Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 March 2018

Economic refugees from Europe find a home in the Emirates

Europe's growing financial woes have turned the UAE into an economic haven for some families. John Henzell meets the refugees from Greece, Italy and the other troubled members of the Euro zone.

Elena Cavallo with her six-month-old daughter, Sophia, is from Italy. Delores Johnson / The National
Elena Cavallo with her six-month-old daughter, Sophia, is from Italy. Delores Johnson / The National

Ask project manager Antonis Slicher when the Greek economy might bounce back sufficiently to allow his family to return to their homeland and his voice trails a little.

"If there was light at the end of the tunnel," he says, "but there isn't any. You would have to say that this will be 10 years."

He is emblematic of the surge of professionals from troubled euro-zone countries who are landing in the economic haven of the UAE, with few harbouring ambitions that their stay will be brief.

Greece might be the poster child for the euro zone's ills but it is just the worst affected of several nations whose citizens are escaping to the more buoyant economies of the Gulf states.

Gianlucca Cappelli Bigazzi, the press attache at the Italian embassy in Abu Dhabi, describes a "constant and relentless" increase in the number of Italians moving to the UAE, with the population quadrupling in the past few years.

Barrie Purtell, a project manager from Dublin, talks about how "once again, emigration is a necessity rather than a choice" for his nation's young professionals.

Together with Spain and Portugal, the nations lend their initials to create PIIGS, the acronym used pejoratively by analysts to describe the euro-zone nations whose economies are crippled by a combination of public debt and stagnant or negative growth.

Anna Coupaud, a 16-year Abu Dhabi resident who runs a group for Italian expatriates in the capital, admits that most of her compatriots who have landed in the UAE in the past few years are doing so more out of necessity than a desire to live in the Gulf.

"The reason is economic," she says. "Otherwise they wouldn't, honestly. Life in Italy, usually it's very nice, but it's getting harder and harder to get a job."

But the news is not all bad. As with the waves of expatriates before them who have arrived in the UAE out of necessity rather than aspiration, many of those whose emigration was prompted by bad conditions at home have discovered the previously unsuspected benefits of living in the Emirates.

Mr Slicher, who had been working for a multinational engineering consultancy in Athens for nine years, admits his departure from Greece was anything but voluntary, with the option two years ago being to head overseas or face long-term unemployment.

"Things were already bad. In early 2010, it was clear that there wasn't any work so the decision was made to close the office in Athens," he says. "The first redundancies were announced in February 2010, but we were told if anyone wanted to relocate, the company would try their best. One [relocation] was out here. Without having much of a choice, I said yes."

Mr Slicher found himself bound for Abu Dhabi, a city about which he had heard much but never visited.

"I did a bit of reading about Abu Dhabi and then I came over for three days and saw the project I'd be working on and saw the city," he says. "In Greece, if you work abroad, this is one of the countries to be. It's quite open to foreigners coming in."

His wife, Kalli, still had a relatively secure job, working for a pharmaceutical company, so she and their children, then of the ages 5 and 8, stayed in Greece while he started work in Abu Dhabi.

Following 14 months of only seeing his family one weekend a month, and with rumours circulating about job security at his wife's company, Mr Slicher was joined by Kalli and the children in Abu Dhabi.

In less than two years, Abu Dhabi has gone from being a city he knew little about to being a happy home for his family.

"We've adjusted very well out here. Settling in has been no problem at all. There are a lot of things that aren't too different. The infrastructure is very, very good and you can find anything you want," he says. "Our children were at an international school in Athens so they were at a school with at least 60 nationalities, so for them it was very easy. They swapped one IB [international baccalaureate] school for another IB school.

"It's very safe here. That's one thing you really appreciate. You walk around the streets at any time of the day and it's safe."

The prospects of returning home remain remote but he is hoping some of the other European nations will have bounced back sufficiently to allow him to move back to Europe in another five years. For Greece, though, he sees little prospect of any improvement for a long time. "It's very difficult and very disheartening. My sister and her husband [in Greece] are both without a job and there's very little hope that things will get better.

