Rising costs of living are forcing many foreigners homeward bound
DUBAI: Ali Mahmoud, 42, is a UAE-based Egyptian expatriate. Having worked between Dubai and Sharjah as a translator for the last 15 years, he has decided to put an end to his career away from home. The reason: for him as well as for many other expatriates here, the hike in prices has made it impossible for them to rough it any longer in a country where the standard of living should now stand on equal footing with that of cities like New York and London.
Kamel Hassan, 39, an Egyptian accountant at a trading company in Dubai, has decided to send his family back to Cairo this year. This is the only way out, says Hassan. With the rent doubling and the children s school fees due next month, let alone some other financial obligations I have in Egypt, I would really find it difficult to juggle it doing my basic job and another as a part-timer to cover expenses. If it doesn t work this way, I am bound to resign and take the first homebound flight.
Many UAE residents have already taken that decision while others are contemplating it. But the step that follows that decision remains a perplexing dilemma for many of them. What are they going to do next? Here is a category of expats that have not been driven home as a result of a war situation, a market crash or xenophobia. Instead, their thoughts of a return home have been triggered by a dramatic rise in the standard of living driven by the turn to a market economy that has swept over the entire region. Its impact, however, has been felt more strongly in the UAE than in other places.
According to the latest update on the United Bank of Switzerland’s (UBS) survey carried out in 71 cities around the world, Dubai ranks as the 36th most expensive place in the world with housing figuring as a major impediment for residents. The survey, which was published in the UAE s dailies this week, revealed that housing costs have gone up from 65.1 points out of 100 to 74. The survey also found that while by world standards the cost of an average three bedroom flat stands at $1200, the same flat in Dubai is rented out for no less than $1480.
For the bulk of those leaving, mostly middle class careerists with different specialties, the root problem is housing. When more than 50 percent of one s income goes for the rent, to survive in a country like the UAE is a real challenge, says Tamer Thabet, 30, a Sharjah-based Egyptian librarian.
The construction boom in the UAE, especially in Dubai, has changed the face of the entire economy. In 1999 when the cost of housing soared, the economic authorities interfered to bring rents down substantially and make them subject to the law of supply and demand. But after less than a decade the rise in oil prices, coupled with the recent crash in the stock exchange markets, have diverted attention to investment in construction – so much so that the UAE has emerged as the first Gulf country to sell and lease property to foreigners. Now many investors have arrived in Dubai to set up their own real estate businesses.
There is one reason that makes me say with a clear conscience that the construction rate in the UAE is outshining its counterparts even in a superpower like the U.S., argues Mohsen Hamad, 47, a Sharjah-based Egyptian civil engineer. Despite the gap in technology, the UAE is availed of cheap Asian manpower. That s a basic difference. Unlike in the U.S., the rates of its transport, security and work conditions make up a nominal cost in any project s budget here.
This boom is likely to shed light on why construction-oriented manpower and related industries are the most in demand. The situation has automatically made exit the only option left for other irrelevant groups. The country s labor laws as a result have become rather lax, especially when it comes to university degree holders. Only certain categories and numbers of other employees are needed as compared to a large number of investors and laborers whose presence is bound to boost the current constructional development. Also, with Emiratization now well under way, many jobs will be reserved for UAE nationals.
This does not mean that the country will cease to attract people as a labor market. But those who surf the Web in search of jobs in the UAE get the mistaken idea that the country is a labor paradise, says Mohammed Gamil, 29, an Egyptian national who resigned last month from his job as an IT expert. Their mouths water at the salary being offered for one vacancy and think all companies there are paying similar amounts. Most places here offer average salaries.
The lower salaries, however, are in line with the policy of a country that has to face an influx of foreign manpower. In addition to the sizeable Asian labor force, the unrest in conflict-ridden Iraq and war-hit Lebanon is likely to increase the demand for the local labor market.
But what are the prospects awaiting departing expatriates? Some are leaving on the promise of returning to get a better job here. Others have already emigrated to greener pastures or moved to other Gulf countries. Some like Gamil are repatriating after having found a job back home. A number of them said they would temporarily live on savings. The picture, however, is not clear for many middle-aged expats torn between staying and leaving. Raj Kumar, 45, a Sharjah-based Indian physician, says that some are keen on leaving as soon as they can, but they have to wait so as not to disrupt their children s education or to clear a bank loan, etc.
But the place remains ideal for up-and-comers like Tamer Thabet. What should I do if I go back to Egypt? How much would anybody pay an archivist with two years experience? I would rather do another job here than face an unknown situation in Cairo. Maguid Allam, 28, a Ras Al-Khaimah-based Egyptian clerk agrees. Having worked as a clerk and a part-time receptionist for the last two years I have managed to set myself up, he says.
It is no longer the Gulf of the 1970s. Gone are the days when a good salary and perks at any government office here would enable you to accumulate savings. Big investments have reversed life in the region. The UAE, however, guided by Dubai s economic approach, has been the first to emerge as the Gulf s first real business hub, tourist destination, open market and multinational melting pot modeled after the Asian Tigers. With the Tigers in mind, those who are prospering and willing to stay on fear one day this boom will end in a crash.
But even if the economy manages to sustain itself, concerns about the vagaries of nature cannot be dismissed. A considerable chunk of the UAE is located on the Indian Ocean. When the tsunami struck Asian countries in 2004, its aftermath was felt in the shape of tidal waves that flooded parts of the Jebel Ali port, 35 km from Dubai as well as Jumeirah Palm Island, one of the biggest manmade islands in the world. Also, the aftershocks of last year’s earthquake that rocked the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abass, off the Sharjah coast, sent people running from their offices and apartments located within the Dubai and Shajah towers and high rise buildings.
None of these has had any real material consequences, but natural disasters are a new concern to be added to the many an expatriate has to reckon with.