x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Don't call Abu Dhabi home? With work that can change

Abu Dhabi's new residence requirement for Government employees makes sense, but it would help to explain it more thoroughly.

From a quality of life perspective, Dubai seems like a place people want to be.
From a quality of life perspective, Dubai seems like a place people want to be.

Home, as the adage goes, is where the heart is. But starting next year if you are an Abu Dhabi Government employee, home might also be where your work is.

One could almost hear the groans of disapproval last weekend, when the Abu Dhabi Executive Council issued a statement detailing a planned policy change requiring that Government employees will have to reside within the emirate's borders. Thousands of commuters make their way to Abu Dhabi from various cities across the UAE every day, a price in mental well-being many see as worth it.

The Abu Dhabi Government has given its employees a one-year grace period to relocate, and has cited critical reasons such as employee safety, and an ambitious goal of decreasing traffic congestion between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as key drivers behind the move.

The Executive Council is correct: less time behind the wheel has many benefits. Nonetheless, the Government could do much more to sell its policy shift to a sceptical public.

For one, commuting is costly. The Commuter's Challenge, a research study conducted in 2009 on the effects of commuting on US workers, found that commuting is one of the most stressful experiences of urban life. Long commutes lead to increased blood pressure, lowered job satisfaction, raised illness rates and lowered cognitive performance.

Add to these less tangible environmental, social and business costs, and it's clear that high commuting rates in the UAE are taking a toll.

Yet we cannot ignore the other side of this story, the one that surveys and health studies fail to quantify: thousands of families, bachelors and single-women will have to give up their homes in other emirates if they wish to continue their employment within the Government of Abu Dhabi.

How will people handle the mandate? Would people quit their jobs to stay put? Most importantly, will the Government exert a similar amount of pressure on landlords and developers to improve "quality of life" indicators to ensure potential new residents enjoy a similar quality of life like the one they've come to expect in their current locations?

When anyone relocates anywhere in the world, two issues feature prominently into their decision: quality of life and cost.

From a quality of life perspective, Dubai seems like a place people want to be; all you have to do is count the number of Abu Dhabi license plates on Jumeirah Road on any given weekend to come to that conclusion.

With significantly lower housing prices in recent years, and the growth of hip and happening neighbourhoods, many have come to believe that a one-hour-plus commute is a price worth paying.

Quality of life inside the capital is improving, of course; the Executive Council's directive could push the capital's development further along. Already Abu Dhabi has several highly attractive properties in the pipeline, like Al Bandar, a recent hit with beautiful ocean scenery and trendy restaurants.

Eventually complimenting this will be Sowwah Square, Al Reem Island and Saadiyat. But we have yet to see a retail boom in these areas, which is where potential Government intervention through preferential rates and incentives could encourage retailers to locate, thus building a more vibrant social fabric.

On the economic front, rents in Abu Dhabi are decreasing, yet for many people on the ground the declines are not fast or steep enough. And even if there were a drop in prices as some real estate agents have predicted, it might not be significant enough to convince people to relocate voluntarily.

Again, the Government could do more here as well, monitoring landlords, ensuring prices do not inflate artificially, and supporting employees to ensure salaries are on par with housing costs. For a government that is both buyer and seller, these should be fairly easy tasks.

As the contours of this directive become clearer there will be more questions in need of clarification.

For now, the only thing that seems certain is that if the Government departments work with affected employees, the end result will be a home where hearts and work converge.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati social commentator

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri