x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Expatriates hold on after being let go

Some expatriates unemployed because of the global recession are staying in the UAE in hope that their prospects will improve.

Members of the Bad Times Boot Camp, a support group for unemployed expatriates, work out on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai.
Members of the Bad Times Boot Camp, a support group for unemployed expatriates, work out on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai.

When the world is being rocked by an economic maelstrom it is not a good time to be thrown overboard. The waters are rough and finding a new berth can seem an almost impossible challenge. As the first gusts of trouble hit the UAE shores, the assumption was that those expatriates cast adrift by employers would simply pack their bags and head back home with tails between their legs. Some have obviously chosen that course, but not all. Instead, an intrepid band has opted to remain, treading water in the hope of better times to come. Alex Light is one of them. When he lost his job at a Dubai property company he was devastated. His first reaction was to cut his losses and head back home to London. But he had seen the TV news bulletins and the thought of standing in the rain, queuing outside a job centre with thousands of other unemployed people in sub prime Britain did not appeal. Instead he decided to stay put. He now spends most mornings at Jumeirah beach with friends doing yoga and cardio and the rest of the day arranging coffee meetings with former colleagues who may know about new job opportunities. "I have complete conviction in my decision to stay," said 26-year-old Mr Light. "I've worked hard for three years and just because I lost my job doesn't mean I'll let go of the things I hold dear. I'm naturally a pretty positive person so I don't know how going back to the UK will help me. The option was to suck it up and innovate and stay here." Imbued with such an optimistic outlook, Mr Light has gone on to launch the Bad Times Boot Camp, a support group for unemployed expatriates which meets three mornings a week on the beach for ­exercise. What allowed Mr Light to pursue this course was a recent decision by the UAE government to extend by up to three months the visas of people who have been laid off. Previously, they had only one month to pack up and leave. The young economies of the Gulf have been hit hard by the global financial crisis triggered by last year's American toxic mortgage implosion. There have been reports of families leaving their car at the airports with the keys in the engine before flying home, while the Government recently disclosed that up to 2,500 bank customers were quitting the country each month without paying off credit card bills. But there is a strong desire to remain not just in the Emirates but across the region. A recent survey suggested that 50 per cent of people still considered the UAE an attractive place to live and work, according to the poll by the jobs website Bayt.com and YouGov published in April. The study of 10,781 professionals in the Middle East and Pakistan showed that only 13 per cent of people wanted to return to their home country. "That's completely understandable, what would they go back to?" asked Paul Dyer, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government. "They'd go back to face unemployment." Sara Jones, 30, a British citizen, who was laid off from her job as a manager of a spa in March, was optimistic about finding work in Dubai. "I've turned down some offers because I'm looking for the right position. It's not a dire situation at all. I'm living on my savings. I was good with money. I was saving for a car because I didn't want to get a loan so I'm not struggling financially." Miss Jones who has about five friends who have been sacked, doesn't want to give up her laid-back lifestyle. "I'll do some yoga in the afternoon in a park. It's a free class." Besides trawling through websites looking for job postings she has been spending a lot of time at the gym during the day and hanging out with friends in the evenings. If she doesn't find work by the time her visa extension runs out in June she will come back on a visitor's visa and continue to look. Losing your job can be a blow to self-esteem but the key was to have a busy social life, although it is perhaps easier to be optimistic if you are young, said Mr Light, who is also living off savings. "My stepdad is in his 50s, he is very successful but his friends know that if they are let go they won't get back in the market," he said. The economic crisis has encouraged other governments in the Gulf to re-examine their working visa sponsorship systems. Bahrain has gone a step further than most by dropping its policy altogether. On August 1, the government will begin issuing two-year work permits instead of forcing workers to rely on the sponsorship of private citizens and companies. In Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh Economic Forum sent a study to King Abdullah arguing that the current system restricted development in the workforce. It has prompted some passionate responses in the kingdom. "I hope and pray to Allah the time will come when the sponsorship system will change and expats will work happily," wrote a computer engineer on the Saudi Gazette newspaper's website. Kate Shannon, a brand strategist in Dubai, said her visa, which was extended in February, will run out this weekend much to her disappointment. She will return to London but hopes to come back to Dubai soon to continue looking for work. "I came to Dubai two years ago because I wanted to get into brand consultancy. There were so many exciting projects to get involved in here and I thought I'd be exposed more to projects than I would at home. I still feel there is more to learn here." Mr Dyer said allowing people to stay on extended visas helped to strengthen the economy because people would continue to spend money. "Unskilled labourers, if you want to call them that, are in a sense elastic because you can shed them, move them - I hate to say that because it sounds inhuman - but it is the professional market the government wants to keep because they consume and it has a trickle-down effect in the malls, the hotels for example." There was anecdotal evidence that some expatriates were returning to Dubai on tourist visas to look for more work, he added. "I know some people who have either found jobs quickly and just stayed on, or have left the country when their visas were cancelled and returned on a visitor's visa to finish the kids' schooling or to look for jobs." Bayt.com, the jobs website, held a free, 10-day consultation clinic for laid-off professionals in February to advise them on how to sharpen their CV - a free biryani lunch was thrown in. About 100 people turned up each day. It may be a sign of wider optimism. The Bayt.com and YouGov survey also showed that 26 per cent of respondents in the Emirates believed the economy would bounce back within six to 12 months. An "awful lot of people" are still looking for work, said Matthew Taylor, an international director at Macdonald & Company, a property recruitment company. "A lot of people want to spend their lives here. That is coupled with the fact that there is a gloomy recession in their home countries so it's just as bad back home. The problem is the cost of living and the fact that visas make it difficult for them to stay." The high cost of housing has been the dinner party topic of conversations on balmy evenings but now many people are taking advantage of less competition as properties become empty. "What we've noticed in real estate is that as rents are falling people are upgrading," said Gayle Stokes, general manager of Exquisite Homes Real Estate Brokers. "There is a flow of people from apartments to villas. We've had a lot of people inquiring about living in the Jumeirah area." There are opportunities for people who want better land for their money, she added, pointing out that older villas in Jumeirah and Umm Suqeim were available for rent at Dh170,000 to Dh 200,000. When the economy rebounds the workers who have stayed will be in a prime position to find new work because employers will not have to pay as much to recruit from overseas. The problem may come if people choose not to return, said Mr Taylor. "There will be a brain drain of people who have to go and therefore it may be difficult to attract them back. I'm sure this place is attractive enough to re-staff, but it will be taken as a once bitten twice shy." Back on the beach, Mr Light is confident he can weather the economic storm clouds. "I've got a bunch of good mates and I'm well connected in a bunch of industries so when this turns around I'll be here," he says. hghafour@thenational.ae