The not-so-glamourous side of the Western expat's life in Dubai
The Western media usually glamorizes the lives of expatriates working in the Middle East and the Gulf, willfully forgetting that only the professional top-tier enjoy high salaries and a privileged way of life.
Years ago, a BBC crew arrived in Dubai to make a documentary about the Western expat lifestyle. Several of my hardworking friends and colleagues with less than healthy bank accounts were happy to participate, but were shocked when the program was aired to find themselves portrayed as feckless and selfish, people whose only goal in life was escaping taxation back home and living it up.
Those were the days when everyone worked up to 10 hours a day during a 5 ½ day week. The producers neglected to cover the majority of expats whose wages go to assisting their families in their home countries or paying-off mortgages, people who eventually leave with little more than the clothes in their suitcases, cherished memories and with greater understanding of other cultures.
When I first arrived in Dubai on contract in 1983, I experienced love at first sight. The city, then much smaller, was lit-up like a fairyland, there were no traffic jams or parking problems and people were invariably relaxed, friendly and polite. I used to drive my old dancehall-like Pontiac to the office each morning and tell myself how lucky I was. My love affair with Dubai endured for 14 years. I wanted to stay forever and if I’d been offered UAE nationality, I would have accepted in a heartbeat. That said, like so many of my friends, fear perpetually hovered. One mistake, one wrong decision could burst the bubble. Losing one’s job was more than just a loss of income; it translated to the loss of everything — accommodation, car, friends and a safe, secure country adopted as home. As the years passed, I was forced to acknowledge a cloud on the horizon. I knew that there would come a day when by virtue of age I would be obliged to leave and so I steeled myself to tear myself away before that day came so as to put down roots elsewhere while I was young enough to do so.
It was hard. For years, I felt like a branch that had fallen from a tree. But, in retrospect, it was the right thing to do. Two of my friends, one Swiss the other German, now in their mid-60s, stayed. Both are currently single, have worked in Dubai for almost 40 years and have no friends or family in their home countries — and little in the way of savings. Their biggest fear was the cancelation of their visas when they have nowhere else to go. One opened a small business, which didn’t get off the ground and now she is unable to find employment because even though she has a wealth of experience under her belt, she lacks mandatory academic diplomas. She sleeps on a friend’s couch and worries about tomorrow. The other is poised to return to her homeland. She knows no one there and plans to live out her days alone on welfare. There should be a kinder solution for expats who’ve given service to nation for most of their adult lives. Saudi and Gulf newspapers have recently published opinion pieces on whether it’s right to grant citizenship to expats in certain circumstances. It’s understandable why authorities are reluctant to take that step fearing loss of national character and an erosion of traditions. The first priority of any government is its own citizens and the nurturing of their aspirations. But there might be a middle way, so that good people aren’t allowed to fall through the cracks of sweeping rules. Forcing out people, who’ve spent 30 or 40 years in a country, whose only crime is getting older, seems harsh. Those, who are lucky enough to have accumulated a nest egg and a home to go back to, often feel like fish out of water on their return. On a purely humanitarian basis, which would reflect well on a nation’s human rights record, such long-term expats could be offered permanent residence and work permits allowing them to take up employment for as long as they are able.
Clearly, governments aren’t keen to pay pensions to non-citizens or be burdened with medical bills that often go hand-in-hand with increased age, but this problem isn’t unsolvable. For instance, expats could be obliged to pay part of their salaries into a pension fund, automatically capitalized by those returning home, while others deciding to stay on would be financially independent during their retirement.
People with pristine records, who’ve invested their minds, hearts and sweat in a country they’ve embraced even though it can’t fully embrace them, should not be put out to pasture once they’ve passed their sell-by date. At the very least, their plight could be considered by a committee with the power to grand permanent residency on a case-by-case basis.
By: Linda S. Head
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