The Government's programme extending citizenship to children of Emirati mothers and non-Emirati fathers is off to such a great start, one must ask: is it time to expand?
Citizenship law is a step towards even greater equality
Last week, over 900 UAE residents, all over the age of 18, received a gift from the Government which will make a long-term difference to their lives: each was included on a list of people to be granted UAE citizenship because, although having fathers with another nationality, their mothers are Emirati.
President Sheikh Khalifa announced the change in the law, to allow children born to Emirati mothers and foreign fathers to obtain UAE citizenship once they reached the age of 18, on the 40th National Day in December. Over 1,100 candidates were included in the initial list of applicants; the latest list brings the total to over 2,000.
Only four months have passed since the change was announced, but it's been a fairly rapid process to approve applicants and I assume that a further list is in the process of preparation.
The benefits of becoming a UAE citizen are substantial. They include, for example, the right to free places in government higher educational institutions, the right to buy property outside zones where expatriates may buy, and the ability to seek help from the various Emiratisation programmes when looking for a job.
There is also the right to guaranteed residence without sponsorship from an employer for males, or from parents or husbands for females. As those born here to expatriate parents who have now become adults will know, this is something that offers a great sense of security.
There's another benefit too, less tangible, but, nonetheless of enormous significance. Almost all of these 2,000 or so new UAE citizens will have been born here and will have been brought up here. Regardless of the countries from which their fathers come, they will have considered the UAE to be their home, their country. Now it is, and they have the papers to prove it.
The decision to change the law on nationality was taken only after lengthy consideration, as is right and proper. The UAE is now one of only a very few countries in the Arab world where mothers are given the right to pass their nationality on to their children. Since those children have spent their lives here they should have no difficulty in identifying themselves as Emiratis, which should, obviously, be an important part of any citizenship process. I wish other countries did the same.
In terms of simple demographics, one can understand why the Government has decided to amend the rules. The latest official census statistics suggested that only around 11.5 per cent of the country's population are UAE citizens. Through this new regulation, something is being done in a concrete way to address that imbalance in terms of the citizenships of the country's residents.
Another important but little-noticed step being taken to deal with the potentially-explosive issue of the country's demographic make-up is the continuing process of assessing the legitimacy of the claims to UAE nationality of some of those living here who are stateless, the bidoon.
Moreover, since the Government has long had a policy of enhancing the rights of UAE women and of working to ensure their legal and economic equality, the new policy can be viewed, rightly, as a simple extension of that process.
By all accounts, the process of assessing claims to UAE citizenship under the new law is proceeding smoothly (though I would imagine that there are quite a number of people who would like it to go a little more quickly). One female Emirati colleague of mine, for example, who is married to an expatriate from another Arab country, was discussing the issue with me a couple of weeks ago. She was eagerly awaiting the next list; her children, born and brought up here and all over 18, were the ones counselling patience. I hope they were on the second list!
Now that the system is working well, I do wonder, though, whether it's not time to consider a further amendment to the nationality law. Would it be too complex, too difficult, to extend it so that any children of an Emirati mother were entitled to citizenship at birth, rather than having to wait 18 years? They already grow up considering themselves to be at least half-Emirati, probably more, given the assumption that most will spend their formative years here, rather than overseas, in the country from which their fathers come.
There are many people with Emirati fathers and non-Emirati mothers who have already shown their dedication to the state, some serving in senior government positions. Those with Emirati mothers, rather than fathers, can certainly do the same.
Some conditions might perhaps be applied. For instance, it might be wise to consider a policy that those born overseas (save for those whose parents were on government service) should live in the UAE for a number of years with their parents before being qualified. Or perhaps there should be some consideration of the current marital status of the parents. But these are relatively minor details that could be worked out.
If part of the logic behind the change in the law announced by Sheikh Khalifa was the further empowerment of Emirati women, then there would seem to be little reason why it couldn't, at some stage, be further extended. There are thousands of youngsters and parents who would be delighted by the knowledge that they won't have to wait until they are 18 to become fully-fledged Emiratis and to contribute, as citizens, to the further development of the country with which they identify and which is their home.
Peter Hellyer is a social commentator specialising in Emirati heritage and culture