Monday, June 16, 2008

Life In Abu Dhabi...

Abu Dhabi
.. It didn’t take long to figure out why expatriates don’t want to leave. Who would have imagined life could be so interesting in the exotic city of Abu Dhabi, located in the United Arab Emirates, known as the UAE. 

When the idea of living in the Middle East presented itself, my first thought was it was far too dangerous a place for an American woman. Don’t they hate Americans and repress women over there? Friends and family agreed; after rushing to grab their maps, they thought I lost my mind and the will to live. There was talk of setting up a hostage fund. 

Never one to risk my safety for the sake of adventure, I researched and then visited the area to see for myself. What I found was a colossal distinction between what I’d thought of as the ‘Middle-East’ and what I see of the ‘Gulf Cooperation Council’, or GCC for short. 

Arabia is the area made up of the Arabian Peninsula, located in the southwestern region of the Asian continent. Politically, the Arabian Peninsula consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Yemen. Excluding Yemen, these countries constitute the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Founded in 1981, the aim of the GCC is to promote coordination between member states and for the most part, their economies are flourishing. They even have plans for a common monetary currency within five years. 

To those interested in the performance of the dollar, it should prove interesting when these oil-rich countries move their federal reserves away from dollars. Until then, the UAE’s monetary currency, the AED, is pegged to the US dollar, which means if your income, pension or savings is in USD, when you convert dollars to AED, you are neutral with regard to the dollar’s performance. 

Despite the research that proved my complete ignorance about GCC countries, moving to the area did not sit well with worried loved ones in America whose steady diet of information from the area focused on terrorism and war, and certainly nothing positive. When I remarked how safe I would be with near-zero crime rates, they said, “Sure, that’s because they cut off their hands for stealing bread.” Come on. 

If I can count myself as evidence, people in the UEA like and respect Americans. They may disagree with current US political decisions, but they’re hardly alone in the world in this regard. They realize regular Americans don’t control USA politics, so they don’t hold me personally responsible. From what I have seen, people in the UAE aren’t politically active. Instead, they are geared towards building seven star hotels and man-made islands shaped like palm trees and the globe. Business is booming. By offering tax-free zones, they attract major international corporations. Most of the biggies are here. Oh, and did I mention the UAE has no sales tax or income tax? That makes for an attractive working environment for citizens from countries not obliged to pay taxes on foreign income.

Living here is easy because the UAE is one of the most tolerant countries in the Muslim world. Foreign workers make up 90% of the population and somewhere down the line, it was decided to take a moderated ‘live and let live’ attitude. For instance, Muslims don’t eat pork but some grocery stores have a separate section where every imaginable pork item is available, including Milano salami, German bratwurst and USA bacon. Muslims don’t drink alcohol either, but non-Muslims can get a license to purchase alcohol. 

Now that I’m here, I’m learning first-hand about a place on the planet I knew nothing about. At the same time, my American friends and family are learning about the region vicariously and no longer worry about me. As for my European friends, their first reaction was, ‘You lucky dog!’ Dubai is a hot spot for European vacationers who want sunshine; the UAE can give a money-back guarantee you’ll get sunshine any time you visit. 

Man-made island in Dubai with 60,000 accommodations

Here and now I must point out that this article is not about how I got here or how I can assist you in moving here, too. Simply said: a little privacy is not too much to expect, no two people’s situations are alike, and I can’t help anyone get anywhere. My only intention is to possibly spark inspiration or to provide reading material about what it’s like to live abroad.

That being said, this article addresses the first thing everyone asks about life in a different country: ‘How much does it cost to live?’ Unfortunately, housing is in short supply due to rapid growth, so rents are on the high side. You might pay $2,000 a month for an apartment, but you can certainly find cheaper accommodations. Housing here is truly a case of ‘You get what you pay for.’ 

Other than accommodations, everything else is cheap! The Abu Dhabi Emirate sits on 10% of the world’s oil; what they have found so far is expected to last a hundred years at current production, so everything related to oil is cheap. This is welcome news to a person ripped off by taxi drivers in at least 35 countries. In Abu Dhabi, a taxi across town costs about $1.00. Gasoline is $1.35 a gallon and someone pours it in the tank and then cheerfully washes your windows. 

My first trip to the grocery store took hours to examine what was available. Regionally produced food is amazingly cheap. Imported food costs more but is available due to the large expatriate community, and in particular, Brits. 

The UAE is a land where luxury services, impossible to contemplate on other continents, are easily affordable.  Maids for $2.75 an hour. Professional dry cleaning a pair of slacks is $1.25 with free pickup and delivery. Jeans laundered and starched set you back a buck. Who wants to clean house or iron with these prices?  

Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi at night
Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi
At the grocery store, someone takes my articles out of the cart and someone else bags them and carries the sacks to my car. Then the apartment lobby attendant carries them to my door. I was scarcely used to this royal treatment when the lobby attendant said he would wash my car every morning. With sand in the air (think Sahara with hi-rises), a daily car wash or dust-down is needed and I show my appreciation by way of a generous monthly tip. 

At this point, you might have thought of something that also bothered me in the beginning and that is the subject of the exploitation of laborers. But, as with many things in life, seeing the situation firsthand gave me a different perspective. Many guest laborers support extended families in their home countries with what they earn in the UAE. People from neighboring countries consider themselves fortunate to snag a job, and it puts food on the table back home. Insofar as treatment is concerned, I know for a fact that people caught mistreating maids are punished and then banned from ever having another. 

When people from outside the region first arrive, the first thing they notice, other than the heat and humidity, is the country appears to be sprouting cranes. Everywhere you look, particularly in Dubai, building is underway around the clock. They already have two opulent, seven star hotels. Recently, they’ve reclaimed land from the Gulf, patterned it into huge islands shaped like palm trees and topped them with luxury homes, shopping malls, convention centers and hotels. Another island underway is fantastically shaped like the globe with land forming continents. Accommodations and facilities on these islands sell out faster than they can build them. If that isn’t enough, the world’s tallest building is under construction and two shopping malls are competing to become the world’s largest. Just yesterday, I drove by an area in Dubai where 135 skyscrapers are being constructed. All I could do was gawk and point – the sight was beyond speech. The growth is simply phenomenal and returns on investment are staggering. And it’s all happening in a place many people don’t even know exists. But they will, soon. This is too big a secret to keep.

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