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UAE issues passports to wealthy expats in new round of reforms

Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, speaks during a panel session at the World Aviation Festival in London, U.K., on Thursday on 5 Sept. 2019. The festival runs through Friday. [Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images]
Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, speaks during a panel session at the World Aviation Festival in London, U.K., on Thursday on 5 Sept. 2019. The festival runs through Friday. [Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

The UAE has taken steps to provide relief to expats facing an uncertain future in the Gulf state but only for a select number of wealthy individuals. In a new round of social reforms that seek to refashion the Gulf state for a post-pandemic future, Abu Dhabi has issued passports to airline bosses, tech entrepreneurs and a former Real Madrid footballer. Plans also include "taboo-breaking reforms" that are likely to prove unpopular amongst the more conservative sections of society.

The first batch to be awarded passports include Sir Tim Clark, the veteran president of Dubai's Emirates airline, and Tony Douglas, chief executive of Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways, according to people briefed on the decision, reported the Financial Times. Michel Salgado, the Spanish footballer who runs a football club in Dubai, has also received a passport. They all declined to comment.

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Others include the founders of two successful UAE start-ups: Careem, a ride-hailing app bought by Uber, and Souq.com, an ecommerce group acquired by Amazon. They too declined to comment.

Issuing passports to a privileged few marks a change in the way the UAE has traditionally treated expats who make up 90 per cent of the country's population. Instead of encouraging to leave, wealthy expats are now being enticed to remain and call the UAE their home in an effort to boost domestic spending and sustain property prices.

"We want people to call Abu Dhabi home," Mohammed Al Shorafa Al Hammadi, chair of the UAE capital's department of economic development is reported saying in the FT. "The right perception is that you're not here for the short-term, you're here to grow and live . . . through retirement."

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Expats typically face extreme uncertainty in the Gulf. "It gives me and my family assurance for the future. I now know where I'm going to retire," said one expatriate granted UAE nationality, who asked to remain anonymous.

With the UAE approaching its 50th anniversary, a host of economic and social reforms that seek to refashion the Gulf state for a post-pandemic future are on the horizon, including ten-year "golden visas" to thousands of professional expatriates and their families and a new visa that will allow foreigners to retire in the kingdom.

Other changes are likely to prove more controversial. "Taboo-breaking" reforms that are being considered, according to the FT, include decriminalising homosexuality, a move that would bring the UAE in line with western norms, and the opening of casinos to boost the tourism sector.

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