Arab Spring takes toll on expats’ quality of life

Some cities plunge in global ranking while others hold up better.

Tunis demonstration 260 (photo credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
Tunis demonstration 260
(photo credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
The quality of life for foreigners living and working in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has certainly taken a turn for the worse over the past year, but they might be surprised to find that some of the cities where the biggest drops occurred were by no means the ones most seriously affected by war, protests and strikes.
The annual quality of living survey by Mercer, a British firm that advises companies on compensation for their employees living abroad, found that some of the steepest drops in quality of life occurred in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, whose ranking plunged 16 places in 2011 to 110. Cairo’s ranking dropped nine spots to 135 among 221 cities ranked.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, but the mass protests that led to the ousting of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali lasted less than a month, after which the country settled into relative quiet and held elections in October. Some 800 people were killed in 18 days of protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but since the level of violence has dropped and this week the country successfully conducted its first free and fair vote.
By contrast, Damascus dropped only six places to 179 even though nine months of conflict between Syrians rebels and the government has claimed some 4,000 dead and shows no sign of ending. Less surprisingly, Tripoli fell 35 places to 202 as the Arab Spring’s only full fledged civil war raged while Sana’a, the capital of Yemen shed 22 places to 216 amid an uprising that has led to about 2,000 deaths.
Mercer’s rankings aren’t just a popularity contest for cities hosting expatriate executives. Companies and governments use them to decide how much hardship pay they will give employees to endure everything from poor health services to inadequate transportation. A poor rating raises the cost of posting employees in a city and might deter companies from sending them altogether.
Needless to say, getting kidnapped or killed is an important factor and the Arab Spring, whatever long-term benefits it may bring, hasn’t helped MENA’s already low standing worldwide.
In the worldwide survey of quality of life, only three cities in MENA make it into the top 100 – Dubai, which lifted itself one place to 74 this year; Abu Dhabi, which rose five places; and Tel Aviv, which gained three. Although African cities crowd the bottom of the rankings, MENA cities are also among the worse. Beside Sanaa and Tripoli, Baghdad ranked at the bottom of the list for the second year in a row
The list is dominated by European, North American and Australian cities. Vienna has the best living standard in the world, according to the Mercer 2011 Quality of Living Survey. Zurich and Auckland follow in second and third position, respectively, and Munich is in fourth with Düsseldorf and Vancouver sharing fifth place. Frankfurt is in seventh, followed by Geneva in eighth, while Copenhagen and Bern share ninth place.
These cities rate high on their political and social environment, public services and medical facilities. Those three factors account for a 50% rating in the index, which has 12 components, said Zaid Kamwahi, Mercer’s information product solutions business leader for the Middle East.
“These are the things that are important to expats. The first thing they look at is the general level of stability in a country, level of personal safety for themselves and their families and the availability of health services. Transport and public services come next,” Kamwahi told The Media Line.
Mercer published personal safety ranking this year, which showed a large gap between the MENA cities that were spared Arab Spring violence and those contending with it. Gulf cities ranked high, with Abu Dhabi leading the list at 23 followed by Muscat, the capital of Oman, which placed 29 despite some protests early in the year, and Dubai at 39. Doha, the capital of Qatar, ranked only 67, which probably pushed its overall quality-of-life ranking to a relatively low 106.
“Cities that are safest in the region may continue to see an increase in their relative quality of living if they maintain the social and physical infrastructure that reinforces safety,” said Kamwahi.
Among Arab Spring cities, the safety ranking contained some surprises. Tunisia placed 140, ranking its safer than either of Saudi Arabia’s biggest cities even, though the kingdom has seen little strife this year. Cairo placed 176, putting it one place ahead of Tel Aviv (probably an acknowledgment of a rocket threat on the Israeli city) and 11 places ahead of Istanbul. Tehran ranked 188, one place below Turkey’s biggest city.