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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Cultural understanding will be the key to a happy retirement in the UAE 

Living in this country in later life is a privilege that will be best enjoyed by those with an appreciation of its way of life

A group of men perform a traditional Emirati dance. Sammy Dallal/The National
A group of men perform a traditional Emirati dance. Sammy Dallal/The National

A couple of weeks ago, I welcomed the announcement that, subject to various conditions, expatriates over the age of 55 could now retire in the Emirates, rather than, as has had hitherto been the case for most, being obliged to return to their countries of origin or to go elsewhere. Since then, I’ve discussed the issue with a number of people, of different nationalities, and the consensus appears to be that the move is a good one, albeit with a few reservations.

Certainly, over the last few years, the UAE has become an increasingly attractive place in which to live, provided that the requisite resources are available. Improvements to infrastructure, ranging from shopping and accommodation to access to good healthcare and leisure facilities, are available even during the hot and humid summers. Political stability has remained pretty much unruffled since the establishment of the federation in 1971, while the emergence of the UAE as a global aviation hub has meant that it’s easy to travel quickly, to almost all the corners of the earth. What’s not to like about that?

There are, of course, a few drawbacks, as with almost any country. There can be a problem with language, except for those from other Arab countries, but most of those considering retirement here will find large communities who speak their own native languages. If the conditions to be applied include the need to have spent many years working here, then most people will already be accustomed to the cultural and legal constraints of UAE life.

Many retirees will have younger members of their families living here, and, as I’ve noted, there are benefits of that in terms of social stability. For those who don’t, they’ll be used to taking flights in either direction to maintain familial ties. They’ll also have a well-established social network of friends. Few, I suspect, would choose to retire here without that kind of knowledge and support.

Another recent initiative will make the idea of retirement here even more attractive: the fact that it is now possible to start a business from home. Those for whom easy access to fine beaches, malls or world-class golf courses is not enough will have the option to develop a productive use of their later years, while the UAE will still be able to benefit from their skills and experience.

There are other advantages too, although these may be difficult to quantify. Long-term expatriates will be used to going “home” regularly, but, over time, the links there can fade. An annual visit to an original hometown may reveal that it has gradually changed beyond all recognition. Others may have bought or built a house in an attractive location, regularly visited on holidays, but not managed to integrate successfully into the local community. Is it better to be an outsider there, or to remain in the country where they may have spent much of their working lives?

Given all of these factors, I think many people might wish to retire here. The familiarity of a country they know, with its well-established traditions of cultural tolerance, and with friends and, possibly, relatives around as a support network – these are reasons that will, for many, outweigh the attractions of returning to a place of origin that may, in many cases, be greatly changed, or to somewhere else altogether, at least until the inevitable end approaches.

Many of those who choose the option of taking up a retirement visa, of course, may not actually spend most of the year here. The US and Canada have their “snowbirds” who flock south to Florida and elsewhere to escape cold winters, so perhaps we’ll have our own equivalent migration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, when I’m able to do so, I rather like the idea of spending more time in my own other home in the British Channel Island of Jersey during spring, summer and autumn, even if the prospect of long, cold, wet and dreary winter nights there is somehow less attractive.

I do, however, have one concern about retirement visas, which has yet to be allayed. While I fully recognise the potential boost for the property market that this can provide, I would be slightly perturbed if the door was to be thrown open, willy-nilly, to anyone living overseas, of the right age and with the requisite financial resources, but who had absolutely no knowledge of the UAE.

Perhaps there’s a need to consider whether an influx of such people would be beneficial in any terms other than the purely economic. Do we need more expatriate enclaves, where people seek to live a life almost completely disengaged from the rest of the country? Brand-new arrivals who come just because they can afford to do so might also face considerable problems in adjusting to life here, especially without a support network. Money alone should not be sufficient. Perhaps potential retirees could be asked to demonstrate that they are equipped to live here? For that, a knowledge of the Emirates and of its way of life could be an important qualification.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture