The United Arab Emirates plans to offer citizenship to a select group of foreigners, the first Gulf Arab nation to formalize a process aimed at giving expatriates a bigger stake in the economy.

The major policy shift unveiled on Saturday is aimed at attracting talent in a way that will boost growth in the UAE, home to the Middle East’s finance and travel hubs and millions of expatriate residents.

Stock markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi largely shrugged off the move — benchmark indexes in both cities lost about 0.5% on Sunday.

Foreign residents make up more than 80% of the population of the UAE’s seven sheikhdoms and have been a mainstay of the economy for decades. But they lacked a clear path to citizenship, including if they were born and raised in the country.

Oil-rich Gulf states have been forced to consider longer residency and limited citizenship for foreigners as they seek to attract investment and diversify. Until now, citizenship in the UAE and some other Gulf states has been reserved for foreigners in special cases, including for service to the state, but these changes will formalize and widen such a process.

“The new directives aim to attract talents that contribute to our development journey,” Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum said. The changes will allow the UAE to grant citizenship to selected investors and professionals, including scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, authors and their families.

The UAE cabinet, local courts and executive councils will nominate those eligible for the citizenship under criteria set for each category, he said. The law will also allow receivers of the UAE passport to keep their existing citizenship.

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“It’s another milestone that comes along a transformation path of the UAE as a financial, trade and cultural hub, allowing for further avenues of economic growth,” said Mohamed Abu Basha, head of macroeconomic research at Cairo-based EFG-Hermes Holding.

The scope of implementation — including the rights granted for the new passport holders — will be key, Basha said. “The wider the scope, the wider the positive economic implications of a qualitative growth in population and economic value added.”

Gulf governments have long resisted offering permanent residency to their millions of foreign workers, guarding generous privileges enjoyed by their citizens. But forced by the 2014 oil-price slump to prepare their economies for a post-fossil fuel world, they are now seeking to entice wealthy people to stay. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken steps toward allowing some expatriates permanent residency.

The UAE abolished the need for companies to have Emirati shareholders last year — a major shake-up of foreign ownership laws aimed at attracting investment into an economy reeling from the coronavirus and a decline in oil prices.

It had previously announced a plan to grant visas of five to 10 years to wealthy property investors, entrepreneurs and “specialized talents and researchers.” A minimum investment of 5 million dirhams ($1.4 million) was required to obtain a five-year visa, and double that amount to stay for a decade.

According to a statement on UAE state news agency WAM, the conditions that must be met to secure the citizenship are:

Investors must own a property in the UAE.

They must obtain one or more patents that are approved by the UAE Ministry of Economy or any other reputable international body, in addition to a recommendation letter from the Economy Ministry

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Doctors and specialists must be specialized in a unique scientific discipline or any other scientific principles that are highly required in the UAE.

Scientists are required to be an active researcher in a university or research center or in the private sector, with a practical experience of not less than 10 years in the same field.

Individuals with creative talents such as intellectuals and artists should be pioneers in the culture and art fields and winners of one or more international award. A recommendation letter from related government entities is mandatory as well.

The citizenship can be withdrawn upon breach of the conditions, according to the statement. It was not immediately clear whether those who will be bestowed citizenship would have the full rights and benefits of people born Emirati.

Dubai-London Heathrow is one of busiest international routes
Visitors from Burundi and Rwanda also not allowed into U.K.

The U.K. banned direct passenger flights from the United Arab Emirates to stop the spread of a new virus strain originally identified in South Africa, putting one of the world’s busiest international air routes on ice.

Starting 1 p.m. U.K. time, passengers who’ve been in or transited through the UAE in the previous 10 days will also no longer be allowed to enter the country. Visitors from Burundi and Rwanda in Africa are barred as well. Exemptions usually in place, including for business travel, will no longer apply.

“The decision to ban travel from these destinations follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, that may have spread to other countries, including the UAE, Burundi and Rwanda,” the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and Department for Transport said in a joint statement.

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Dubai-London Heathrow was for a time earlier this month the busiest international passenger route, according to flight-bookings specialist OAG, most likely driven by the travel corridor introduced late last year, which the U.K. dropped on Jan. 12.

Emirates served London Heathrow with five daily flights, of which four used an Airbus SE A380. The world’s largest-long haul carrier also operated 10 flights a week to Manchester, and daily flights to Birmingham and Glasgow.

British tourists in the UAE will have their visas extended free of charge, state news agency WAM said. Tourists and celebrities have visited the Persian Gulf country, posting photos of beach scenes and nightlife on social media over the past month while the U.K. remains locked down. Visitors and those working in the country normally face fines for overstaying their visas.

The UAE will continue to be “an important hub for travel and logistics,” while taking steps like testing and administering vaccines to combat the virus, WAM said in a statement acknowledging the U.K. travel restrictions. The UAE is battling a rise in infections, with a record 3,966 cases Thursday.

Dubai reopened for tourists in July. While social distancing and mask-wearing is required, restrictions have been kept relatively loose, with bars, restaurants, hotels and beaches still open. The second-largest emirate late Wednesday reduced the validity of virus tests to three days from four and made it mandatory to have appointments for hospital visits.