x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Work is here, but life is there: the expatriate conundrum

Although the UAE is an attractive location for expatriate families, the cost of living can be a turn off for those wanting to make significant savings.

After more than two years splitting his time between the UK and the UAE, Stuart Walsh eventually brought his family to Dubai. Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper
After more than two years splitting his time between the UK and the UAE, Stuart Walsh eventually brought his family to Dubai. Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper

Working away from your family during a business trip can be hard enough, but imagine working in a completely different country full-time.

This is the reality for many expatriates in the UAE, who choose to follow their career path away from their loved ones either for financial or lifestyle reasons.

For Stuart Walsh, 37, a British business owner, working away from his wife, Georgina, 34, and their three young children - six-year-old Liam, Isabelle, three, and Victoria, seven months - was a situation he was forced into following the global economic crisis.

With his wife and children living in the UK, Mr Walsh, who first moved to the UAE in 1998 to work in the hospitality industry, spent three weeks a month working in Dubai.

The founder of Budge, a recruitment business based in Knowledge Village, was forced into the situation after his plan to set up a UK branch of his company failed to take off as the world descended into economic chaos towards the end of 2008.

"We were worried because our main source of income is from here, so when everything crashed I had to come back out and save the business," Mr Walsh says. "But it was really hard to be away from the family."

The entrepreneur set up Budge in 2003 and watched his fortunes rise along with the boom that encapsulated Dubai during the mid-2000s.

By early 2008, the business was going so well that he was able to put a management team in place and move his family back to the UK, where he bought a four-bedroom home in a village in Sussex. The couple's main reason for moving was to enrol their children into a school that used the Steiner Waldorf teaching method - an education system not available in the UAE.

But within months of arriving home, it became apparent that Mr Walsh needed to focus his attention on his core business in Dubai rather than a new arm of the company in the UK.

"Alarm bells started to ring. We could see the figures were declining in the management reports, so even though I used to come every month for a couple of days anyway, by April 2009, I was here two weeks a month and it progressively got more," says Mr Walsh, who spent his time in Dubai living in a rented two-bedroom apartment in Umm Suqeim.

During the couple's time apart, Mr Walsh poured all his energy into rebuilding his recruitment business and setting up a second company, Elete Water, which sells a natural hydration product to construction companies across the Middle East.

And the businessman says the decision to live apart was actually more cost-effective than relocating his family back to Dubai.

"Ironically, it made financial sense. When you take into account school fees, car rentals and the cost of food, it was cheaper to live apart - money just goes here."

Although the UAE is an attractive location for expatriate families thanks to its climate, wide range of leisure, education and health care facilities and tax-free earning potential, the cost of living can be a turn off for those wanting to make significant savings.

"For some people, it simply doesn't make financial sense to bring the entire family out here," says Rupert Connor, a senior financial consultant at Acuma Wealth Management.

"With what's going on in the world at the moment, people need to work to feed their families so if there are well-paid jobs overseas, they are going to take them even if it means leaving their family behind."

Mr Connor says those looking to base themselves away from their family can do so relatively cheaply in the UAE if they choose a low-rent option, such as a studio apartment in International City in Dubai.

"And if they stay out of their home nation long enough to avoid paying tax, it can be cost-effective," he says.

"Spending less than 90 days in the UK, for example, prevents a British national from paying tax on their income.

"But while it works as a short-term option, I don't know anyone, from a lifestyle perspective, who would rather have their families somewhere else."

For Mr Walsh, spending regular amounts of time away from his family eventually became too much and two years after he began his long-distance lifestyle, he decided it would be better to be together in one place.

"We got to the stage where we just couldn't go on. The kids needed their father around and I needed the family around. Every time I went back, we all needed time to adjust to each other again. I used to be so keen to get back and then my wife would open the door and there'd be all these kids around me. And saying goodbye to your children every few weeks was not good and I'm sure it had an effect on them.

"Given the opportunities we have with Budge and Elete Water, we'd be crazy to go back now, particularly in the short term, because we'd probably end up going under. If we stay out here for a few more years, we will have the long-term benefits of being able to send our kids to the school we want to in the UK, being able to stay in our own home and being able to have the lifestyle we had before the 2008 crash."

