‘Expat unfriendly’: Fighting words for the UAE

Kerfuffle ensues after 'Forbes' article puts Emirates at bottom of global niceness ranking.

Dubai Skyline 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jumana El-Heloueh)
Dubai Skyline 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jumana El-Heloueh)
Calling the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the world’s “least friendly” place for expatriates – well those are fighting words. Certainly, they are in a place where non-citizens make up close to 90% of the population and are responsible for everything from running the national airline to cleaning up at construction sites.
But a fight is what Forbes magazine and one of its contributing writers, Beth Greenfield, got when they ran a piece putting the Gulf confederation of seven mini-states at the bottom of a list using criteria that hone in on social factors – the ability to befriend natives, fitting into local culture, learning the language and integrating into the community.
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The article sparked a furious reaction, a dedicated Twitter hashtag #UAEFriendly and finally, according to local media spin, Forbes “took back” its words and conceded that Greenfield’s list was “non-scientific.” The American magazine also helped smooth ruffled feathers in a posting by Dan Bigman, its managing editor for business news, who called the UAE an “expat paradise.”
Giving advice to the businesspeople, diplomats and others living abroad is a big and important business. What with varying costs of living, standards of schools and housing, and the risk that today’s sleepy posting erupts into revolutionary cauldron, employees and employers alike need a way to compare and decide how much hardship pay one location deserves over another.
One of those measures is published by the expatriate financial-services unit of the British-based bank HSBC, and that was the starting-off point for the controversy.
The Expat Explorer Survey for 2011 survey ranks 31 countries for expat conditions based on a survey of 3,385 people in 100 countries taken last May-July (only 31 countries had enough respondents to make the sampling valid, HSBC says).
Weighing all the criteria HSBC uses – a long list of factors ranging from “nicer/bigger property” to children “spending less time playing video games” – the UAE ranked a respectable third. Last November, Mercer, a British firm that advises companies on compensation for their employees living abroad, ranked Dubai 74 and Abu Dhabi 78.
But Greenfield, citing the views of expat “coach” Heather Markel, isolated four factors from the HSBC survey she said make a place “friendly” for foreigners living and working there.
Suddenly, the UAE plummeted to the bottom of the list, along with much of the rest of the Gulf and India. Greenfield did not dwell much on the UAE’s misfortune: She made only two references to it and one of them refers to its attractions for expats as a place where people enjoy high incomes and good career prospects. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long to elicit a spirited defense of the UAE.
“We don’t realize how friendly UAE is until we visit Europe,” commented Talib Al Hashimi.
“I've developed a fantastic social circle and career in UAE. Who did Forbes survey? Not me!” said Brendan Ryan .
Tamim Al Kuttab asked: “If the UAE is unfriendly to expats - as Forbes says - then why are they staging their Global CEO Conference in Dubai in October?” (Good question: The Forbes Foundation, which publishes the magazine, is holding its 12th annual Global CEO Conference in the UAE’s Dubai next October.)
Annabel Kantaria. a journalist based in Dubai, wrote in a blog post for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that if foreigners find the Emirates an unfriendly place, they have only themselves to blame.
“Is it the fault of the host country if the expats don’t have success learning the local language? Is it the fault of the host country if the expats fail to integrate themselves into the community, don’t manage to befriend locals or don’t find it easy to fit in?” she wrote. “Does that make the host country ‘unfriendly’? Or does it make the expat ‘inadaptable’? On whom does the onus lie?”
Greenfield herself did not respond at length to the complaints on the Forbes website, but a spokesman for the magazine speaking to The National downplayed the affair. “Given the UAE’s reputation as a crossroads for world commerce and culture, we were surprised by the results of HSBC's survey,” an unnamed spokesman told in the local English-language daily, The National. “The data is [sic], of course, non-scientific and intended only to spur discussion.”
Bigman, without making any apology, called the UAE – as well as Singapore and Hong Kong, two other tiny expat-heavy places – an “expat paradise,” friendlier to resident foreigners than his home country of America.
In fact, Khalid Al-Ameri, an Emirati, pointed out in an op-ed in The National, the natives may not seem friendly because is it so hard to find one among the masses of foreigners.
Of the 8.26 million people living in the UAE in 2012, 7.31 million of them are expats, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. When the economy was booming before 2008, the expat population was even bigger, but even today, just one in 12 people are Emiratis and in expat-rich places like Dubai the ratio is even bigger.
“Because of the skewed demographics (about 10% of the population is Emirati), getting to know the ‘locals’ can be a tough task for any new expatriate. And in any country within a matter of days, an expatriate will find his or her countrymen, the familiar cuisine and hangout spot,” he wrote. “It is very easy for an expatriate to quickly fall into a comfort zone and go quite a while without actually interacting with an Emirati on a personal level.”