Ben Flanagan spoke to Jane Drury, CEO of ME Digital Group, about launching ExpatWoman.com in 2002 – and how the site has grown with the corresponding boom in Dubai’s population.
What need did you see for ExpatWoman.com when you founded it in Dubai 14 years ago?
I founded ExpatWoman.com in 2002, against a backdrop of widespread misconceptions regarding the reality of life here. There was a gap for an information service to reassure prospective expats arriving and ExpatWoman launched with a guide to life in the region, to which the forum was soon added, to help respond to the immediate influx of questions. They fell into common themes: people wanted to know about schools, safety, where to live, what to wear, what to bring… It can be a difficult time for newcomers, arriving in a new city with no support network and it was a natural step then to offer the coffee mornings, baby and toddler groups that have developed into the wider program of ExpatWoman Events.
Did you ever imagine that the UAE would see such a boom in its expat population?
Few could have anticipated the unprecedented expansion this region has seen over the last two decades. The combination of the vision, the drive and the ability to see through such huge changes is quite unique and ExpatWoman is one of many service-based businesses that has grown in support of the huge increase in expats living and working here.
How has expat life changed in the UAE, and what are the hot topics being discussed on the site at the moment?
The expat experience has changed substantially over the period. In 2002, Jumeirah 1 in Dubai was the centre of expat life, the expat community in general was smaller, and more known to one another.
Education was a big issue. There were a handful of expat primary schools and only two secondary schools. High competition for places resulted in many young students not being able to continue their education here past the age of eleven, creating some tough choices for families. The programme of building schools spearheaded by GEMS and Taaleem was a very welcome development, and a key factor in encouraging families to move to and stay in the region.
Opening up the property market enabled long term expats to put down roots. The free zones launched and blossomed, encouraging a wave of entrepreneurial enterprise that has fostered many home-grown successes. The original pattern of two-to-four year placements started to be broken as more people made the decision to stay. And as Dubai became more widely known on a world scale, the city has become a destination posting, bringing a younger workforce, attracted to the lifestyle.
Some are saying an ‘expat exodus’ is underway, with more and more people leaving the UAE. Is that a trend you’ve noticed?
Multinationals globally have tightened up on cushioned expat packages and Dubai-based businesses have followed the trend. Although tax-free salaries remain attractive, the potential to save is not what it was, and living costs, particularly rent, represent a high percentage of most incomes. Expats early to adopt in the UAE housing market generally did well, but some were caught by the sudden market correction in 2008. The downturn hit a wide range of complementary businesses, individuals and families. In time, the market recovered and resumed a more reasonable rate of growth, with new rules in place to safeguard against the highs and lows of wild speculation.
More recently, particularly oil-dependent businesses have had a tough time, with some companies announcing redundancies. This time however, business in the region has a wider industrial base and although we are seeing expats leaving, it is hard to say what impact there has been on expat numbers overall. ExpatWoman readership has remained more or less level year-on-year, and we are still expecting an influx this September to follow the usual seasonal pattern of expats arriving in time for the start of the school year.
ME Digital Group bought the daily deals service Cobone in 2014. How has that acquisition worked out and does the group plan any more acquisitions?
ME Digital was incorporated in 2014 to provide useful web-based services for the region, wider than for purely the expat community. We have an in-house development team and consider local investment opportunities. January 2015 we acquired Cobone.com, the region’s leading local daily deals site. The business has grown significantly over 18 months and our team in total has expanded from 18 to over 80, employed across Dubai and Saudi Arabia. We have recently launched Cobone in Abu Dhabi and Dammam, and have further plans for the region.
In 2016, we are enjoying once again having new sites in development. The fundamental problem for all start-ups is reach; juggling cash-flow whilst navigating the early years of growth marketing budgets. With the established audience platforms of both ExpatWoman and Cobone, ME Digital is able to incubate new sites and services, providing a quicker pathway to maturity, which underpins our business growth going forward. Online services worldwide continue to innovate and this region generally lags the US and Europe, both in terms of services available and consumer adoption of e-commerce. As web-based businesses – media, e-commerce and marketplace – continue to grow globally, we’re expecting the next five years to see as much change as the last.
What’s the best and worst thing about life as an expat in the UAE?
We arrived in the UAE October 13th 1997 on our eldest son’s third birthday. The best thing is the sense that all things are possible. Despite challenging global economic conditions, the UAE continues to offer employment and career development for expats, a healthy environment for businesses to grow and an open, tolerant family-orientated society that works across all cultures. The worst thing is the summer humidity…