Policies relating to the employment of United Arab Emirates (UAE) and foreign nationals are maintained by the Federal Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (MOHRE) (formerly the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs). The Labour Law is loosely based on the International Labour Organization’s model. In 2003, the UAE launched an initiative aimed towards increasing the participation of national employees in the workforce. This policy of ‘Emiratisation’ aims to employ citizens in a meaningful and efficient manner in the public and private sectors as this contributes to a successful economic and political structure. Emiratisation works through the implementation of prescribed percentages in certain business sectors as well as requiring certain positions to be filled by UAE nationals. However, despite the underlying framework for Emiratisation, there remains a heavy reliance on expatriate workers, and Emiratisation policies are not strictly enforced in certain sectors and geographical locations.
The UAE also maintains several geographically distinct areas referred to as freezones. Freezones permit 100 per cent foreign ownership and, from an immigration perspective, do not fall under the direct purview of the MOHRE. Freezones operate their own government services offices (GSOs) that liaise with the immigration authorities on behalf of the sponsoring entity. Freezones also tend follow a relatively streamlined work authorisation process, although documentation requirements (and subsequent processing times) tend to vary from freezone to freezone.
Senior Manager, Middle East Corporate Immigration
Generally speaking, short-term visas are issued for specific purposes such as tourism, general visits, business visits, seminars, exhibitions and conferences. Each type of short-term visa is issued for a different purpose with the expectation that the short-term visitor will comply with the regulations governing these visas. Travellers who require a visa require a local sponsor (usually a company or a family member) to initiate the process within the UAE. For certain visa types, sponsors could also be hotels or travel or tourism companies.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals are visa-exempt for an indefinite period of stay, while a total of 46 nationalities (including the US and all EU member states) are currently eligible for a visit visa-on-arrival obtained at the airport of entry. Historically, GCC residents holding managerial and professional job titles were also eligible for a visa-on-arrival, but since 1 September 2015 are required to obtain a pre-approved e-visa from the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs (GDRFA) prior to entry.
Tourist visas can be issued through hotels, tourism companies or national airline carriers and are valid for 30 or 90 days’ stay from the date of entry, but are no longer extendable. If the tourist visa holder overstays, he or she may be subject to a daily fine as well as an exit fee. Since tourist visas are generally issued by hotels and airlines, the documentation requirements vary from company to company – most companies would require the applicant to book a hotel room or purchase travel tickets (if applicable). In most instances, the applicant is required to provide a copy of his or her passport, a passport-sized photograph and the reasons for the visit. A copy of the visa, once it is issued, is sent to the applicant. Most tourist visas are valid for entry into the UAE for a period of 60 days.
Unlike the tourist visa, a visit visa (short-term or long-term) is issued at the request of a corporate sponsor or legal resident in the UAE. Visit visas sponsored by individuals (ie, family members) are usually meant to facilitate general visits, while those sponsored by corporates tend to facilitate business travel.
Although the UAE authorities do not maintain an exhaustive list of activities that may be conducted on a business visit visa, activities such as attending meetings, conducting research, negotiating contracts, attending training, etcare permissible in practice. Hands-on/technical work or other activities that may be construed as generating profit are not permissible. Business visit visas are generally valid for a period of 30 or 90 days and can be obtained for both single or multiple entries –the type of visa granted would depend on the privileges granted to the sponsoring entity and the quota available to it. Sponsored visit visas for business cannot be extended in-country, but are no longer subject to a cooling-off period –previously a 30-day cooling-off period during which the applicant could not re-enter on the basis of another short-term visa was enforced throughout the country.
It is important to note that the requirements for obtaining visit visas vary from location to location, with certain areas such as freezones implementing their own list of documentation requirements, which are known to change without prior notice. As such, it is always advisable to check regulations in advance and immediately before travelling. At present, the following GCC nationals are visa-exempt for an indefinite period of stay: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Individuals of the following nationalities can currently receive a visa-on-arrival valid for up to 90 days (in a 180-day period): Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
The following nationalities are eligible for a 40-day visa-on-arrival (extendable in-country for an additional 20 days): Andorra, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vatican City.