"The worst thing is that most people are not to blame for any of this. I paid my taxes and now I'm hit by these additional taxes. People are upset about this - the vast majority had nothing to do with the situation Greece is in today. That's the difficult part."

Hrach Kalsahakian, founder of the Dubai website emiratesgreeks.com, says that the number of Greek citizens in the UAE had nearly doubled since the crash in 2008, with a further surge following the euro-zone crisis. He estimated the Greek population here to be between 3,500 and 4,000.

"There are more Greeks coming, and in the last six months, even more," he says. "Mostly they're in Dubai but there are several hundred in Abu Dhabi, which is also growing. Traditionally there's also been a small community in Fujairah because the marine business is a traditional Greek business.

"They're mostly up to 40 years old, with a maximum of 45. I don't see anyone older. In the past, a lot of people used to have international or European experience, which helped them to survive in a non-Greek environment, but now the newcomers are directly from Greece and the challenges therefore would be bigger.

"They are doctors and dentists and surgeons and other professions. There are a host of pilots from Greece at Emirates Airline, Etihad and FlyDubai, maybe more than 150. They used to work at Olympic Airways and now the UAE needs pilots and they're experienced with European standards."

He agrees with Mr Slicher's assessment that the economic problems blighting Greece will be severe and long-lasting.

"This situation won't be fixed in one or two years. Anyone coming here isn't coming for a short period because they simply know this isn't going to happen," he says. "They're going to be here for at least three years. That's the minimum.

"The Greeks adjust perfectly well here because Greek culture is between East and West so there is a mixture of traditions."

Before the crash, Greece used to help fund Greek language teachers for its expatriates in the UAE but now the Greek community in the Emirates is organising it itself.

"Parents are keen for that to continue so now they are trying to find a funding source to keep a teacher, taking care of the expenses," he adds.


One reason why the recent influx of professionals from the PIIGS nations stands out is because most of the countries - Ireland excepted - are not known for their citizens working overseas.

That is particularly true for the Italians, according to Gianluca Capelli Bigazzi of the Italian embassy in Abu Dhabi.

"Italians aren't very keen to move, unlike some other nationalities. They are not very advanced in this way," he says. "They only come in some circumstances, if they have an assurance they will have a job. A few days ago, an Italian newspaper survey found almost 54 per cent of Italians would not agree to move abroad if they're looking for a new job or a better position."

Of those who would consider moving, many are turning their sights to the UAE.

"Italians are becoming aware of this country and the opportunities to be found here," he says. "We have 4,000 people here. It's increased a lot. It's a constant and relentlessly increasing, actually. It's ever since the downturn at the beginning of 2010. They're working in engineering, construction, finance, food and beverage, and tourism."

Before the global financial crisis kicked in four years ago, there were about 1,000 Italians in the Emirates. Now the ones who are here are not expecting that economic conditions in Italy will improve enough for them to return in the near term. In the meantime, the embassy has organised weekly Italian language classes for the children of Italians based in the capital.

Maybe nothing underscores the surge in numbers of Italians in the UAE better than the establishment of Italian Dairy Products. At a cheese factory in Sharjah, the company makes mozzarella, ricotta and burrata from traditional Italian recipes, created by artisanal cheesemakers using UAE milk and machinery imported from Italy.

"It's just like Italy," Mr Bigazzi says. "There are Italian people running it, of course."

For some of the Italians attracted to the UAE, their decision to stay comes despite having the ability to return home to secure employment. One of them is Elena Cavallo, a language teacher whose husband was seconded from his secure government job in Italy to work for Irena, the international renewable energy agency based at Masdar.

A notional one-year post turned into two years but when the time came to return to Italy, and with the birth of their first child, they chose to stay.

"When the secondment was over, we found we really liked it here in Abu Dhabi," she says. "My husband really liked his job in Irena and he obtained a permanent position. He's proud to be part of the agency and we're actually really, really happy we're able to stay.

"My husband would still have work if he was in Italy. In Italy, if you have one of these public jobs or you're a teacher in a school, you're pretty safe, but if you work for a private company or are self employed, it might be more difficult."

Although things were already bad in Italy when they left in May 2010, most of her fellow citizens coming to the UAE were doing so to get a better job rather than because they were out of work.

