According to Ben Flanagan, expat life in the UAE seems full of apparent contradictions. Perceptions about the quality of life have improved dramatically, with the country now ranking 9th in HSBC’s list of top places for expatriates to live, and another survey showing that people are on average staying longer. Conversely, however, relocation companies reported a spike in business over summer, while the cost of living is on the rise, and few foreign residents are choosing to buy property here. Confused? Benchmark’s top ten trends for UAE expats attempts to make sense of it.
- Life is getting better…
Living in the Arabian Gulf is certainly no hardship posting. And in some parts of the region expat life is getting even better, according to HSBC’s Expat Explorer Report. The report ranks countries according to expats’ opinions across 43 different criteria, including economic factors, quality of life, and raising children abroad. In the 2015 survey, the UAE rose to 9th place in the worldwide ranking of the best places for expat life, up from 15th place in 2014. Bahrain was up one place to 4th, Saudi Arabia rose two places to 26th, while Oman was level at 14th. Expats’ perceptions of living in Qatar and Kuwait were however lower, with the countries dropping to 22nd and 34th place respectively.
- …but more people are leaving the UAE
Despite perceptions that life is better, relocation firms in the UAE said they had a busier summer than usual, with many people leaving the country. Curt Clements, CEO of Move One, told the daily newspaper 7DAYS that the company has seen “an unusually high amount of expats leaving the UAE and the region in comparison to past years”, with about three or four times the normal number of relocations. Crown Relocations reported a 25% rise in moves, with some citing redundancies and the cost of living as among the reasons for this, the newspaper said.
- A salary boost (for Brits only!)
The Gulf states are among the world’s biggest remittance-sending countries, with people in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman transferring a combined $95.8 billion overseas in 2014, according to the World Bank. But for many expats, what they get in their home currency varies widely due to moves in the currency markets. This was perfectly illustrated by the surprise ‘Brexit’ vote in June, which saw the value of the British Pound plummet against the dollar-pegged Gulf currencies, from 5.47 Dirhams to the Pound on June 22 to a low of 4.72 by mid-August. That’s the equivalent of a 13.65% pay rise for Brits living in the UAE, relative to their own currency. Try asking your boss for that!
- Taxes looming large
One of the most common misconceptions about life in the UAE is that there are no taxes. But there are of course charges ranging from the ‘Salik’ road tolls in Dubai, to local taxes on hotel services and entertainment. More are on the way, with the planned introduction of a value-added tax on purchases. And while an income tax has been ruled out, officials said last year that a possible government levy on remittances is being studied.
- Cost of living on the rise…
Life is getting more expensive for expats in the UAE. The Dubai Statistics Centre said in July that inflation rose in the first half of 2016, with the price of education going up by a massive 5.79%. And in June, the consultancy Mercer said Dubai and Abu Dhabi are among the most expensive cities in the world to live, and the costliest of all within the Middle East. Dubai was ranked the world’s 21st most expensive city, up from 23rd place last year, while Abu Dhabi was placed 25th in the ranking, up from 33rd last year.
- …but property prices are lower
Despite the overall rise in the cost of living, housing is at least a little more affordable (or rather, a little less unaffordable) for expats in the UAE. According to consultancy JLL, sales and rental prices for prime two-bedroom properties in Abu Dhabi fell by five and two percent respectively in the second quarter of this year, and Dubai rents and sales prices are in a “cyclical trough”, down about 15% since they peaked in mid-2014, JLL said earlier this year.
- Few expats are saving for retirement
Despite the tax-free salaries enjoyed by UAE residents, expats here are generally failing to save for their retirement. Research released in 2015 by Zurich International Life found that 63% of UAE residents are not confident they are saving enough for when they stop working. That figure rises to 75% for Arab expats, who are the most concerned about their pension provision, and is lowest among Western expats (52%), the survey found. This is despite almost half of UAE residents hoping to retire before the age of 60, and 39% expecting to be in retirement for at least 20 years.
- More UAE residents are in debt
Residents of the UAE are getting into more and more debt, according to figures published in August. Total debt levels – including unpaid credit card balances and loans – rose by 7.5% over the last year and now stands at an average of AED 42,600 per person, according to NBAD figures quoted by Gulf News.
- Most UAE expats don’t buy property…
Despite falling property sales prices, the majority of UAE residents still prefer to rent, according to a recent survey by propertyfinder.ae. The survey found that just 30 percent of UAE residents have bought property here, meaning a sizeable 70% are still renting, even though half have resided here for five years or more. That is the opposite of the trend in England and Wales, for example, where 64% of residents own their property, with only 36% renting, propertyfinder.ae said.
- …but they are staying here longer
Expats are staying longer in the UAE, propertyfinder.ae said, despite signs that relocations were up over summer. Its survey found that 54% of expats ended staying in the UAE longer than they expected. “Year on year we are seeing expats staying longer in the UAE,” the property website said in a statement.