Responding to COVID-19 in the United Arab Emirates

Global HR

​When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was hit by the coronavirus pandemic in March and the country moved quickly to lockdown, the Yas Marina Circuit for car racing in Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital, closed as well.

Renukaa Devi, the business development manager at the venue, found herself adjusting to a rapidly changing scope of work. Besides dealing with the closure of the venue, Devi and her co-workers had to adjust to the pandemic’s effects on travel, tourism and events and move their operations online.

Here’s how the UAE responded to the pandemic and the effect of those actions on Devi and other business leaders.

Regional Response

The UAE imposed curfews in early March and stopped flights on March 25 in response to the pandemic. As in much of the rest of the world, the precautions put in place to prevent the spread of the virus deeply impacted businesses across sectors.

Responses differed by region within the country. “The situation in Abu Dhabi inevitably is different from the one in Dubai,” said Laure Assaf, assistant professor of Arab Crossroads Studies and anthropology at New York University Abu Dhabi. Her ethnographic research has been put on hold during the pandemic.

Abu Dhabi is the second most populous city and is more residential. There, an 8 p.m. curfew was implemented—changed to 10 p.m. for the month of Ramadan—and streets are disinfected nightly. Dubai is the most populous city in the UAE and “has had a much more strict lockdown that has eased very recently,” Assaf said.

Visa Waivers

Usually in the UAE, visas are tied directly to a person’s employment status, and termination of employment equates to termination of the visa. “If you were overstaying your visa before and you seek health care, for example, you could get deported,” Assaf said. “So they completely waived all that.”

Devi explained, “[There are] two options: one, [workers] are free to look for another job, and change their visa to the new company, or until the whole situation is cleared up and borders are open again, they can go back home. But until then, [the UAE] made sure that visas are extended.”

Three Levels of Affected Employees

According to Devi, there are three levels of employees affected by the coronavirus at companies throughout the UAE. The most stable tier is employees of businesses owned by the government, including employees of venues like hers. “Most government-owned attractions made sure that the employees are protected” and won’t lose their jobs, Devi said.

Employees at international companies, including people who work in the many hotel chains and travel companies, make up the second tier. Some of these companies have drastically reduced employees’ pay, and some hotels have been paying their employees between 10 percent and 30 percent of their salary.

“These people are asked to report once in a week or once in two weeks,” Devi said, and they are paid only for the time they are on the property. Many of these hotels provided a food stipend, health insurance and accommodation throughout the pandemic. Some companies are even committing to not laying off workers, with an eye on business returning to normal by the end of the year.

People who work in locally owned businesses, subject matter experts and contractors are included in the third tier. “Even within my company, we have a call center, which we don’t directly own. So it is a service contract,” Devi said. The contractors’ employees “are the ones who are affected the most. They have been asked to go on unpaid leave.”

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Curfews Eased, but Challenges Remain

The UAE started easing its restrictions and curfews on May 31, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, stating on Twitter, “We have entered a new stage, the stage for gradual return to economic life.”

Nonetheless, the full recovery will take longer. The Dubai and Abu Dhabi tourism boards plan to reopen many attractions in July, but most will be able to operate at only 40 percent capacity.

 ”A lot of my partners … large travel companies I work with—there are quite a few of them who seem to be hit quite badly, which means that there’ll be quite a lot of companies closing down by the end of the year,” Devi said.

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.

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