Dubai: What’s Really Going On?

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Dubai Marina

Having recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, I thought there might be a few of you in the property and construction market keen to suss out whether Dubai is somewhere you could seriously consider living.

It is still a very attractive destination for ease of living and full-time sun, but it is no longer the professional playground it once was. While money is still in abundance, Dubai’s streets are not necessarily paved with gold for the expat. 

The market

Following a decline in oil price and a mini boom in 2013, the market has certainly softened, being relatively flat for the last 18 months or so. That said, this will certainly change given the number of mega projects to which developers in the UAE have already committed and the non-negotiable deadlines for huge construction schemes such as the Expo 2020.

In Dubai, the volatility of the UAE's property and development market is intensified tenfold. When times are tough, developers are forced to use local contractors, and western consultancies are bypassed. This explains why there are still so many cranes in the sky and holes in the ground and still a shortage of jobs for the expat property professional looking to move from the UK.

When times are good, though, Dubai can't help itself, and the sharp increase of salaries that ensues in the expat community results in a similar increase in rent and living costs. The momentum picks up until it inevitably crashes again.

Remuneration

The remuneration packages on offer are still decent at whatever stage of the cycle you find yourself, but they are certainly not what they once were.

Intermediate or senior quantity surveyors or project managers trained in the UK can expect somewhere near 40,000–50,000AED, or about £8,500–£10,500, per month. The package on top will likely contain medical insurance (though no dental) and an annual flight home, but no pension. You are also likely to get a month’s accommodation or so for freewhen you first arrive.

The main reason for heading out there is obviously the fact you will pay zero tax – which would be great, if rent for a two-bed apartment weren’t the equivalent to £3,500 or more a month and your grocery bill double that in your local supermarket back home. It is also worth noting that you had better choose wisely where in Dubai to live, because if you want to move at any point you will have to stump up a fair few grand for rental deposit and other costs.

Lifestyle

This is where Dubai comes into its own. Your extortionate rental costs are equivalent to living in London's most unaffordable boroughs; however, you definitely get more for your money in the UAE. Often included in your rent is parking, potential valet services, use of a beach club, and in-house gym, pool or spa.

The apartments are spacious, air-conditioned and impeccable, although many are a little outdated. Living in the city's latest developments is not feasible for most expats, so you will have to make do with something that was shiny and new 10 or 20 years ago, though it will be big.

It is totally normal to have a maid or cleaner and, if you have children, a nanny is expected and far from a luxury. School fees are through the roof, but then so is a private education in the UK. You are also likely to have a personal trainer or belong to one of the hi-tech gyms and fitness studios.

Shopping is a pleasure, although the prices more than make up for the lack of tax. Groceries are expensive and fresh fruit and veg are below standard. But you are likely to get nutritious, tasty prepared meals delivered to your door on a regular basis anyway, or your maid might cook for you as an inclusive deal. You will need a licence to buy alcohol as well, and it is not cheap even when you can find it.

Going out of an evening is like being on permanent holiday. Drive your car and get free valet services or take a cheap-as-chips taxi to the latest hotel, lounge in a poolside bar amid palms reached by golf buggy, and view the city's skyline in awe. Drink cocktails and Moroccan tea from authentic silver pots and smoke shisha in your fanciest outfit. The tab might well be the equivalent of a long weekend in Europe, but the easy access to an evening of polished decadence is tempting.

Getting around

Dubai's traffic is horrendous, although you’ll likely be travelling in style wherever you go. It is a large sprawling city, with different areas serving different purposes.

Downtown is the financial district where most business is done, but it is the opposite end of the shoreline to the Palm Resort and its spectacular beachside living. Getting between the two in rush hour, or indeed during many hours of the day, can be painful.

New public transport systems are in place or being planned at least, but locals tend not to use them. Walking between tram stops in the heat of the summer sun, crossing highways or being battered in the face by an unannounced sandstorm is not appealing when you have a brand new Range Rover in your underground car park. Nice cars are reasonably priced and petrol next to nothing, so driving is preferred all round.

Wherever you are going, you will be driving with intent as well – pottering is not an option in Dubai. Taking a stroll around the streets and discovering a mews café or laneway shop are not on the agenda, so unless you head to the old town and the local spice and gold markets – which are highly recommended for the tourist – you will miss the enjoyment of meandering.

Job prospects

In the current market, household names in consultancy tend to look for prior experience of the UAE if you want to work there again. They are very particular about certain skill sets and there are numerous people already there competing for an elusive role on the latest flagship development.

Your CV is therefore likely to need direct approval from a consultant’s client with a particular project in mind, as companies do not tend to hire strategically based on a pipeline of work. If the upcoming project is a hotel, you need hotel experience. If it’s a retail development, your background purely in residential – even if you have a strong reputation at a high-profile business – is unlikely to be enough.

That said, the foresight and ability to pre-empt issues with cost and programming inherent in a UK-trained quantity surveyor or project manager are attractive qualities for clients in Dubai. The claims consulting and dispute resolution services sector is gathering pace, so hiring those who can avoid the related costs will remain an active objective for Arab developers seeking value for money from their supply chain.

In conclusion, if you are a professionally qualified quantity surveyor or project manager with a solid record in consulting or in dealing with clients, there is still ample opportunity to be explored in Dubai. Nonetheless, it may take six months for the right role and project to come up, so you will need to be prepared to wait.

Your salary is likely to be roughly equivalent to what a leading firm in London will pay. You will definitely save money on tax, but only if you don’t then spend it on the lifestyle choices that go hand in hand with Dubai living. You will need to ensure you can resist the temptation to keep up with the Joneses if you want to save some cash!

My advice would be to speak to people you know who are out there now, not just someone who has lived there in the past. The perception of Dubai and its expat offering is often based on something someone heard from so-and-so who was out there five to 10 years ago, so make sure you are well informed on what’s going on now.

Although salaries may have dipped and living costs risen, Dubai is still unbeaten when it comes to luxury living. It works for both singletons and families, though in different ways. Whatever your position, make sure you are happy to subscribe to the ‘Dubai way’, and don’t just presume you'll walk away a millionaire in two years’ time.

Melani King, Heron Partnership

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