The country's immigration system faces a complex balancing act - open enough to welcome the workers it needs, but strict enough to prevent 'tourists' disappearing into the underground labour market
After the amnesty: How will the UAE's jobseeker visa beckon talent but reject illegal migration?
The UAE will soon open the door to foreign nationals entering without a job, allowing them to stay for six months while they seek work.
The move was part of reforms to improve the economy and ensure the best and brightest workers have few barriers to employment here.
But it marks a major shift in the laws under which migrant workers come to the UAE with a job and a visa waiting for them.
And it is a complex issue as the UAE’s visa amnesty has shown.
There are thousands of UAE residents who have overstayed their visas or who have been working without one.
Dr Yousuf Al Sherif, legal adviser to the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship, said it had become necessary for the UAE to introduce restrictions.
“The UAE needs to protect itself from random jobseekers who enter the country as tourists and then work in the country illegally,” he said.
“We have noticed a trend of tourists turning into beggars, especially people with disabilities. They take advantage of humanitarian initiatives that provide treatment, rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs.”
Dr Al Sherif said the authorities have discovered organised groups who recruit such individuals.
“Therefore, it is necessary that the UAE finds ways to limit such trends and one of the ways is to introduce visas for job seekers, which exist in other countries,” he said.
Read more on the visa amnesty:
To obtain the visa, he said, the applicant would have to present health insurance that is valid during their stay, and prove they are financially capable of covering their stay and that they had a place to live.
The applicant would also pay a security deposit that they could receive back once they left the UAE, or provide a sponsor who would be responsible if they overstayed.
“All of these conditions will guarantee that such people will not escape the law, it also protects their lives while they are staying here,” Dr Al Sherif said.
Global immigration company Fragomen said it was common practice worldwide to introduce requirements for people to enter the country.
The UAE has been looking at introducing requirements such as health insurance and security deposits for some time, “and I don’t think there will be an issue of logistics”, said Murtaza Khan, a partner at Fragomen's UAE office.
“The more interesting part is to see how they would look at applications, how they will ensure that people have the right financial standing before issuing visas,” Mr Khan said.
Before issuing a Schengen, UK or US visa, the governments look at people’s financial history, bank statements, salary levels and transactions to assess if the person is an overstay risk.
At the moment, the UAE tourist visa process is straightforward. There are licensed travel agencies or airlines that can sponsor tourist visas, and the applicant will only have to present basic travel documents and a passport photo.
Those who overstay their visas do so mostly because 30 or 90 days are not enough to get a job.
“If you are coming here to find a job, the government might as well give you a chance and scrutinise your file to make sure you are not a risk,” Mr Khan said. “The six-month visa is very positive because it gives jobseekers adequate time to search.”
In some countries, the governments make sure that visitors have a return ticket, a credit card, a minimum amount of cash and evidence of where they are staying, “so they don’t have financial trouble with their accommodation and to make sure they can look after themselves”, he said. “Because if they don’t, that is when the problems start.”
To obtain a UK visa, applicants must provide proof of departure, an employment letter that proves their good standing in their company, and their salary status, an invitation letter and hotel confirmation.
There is no set minimum amount that people must have in their account, and having a large bank balance does not necessarily mean a person has sufficient funds.
For a Schengen visa to enter any of the EU countries, an applicant must present an employment letter, a bank statement for the past six months, hotel and flight reservations and medical insurance. For security purposes, the Schengen centre will also take the applicant’s fingerprints.
The UAE could look at factors such as whether the applicant has enough income in their home country, their employment status and their family status.
“There is no single factor when looking at the status in the home country,” Mr Khan said. “That is what I believe is the complication of implementation. Something like this takes a lot of research and assessment on government level to assess.”
“It is quite an expensive exercise to be able to implement this.”