Although the UAE authorities do not maintain an explicit list of nationalities that are restricted from entering the country, certain Middle Eastern, eastern European, South Asian and African nationalities may undergo extensive security screening, experience longer processing times and, in some cases, have their applications rejected.
Individuals with prior Israeli travel stamps may also be denied a visa or be denied entry at the time of arrival. Individuals of Arab origin even if they hold a different, non-Arab passport may be required to provide additional supporting documentation such as copies of birth certificates, home-country identification, family books, etc. when obtaining visit visas.
Establishments and companies operating in the UAE can sponsor business visitors for a variety of different visas, including entry service visas (ESVs), visit visas for business (explained above), visit visas to attend exhibitions or conferences (available under select circumstances) and mission work permits (MWPs).
ESVs are sponsored by private sector companies and establishments for individuals required to visit the UAE for a very short periods (up to 14 days) for business purposes such as attending meetings (although in practice, limited hands-on work may be conducted). Permits to attend exhibitions or conferences are issued for a period of 30 days on a non-renewable and non-extendable basis. Such visas do not permit work, but permit the holder to attend the conferences and seminars in relation to which the visa has been issued.
MWPs are non-extendable single-entry permits, valid for a period of 90 days. Such visas are granted and issued subject to the approval of the MOHRE. MWPs allow the holder to engage in hands-on/technical work and are usually meant to facilitate short-term contractual obligations in relation to a project. Please note that MWPs cannot be converted into employment visas and holders would need to exit the country prior to expiry.
From a strict immigration compliance perspective, foreign nationals intending to receive short-term training in a classroom setting may do so without formal work authorisation and on business visitor status (ie, by entering the UAE on the applicable short-term visas permitting business type activities). Since the UAE immigration authorities do not maintain a list of activities that require formal work authorisation, giving training (especially if it involves technical demonstrations) is not recommended without first procuring the appropriate work authorisation. Short-term training may, in practice, be given on an ESV, although this would retain an element of risk in the event of an immigration check.
Transit passengers stopping at airports in the UAE for a minimum of eight hours and meeting the following conditions are eligible to obtain a 96-hour transit visa:
As indicated above, the main short-term categories are as follows:
Longer-term work authorisation is granted by the employment residence permit (ERP). ERPs are valid for two years, permit multiple entry and can be renewed upon expiry.
Each permit or visa has its own requirements and procedures and requirements also tend to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, certain general conditions must be satisfied in most instances. These are as follows.
When the above conditions are met, the following steps need to be followed to obtain an ERP (the primary form of work authorisationin the UAE):
In addition to the above steps, mainland (onshore) companies also require the registration of a formal labour contract as well as an offer letter (in the prescribed format) with the MOHRE.
From a strict immigration compliance perspective, employees must not start work until the final ERP has been endorsed.
The employment entry permit is valid for 60 days from the date of issue and entitles the holder to enter the UAE once for a total period of 60 days to finalise all the requirements for obtaining an ERP – extensions to the allotted 60 days are not possible. Once the ERP is obtained, foreign nationals can reside in the UAE for the period stipulated in the ERP (usually two years for onshore entities and three years for freezone entities). To keep the ERP active, the employee must not stay outside of the UAE for 180 or more calendar days.
This is dependent on whether the application is being processed onshore or in a freezone. The processing time for obtaining an ERP is approximately four to five weeks assuming that all the relevant documentation is ready (documentation legalisation times can add significantly to total lead time) and there is no extensive security screening.
It is essential to have the prescribed MOHRE employment contract and offer letter in place (for onshore companies) in order to obtain an ERP. Recently, Dubai has implemented a mandatory health insurance policy for all foreign national employees. Obtaining health insurance is interlinked with the work authorisation process and failure to provide this will result in the application being refused. Abu Dhabi adheres to a similar health insurance requirement, while other emirates are expected to follow suit in the future.
