Two sisters had everything they wanted in Abu Dhabi, but opted to seek their fortunes in China, with an emphasis on acquiring 'intangible' benefits.
It pays to leave your nest
Perched on a stool in the Bookworm, a cafe that's the hub of Beijing's English-language literary scene, Zeïna Belouizdad is recovering from a bout of flu, and the city's notoriously polluted air isn't helping.
But the 23-year-old, born and raised in Abu Dhabi, insists that the rougher quality of life in China is precisely what attracts her to the country. Both she and her sister Amina, 26, have chosen to launch careers in the Far East rather than return to what they fear would be an all-too-comfortable lifestyle in their home city - even as the UAE capital's own economic properity continues to attract migrants from all over the world.
"Given my family connections, I could go back and have a well-paid job set up for me very easily," says Zeïna says, whose family is of Algerian origin and involved in the capital's corporate world "But I need to struggle. I need the challenge and the satisfaction of getting a job on my own." While Zeïna and Amina are working abroad by choice, big companies in the Emirates, such as Etisalat, as well as some large semi-governmental organisations, are beginning to send their Emirati staff abroad to be trained by technology partners or other strategic partners, according to Ingo Forstenlechner, an assistant professor at the College of Business and Economics at UAE University in Al Ain.
"Like for anyone else, studying abroad and working abroad changes and widens perspectives and brings experience and new perspectives to the country," Mr Forstenlechner explains. The sisters say they have gained much from eschewing what they see as an easy life in the UAE. "The more experiences I have, the more I add value to myself and to society," Amina says. "In the UAE I would gain a lot of tangible material benefits, but in China I am gaining many more intangibles."
Zeïna arrived in Beijing in January 2009, and landed a job with Impact Asia, a PR firm. She's also studying Mandarin Chinese, which she has been learning since she was 19, when she went on a three-month summer language course in the city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai. She followed in the footsteps of Amina, who, after taking a course in Mandarin at university, travelled to Beijing upon graduation for further study. She never left, and five years on she's a director at Space Development, a property redeveloper in Shanghai.
"I often ask myself what I'm doing in China when I go back home and am reminded of the bountiful comforts of the UAE," Amina says. "But the scale of the opportunity here is huge - everything is bigger, faster and crazier. Abu Dhabi has changed a lot, but I feel like my own life there would be predictable." The sisters say there's a generational difference between the adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit that drew their parents to the UAE in search of a better life, and a more laid-back approach among their UAE-born peers, who are enjoying the fruits of their parents' success. That's exactly the course they wanted to escape.
The sisters, who studied at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, say all of their UAE high-school classmates took university courses abroad, with about 90 per cent returning to the UAE after graduation. The rest moved back to the countries that their parents had left a generation earlier, such as Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt, which now afford greater opportunity than in the past. "The majority of people seek comfort, but we are not comfort-seekers and never have been," Amina explains. "Arabic culture is very family-orientated, so packing up and leaving your family for personal reasons is not welcomed as easily, especially when your family is providing for you."
The comforts of UAE life may also hinder some young Emiratis from seeking a career abroad, unless it's in the diplomatic corps or in similarly high-ranking and strategic positions, according to Mr Forstenlechner. While Zeïna and Amina have left the UAE to pursue opportunities abroad, the country is not yet at risk of experiencing a serious brain-drain effect, because its powerful economic growth means it continues to be a net importer of talent, according to Patrick Luby, an independent human resources consultant based in Dubai.
But in the long run, the Gulf faces competition from other boom regions, such as China, which are likely to see expansion in their financial and engineering sectors, as well as from developed economies emerging out of recession who want to lure their own highly-qualified nationals back home, Mr Luby said. Expatriates in the Gulf are unlikely to have status beyond that of a guest worker, and they may not feel they have much of a stake in the country beyond their current job, he added, although the right to buy property in the UAE is changing attitudes among some homeowners.
"The Middle East has a bit of a tradition of treating people like commodities rather than assets," he said. "Some of these countries may find that people they took for granted will move on." European countries in particular are exploring ways to reverse "brain drain" and tempt high-flyers back to their places of birth, according to Mr Forstenlechner, who recently published research on the subject funded by one such European government.
Zeïna and Amina themselves have no plans to return to the UAE just yet. Back in the Bookworm, Zeïna says she feels at home in Beijing because of the extroverted nature of the people drawn there. "People come here because they are adventurous, and we can relate to them," she says. "Beijing to me is probably like Abu Dhabi was to my parents when they moved there. Abu Dhabi has changed a lot since I grew up, whereas here I am part of the change."