Virtuzone, a free zone based in Fujairah, has received a flurry of complaints from customers over delays of up to eight months in the issuance of residence visas.
Customers have been left in limbo waiting for visas after the Fujairah Government tightened security checks. Entrepreneurs looking to start businesses have had to regularly leave the country to come back in on a tourist visa as their residence visas were delayed.
"We were doing visa runs [to the Oman border] for months, which is of course a loss of time, there are costs involved and just the uncertainty of living without proper legal status was not good," said one Virtuzone customer who did not want to be named.
In setting up a small media company, it took nearly eight months from August last year until April to have residence visas issued for three people, the customer said.
"We paid the normal fees to Virtuzone, but the money was not the problem. The problem was the constant worry of our legal status here," said the customer.
Neil Petch, the chairman of Virtuzone, acknowledged that there had been a number of complaints, including customers taking to Facebook and Twitter to vent their anger. He said the zone was doing all it could to help process visas and improve other parts of the application process.
"The issuance of licences and the issuance of visas is a government function and Virtuzone is a marketing agency for that government function. We are not the issuer and we are beholden to immigration," he said. "What I would say in response to the complaints is that very often customers understand visas are a government thing and they just want us to communicate with them."
Mr Petch added that visas were being processed more slowly in the wake of the Arab Spring and increased political tensions with Iran.
"If security are looking at an issue, we do not have the right to storm in and ask what's going on with the security procedures, so it's difficult to explain where the process is at," he said.
Virtuzone is owned partly by the Government and is a member of Creative City Fujairah Free Zone, developed in partnership with Fujairah Media and the Fujairah Cultural & Media Authority.
To get their businesses started, entrepreneurs pay Virtuzone a one-off registration fee of Dh3,000 (US$816.72), an annual fee of Dh13,500 and an annual fee of Dh13,500 for a company licence. A three-year residence visa costs Dh4,950.
Customers had also complained about changes to rules requiring a degree to start a company, as well as some of the partnerships Virtuzone had developed for other services such as providing health care.
In response to the complaints, Mr Petch said the zone had begun to implement a new back-office system, increased its staff and set up an automated eligibility test to see if an entrepreneur or business owner was likely to gain a licence and residence visa.
Virtuzone is also letting some nationalities, such as Syrians, know straight away that they are unlikely to have a licence and visa processed at this time, given the political uncertainty in their countries.
"We are always checking with immigration about which countries we are allowed to market to," said Mr Petch.
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