The Middle East is changing, without a doubt, and Dubai is certainly one city that can attest to dramatic changes. Whether the changes are for good or bad, I’m going to reserve judgement for now. However, I would like to say that an infusion of new blood into any community adds a cosmopolitan feel to the place. Africans, and more specifically Kenyans, are leading that charge in Dubai.
You might remember an incident three years ago where Kenyan immigration authorities detained and deported four members of Dubai’s royal family from the port town of Mombasa. The resulting diplomatic fallout saw a Kenyan delegation dispatched to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to resolve the fiasco after the Emirate blocked entry to anyone without a university degree.
The restriction was lifted shortly thereafter, but it did demonstrate that the Gulf state is easily upset by such diplomatic disputes. Kenyans aren’t the only ones to suffer these childish outbursts. Canadians, who once enjoyed free visas on arrival, were also embroiled in a costly and bureaucratic process that dragged on for a number of years.
Despite the Mombasa incident, the UAE has seen a dramatic increase in Kenyan workers flocking to the country. Current estimates put the total number of Kenyans in Dubai alone at 40,000. A drop in the bucket compared with the Asian numbers, but a sizable dent nevertheless.
Job-seekers view the UAE as a great place to earn a high salary and it is proving very popular with Africans of all walks of life. Anglophone East Africans are in high demand across many Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries. Their English language skills and comparatively high levels of education give them an advantage over many job-seekers from Asia. But while a handful are affluent business people, the vast majority of Dubai-based Kenyans aren’t as fortunate.
As the UAE’s largest and most prosperous city, Dubai has put aside its conservative Islamic ideals in favour of tourist dollars. The attractive salaries have fueled a culture and lifestyle that’s based on extravagance and over-the-top-ism. There doesn’t seem to be a festival, shopping extravaganza, car show or championship that hasn’t graced the city at one point or another. Once a city of modest origins, it now stands as a beacon of progress and sophistication in the Middle East.
Dubai’s appealing trading policies have enticed some of the world’s largest corporations to open regional offices, which attract an enthusiastic expatriate community that is only too happy to take advantage of tax-free earnings.
Dubai lays claim to the world’s tallest building, the first palm-shaped island and the world’s largest shopping mall — architectural wonders that bring in over 10 million tourists annually.
In an attempt to capitalize on wedding tourism, Dubai’s grand architects have already begun a massive project to build a near replica of the Taj Mahal which will be surrounded by an equally impressive romantic village where honeymooners can swoon over each other. But unlike the true Taj, built by the Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife Mumtaz, Dubai’s version won’t take 20 years to build. While the Taj is but one such example, new development projects are on the rise across the Emirates — bringing with them an increased demand for skilled workers.
According to the Savannah Recruitment Agencies Ltd., a Mombasa-based firm that helps Kenyans seeking jobs in the UAE, salaries in Dubai can range from 600 Dirhams ($164; 13,750 Kenyan shillings) per month for unskilled construction workers to up to 20,000 Dirhams ($5,400; 460,000 Kenyan shillings) for senior managers. While these wages are much higher than what can be expected for comparable positions in Kenya, the cost of living, particularly for accommodation, is far higher in Dubai.
In addition to a higher cost of living, everyone employed in the UAE must be sponsored by their employer. And since the residency visa is tied to the employer, anyone who resigns or loses their job has only four weeks to find new employment or leave the country. In many parts of the world, individuals who reside in a country and contribute to its social fabric can, after a period of time, apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship — not the case in Dubai. The UAE doesn’t hand out citizenships to expatriate residents, irrespective of how much time they spent in-country.
It’s worth noting that there is a growing divide between the working classes, not just in terms of salary earnings, but also overall quality of life. For example, low-wage workers aren’t allowed to bring their families to the UAE, a privilege reserved for the affluent. Despite the inequalities, the promise of good earnings seem to outweigh the disadvantages — at least for now.
Tim Bredehoft, a wealth manager at HSBC and a seven year veteran of Dubai, said that “people get here and forget that Dubai is temporary, start squandering money on a lavish lifestyle and end up with nothing when it’s time to leave.”
Dubai holds great earning potential for English-speaking East Africans, however, the key to amassing a healthy nest-egg is avoidance of lifestyle trappings and recognition of residency as only a temporary situation. Whether by choice or not, eventually, every expat will need to leave.