DUBAI // Plans are being made to cut the red-tape and improve the system for people seeking to establish charities in the emirate.
Hundreds of non-profit groups operate informally in Dubai, with unpaid volunteers donating their days and dirhams to put needy children through school or care for abandoned pets.
But restrictive laws are stunting the ability of such organisations to raise funds - and grow.
"The legal framework is restrictive; we realise this," said Anisa Al Sharif, head of social development, policy and strategy for the Dubai Executive Council, at a talk last week. "The first challenge that any NGO will have here in Dubai is the legal status."
The council has begun studying the topic as part of a long-term plan to support and partner with it, she said.
"As a government [...] we do have responsibility for [...] people who are giving their money, their time, their effort in organisations that have no legal status," she said.
To register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and become legal, non-profit must find 20 Emirati sponsors, often a difficult task.
Without being registered, the groups may not open bank accounts. Without bank accounts, they cannot legally raise funds to pay their expenses or hire extra staff, and individuals and corporate sponsors - the bread and butter for most NPOs - hesitate to give to charities lacking independent bank accounts.
Many groups find it easier to avoid the formalities altogether - even if it means keeping budgets low or paying out of pocket.
Ayesha Kelaif, a naturalised Emirati with a government job, has run the Dubai Animal Rescue Centre (DARC) out of her villa for 12 years. With the help of occasional volunteers she cares for 160 mostly exotic animals, including alpacas from Peru, African oryx, ponies, a monkey, snakes, owls and tortoises.
Most of her salary goes to the animals, she said.
That includes Dh3,000 a month for bedding, Dh4,000 for food and Dh60,000 in unpaid vet bills, said a volunteer manager, Neal Menzies.
The two take leave from their day jobs to give tours at the villa - some 30 schools have visited in the past six months.
They receive no interference from the government - in fact, they have petitioned it for land to house larger animals such as baboons and camels.
"They know what we are doing," said Ms Kelaif. "We are not causing trouble."
Like DARC, many charities rely on devoted individuals.
"If I could pay them, if I could have a staff, then I could avoid burnout," said Saher Shaikh, founder of Adopt-a-Camp, a high-profile group that helps labourers.
Still, with no staff, she has managed to attract enough in-kind donations and volunteers to assist 11,000 labourers in 36 camps.
Sponsors pay directly for whatever is needed, from English courses to transport costs. It makes the giving more meaningful, she said.
If a trade-licensed body or registered NPO wants to hold a fund-raiser, they must get permission from the emirate's Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD) and give up to 10 per cent of the money raised to one of 18 IACAD-approved charities, such as the UAE Red Crescent Society.
Ali al Mansoori, who oversees charitable associations at IACAD, said his department would soon simplify its application process. At present, IACAD promises to respond to fund-raising requests within 15 days, but it plans to reduce that maximum limit to seven days. He said his department typically replies within two hours.
"Here in the Gulf, Middle East, it's not easy, surrounded by a lot of problems ... You don't want to be accused of something which will put the country in a bad situation," said Mr al Mansoori.
The country's transient population also means people posing as do-gooders can easily collect funds in a crowded mall, then disappear, he said.
"It happens," he said. "We don't want anybody to spoil the name of the charitable sector."