No matter how much you love it, the simple fact is that for expats, the UAE is never forever – but deciding when to call it a day can be a significant source of stress. With the long, hot summer exodus approaching, we ask the experts, how do you know when your time is up?
There’s little question that we expats have a lifestyle that many friends back in our home countries are envious of. Sun-drenched days, a busy social calendar, tax-free earnings, help at home… It sounds too good to be true and, indeed, most expats were lured over here by this idyllic-sounding way of living and the dream of being able to save money.
But in truth, the high-life comes at a cost. Schooling, accommodation and other living expenses, such as groceries, are not only far more expensive than in most people’s home countries, with annual price hikes and the recent introduction of VAT, the prices keep on rising. On top of the financial strain, the legal implications of debt, or of failing to make credit card or loan repayments, can really turn the pressure up. Added to that, the constant farewells to good friends, the exhaustion of living in a fast-paced society and the impermanence of our situation can leave many expatriates wondering whether their day-to-day existence is more high stress than high-life.
Anna Yates, founder of Mind Solutions, a psychotherapy and hypnotherapy centre in Dubai, says many of her clients come to her initially as a result of struggling with the pressure of life here. She says, “A large number of clients come to us specifically for help managing stress. One of the common things I hear is the feeling of being trapped, whether that’s trapped by financial commitments, by children being in school or by the difficulty of relocating back to their home country or elsewhere. In this situation, people become very vulnerable to stress and anxiety, which can have a knock-on effect on their relationships, on their job satisfaction and on their general wellbeing. These in turn lead to damaging and addictive behaviours as people try to self-medicate for their stress and unhappiness with self-sabotaging coping techniques. When you look at it like this, you can see how slippery the slope is and why so many people come for therapy and support. They simply cannot cope.”
What do you need?
In the 1940s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow created what he called his ‘hierarchy of needs’, which in simple terms is a list of priorities that humans require in order to lead a happy, fulfilling life. The first level of that is security. Anna says: “If you are living in your home country and you lose your job, you simply limp along until you get yourself stable again. However here, if you lose your job, you lose your right to live here, which is very disruptive and unsettling for family life and stability. Sometimes it can feel like we are here on someone else’s whim, which makes us feel vulnerable because we need to always have a back-up plan. And if you don’t have a back-up plan, either because you can’t return to your home country or because you don’t want to, the pressure to stay employed and successful is immense. If you have children, their stability depends on your employment too, so that pressure becomes ten-fold.”
As a result, people tend to work longer hours, take on more responsibilities even if they aren’t being compensated for them with salary increases, and accept harder working conditions and situations – all out of a fear that if they lose their job, they (and their family) may have to change homes, schools and country.
Another factor that causes people stress is the pressure to keep up with the lavish lifestyle. While the buzz and glam and glitter can be quite intoxicating to begin with, very quickly people realise that they aren’t saving money – which for many people was the main reason they moved
here. Anna says: “When I came to Dubai 40 years ago, we saved enough money in two years on one salary to be able to buy a house outright in the UK. Those days have long gone. People come here with such high hopes but then find that, not only are they not saving as much as they hoped, but
they are not saving anything at all and, instead, are struggling to keep their heads above water with no family around to support them.”
As expats, we come here knowing that our stay is temporary. As such, the conversation about leaving is always on the table. However, rather than a simple decision, it’s often one that is laden with emotions and fears. Are we making the right decision? Are we going back to a worse situation than when we left? Will we regret it if we leave the UAE? What will people think and say? Will it look like I made a bad decision by coming here? Anna says: “I often have clients telling me they are worried about what their friends or family will say and think if they move home, and the embarrassment of the grand return not going according to plan, in terms of work. There is a lot of fear of regret and judgement, which keeps people paralysed from making decisions.”
But when making big life choices, you need to turn down the volume on these fears so that all you can hear are the pros and cons for you and your family. Anna says: “Nothing is written in stone. If you decide to stay, it doesn’t mean you have to stay for forever. If you decide to leave, it doesn’t mean you can’t come back. Stop worrying about what other people are doing and thinking, focus on the things that make you and your family feel happy and safe, then go from there.”
Four ways to worry less and live more
Live within your means
“Just because the UAE is full of exciting things to do, it doesn’t mean you need to do them all. If you speak to friends and family in your home country, they are probably dining out less frequently, going to fewer concerts and events, spending a lot less on children’s entertainment and outings than you are, yet they are still happy and enjoying life.”
Have a down day
“We live in a 24/7 society where there is no off day. For Emiratis, Friday is traditionally the day they will rest and see family. In France, practically everything closes on a Sunday and people stay home, relax with their families. Choose one day of the weekend to be your ‘do nothing day’ and make a rule as a family that you don’t ever make plans for that day.”
“Doubt is contagious, so when friends start talking about leaving, it can leave you doubting whether you want to still be here or not. If a friend tells you that they are planning to leave, congratulate them on their decision and wish them the best. But try to avoid endless conversations about why they are leaving as undoubtedly those conversations will be full of endless justifications about why the UAE is not working for them anymore, which will just leave you questioning your own happiness.”
Share your thoughts
“If you are worrying about work, or about the fragility of your situation here, find someone you can talk to about it. A family member, a good friend, a therapist – simply getting your concerns out of your head and into the open will make them easier
to deal with.”
We’re here for the long haul
Adele Clarke, 44, is from South Africa and the UK. She is married with two kids, aged 12 and 14, works in HR and has been in Dubai for ten years.
“We don’t have any plans to leave Dubai. We have our own business here – the florists Upscale and Posh – and there are definite positives to Dubai versus our home country, South Africa, such as safety, job opportunities and good schooling. Over the years I have seen lots of people leave. Normally they leave because of redundancy, or job relocation, or because their children are of an age that means they prefer to return to their home country to prepare them for university.
“Sometimes they leave because they are tired of Dubai, or missing their home country and family, or because they have achieved their goals for coming here. People do now talk about the challenges of maintaining the cost of living – a factor which is definitely getting harder, especially in terms of housing and schooling and now with VAT. However, we are happy here. The quality of life is good, predominantly. At this point, the only reason we would leave would be if safety became an issue in this part of the world.”
We’ll leave someday…
Daniela Tully, 41, is from Germany. She is married with one daughter, is a writer and has been in Dubai for seven years (with a break in the middle).
“In my experience, the main reason people leave the UAE is because they have been made redundant, or been fired from work. In the current climate, few people resign I think. A quite common complaint among expats living in any country but their own is being far from family. What I suffer the most from here is the transient nature of Dubai. People come and go all the time. With kids, you experience the double whammy. A family we are friends with are recently left. My husband and I became good friends with the parents and our daughter became best friends with their daughter, so we essentially lost three great friends all together. And this goes back to the point about family – with no family to go and visit on the weekend, friends fill that void, so it is even more painful when they go.
“I think it will get harder to live here as prices rise, with VAT now added to so many items and rises or substantial rounding up of former amounts in many other areas of spending. Registration fees at the RTA, for example, rose at the start of in 2018, meaning our car insurances have doubled.
“School fees are a constant reminder as to why we will leave one day. We are not affected just yet, but we will be soon. On the other hand, in its pleasant months weather wise, Dubai is an excellent place for a child to grow up, in safety, the beach just at your doorstep, surrounded by a rich ethnic variety.”