x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Residents tackle hurdles to reap the rewards

Three sets of Emirati expats, each with a take on life in the UAE that is both different and similar.

Rizan bin Khadra, seen with her son Omar Mohammed al Haj, 2, says life in the UAE is more stressful that in was inSaudi Arabia.
Rizan bin Khadra, seen with her son Omar Mohammed al Haj, 2, says life in the UAE is more stressful that in was inSaudi Arabia.

Moving from Saudi Arabia to the UAE has meant some sacrifices for Rizan bin Khadra, 27, an assistant corporate affairs officer, who lives with her family in Abu Dhabi. "The life here involves a lot of us being apart so that on the weekend we can have more best times," she said. During the week, her whole family is together for only about two hours each day. "The routine of the families here is not very social. It is a more practical life. In my region it is more cosy.

"Saudi Arabia thrives on the social life. Everybody gets together at the table at a certain time of day. This really matters spiritually to each of the family members." However, she is happy to sacrifice some of this for the UAE's stronger economy and greater opportunities for women. "This is the ambitious businesswoman I was looking to be. I am missing time with my family in order to do that, but two hours is better than nothing."

She said her husband, Mohammed al Haj, the chief executive of an investment company, also works long hours, and combined it puts strains on the family. "I wish to have more close time with my husband. Now when they work they finish at 3.30 or 4, so the man cannot spend time with his family. He comes home exhausted. Families are missing a big amount of time together," she said. However, her husband's relatives live only a drive away in Dubai, and this allows the extended family to spend time together regularly.

"Each weekend for the last four years we go to the city, to spend maximum time with them. We have lunch, cook together, chat, play with our kids, go out," she said. She enjoys the excursions because while she finds that Abu Dhabi lacks things for families to do, she feels everything imaginable is available in Dubai. Like many, she has been affected by the property crunch. Her apartment behind Emirates Palace is not how she imagined family life.

"This is not how to raise children. We are trying to save some money for another building, another house for another day." And although she said life in the UAE is more stressful than it was in Saudi Arabia, for her it is more enjoyable. "We are still old-fashioned in some issues, but here I am driving. A woman can be involved in many fields. Life is affordable if you are keen on working and making something of yourself."

The UAE has plenty of opportunities for those who focus on the positive, according to Laura Fulton, 39, a writer and American expatriate. "We are here for a short amount of time and we want to get set up for the future," she said. "For my family things here aren't too stressful. I'm in a position here where I don't have to work but I do, part-time.

"I love having the flexibility of being able to be with them and spend that time with them." There are irritations, but she said people forget that things back home are not perfect, either. "We've had friends who have gone back home who can hardly stand it," she said. The family can afford to go out several nights a week, but rarely does. Back home, such outings would be reserved for special occasions.

"It is a much easier lifestyle than a lot of people appreciate. You do have a lot of options here that you don't have at home. We have a lot of freedom and a lot of benefits from living here, and people sometimes forget that." She and her husband, Terry, 37, have been able to buy an investment property, as well as plan for their retirement. Cheap childcare means Mrs Fulton can work part-time and send the children to school for half a day, which means she and her children have more time together. At home, she would probably have to work full-time.

"In my son's kindergarten class, there are 14 kids from 14 different countries, and everyone is valued. Kids get to be exposed to so many different cultures, languages, food and ways of life." However, she cautions that expatriates often forget how precarious their positions here can be. "Sometimes expats make the mistake of getting a little too comfortable. Depending on what you do for a living - a lot of us are expendable.

"Even if you get 30 days' notice, that is not a long time to pull your kids out of school, pack up your house and find another job overseas." However, that uncertainty can also help draw people closer together. "I've found a real sense of community. I have a lot of friends who I could call in an emergency, without it being a huge deal. People are willing to help each other out, which is great."

Zeina Sadaka, 32, the Lebanese owner of a childcare centre, said the property crunch has made life more difficult for her and her family. "It's horrible," she said. "There are no words to express what is happening. It took us a year and a half to find something suitable, and even then it was outside the city. "All our friends are having the same issue. Prices are skyrocketing. Instead of spending money on leisure we are spending it on rent."

Along with her husband, Bassem Chehayed, 35, a sales manager, they send between US$1,000 (Dh3,700) and $5,000 a month back to their family in Lebanon. "You have to trick yourself into saving. You have to send money away to a different bank so you can forget about it," she said. However, such smart financial planning has allowed the family to stay out of debt. During the week, the whole family is together for only two hours a day, for breakfast and dinner.

"Everything is about work, work, work, work," said Mrs Sadaka said. "You feel the stress at the end of the week and you realise that all you've done all week is work. "We compare it to our friends in Lebanon and they are going out for drinks or dinner. Here we do it less often. Although we have more choices and nicer restaurants, we don't do it during the week." Fridays and Saturdays give the family a chance to reconnect, get out of the house and have some fun.

"On the weekend, we either visit family or friends, go to the beach, to the park. Outdoor activities mostly because during the week they are mostly cooped up in the apartment. It is nice to take them out." Despite some misgivings about the development in Abu Dhabi - "it's building after building after building," she said - they family would not consider leaving. "The UAE is hassle-free. Everything is easy and you can get anything you want; you can become anything you want."