The immigration authorities follow objective criteria but do have discretion in requesting additional supporting documentation if they deem necessary. Rejected applications are generally not accompanied by any explanation, while exemptions are subject to the discretion of the senior immigration officer on a case-by-case basis. Such exemptions are generally issued on humanitarian grounds or granted by way of special approvals from senior officials.
High net worth individuals, also called investors, can obtain legal residency by way of investing in a local business. Once the entity is set up by the individual, he or she can then be appointed as a general manager and obtain a residence permit sponsored by that entity. In essence, the individual would be an employee of the newly established business and the business would serve as the corporate sponsor – similar to the standard work authorisation process followed in the UAE.
Another option is to invest in property and obtain a property-based investment residence permit. However, there are certain requirements for obtaining legal residency under this approach. These include:
No, there is no special route for highly skilled individuals. All foreign nationals must go through the standard route for obtaining work authorisation.
See question 12.
The UAE does not implement a minimum salary requirement for sponsoring foreign national employees; however, there are minimum salary requirements applicable to sponsoring dependants, being eligible for bank loans, etc. In addition, mainland UAE (as well as certain freezones) implement the UAE Central Bank’s Wage Protection System (WPS). The WPS requires all registered employees to be paid locally, in the local currency (dirhams), and through an authorised agent. As such, salaries that are declared locally (mentioned on the employment contract) must be paid locally and are actively monitored throughout the term of employment.
Although in practice there are no formal minimum salary requirements pertaining to the employment of foreign national employees, the Labour Law (article 63 of Federal Law No. 8 of 1980) makes provisions for minimum salaries based on cost-of-living indices.
Yes, there is a quota system in place to sponsor foreign individuals to enter the UAE for employment purposes. For entities based in mainland UAE, the sponsoring entity must first seek the approval of the MOHRE to employ the individual in question. The MOHRE has specific undisclosed criteria for adjudicating such requests, which include analysing the market for qualified UAE nationals, analysing the firm’s office space, analysing the nature of the business and the job title requested, etc.
Certain industries (and locations) may also be subject to Emiratisation and the authorities may not issue quotas for sponsoring foreign nationals if this is not adhered to.
Yes, the regulations prescribe minimum qualifications for specific jobs, especially for higher managerial posts. For instance, there is a minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree for certain executive and management positions. For females sponsoring males (or dependants), there are criteria regarding specific job titles and salaries.
A holder of a work permit may be subcontracted through his or her company to work at another company’s premises. This can be done by engaging the services of an authorised manpower provider that can sponsor the individual in question and then second him or her to the end client –a trilateral agreement is usually in place in such engagements. Obtaining a temporary work permit from the MOHRE may also be a possible alternative for onshore companies servicing onshore clients. Temporary work permits are usually valid for 180 days (with an option to renew for an additional 180 days), but are subject to the approval of the MOHRE, which would adjudicate the application on the basis of the underlying relationship between the two engaging entities.
Although freezones are not eligible for temporary work permits, certain freezones may offer temporary access card (TAC) facilities that would grant the holder the ability to engage in hands-on work for a short-term period. TAC durations (and the type of activities permissible) vary from freezone to freezone, but do require that both the sending entity (sponsor) and the host entity (end client) have an underlying business relationship. In practice, entities with common investors and/or local partners (sister concerns) can share human capital as well.
Yes, attested copies of educational certificates are required in order to obtain an ERP – this only applies to some professional and managerial job titles. Academic certificates are legalised by the Foreign Affairs Department and UAE embassy in the country of issuance and then counter-legalised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the UAE.
As of now, it is possible to change a visit visa (which was obtained for purposes other than tourism) into an employment visa if the applicant falls under one of the following categories (only the main categories have been listed below):
In practice, however, individuals who do not fall into one of the above categories, but still hold professional job titles, can regularise their immigration status by way of amendment without exiting and re-entering the country.
