UAE business growth attracts expats

Dubai is home to 2.7 million residents and 40 free trade zones.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is making its mark as a centre for doing business, with great career opportunities for professionals. What’s it like to live and work there? Here’s what some Australian expats say.

A decade ago, finance executive Ralph Khoury FCPA had three job offers on the table – one each in Singapore, Fiji and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Based in Paris with telco Alcatel-Lucent at the time, he carefully weighed up the offers, but kept coming back to Dubai. The stories of incredible growth, massive infrastructure projects and a vibrant business and social environment in the UAE’s most populous city intrigued him.

“The city was growing so fast, achieving so much as a regional business hub, up there with the likes of Hong Kong and London,” Khoury says. 

“It was making history. I wanted to be part of the growth story of Dubai and contribute something to that, so I took the plunge.”

Now regional chief financial officer for TBWA\RAAD, a unit of global advertising agency Omnicom, and working in the company’s Emaar Square office in the shadow of the famous 830-metre Burj Khalifa skyscraper, Khoury has successfully made the shift from the telecommunications sector to advertising.

“After nine years, the job satisfaction is certainly still there, as are the challenges that push you to continue to redefine your focus and enhance your skill set.”

A different vibe

Khoury’s story is a familiar tale in the UAE, where expats make up an estimated 75 per cent of the population of 9.5 million, according to a report in Arabian Business

Foreign executives and workers often head to dynamic cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the nation’s capital, thinking they will stay there for a couple of years and then move on; but a heady mix of mega-rich sheikhs and crown princes, low taxes, beaches, luxury shopping and a lively nightlife offsets the desert heatwaves that can test the resilience of visitors. 

A survey of 1500 expats conducted by financial comparison website in 2016 found that 74 per cent were considering buying property in the UAE and “laying down their roots”.

The UAE is a base for a growing band of home-grown market leaders – Emirates and Etihad Airways among them – plus a who’s who of foreign brands including Pepsi, DHL, FedEx and Nestlé.

With the World Expo to be held in Dubai in 2020 and the football World Cup to be staged in Qatar in 2022, the region’s influence is only set to grow. Centrally located within seven hours’ flying time of the major economic centres of Europe and Asia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are well positioned in terms of world commerce. 

Carl Dowling, chairman of the Australian Business Council Dubai, says sectors such as construction, engineering, healthcare and food and beverage represent a real opportunity for international brands and exporters of all sizes.

“The biggest companies in the world are here and doing quite well. When the smaller ones get nervous, I just tell them to come here and see it and engross themselves. Very few go back thinking there’s not an opportunity,” Dowling says.

Dowling, who also runs CBD Consultancy, a corporate services business, says there is a great camaraderie within the expat community and lovers of Aussie Rules can even get their fix with a Middle East AFL competition. 

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Dowling moved to the UAE just before the start of the global financial crisis and has made a home away from Australia. 

“Dubai has a unique charm, but to be honest a lot of people either like it or hate it,” he says.

He enjoys a “tolerant, open, liberal city”, but concedes it is important to respect local customs and traditions, such as not wearing revealing clothing and avoiding rude gestures that could lead to an arrest.

Small annoyances can test newly arrived expats, such as the inexplicable, random bans on services such as Skype, and the expensive living costs in general – but is there a city anywhere in the world without its irritations for newcomers?

Banking and finance executive Anita Yadav is now working at Emirates NBD, one of the largest banking groups in the Middle East, after earlier working in Sydney, Singapore and India. She relishes the stimulation of living in the UAE.

“One of the things with an expat life is you get used to the idea of transitory cities,” she says. “There is never a sense of permanency. That’s exciting – it’s not necessarily bad.”

Working in wholesale investment banking, Yadav says her technical day-to-day work in the UAE mirrors that of other major finance centres, but her mindset has become “more holistic and global”. There are significant cultural differences, however, with business in the Middle East being done over coffee during long social meetings, and contracts and negotiations then being wrapped up “in the last 10 minutes”.

Yadav is confident her UAE experience will look good on her already impressive CV because it has given her an insight into a different way of doing business. 

“You enhance your whole perception of the world, your skill set and your approach.”

The UAE working way of life

The UAE work week runs from Sunday to Thursday (Friday is a Muslim holiday). Expats and their families have a lifestyle many would envy. Fabulous restaurants, world-class shopping, excellent accommodation and international schools, plus the chance to flit to Europe for Friday and Saturday – it can be an intoxicating existence. 

While there are oddities – for instance, paying a phone bill late can potentially be treated as a criminal offence – most people adapt to the unique ways of the region.

Amera Gouda is one such convert. Now working with recruitment agency Cooper Fitch, Gouda has revelled in the environment since moving from Sydney a couple of years ago.

“It’s so glamorous out here and the country knows how to spoil any individual from any walk of life,” Gouda says.

That includes an endless procession of promotions for new hotels, restaurants and clubs that often include free nights.

The flip side, Gouda says, is that the cost of living is high and expatriates must appreciate that the UAE is relatively conservative and “at the end of the day we’re in their country”.

Skyscrapers and luxury hotels dominate the skyline in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.Gouda says working in Dubai has fast-tracked her career and business experience. 

