Recruiters and bankers lament visa gridlock in Dubai and Abu Dhabi

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The Middle East financial sector has traditionally been reliant on expat expertise, but a new focus on localisation – combined with concerns over the Arab Spring – has led to a visa backlog that is providing a frustrating gridlock in the recruitment processes.

Recruiters, bankers and financial institutions are becoming increasingly exasperated with a visa allocation process that is locking some expats out of the labour market for months. The preference for local candidates is so high that firms are having to extend the recruitment process for ever-longer periods of time in order to be able to hire expat candidates.

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The Tawteen Council in Abu Dhabi assesses whether any job in a government could be done by an Emirati before giving the thumbs up to a visa for an expat to fulfill the role.This process can take months.

“Candidates are becoming frustrated with the whole process and can be left hanging on for up to a year before their visa is approved, by which time they’ve either given up on the role or looking for employment elsewhere,” said one financial services recruiter in Abu Dhabi who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Firms are so keen to hire locals that they’re willing to extend the recruitment process to extremes in order to find the right person.”

In the region, an expat is entirely beholden to their employer sponsorship. Losing your job means leaving the country – after a 2-3 month grace period – and if the green light is never given, you’re essentially locked out.

“A lot of people are trapped in their current role, feeling that if they lose their sponsorship a new employer will find it incredibly difficult to extend a new visa to them,” said another financial services recruiter in Dubai. “This is particularly the case for those seeking new jobs in sovereign institutions.”

One financial services professional in Abu Dhabi tells us that he was offered a job in July last year at a government institution, but has only just been given the go-ahead to start the role. He had been living in the UAE for six years and had the necessary documentation including a visa and Emirates ID card. When approval eventually came through, both the salary and job title had been reduced.

Some suggest that the motivation for this could be political. While U.K., U.S. and European citizens are still largely going through the visa allocation process relatively stress free, those from other nations – particularly those involved in the Arab Spring uprisings – are largely being locked out.

There’s a reluctance to hire Bahraini, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian nationals – as well as those from Canada, with which the UAE has had a long-running dispute over aviation rights – suggest financial services recruiters who claim that no explanation was given.

“There’s obviously an oversupply of these candidates looking for roles in the UAE and this is prompting a blanket response to stay clear of these nationalities,” said another banking recruiter in Dubai. “It’s all going on in the background, with few people willing to acknowledge it as an issue.”

In the UAE employment laws allow recruiting companies to exclude certain nationalities without breaching discrimination covenants. Often, job advertisements are aimed exclusively at UAE nationals.

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