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Exclusive: Exodus to the GCC and why the region is an enticing destination for immigrants

The GCC is an immigration magnet for expats- What else besides uncertainty is spurring this west to east exodus?

British companies and citizens are particularly struggling to understand what might happen post Brexit What is also strategically impressive in the region is how much thought has gone into the Future of Work Having an environment that is welcoming to the digital industry is essential for investment and growth and encourages entrepreneurs

New UK Premier Boris Johnson has just been elected and Brexit is top of the list on his agenda.

Employers and employees from the UK have their eyes set on immigration towards clearer, perhaps more fertile lands, as the EU rules and a no-deal Brexit are sure to clash and create more uncertainty.  

Julia Onslow-Cole, Global Partner of Government Strategies at Fragomen London and previously with PwC, an expert on all things immigration/visa regulations/expat investment in the region, discussed these fears with AMEinfo.

Why is the region a magnet for immigrants, British or otherwise?

Read more: Can PM Johnson clear the “fog of Brexit”? What is GCC's role?

European uncertainty

Spending time talking to governments about immigration policies, and being appointed advisor to the Mayor of London on Brexit and on committees representing employers for the UK government, Julia talks from authority.

“I do see a shift where people are moving from the west to the east and looking at this region as one of many loaded with opportunities and some of the things driving that is all of the uncertainty in Europe around Brexit,” starts Julia.

The UK is an uncertain place at the moment for both individuals and companies.  Companies are particularly struggling to understand what might happen post-Brexit.

British citizens who want to work in the EU and UK employers trying to move people to Europe face immigration hurdles.

A number of initiatives like the EU “Posted worker” notifications (Employers can send workers to work temporarily in another EU country provided they benefit from some of the same working conditions and rights as workers in their own country), are, according to Julia, very difficult for companies to implement.

Read more: Brexit uncertainty could draw more attention to Dubai real estate market

The GCC and immigration

The Middle Eastern economy is expected to slow down 0.6% in 2019, an improvement over the estimated 1.5% slowdown in 2018, and the smallest contraction in nearly a decade, according to a new report from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and Oxford Economics.

“This region is becoming more attractive to inward investments and individuals,” said Julia adding, “The threat of economic slowdown is not enough to stop immigrants coming to the region. Lots of good things and exciting developments are happening across the Middle East,” said Julia.

Julia mentions as examples Saudi’s $500bn Red Sea development NEOM, huge investments in the GCC railway network, Bahrain’s technology hub, and very attractive immigration policies related to foreign investment laws in the UAE and Saudi.

“What is also strategically impressive in the region is how much thought has gone into the Future of Work, ensuring that the workforce is fit for the future,” said Julia.

Read more: Preparing youth in the UAE for the future of work

Talks in the GCC, in particular, centre on both nationals and expats, being agile, flexible and technology-enabled, according to Julia.

“How does this translate into immigration? Well, if you look around the world, you’ll see many countries where immigration laws haven’t changed for many years. In America, the immigration law, not policy, hasn’t changed for about 30 years,” explains Julia.

“Many countries need to change their immigration laws to capture the new jobs of the future. This region is really thinking about how to, for instance, capture people with entrepreneurial skills and specifically around technology.”

Attractive reasons for immigration  

As per Julia: Saudi, UAE, and Bahrain are the most attractive immigration destinations. Here are the top 3 reasons why:

  • The UAE is encouraging talent development for locals and every nationality. New visa proposals attracting general investors, highly talented students, entrepreneurs. All three jurisdictions now have appropriate laws in place to attract talent and investment from around the world, whether this is through special visa programs for entrepreneurs, highly skilled and high net worth individuals, or by facilitating 100% foreign ownership in certain sectors. 
  • Job opportunities: Being at the forefront of technology, leading projects and mega-developments in the region. Governments in these countries continue to invest in high tech solutions and lead mega-development projects in construction, transportation, aviation and tourism. 
  • Numerous activities for the whole family, now even in Saudi.  The region is increasingly attracting families drawn by developments in the past few years, including theme parks, museums, sport and cultural events. We are experiencing a great demand for such projects in Saudi Arabia which was previously restricted for tourists; with the recent implementation of an 'event visa' this is rapidly changing.

Read more: These are the most searched for jobs in the UAE

Technology- A hotspot

Julia believes that technology is having and will continue to have a significant effect on our future and is embedded in everything we do.

“Having an environment that is welcoming to the digital industry is essential for investment and growth and encourages entrepreneurs. We are moving away from the idea that you have one job for a number of years or life to people having several careers and the important thing is to keep talent agile, and flexible,” explains Julia.

Role of real estate in immigration

Historically, real estate has been a way to attract investors and entrepreneurs. But, is this trend changing?

Governments are realising it is not enough on its own,” said Julia.

“The key today is to give expatriate families flexibility for their dependants, in particular, the right of dependants to work, because this makes a significant difference to the success of the assignment.  Most families have dual careers."

Julia added that it’s a long way off from the UAE or Saudi granting citizenship by investing, for example, in real estate, as many countries do.

“It is a big step. I wouldn’t see this happening in the region any time soon,” said Julia.

Read Freehold Property vs. Leasehold Property: What makes sense for you?

Julia is quick to point out that governments in this region are extremely open to answering and addressing people’s questions and inquiries, but that certain challenges remain.

“We often see some immigration policies which would benefit from some further detailed written guidance, however, the helpfulness of the authorities in providing further clarification often compensates for this.”

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