Feature While western economies falter, the UAE is increasingly seen as a place where expatriate professionals can progress existing careers or even find new ones.
The land of opportunity
Allan Clarke didn't have a career before he arrived in Dubai. After repeated stints as a bar worker and travel rep in holiday resorts across Europe, was wondering if he would ever settle down. Yet in the past two years Clarke, 25 and originally from Manchester, has embarked upon and succeeded in two entirely separate fields: first, he trained as a cabin crew member for Emirates Airline; when, after 14 months, he had had enough of that, he moved to his present position as an events manager and music promoter.
"All the jobs I'd had in the past were more of a social event than a career," he says. "I came here in 2006 because my girlfriend was here, but I wanted to find a career. Luckily in the UAE you get a break to enter a new path and are given the chance to prove yourself on the job." Clarke has landed in a good place. While the US financial meltdown has caused panic, crumbling stock and falling property markets across the West, optimism continues in the UAE, despite the rising cost of living.
Some 26,000 people arrive every month to work in Dubai alone - people like Jac Tisserand, 33, an IT manager from Washington DC, who recently took a six-week leave of absence from his job with a software engineering company to look for new opportunities here. "In the States, things are a lot different now economy-wise," Tisserand says. "The home market is very depressed and there are continual layoffs. The economy dictates opportunity and I hope to bring my family here for a completely fresh start."
For many people coming to the UAE, changing their career to suit the opportunities available is par for the course. Just over two years since he arrived in the UAE, Allan Clarke now works for the Dubai-based firm Jump Media, overseeing music and sports events across the Gulf and even further afield. It is a position that he loves. "I came into this job with no experience and within a year I'd done four tours with bands around the Middle East, South Africa and the UK," he adds.
"Although this was something I had wanted to do for a long time, I never imagined I would be looking after artists and touring the world with them. I am learning not just about the logistics but about PR, marketing and design. I have a boss who gave me the job based on my personality and my potential, and I have been trained to perform well." For people like Clarke, who have energy and drive but few formal qualifications, Dubai's phenomenal growth seems to provide a unique opportunity for career progression, as well as a good lifestyle.
"With Dubai it's more about who you know," says Clarke. "I got to know my boss personally and someone I knew put me forward for the job. "He saw that I was used to handling customers and dealing with problems. In the UK it's totally different. There it's all based on qualifications and experience - but how can you get experience if you don't get the opportunity?" Iain Stewart, 29, from Birmingham, made a particularly impressive career change when he moved to the UAE eight years ago. Formerly an IT specialist working in accounting software, Stewart worked in a succession of roles before landing a job as a copywriter with a major international advertising agency in Dubai.
"My previous career had been very technical but I had been getting into websites as a hobby and became a freelance web designer for three years," he said. "The company I was consulting for then took me on full time, but then I left and became freelance again. Someone told me that a particular ad agency was looking for copywriters. I went and was offered a job. I did my probationary period and they liked me and took me on."
According to Stewart, Dubai has facilitated a career change which would have been unfeasible elsewhere. "I couldn't apply for a job in advertising with no experience in the UK, and get it," he said. "Here I feel my career is growing almost as fast as the country is." The professional environment in Dubai is becoming more and more career-driven, Stewart says. "A lot of the people who used to come out here just wanted to do the same job tax free, and have a laugh. Now it's about career development, because the opportunities here are so much better. A lot of the advertising agencies here are winning international awards and I get to work in a mix of mediums. I'm going to be here until I want to leave."
For Stewart, changing careers once has prompted thoughts of a second, even more daring switch. "I'm learning to fly a plane and in two years will get my pilot's licence. After that I'd like to be a commercial helicopter pilot." For an increasing number of ultra-mobile 20 and 30-somethings, Dubai is a lifestyle choice which seems to offer everything. Stewart says he will "never" return to the UK, even to retire. "I decided to pack up because I was fed up with my job, but the weather was a major factor," he admitted. "It's not just how it affects you personally but how it affects everyone. Just because you are born in a country doesn't mean you have to live there: there are hundreds of countries in the world to choose from."
And according to recruitment consultants, there are more than enough jobs available for the huge numbers of people arriving in the UAE. Mike Hynes, the managing partner of Kershaw Leonard recruitment consultants in Dubai, said his company was having its "best ever" period. "When clients contact us, they usually have not one job to offer but three or four," he said. "One only has to look at the infrastructure that is being built to see that it hasn't even peaked yet."