Mixing with CEOs, billionaires and even members of the royal family, the exposure has allowed her to develop her business and interpersonal skills. 

“I’ve had the opportunity to deal with people and different types of companies that I would never have been able to do in Australia,” Gouda says.

Justine Cullen, who works as an office manager at the Australian Business Council Dubai, has also enjoyed her time in the UAE with her husband, who works in the food and beverage sector. They moved there with the expectation of staying for a couple of years.

“Six years later, we’re still here,” Cullen says. “We feel very much a part of Dubai.”

While she enjoys the UAE lifestyle, Cullen says it’s not for everyone. Some people come in with “certain perceptions” and may lament that the society does things differently to Paris, London and Sydney. Expats, she believes, need to be adaptable and understanding.

“You need to learn the local ways and laws and work within them. Yes, it’s different but that’s why you come here – to learn and experience a new culture.”

Cullen says Australian companies and businesspeople are building a strong profile in the UAE and have a reputation as “straight talkers” that is appreciated by their Middle East counterparts.

“Dubai has a real energy and focus and it’s an exciting environment for everyone from small and medium businesses to large companies.”

Strong networks

Accountants, lawyers, human resource specialists, engineers, architects, you name it – there is an insatiable thirst for talent in the UAE.

Gouda believes digital specialists and construction and property experts will be in demand in coming years, along with finance professionals as the UAE prepares for the implementation of a 5 per cent value-added tax on 1 January 2018.

“Companies are constantly looking to attract talent here,” Gouda says.

Through CBD Consulting, Dowling advises many companies on how to enter and succeed in the UAE market. His over-arching message is that businesses must commit to the region and create a base there, rather than fly in and out infrequently. A presence on the ground gives executives the capacity to meet colleagues, have a coffee and forge networks.

“That’s the game here. You have to go out and let people know you’re here – you’re contactable and you’re there to help and service clients,” Dowling says. 

These personal contacts are a vital part of the business culture. Trust is important. Handshake deals are common, and can be relied on.

For his part, Dowling is pleased he made the decision to stay in Dubai. “I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.” 

The Dubai advantage

 Krysta Fox FCPAKrysta Fox FCPA is executive director of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre Free Zone and has been living in Dubai with her family for more than a decade.

Q. You have lived in Dubai for 11 years. What do you like about it?
A. “I truly love that we can drive 30 minutes out of the city to camp in the Arabian Desert, which we do often. Personal safety and security is also a big plus in the UAE. One quirky thing is that Dubai has always been ahead of the world with home-delivery convenience, whether it’s McDonald’s, IKEA or a box of Panadol.”

Q. How has your time in the UAE helped your career?
A. “My roles in Dubai have had an enormous impact on my skills, mostly in the context of leading cross-cultural teams. I would like to think that my Australian-ness comes through in the kind of workplace culture I encourage and the way I treat people as equals. There are a number of individuals who have become star performers as a result of working in an environment that nurtures talent, irrespective of any other factors.”

Q. Do you have any advice for companies or executives considering trading in or moving to the UAE?
A. “Sixty-five per cent of the world’s GDP is within a seven-hour flight from Dubai – so the business opportunities are considerable. However, internationalisation is a big step, and investors should choose their business model, business partners and jurisdiction of incorporation with care ... however, for those with a can-do attitude, Dubai is a great place to develop your career or business.”

Part of the UAE revolution

Sharon Ditchburn CPASharon Ditchburn CPA started her Middle East sojourn in 2003 in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, as head of finance for a major bank, before moving to Dubai a year later. She has since forged a strong reputation through her business Capital Advantage, a corporate governance and compliance consultancy.

She has witnessed the business evolution of the UAE, including the introduction of electronic stock markets and internationally benchmarked financial centres, as she trained or worked with sovereign wealth firms from Central Asia, Nigerian banks and companies involved with Libyan reconstruction efforts.

“A lot of my satisfaction has resulted from being a first mover and a thought leader in my fields, seeing how my advice has been implemented by some of the largest banks, telcos, government bodies and regulators,” says Ditchburn, who relishes navigating the challenges of cultural diversity, legal uncertainties and playing a role as whistleblower on risks.

“I’m always looking for what could go wrong so I can manage the angles. It can be hugely satisfying when you achieve things as nothing is particularly easy here,” she says.

Ditchburn says the introduction of a value-added tax in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE next year presents a significant opportunity for finance specialists to advise businesses on how these new laws affect them. 

“This is leading to a surge in tax experts coming into the region. It’s definitely an exciting time for our tax accountants, and there will be huge growth in this area across the entire GCC.” 

What they say about the UAE...

“You do handshake deals in the Middle East. Australians often come in with contracts and that can sometimes clash with the locals. You need to build trust. They want to have a relationship with you just as much as a business contract.” 
Carl Dowling, Australian Business Council Dubai
“Things take time to get done. [For example] don’t ask me when the client will pay – they just will. They have given their word.” 
Ralph Khoury, TBWA\RAAD

“Don’t go too crazy because every day there is literally an event on, a new restaurant opening or something happening … It can feel like you’re constantly on a holiday, so being able to balance your work life and social life is definitely a challenge.” 
Amera Gouda, Cooper Fitch

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June 2017
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