Holders of valid ERPs may continue to live and work in the UAE for as long as such residence is valid. The ERP must, however, be renewed every two years for onshore-sponsored entities and every three years for freezone-sponsored entities. If the individual is no longer employed by the sponsoring entity, he or she would have to exit the country (or initiate the work authorisation process under a different employer) within 30 days following formal cancellation of his or her residency. It is illegal for an employee to work for an employer different from his or her sponsoring entity, the penalties for which are severe and can extend to all three parties.
Employees can exit and re-enter the country as long as their ERP remains valid. It should be noted, however, that the ERP becomes invalid if the holder stays outside of the UAE for a period of 180 or more calendar days.
Foreign nationals cannot qualify for permanent residency or citizenship.
Yes, the employment residence permit must be formally cancelled at the end of the employment engagement. Movement within the same entity (eg, a promotion) does not require the work permit to be cancelled. Failure to formally cancel ERPs can result in penalties for both the employee and the employer. Dependant residence permits must be cancelled prior to cancellation of the principal’s residency.
Holders of ERPs can study, be promoted and have their salaries changed without having to change their permit (from a strict immigration compliance perspective job titles and salaries mentioned on the labour contract must be amended to reflect any changes, ie, in the event of promotions, etc) However, an employee can only work for, and at the premises of, the sponsoring employer. If the employee wishes to work for a different employer, the ERP will need to be cancelled and reissued under the new sponsor.
The following are considered as dependants:
Sponsoring a dependant will involve submitting an application and a deposit with the immigration authorities that is refunded on application after cancelling the visa. The visa regulations are strict in terms of salary, accommodation, bank statements, etc. There is a minimum monthly salary requirement of 4,000 dirhams (or 3,000 dirhams if accommodation is provided) for sponsoring spouses and children; however, the minimum salary requirement to sponsor parents is currently 20,000 dirhams per month as well as accommodation with at least two bedrooms. Being able to present legalised birth certificates (if sponsoring children) and legalized marriage certificates (if sponsoring a spouse) is central to the dependant residency process.
Please note that the UAE does not recognise the following as dependants:
Female dependants are allowed to work if they obtain a no-objection letter from their sponsor (their spouse or their father, in this instance). Such requests need pre-approval from the MOHRE or relevant freezone authority, depending on where the employer is located. Under this approach, female dependants can remain under their existing sponsor’s sponsorship and obtain a dependant work permit/card permitting them to work. Alternatively, female dependants may opt to obtain direct sponsorship by their employer. Male spouses cannot work under such dependent status and must obtain sponsorship from a company in order to work. Dependent minors are allowed to work in the UAE provided that they are between the ages of 15 and 18 years (new provisions permitting part-time work for dependants between the ages of 12 and 15 years have recently been introduced). Dependant minors may not be employed in dangerous, physically exhausting or taxing jobs. In addition, they must have obtained written approval from their parents or guardians in order to secure work authorisation.
There are no social benefits provided to dependants of foreign nationals.
Obtaining work authorisation in this case would involve an element of discretion, as the authorities may pick up on the prior conviction during security screening. Most government and semi-government employers request the applicant to provide a police clearance certificate from the employee’s home country or country of residence prior to applying for a residence permit in the UAE.
Obtaining work authorisationin this case would involve an element of discretion, as the authorities may pick up on the prior conviction during security screening. Most government and semi-government employers request the applicant to provide a police clearance certificate from the employee’s home country or country of residence prior to applying for a residence permit in the UAE.
Non-compliance with UAE immigration and labour policies can result in the imposition of fines and other sanctions including restrictions on future sponsorship privileges. In instances of extreme non-compliance, trade license managers of such companies can also be held accountable and be subject to fines or imprisonment, or both. Foreign national employees can also be fined, imprisoned, have their residence permits cancelled or be deported from the country. They can also be subject to immigration and labour bans.