Hynes said that there was a mix of reasons why people were moving to Dubai to work, but that professional and economic circumstances were driving its appeal. "A guy called me the other day who was a senior manager at a company in the UK and this is someone who likes to get things done. He said he was feeling strangled in the UK, especially in a downturn where people are not willing to take risks on projects and the money's not available."
In a world in which the highly skilled are becoming increasingly choosy about when, where and how they work, Dubai provided the unusual chance to experience the excitement of working in a developing economy but still enjoy a good quality of life in a stable environment, Hynes said. "Dubai offers the kind of lifestyle that people want but it also provides the opportunity to work on a range of projects. If you're in construction and can go back and say you worked on the Burj Dubai or The Palm, it looks great on your CV. For people who are prepared to up and leave, the opportunities are here."
Hynes also said that working in Dubai brought more job satisfaction as it was often only seen as a temporary move, and that people could see the difference they are making when they work here. "If you are stuck in the middle of a large company in a fully-developed economy like the UK, it's easy to feel lost. Here you can see the difference you've made. You can look back and say, 'I did that'. Dubai is far and away the destination of choice, although that is also because it's done such a good job of marketing itself."
For Alka Perryman, 37, who arrived in the UAE in April from Cyprus, the move to Dubai involved both a change of career and an improvement in financial circumstances. "My husband Mark and I moved to Cyprus last year. He works in property and I worked as a freelance web designer and marketing person, but the prospects seemed so much better in Dubai compared to both the UK and Cyprus. Salaries are higher and there's more potential generally. In those places, the market was saturated."
Perryman, originally from Nottingham, is now working in Dubai as a recruitment consultant, while her husband is a senior account manager for a hotel company. "I really enjoy my job because I spend all day dealing with people who want to come here," she said. "I've never really made a big change like this before but it's been a good move and I'd advise anyone to do it." Perryman said that even after moving from Cyprus, but particularly when compared to Britain, Dubai offered a better quality of life. "Although it's a dynamic environment, it's still more of a relaxed lifestyle. It doesn't feel as much of a rat-race. We find we have more time to ourselves and more of a social life than we had before. Even things like going to the cinema, which we never seemed to have time to do in the UK, we do here. Everything is in abundance, it's very multicultural and accessible for the Far East and even Australia."
The couple have no plans to return to Britain. "We knew we didn't want to go back to the UK because of the recession. Speaking to family and friends, it doesn't seem like a good idea to go back. It's incredible how expensive it is to fill the car with fuel, and that's just one tiny aspect of your outgoings. Food prices are scary. It just doesn't seem like a good situation there and we would never think about going back unless it was for a holiday or to visit relatives. We're still in a hotel because we're planning to buy a property here as soon as possible."
Cliff Single, the commercial manager of BAC Middle East, which was established in 1979 and recruits for a broad range of companies in the region, said that while America used to be seen as the land of opportunity, Dubai was now "the city of opportunity". "In the last five years it's really taken off. It's a mixture of economic reality, branding and tax-free living." Single said that a much broader range of nationalities were now flocking to Dubai and that many Americans, Canadians and Europeans of Arab descent started returning to the region in large numbers after September 11.
"The fact is that there were a lot of opportunities here and they could use their leverage in terms of language and culture. Most sectors are growing but particularly construction, real estate, marketing, ad agencies and other property spin-offs." Single said the development of the Dubai International Financial Centre had created a wealth of opportunities in financial services and that the tourism and travel industries were also booming as the economy was becoming less oil and gas-centred. Single also said younger expatriates were now coming to the UAE.
"It used to be a much older profile of expat, but now people are coming as fresh graduates with one or two years' experience in the job market, from 23 upwards." The speculative nature of Dubai is reflected in the job market, which makes it ideal for people who want to change careers or try something new, Single added. "Generally, we do not encourage applications from abroad unless you are a very senior candidate with a very specialised skill set," he said. "To come here speculatively and apply is the most realistic way of doing it because clients want to make a decision very quickly."
Arnau Gallard, 25, from Barcelona, who moved to the UAE in January, said changing career was now the norm for ambitious professionals who wanted to gain experience abroad. After his previous contract working for the Spanish government in Cairo expired, the he jumped at the chance when a new role as a sales manager for a Spanish firm in Dubai emerged, especially when it offered a paid-for car, apartment and travel. "Dubai for me means three things: having a higher position than I would at home, having a higher salary than I would at home, and getting international experience."
Gallard now travels throughout the Middle East, selling components for cars. "Next month I'm going to Saudi Arabia and then to Iran and Egypt. I had no previous experience in sales. I don't know how long it will last but right now the opportunities are here."