Will 10-year visas revolutionise talent management?

Experts ponder the implications as UAE and Bahrain introduce lengthier stays for some expats

It is no exaggeration to say that the average length of visas in Gulf countries is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the nature of their expat communities and, by extension, their approach to talent management.

Visas of two or three years have been the norm across most of the region, which has given rise to a largely transient workforce. But that is about to change radically, with the landmark announcement from the UAE government that residency visas will be granted for periods of up to 10 years.

Bahrain has followed suit by revealing plans for its own 10-year residency visa for foreigners. This will take the form of a self-sponsorship permit for foreign investors and although planning is still in the early stages, the Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reports it is likely to cost around BHD600 (US$1,600).

In Bahrain, the reaction to the news has been overwhelmingly positive. Ali Al-Aradi, CIPD examiner, lecturer and writer, says: “I believe this decision will help expand the base of investment for a large sector of foreign investors in Bahrain, and pump their profits back into the local market, rather than exporting their wealth or searching for investment opportunities in other countries. The decision and its consequences on the national economy must be praised, especially given the context of fierce competition for attracting talent globally. This new visa will make Bahrain the favourite destination for talent.”

The visa is intended to boost Bahrain’s position as an investment destination, says Al-Aradi. “The aim is to encourage foreign investors to create more business in Bahrain's local market, and surely that supports the Bahrain 2030 economic vision, which is based on sustainability and competitiveness. The knock-on effect will be the creation of many opportunities for Bahraini jobseekers and an increase in the levels of pay,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the UAE 10-year residency permit will come into play during the third quarter of 2018. Final details have not yet been confirmed, but it is thought the visa will be available for skilled professionals, possibly in the sectors of medicine, science and engineering, with additional visas for investors and innovators as well as exceptional students.

According to the UAE’s state-owned news agency, WAM, the idea is to boost the economy by attracting new investment; the announcement of the visa coincided with surprise plans to allow 100 per cent foreign ownership of companies in the Emirates. Previously, companies outside the free zones had to be part-owned by nationals.

The unanswered question so far is whether or not holders of the visa will need to be sponsored by an employer, as they are at present, and whether or not the visa will allow free movement between jobs without seeking permission from previous employers.

Shadha Zawawi, a senior associate at Maha Bin Hendi Law Firm, believes it is too early to assess the full implications of the new system. But she says: “The visa will help HR departments attract more talent, provide them with a pool of professionals to choose from and bring more flexibility to the recruitment process. It will also help improve retention of exceptional talent.”

Veera Marshall, HR business partner at Halian, a healthcare IT company with a notably diverse workforce, says that in her experience the initial reaction to the 10-year visa has been positive. “This is especially because a fair number of the population would like to make the UAE their permanent home, and this announcement seems like a step in that direction,” she says.

“Up until now, visa restrictions and the cost of sponsoring oneself – and family – have been options only available to a few, so I do believe the 10-year residency visa will impact the UAE’s position as a global talent hub. Definitely from an investment standpoint, the extended timeframe will boost investment and confidence.

“In terms of talent, we still face a dearth of skills, albeit only in some industries and roles; but in my opinion this will allow us to open our doors to more candidates. Moreover, it is a strategy to grow and retain rather than attract, as we can see with the inclusion of students and innovators in the list of categories,” she adds.

Will the availability of more foreign talent have any impact on Emiratisation initiatives? Not really, says Marshall. “From my experience, the Emiratisation initiative has a totally different agenda. It is the commitment of the UAE government to equip their people with the right skills to find the right jobs. The initiative isn’t driven by compulsion, but rather by a need to develop and recognise true talent. This is why I don’t believe that there will be a significant impact on skilled professionals coming in. But all this will be a lot clearer once the qualifying criteria are released.”

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