Can Britain Learn from the Gulf States’ Immigration Policies? | Dan Mikhaylov


For modern Britain, immigration is a political hot potato; however, even this is an understatement. It surfaced during the Brexit vote and the subsequent transition period, prompting some to consider the referendum a ‘vote on immigration’ rather than on our European Union membership. Four years later, discourse on this contentious issue is as vibrant as before; stories of illegal migrant crossings of the Channel and the peculiar term ‘points-based system’ have infiltrated our conscience, and time and time again recrudesced in public and private conversations.

However extensively our society has mulled this question over in recent years, it largely remains unresolved. In 2019, the UK accepted a net total of 240,000 immigrants – almost as much as the entire population of Southampton. Furthermore, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has promised to facilitate the path to UK citizenship for c. 3 million Hong Kong residents, despite this decision’s socioeconomic implications. Whilst the government’s website reassures us that since 2016, ‘long-term migration, immigration and emigration have remained broadly stable’, an increasing number of Britons do not feel at ease with the current dynamics.

Last year, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory conducted a survey, finding that 77% of respondents opposed increasing immigration, and more than 40% advocated its outright reduction. A similar Ipsos poll concluded that though most entertained a positive view of immigration’s impact on the country, 59% wanted to restrict it. To some, the issue was fundamentally about economics; foreign labour entering the market risks pulling down domestic wages. Meanwhile, others were undoubtedly concerned by its disruptive influence on the local communities, changed beyond repair by the plethora of different cultures and lifestyles residing side-by-side in 21st-century cosmopolitan Britain.

The recently implemented points-based system is certainly not the answer that our country has been crying out for. It addresses the former worries by exercising greater control over wage market developments, but it is ill-equipped for the latter. Something else must be done, and I propose we examine the Gulf States’ model. Much like Britain, the likes of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are bustling economies which have historically benefitted from the immigrant populations they attracted; and yet, unlike us, their governments offer their communities and values some tangible protection.

The Gulf States are relatively open to Western expatriates. Their low or non-existent tax requirements ensure they acquire the global expertise and manpower to contribute to, and sustain the size of, their economies. The recently relaxed rules on buying and holding property in the area, such as the 2019 Abu Dhabi Real Estate Law, permitting foreign ownership of real estate in the city’s investment areas, further stimulates young professionals to work there. Thus, many may count on long-term 99-year leases or even housing, depending on the political entity, and feel more comfortable from the residential point of view.

At the same time, the road to citizenship is bumpy, if not elusive; the local passports and the concomitant access to government positions, diplomatic protection, and welfare schemes are received by filiation or bestowed as recognition for some remarkable achievement, such as playing professional football. Of course, naturalisation is possible in other contexts, but unless the person ‘renders honourable services’ to the state or is granted citizenship by special decree – the 1972 UAE Nationality Law serving as an illustrative example here – one must spend ‘no less than 30 years’ in the country and be proficient in Arabic just to qualify for the first step of the application process. Needless to add, other regional nations are just as parsimonious about naturalisation. Evidently, their stances on immigration are different, primarily since they do not see residence as a precondition for citizenship like the West does. Rather, they treat the two as unrelated, and discriminate between the duties and the rights of those entrusted to help economic development, and those on whose shoulders lies the task of ensuring the national identity’s survival.

This is what any points-based system lacks. It might be transparent – potential applicants can review the selection criteria to determine their chances of admission – and it might also be more responsive to the economic demands of the day. Instead of granting access to workers in oversaturated industries, whose arrival would influence a diminution in the local salaries, it helps us to select the right professionals for undersubscribed jobs. However, its immigration control capacity is questionable at best.

Firstly, this system does not block the path to settlement in the UK and, in turn, to UK citizenship, coveted by many worldwide due to its lucrative visa-free travel arrangements and access to outstanding social services. Nothing is stopping a person, whose job application was successful, to bring his or her entire family over, for those family members to exploit the local programmes of healthcare and education, and for the family unit to become a net economic burden. Therefore, even its benefit to the nation’s financial growth may be nullified by external factors. It is important to note here that success is not hereditary; allowing a much needed specialist into Britain does not guarantee that his offspring will specialise in economically-desirable sectors, nor that they will be as hardworking as their parents.

Secondly – and more importantly – it brushes the question of cultural assimilation entirely under the carpet. Yes, the Gulf States are reluctant to impose their norms on expatriate workers living on their soil; some in the region have even legalised purchasing alcohol for them. However, those nations draw a clear line between citizenship and residence. If you want to reside in the area and contribute to it economically, you are certainly entitled to do so. In fact, more than 100,000 Britons work in the UAE alone, and represent the largest Western community there. Still, it is almost impossible to obtain citizenship and consequently become a full member of the Emirati society, let alone to do so without adhesion to the local mores and customs. Conversely, second and third-generation UK immigrants often struggle to assimilate and are torn between self-identifying as British and attachment to their forebearers’ nation of origin. In turn, this leads many astray, and culminates in radicalisation as well as the proliferation of domestic terrorism.  

Contrasting the two approaches, we should retain some reservations about the Gulf States’ immigration policy. After all, those countries are far smaller, and are historically and culturally distinct from our own. Likewise, we should not forget that such governments as Qatar have been accused of modern slavery. The so-called kafala system, introduced to monitor migrant labourers in the construction and domestic sectors of the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, has reportedly mistreated thousands of labourers, coming to the region from the developing world, and should be duly condemned. Lastly, we do not have to be as harsh as them when it comes to rewarding merit and loyalty to Britain. We have a history of welcoming foreigners, be they French Huguenots, Eastern European Jews, or Commonwealth citizens.

That being said, there is one lesson to take away; the citizenship-residence dichotomy. The latter does not have to presuppose the former, and arguably should not necessarily result in the former, lest we desire to see our cultural idyll diluted or disrupted. Preserving what defines the British is paramount, and some measures must complement the state’s points-based immigration system.

They do not have to be stringent: the Conservative Party could consider a two-tier system, whereby residence is distinct from citizenship, but may be converted into it, provided one passes citizenship examinations in British history, culture, and the English language. Thus, one may overtly demonstrate one’s readiness to assimilate into the local society. However, this may be discussed on a different occasion; for now, the fundamental point is that balance between enticing global talent and rescuing our cultural code from erosion is not only desirable, but is, in fact, possible.


Photo by Akil•PoéticoLab•I on Flickr.

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