal, Western lifestyle. To its credit, the country has made a genuine and commendable effort to create a state where all faiths are tolerated, especially as it seeks to establish a warm bond with Jews and Judaism more generally. Regional dynamics need to be considered in the question about citizenship too. The UAE historically prided itself as a bastion of stability and beacon of opportunity for the Ummah al Arabiya: the Pan-Arab concept of solidarity.
The Emirates has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the likes of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria who could not see a future for themselves or their families in their native countries. The UAE remains a vital destination of opportunity for these young Arabs, whose education and careers would otherwise be stifled by economic malaise at home. Economic necessity forces these individuals to sacrifice civil rights and social liberties to build a life for themselves in the UAE.
Many of these people have built very successful businesses in the UAE. Will they benefit from the chance to finally establish permanent roots in their adopted home, with the added assets of speaking the language and better understanding the cultural context of the country? Can they hope to retire in the country they have contributed so much towards? These questions remain unanswered.
The UAE is already well on its way to transitioning towards a post-oil economy. Dubai boasts a dynamic, diverse economy, with 'free cities' or economic zones that have transformed the Emirate into a global financial and transportation hub. As the world accelerates towards renewable sources of energy, the UAE is preparing for this transition.
Therefore, perhaps the greatest threat to the whole concept of being Emirati or even a resident of the UAE comes down to what the UAE is most concerned about: money. These policy changes, be it abolishing Sharia law for expatriates, establishing ties with Israel, hosting the Expo, or narrowly expanding the threshold to citizenship, are all designed with the goal to make the UAE a more friendly environment for business, trade, tourism, and the economy.
All of these changes are occurring, while power is being further entrenched amongst a tiny cabal of absolute monarchs, with no tolerance for dissent, no freedom of expression, no parliamentary accountability, no free media, and no say in how the federation is governed for the vast majority of its inhabitants. And herein is the Achilles heel, the blatant contradiction in the UAE's efforts: as it simultaneously liberalizes its economy and encourages influencers to flock to its beaches and brunches, it is repressing civil rights and displaying worrying trends towards Chinese-like repression.
Once the oil wells finally run dry, the UAE will have to start expanding and collecting more taxes. Since 2018, the UAE has started charging 5% VAT on most goods and services. Tolls have existed for some years in Dubai and finally commenced this January, after several delays, in Abu Dhabi. Excise taxes were introduced in 2017, and expanded in 2019. At some point in the near to medium future, the UAE will have to introduce income taxes. Income tax for high earners has recently been announced in Oman.
Once people start paying income taxes, they will want to see accountability. Income taxes, no matter how low they may be, would permanently alter the status of the UAE, especially considering the high cost of living already associated with living there. Citizens, both native and new, may demand more transparency in how their money is spent and how their country is governed. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the workforce would remain completely excluded from participating in the civic life of the country their taxes contribute towards.
New citizens may get a rude awakening if they start demanding accountability from the monolith that is the UAE's feudal system of dictatorship dressed up as tribal, consultative sheikhdoms. After all, if the ruler of Dubai can kidnap, torture and detain his daughter Princess Latifa simply for wanting to live her life on her terms, what could he, his fellow emirs or his descendants do to these new citizens who may seek the same civil liberties they have as a given in their native countries? The case of Sheikh Latifa is not new: she was kidnapped in 2018. Her sister Shamsa was kidnapped in Cambridge in 2000, and hasn't been seen or heard from since. New evidence suggests that Shamsa's abduction was quietly dropped from investigation in the UK. Evidence yet again that if the UAE is to change, it will have to come from within, when the current model ceases to operate.
Meanwhile, for those who keep the entire system going, the migrants will not be touched by recent "reforms" concerning alcohol consumption or citizenship. That's intentional. The reforms are neither inclusive, enlightened, nor benevolent, and expose even more vividly the distinction between the expatriate and migrant; white and black; those with the right passport from those whose passport can be conveniently hidden away in a locked drawer, lest a mutinous employee decide to leave.
There is a worrisome normalization of this almost feudal structure of life in the UAE. In the UAE, everyone knows their place and station in life. Your position in the pecking order is predetermined, and those in power will ensure that the status quo remains for as long as society—and the West—tolerate it. Regardless however, the demographic, economic and political model the UAE is seeking to establish is simply unsustainable. Once the welfare state runs dry, its citizens will no longer see any justification for propping up an elite that demands absolute obedience but denies them a say in the future of their homeland.
The UAE elite cannot expect to entice Westerners to flock to its ostensibly opulent shores, with a narrow possibility of citizenship at some vague point in the future, if it expects these people to financially contribute to a state they have no say in governing. It cannot expect indefinite acquiescence from migrants if they are going to witness the blatant hypocrisy of a pecking order now being made official government policy, while they also have to see their meagre salaries taken via taxes, as well as their rights and passports.
The UAE has managed to operate its tightrope of social stratification since 1971 due to its vast oil wealth. It has used this wealth to buy loyalty from its citizens, entice Westerners with its lifestyle and tax-free status and compound it with the silent repression of those who bear the burden of building this grossly unsustainable model. The UAE's recent reforms are merely cosmetic adjustments that ignore the inevitable changes it will have to contend with eventually; its entire political structure, its economic model, its attitude to human rights and its vision for the future.
The solutions are obvious: establish a constitutional monarchy, create a democratic society, abolish the entire kafala system and enshrine human rights in a new constitution. All of these things would make the UAE a stable, transparent, attractive and sustainable place for everyone to live in. But for now at least, the charade continues. However, those governing the UAE who think the current governance model can outlast these rapid changes may need to start planning for an alternative, and more likely, version of reality.