"I don't know anyone who lost their job and came here because of that," she says. "People came here because the UAE had a better offer. There was more money and benefits."

Abu Dhabi represents a mix of pluses and minuses but she says the balance is firmly in favour of the pluses.

"I miss my family and the food. The quality of life really depended on where you lived in Italy. We were living in Rome, which is a beautiful city with history and culture, but it's really chaotic," she says.

"It's so much easier here. I have a lot more friends than back home. Here everyone's willing to know new people with different cultures and there are several expats who are all in the same boat.

"The other really nice thing about this area is feeling safe. When you're in Spinneys, you can turn around and get something off the shelf and not be worried about your wallet or bag snatchers.

"Another nice thing about the UAE is that you can put money aside. In Italy, wages are lower and rent is really expensive in Rome, so you can't put anything aside to buy a house, especially in my situation with a baby. Usually we go home for a while in the summer, so that's when we catch up with grandmas and brothers and sisters. We really get the best of both worlds."


While the Italians have a reputation for being reluctant to move abroad, working overseas has long been a part of Irish culture. A century and a half of almost non-stop migration was briefly reversed during the Celtic Tiger years at the turn of the millennium when the Irish economy boomed, but since the recession began in 2008, the exodus has resumed.

The euro-zone problems have halted the modest recovery that had been occurring in the Irish economy, prompting another surge of Irish professionals to head to the Emirates and encouraging those already here to stay longer.

One of the relative newcomers is Barrie Purtell, who had to leave Ireland to find work in his field of project managing with architectural companies, only to move to Dubai and get mired in the emirate's own construction slowdown. He then moved to Germany, working on a UAE healthcare project, and finally settled in Abu Dhabi and brought his family to live with him.

"The decision to move abroad was based on many factors, mainly the economic situation but also the fact that opportunities for career advancement in Ireland had become virtually non-existent," he says.

"It's been said that Ireland's biggest export is its people, and our forebears have followed this path for many years. While many travel abroad for new experiences and adventures, it is unfortunate however that the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has forced this decision upon our younger generation once again, making emigration a necessity as opposed to a choice.

"This is the case for the many Irish expats living here in the UAE. If we compare this recession to Ireland in the 1980s, our stay here in the UAE would appear to be a lengthy one. While Ireland will always be home, the UAE provides a warm welcome and is plentiful in what it has to offer."

Mr Purtell and his family have been grateful for the strong Irish community in the UAE, including the Abu Dhabi Na Fianna club and Irish Society.

"This is particularly important to those of us with young children as it allows us to uphold our cultural traditions, keeping the connection to home alive," he adds. "This was a reassuring factor for my daughter, who is heavily involved in the Gaelic Athletics Association - playing football and camogie [the female version of hurling] at home in Ireland - as it has allowed her to maintain her passion for the sport here in the desert.

"It provides a much-needed support network especially for those missing family and friends from home."

His compatriot, former Abu Dhabi Irish Society president Andrew McCarthy, says many of the Irish who became economic migrants after the crash in 2008 moved to the Antipodes but part of the appeal of the UAE is the proximity to home.

"Etihad and Emirates both fly direct [to Ireland] now. In Australia or New Zealand, you're a world away," he says. "There's been a steady influx of Irish, although there was probably a surge in 2008, particularly when everything crashed in terms of construction all over western Europe."

The rising numbers of Irish heading to the UAE has been reflected in the opening of an embassy in Abu Dhabi. Previously the Irish embassy in Saudi Arabia handled the Emirates.

Most of the Irish economic migrants to the UAE adjust quickly to living conditions, Mr McCarthy says. "In Ireland, it's the thing to do to see the world for a couple of years. Generally people seem to be quite happy. For a lot of them, the husband has come over first and later they'll bring their wife and children over."

Most people do not expect their stay away from home to be short.

"If families are coming out here and renting their homes [in Ireland], they're not looking at a year or two. They know they're looking at the medium to long term," he says.

"For myself as part of the younger generation, I don't see myself moving home any time soon - not for wanting to go home but for the lack of opportunity in some ways and the high taxation."