Medical screening is required to obtain an employment residence permit, dependant residence permit and mission work permit. For other temporary entry permits, medical screening is not currently required. Nevertheless, additional tests may be prescribed depending on which country a foreign worker is coming from. There are certain exceptions made for pregnant women and children; however, this is subject to change without prior notice and so it is recommended that all visitors to the UAE speak to the UAE embassy in their country of residence prior to entry.
A temporary work permit can be issued by the MOHRE for an employee of one onshore company to work for another onshore company. Temporary work permits are usually valid for 180 days (with an option to renew for an additional 180 days) and are subject to approval of the MOHRE on the nature of business between the two engaging entities. Although freezones are not eligible for temporary work permits, certain freezones may have TAC facilities that would grant the holder the ability to engage in hands-on work for a short-term period. TAC durations (and the type of activities permissible) vary from freezone to freezone, but TACs do require that both the sending entity (sponsor) and the host entity (end client) have an underlying business relationship. In practice, entities with common investors or local partners (sister concerns) can share human capital.
With over 12 million visas issued last year by the UAE, we expect the UAE to remain pro-immigration in the run-up to World Expo 2020 in Dubai.
Government authorities are embracing technology and rapidly moving to online systems. The GDRFA has requested that all companies register for an immigration portal in order to process the immigration applications. We envisage this trend to continue with all the immigration authorities, with government service employees having access to mobile phones and smart devices around the clock – other neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia have made the move towards completely electronic portals for managing immigration requests.
The Schengen visa exemption for UAE nationals resulted in a reciprocal extension of certain Schengen countries, allowing such nationals to enter the UAE for 90 days as a visitor. Reciprocal agreements of this nature will continue in the immediate future. In addition, the Immigration Law (pertaining to short-term visas and permits) was significantly amended through ministerial resolutions that introduced several new visa/permit categories (for business, work and tourism) and amended existing categories. The changes that were brought forth are being gradually implemented across the UAE.
The UAE is also moving towards amending its policies relating to the employment and sponsorship of foreign national employees, particularly those that adhere to regulating the rights and responsibilities of each party. Significant developments centre on increased scrutiny on ensuring employees are paid locally and on time (the UAE already has a robust framework for monitoring local payroll by way of the Central Bank’s Wage Protection System) as well as measures to ensure that the employment process is well documented and transparent, ie, through the implementation of formal offer letters in addition to standardized labour contracts. More recently, Dubai has finally implemented the third and final phase of its mandatory health insurance policy that requires all foreign national employees (as well as their dependants and domestic help) to obtain valid health insurance.
Obtaining health insurance is interlinked with the residence permit process and failure to provide this will result in the application being refused. Abu Dhabi adheres to a similar health insurance requirement, while other emirates are expected to follow suit in the future. The various ministerial resolutions also lay down the groundwork for more consistency (and transparency) between the MOHRE and freezone GSOs – currently, freezones do not fall under the direct purview of the MOHRE and are often characterised by immigration processes that are significantly different.
The UAE is expected to introduce a consular visa process (for obtaining employment entry permits) for select nationalities. This new process will be rolled out in phases to specified countries in 2016–2017. Although complete implementation details are yet to be formally released, we anticipate that the procedural requirements would mirror those of other GCC countries implementing a similar consular process as part of the wider work authorisation process (ie, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). Currently, all UAE work authorisation applications are initiated (and to a large extent, completed) from within the country.
With over 80 per cent of the population in the UAE being expatriates, all companies are familiar with the immigration process. However, we are seeing a trend of companies outsourcing the immigration process to professional firms. This is following a global trend where human resources and global mobility internal teams see the saved costs in outsourcing the mobility function to a third party. Third-party professional firms will tend to turn round applications more quick and ensure compliance of companies’ employees at all times.
© 2016 PwC. All rights reserved.
PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see www.pwc.com/structure for further details. This publication has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice. You should not act upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this publication, and, to the extent permitted by law, PricewaterhouseCoopers (Dubai Branch), its members, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability, responsibility or duty of care for any consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this publication or for any decision based on it.