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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Expats priced out of their lives

The high cost of living is forcing some expats to pack up and leave Dubai for good - some who have spent many years building up businesses in the emirate.

Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
I've recently come across a growing number of people who are packing up and leaving the UAE, others who are seriously contemplating it, and many who are being vocal about their pain, but are staying put - for now.

Add to this snippets of conversation overheard about this when I'm out and about.

The problem is the cost of living.

Expats who come on bumper packages and have the increasingly pricey outgoings of rent and education covered - wholly or partially - won't be affected by this. It's long-term residents and entrepreneurs who are being hurt the most, especially those with children of school-going age.

And these two groups of people are exactly what any city needs; they choose to live here and want to stay, but cannot afford to.

In the past fortnight alone I have discovered that a handful of neighbours will be leaving the country - one family in particular embodies what's happening: they've been in Dubai for a couple of decades - with one short-term hiatus in the late 1990s owing to family circumstances - and they're torn. Both the husband and wife have built up businesses in the UAE, their three children are very settled and love their lives, and they genuinely believe that Dubai has a lot more to offer than what's available back home. But the double whammy of rising fees along with not being paid on time by clients has hit them hard.

This is a family that saves but can't any more - and they've been dipping into savings over many months to survive. Their life lurches from one term's school fees to the next. And it just doesn't work for them.

But they're struggling with the decision to leave.

Everything's in place for them to go come the end of the year: they have a yard sale in a week and grandparents are over to spend one last Christmas in the UAE sun.

But it's tough. It's not just that they're saying goodbye to special friends, the only life their children know and their hopes for their futures here, it's also that this time it's different: going means never coming back, and that's affecting them. A lot. They can't come back because they would never be able to afford entry level prices to live in the UAE once again. Finding a home, for example, would be a major barrier once they give up their current lease. Their place is going for Dh280,000 these days, but they pay Dh150,000 - and they only moved in a year- and-a-half ago.

Their basic outgoings add up to Dh600,000 a year. That's school fees for three, rent, utilities and other basic, red-tape and living costs. They could do a lot with that money back home - where schooling is free.

I'm told that when confronted with a dilemma and not being able to work out what's best for them, this couple tosses a coin and goes with fate.

I don't believe they'll be doing that this time round. It just doesn't make sense to stay.

A view echoed by friends who got together earlier in the month to celebrate someone's 40 years in the UAE. Many of these long-term expat residents are upping sticks too. Most don't have children at school, but they also find that the UAE isn't what it used to be.

Of course, there will always be people who bemoan a past lost for ever. Cities change - but this isn't just about a fast-paced metropolis evolving, it's also very much about how difficult it is to live in a place where you cannot save, and where you have no benevolent government that will pay your way when you go back home. So the cash-flow crunch dictates that people either live irresponsibly - not providing for the future - or make very emotional decisions and go elsewhere.

But some - I call them "expat prisoners" - can't leave. These are people who have superb track records in their fields and cannot get jobs back home because of their age. The big question is: if everything they earn goes out to pay for their lives and if there's no hope of them saving, or of creating additional streams of income, is it worth staying?

Some are trying to figure out how to do both: stay and stem the money haemorrhage. I met someone last weekend who is contemplating moving to Ras Al Khaimah or somewhere in between there and Dubai, purely to get out of the rent hell that is her Dubai at the moment. Not only has her rent been put up by 20 per cent (take it or leave it), but she has just been told that no money will be put into the property as it seems it's been earmarked for demolition.

Scores of people want to stay and contribute to the place they call home. When people like this can't afford to to make ends meet, we lose more than just another expat.

Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website cashy.me. You can reach her at nima@cashy.me

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