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The United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Fujairah, Ajman and Ra’s al-Khaimah. Four-fifths of the UAE is desert but has contrasting landscapes—from the towering red dunes of the Liwa to the rich palm-filled oases of Al Ain, from the precipitous Hajar Mountains to the more fertile stretches of its coastal plains.
Though small in size (similar to the size of Scotland), the UAE has become an important player in regional and international affairs. In 1971, the late President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan unified the small, underdeveloped states into a federation—the only one in the Arab world. With his visionary leadership, oil wealth was used to develop the UAE into one of the world’s most open and successful economies.
In 2004, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan became president and has since continued to strive towards an ambitious vision for the UAE.
Each emirate in the UAE has their own General Directorate of Residence and Foreigners Affairs (previously called Department of Naturalization and Residency) to take care of immigration, visa, and entry permit related issues, search for and apprehend overstayers and illegal immigrants, or issue and renew UAE passports for UAE nationals. Most residents of the UAE are not immigrants in the normal sense of the word (meaning those wishing to move to a country, settle there, and obtain citizenship of that country), but resident expatriates with a UAE residence visa (or permit) that allows them to live in the UAE for a period of time (usually 3 years between renewals, sometimes 1 year). For all issues to do with permission to visit and/or live in the UAE, contact the relevant immigration office in the emirate in which you live or plan to live. If visiting the UAE, contact the immigration office of the emirate in which you expect to arrive. Note that Al Ain is not an emirate, it is a city in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Note also that although immigration rules are federal, they are not applied consistently in each emirate. Sharjah especially, seems to do their own thing.
Immigration Departments are UAE government offices so that means they will be staffed predominantly by UAE nationals. Being able to speak Arabic is therefore a bonus but most or all officials that deal with the public will also speak some English. For most expatriates coming to work in the UAE, their company PRO will be dealing with all the paperwork anyway, and will sort out the residence visa without you needing to visit the immigration department.
UAE immigration e-services
Many immigrations services are available online. See the NRD websites.
Differences in residence and immigration laws between different emirates
The UAE as a country has rules and regulations governing who is eligible to become a UAE national (for example children born in the UAE are not entitled to UAE citizenship unless the father is an Emirati national), who is allowed to visit the UAE and how long they are permitted to stay, conditions of residence for expatriates, and so on. Each emirate then implements those rules and issues visas, permits, passports, in accordance with their own unique interpretations of the law, or they may make up a few different rules. There may be some differences in implementation, sometimes because the individual immigration officer at your point of entry, or the bureaucrat behind the counter at the Naturalisation & Residency Department has a different idea of the rules than you do, or different from the person at the next counter, or different from what the boss thinks, and so on.
Visa and residency rules often change, and during times of change, it can take a while before everyone figures out what the correct new procedure is. Local media try and clarify new rules but are hampered by what seem to be conflicting and/or changing statements they obtain from various immigration officials. Sometimes the conflicts reflect the different interpretations in different emirates. Other confusion arises when rules change, and then change back again. For example:
- Several years ago (2003?), there was a rule that no work permits (and therefore residence visas) would be issued to anyone without at least a high school certificate of education. This impacted a large number of construction workers and other labourers, who were forced to leave. The impact of that was a difficulty in recruiting labour for the many construction projects going on so eventually laborers and many other employment categories were exempted from the restriction, or the restriction is being ignored.
- At the end of July 2008, there were significant changes in UAE tourist visa and visit visa rules with a great deal of confusion over visa renewals, length of stay, and so on. Many confusing statements were issued by various Naturalisation and Immigration Department personnel but eventually it all seemed to settle down.
- In August 2008, the Sharjah naturalisation and residency department introduced a new law requiring applicants for family visas (those sponsoring family members for residence visas) to provide a copy of their tenancy contract, attested by the Sharjah Municipality. However, Abu Dhabi and Dubai naturalisation and residency departments clarified that they do not require copies of tenancy contracts when residents apply for family visas.
- Also in August 2008, Sharjah (again) introduced a law that restricted the residency visa period to just 1 year for a list of 60 professions - for example drivers, tradespeople, shopkeepers and owners, service people such as waiters and waitresses, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers (ok, not the last one). Most people who have lived in the UAE for a period of time have learnt that Sharjah is a little bit "Special"
Since 2003 when foreign ownership of property was allowed in the UAE - first in Dubai, and then some of the other emirates, it was possible to obtain a residence visa on the basis of property ownership. Each emirate has its own property ownership rules for foreigners, and also its own (changing) residence visa rules. In 2008 the ability to obtain a residence visa from property ownership was curtailed significantly with most, if not all, property unable to obtain new residence visas, and in some cases unable to renew them.
Be careful when obtaining visa information - travel agents, embassies, real estate agents don't always get it right (and it's almost impossible for them to be accurate when they are provided with conflicting information). The nearest UAE embassy or consulate should have up to date information, or the nearest Naturalization and Immigration Department in the UAE. If you have an unusual set of circumstances, try and get information from at least two different official sources, or try to speak to someone in authority that may be able to help you if the rules don't quite fit. The local press may be helpful also when rules change, but don't rely on just one source - they don't always agree either.
How to deal with visa and document processing problems
If you find yourself in a conflict or with a problem at the immigration department, the same guidelines apply to dealing with bureaucrats in the UAE as they do anywhere. Don't lose your cool, be polite, and depending on the situation, you have to decide whether to be persistent vs giving up vs trying to find someone else to deal with. (sort of means connections and power) can help with awkward situations - many rules in the UAE have a certain element of "flexibility" - but don't count on it. Go away and try again another day is sometimes a solution to a problem. Attractive young blonde-haired women seem to have fewer difficulties and speedier document processing than other people, for some inexplicable reason. If you have a friend who fits that description, send her along to do the job for you.
Last update Wednesday 02-May-2012
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