Middle East: living the dream

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By Murdo Morrison  www.flightglobal.com

It is often said it takes a certain type of person to live as an expatriate in the Middle East and, for all the benefits on offer, relocating there can have its challenges.

Dubai metroSome arrive dazzled by the glittering skyscrapers and luxury hotels and lured by financial rewards greater than they could earn at home. But they leave disappointed, frustrated by what can be an alien corporate culture and worn down by the effort of adjusting to a very different society. Others, however, turn up on a one-year contract and decide to stay for a decade or more, bringing up a family and even buying property. “This is home,” will be the reply when you ask the guy with the Liverpool or Louisiana accent where he is from.

When the Gulf emerged as a global crossroads and economic powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s, life as a Westerner there was very different. There was a pioneer feel to living in countries where expatriates were a small, close – and sometimes closed – community. There were comforts and lucrative tax-free salaries to enjoy, but they came at a price: restricted to “compounds” in Saudi Arabia, for instance, while present-day boomtowns Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai were sleepy Arabian trading outposts. Manama in Bahrain – base of the region’s then leading carrier, Gulf Air – was the destination of choice for most expats.

The spectacular growth of Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai in the 21st century has made these cities, in particular, extremely liveable – with shopping malls, entertainment, sporting attractions and schools to rival many locations in Europe or North America.

However, their popularity also has a downside. Although Dubai’s crash of 2008 burst what had been an inflationary property bubble, rents remain expensive and the difference between what you earn and what you spend is less than it used to be. Traffic, too, can be frustrating, although it is no worse than in many big cities and a host of new highway developments and Dubai’s stunning new overground metro system have helped ease the congestion.

Away from these cities, life in the Middle East can be very different, with fewer expatriates and distractions. The UAE’s northern emirates – including Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah – are quieter, cheaper, less prosperous and more conservative than their brash neighbour Dubai, but have the advantage of being within driving distance of its sights. Elsewhere, Jordan and Oman are relaxed and liberal with spectacular scenery. Kuwait is rigidly Islamic, with a strict alcohol ban, for instance. Saudi Arabia is more conservative again and packages on offer for working there tend to reflect the fact that it is a less popular posting for many expats.

These days, the big rewards in the region tend to be found in “frontier” countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the obvious risks and restrictions of working for a contractor are compensated for by generous reward packages.

The important thing to remember when living in the Middle East is that – no matter how long you are there – you are a guest worker and not a citizen. Although you will be welcomed and respected by Arab colleagues, ultimately the reason you are in the country is because there is not a local person qualified to do your job. Every country in the region is keen to develop its own human capital, and create skilled careers for its own citizens. Even Dubai – arguably one of the most international cities in the world – has its own “emiritisation” programmes that positively discriminate in favour of UAE nationals.

When it comes to respecting local customs, standards of behaviour have to be adhered to, even in relaxed Dubai. The city’s beaches, nightclubs and tourist paradise image may suggest an “anything goes” attitude to life, but this is not the case. The UAE, like its neighbours, is an Islamic society with mild censorship, zero tolerance of narcotics and official disapproval, or worse, towards conduct considered improper, ranging from drinking on the street to public displays of affection and unmarried couples sharing an apartment.

These laws may not always be strictly enforced, but it is always best to err on the side of caution and seek advice from those already living there. During the holy month of Ramadan, it is considered highly impolite to smoke, eat or even drink water in public. Generally, showing respect and learning what is acceptable will avoid any pitfalls.