The family moved back to Dubai last month, but Mr Walsh admits the move has been detrimental to the couple's finances. In the UK, he can educate his children for free, easily afford the upkeep on his Audi A4 and spend less than Dh1,000 a week on food. In Dubai, he spends Dh4,000 on rental for two cars, Dh60,000 to educate his two eldest children and Dh1,500 a week on food.

"It's a big financial commitment to be together again," he says. "When my wife was on her own with the kids, she lived very frugally. She walked into the village to do her shopping in the local organic shop, walked home and went through the rest of the week without spending anything.

"The other obvious cost here is the lifestyle cost; everything you do here with children costs money, whether it's going to an indoor play centre or coffee and lunches out - all the types of things you wouldn't do in the UK."

While living apart made financial sense for Mr Walsh, for Dani Richa, the chairman and chief executive of Impact BBDO Group MENA, a Dubai-based communications solutions company, living apart from his family is not the most cost-effective option.

Mr Richa, 46, from Lebanon, spends the working week in Dubai living in a one-bedroom apartment in DIFC while his wife Naya, 40, and three children - two daughters aged six and 12 and an eight-year-old son - live in their four-bedroom apartment in Beirut.

But despite having to run two homes - both of which he owns - and pay two sets of utility bills and support two sets of domestic helpers, Mr Richa says it is the best situation for his work-life balance.

"I've travelled around the region throughout my career, so when I was living with my family, I actually spent less hours with them than I do now," says Mr Richa, who has lived in Dubai since 2009.

"Financially, it would be cheaper if we all lived in one place as the cost of living in Dubai and Beirut is pretty much the same. Although Dubai is a great place, I still travel a lot so there's no point bringing them here when I'm not here all the time. It's not worth disrupting their routine," says Mr Richa whose wife gave up her career in banking to look after the family in 2003.

"The way it works now, I spend less days in Beirut, but there are more full days and it's quality time. We have a big operation in Lebanon, so I go there on Thursday evening, work Friday, take a Saturday/Sunday weekend and fly back on Sunday night."

Spending less time with the family despite living in the same country is a scenario also faced by Greg Jeffrey, a 40-year-old consultant.

The Briton has lived in Dubai with his wife, a 38-year-old teacher, and their two sons, aged five and two, since 2004 after he picked the emirate to be his base while he worked around the region.

"When I was looking to move overseas, there were three options: Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong. Dubai won simply because of the location. It's close to a lot of the places I work in, it's tax free and it was relatively cheap at the time.

"As a subcontractor working on a rotational basis, I knew I'd be working in places such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, so Dubai was a natural base."

After the birth of his first son in 2006, Mr Jeffrey decided to take a full-time position in Dubai to be closer to his family.

"It meant a normal nine-to-five salary, but it was worth it for the stability of being close to the family."

Then, this summer, he decided to quit his full-time position to work as a consultant around the region once more.

"I earn between one and a half to twice as much, but when you are doing jobs like this it's normally rotational, with one month on and one off month, so the salary is eventually the same because you are only working six months of the year," Mr Jeffrey says.

"The increase in income is due to the risky areas I work in, but the beauty is that you're effectively having six months off a year and you're still earning the same amount of money."

The nature of his work means Mr Jeffrey could base his family anywhere, including his home nation - something he says would not be as cost-effective.

"The UK is too expensive. You have to pay tax on your income and, to be quite frank, I've lost faith in the UK. It's a lifestyle choice to be here."

Although Mr Jeffrey hopes his working arrangement will be short term until he finds a full-time corporate role, he says there are benefits to his current situation, including spending an entire month with his family rather than just a two-day weekend.

And he says that living away from his family is manageable thanks to modern technological advancements that allow him to manage the household bills and expenses online or by phone and keep in touch with his loved ones.

Mr Richa agrees. "My 12-year-old daughter is on BBM most of the time - sharing photos and asking questions - and the younger ones know they can call anytime."

But Mr Walsh says that was not enough for him.

"Now I can go home early, help put the children to bed and take them to school in the morning. Before, I'd go back and see Georgina cooking the dinner with her foot on the baby buggy pushing it back forth. She was overwhelmed from bringing up three children on her own and I was leading an isolated existence. Everyone's much happier now."