Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

What constitutes exceptional talent? Deciding who qualifies is harder than it looks

Permanent residency visas are a welcome move but attracting talented people and keeping them is a challenge

New Gold Card permanent residency visas will be given to exceptional and talented individuals. Alamy
New Gold Card permanent residency visas will be given to exceptional and talented individuals. Alamy

When, exactly a year ago, new rules for residency visas for foreign citizens were announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, I welcomed them. In particular, I heralded the creation of a 10-year visa for qualified professionals and their families as a firm and decisive step towards attracting investment and talents to the UAE through, as Sheikh Mohammed said, an "open environment, tolerant values, infrastructure and flexible legislation”.

Those changes were always intended to be a beginning, not an end. And so last month we saw the announcement of the next decisive step – the announcement of a new Gold Card permanent residency visa, to be given “to exceptional and talented individuals, and to whoever contributes positively to the UAE’s success story".

Between them, Sheikh Mohammed said, the 6,800 people already selected to receive the new visa have investments in the UAE worth an estimated Dh100 billion.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that they have physically invested that amount of money in the Emirates. On the contrary, for most, the sum represents not an inflow of capital from overseas but the value of the businesses they have created here, often from very modest beginnings and over many years. By doing so, they have helped in a very direct manner to build the nation’s economy.

For those who have contributed to the country in this way, the granting of permanent visas represents a thank-you both for what they have done and what they will continue to do. It is a right and proper step to take.

Determining which other investors might qualify for an offer of permanent residency should not be too complex a task. The value of the businesses built, the jobs created, other contributions to society at large, through philanthropy and other means – all of these factors can be assessed.

It will be a much more challenging task to determine how to select those described by Sheikh Mohammed as “exceptional workers in the fields of health, engineering, science and art”. The first three fields were already identified as qualifying for the 10-year residency visa announced a year ago and I am delighted that, as I suggested then, the arts have now been included in the category for permanent residency.

Some of those people will already have been here for years, raising families and integrating into local life. It will not be too hard to pick them out.

What, though, of those who might be in the first flushes of their careers, perhaps showing enormous promise but as yet to achieve their full potential? How can they be identified and selected?

Moreover, many such people still in the throes of developing their careers will surely wish to work in globally acknowledged centres of excellence in their own fields.

If the UAE is to attract innovators and persuade them to make their home here, it will take more than just the offer of a visa

One of the objectives behind the new permanent residency scheme is to contribute to the achievement of Sheikh Mohammed’s vision that the UAE can become “a global incubator for exceptional talents”.

Perhaps some of those talents can be identified and even nurtured here. There is no doubt, however, that they will flourish best with international experience and exposure. The UAE would benefit more from that too, should they choose to come back at a later stage in their careers.

If the UAE is to attract these innovators and exceptional talents, in whatever field, and to persuade them to make their home here, even if they go away for a few years and then return, it will take more than just the offer of a visa – even a permanent one. They will need locally based, globally recognised centres of excellence in which to work. That will include universities but also dedicated research centres, like the biodiversity hub I suggested a couple of weeks ago, or some of the stimulating arts centres now emerging.

They will need colleagues and collaborators with whom they can interact and innovate. They will also need an environment in which research for the sake of research is encouraged – not just applied research that is focused on needs that have already been identified. Such an environment must be freewheeling, one that can properly thrive only in the absence of restrictive regulation. Yet, as I have written recently, there are indications that a tendency towards over-regulation is already apparent in some areas. That will not help.

Don’t get me wrong: I welcome the introduction of the new permanent residency visa, just as I welcomed the new 10-year residence visa a year ago. It won’t be too difficult to identify investors and successful businessmen and women who can benefit.

It is not going to be so easy, though, to choose the "exceptional talents" early in their careers, nurture them and create an environment that will attract them, and to which they will wish to return if they choose to spend some time overseas. The challenge is perhaps greater than we realise. The long-term potential rewards, though, are enormous.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Updated: June 3, 2019 04:59 PM

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