Opinion



September 3, 2019,   4:08 PM

Supportive Immigration Policies Are Shaping GCC’s Future

Julia Onslow-Cole

FULL BIO

dubai downtown

If there is one thing in life that is always true; it is that everything is constantly changing. The days of people going to university and staying in one or two jobs, working standard hours until retirement, are long over. In fact, retirement itself is becoming a dated concept.

To succeed, today's workforce must be agile and flexible, ready to change direction and to acquire new skills. Many co-workers of the future will never require holidays, take time off for personal matters or voice any dissent in the workplace -- as they will be robots. Many new jobs are developing to cater for this new landscape - a company in the US which uses robot security guards is seeking "robot managers" as they have found the robots can identify a potential issue but are unable to distinguish from a spillage from a hot drink or a fire. There are also jobs now as auditors for algorithms to check that the algorithms are impartial, plus many new tech jobs including "internet of things architect".

In Singapore, the government is giving a grant to anyone over the age of 25 who wants to acquire a new skill to engender a culture of continuous learning. Conversely, one of the negative aspects of Brexit has been that the UK government has been consumed by the issues of leaving the EU since the Referendum in June 2016, and has not had the capacity to focus as much resource as is needed on these issues.

However, the race for the future of work is not simply about ensuring the current population has the necessary skills. It is also about encouraging the digital industries to flourish and providing the right incentives to attract both start-ups and more mature tech businesses, in addition to cultivating a supportive immigration policy.

The GCC member states are providing a combination of all three and offer an increasingly competitive landscape for inward investors, including those focused on the digital industries and entrepreneurs. Most countries in the region have been diversifying their economies away from hydrocarbons and are looking at a wide range of supportive policies, including the new laws allowing 100% foreign ownership of businesses in approved sectors recently adopted by governments in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. With the new Foreign Direct Investment Law in the UAE, for example, even companies outside of free zones can benefit from 100% foreign ownership, provided that they operate in select sectors as identified by the UAE government. Another great mention is the creation of the Research & Technology Park at KAUST, Saudi Arabia’s leading innovation hub.

In addition, the region has started to implement new innovative visa categories to attract general investors, highly talented students and entrepreneurs. The new policy in the UAE, for instance, allows for the issuance of residence permits with a validity of either five or 10 years, depending on the category of applicant, whereas historically, investors could benefit from residence visas of up to three years only in free zones. These new permits eradicate the previous obstacles for freelancers, creative individuals, and entrepreneurs as they eliminate the need for employment visas. There is now also a residency permit option for retirees in the UAE.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has evolved its immigration policies to allow for the issuance of residence permits with either a limited validity (of minimum one year) or unlimited validity, and grant rights that were not previously available to foreign nationals, such as the ability to purchase property, freedom of employment in the private sector, and exemptions from the requirement of an exit visa to depart from the Kingdom.

These initiatives are being adopted by other countries in the region to varying extents to attract the talent that is needed. The key point is that all the immigration policies are relatively new, and much thought has gone into devising them with the understanding that they have to be fit for the future.

This is in contrast to immigration laws in many other parts of the world: many of these older systems are unable to cope with new types of jobs or even new work structures, such as having a shareholding in lieu of salary. 

The new UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for example, says he will look at implementing an Australian Points-Based System in the UK. Although the Australian system is often considered a robust and objective framework, it is in practice quite complex and the UK has already taken the elements from the Australian system which suited the UK in 2008 when they introduced a points-based system. The Australian System does contain regional immigration policies and perhaps this is what the new UK government will look at. A devolved immigration policy would be supported by business in London and in Scotland.

Like many other countries, the UK's system is heavily based on traditional work patterns and models of reward which applicants must meet to gain admittance. However, these markets can benefit greatly by mirroring some of the changes in the GCC region. They should introduce some immigration categories for individuals that consider the person's skills and background and are more aligned with the way entrepreneurs and tech companies reward their employees. 

Julia Onslow-Cole is Partner - Global Government Strategies and Compliance, Fragomen.



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