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Abu Dhabi, United Arab EmiratesWhen the average person in the United States is asked about the United Arab Emirates, images of the glitz and spectacular growth of Dubai spring to mind.  To many, those images are the UAE.  Dubai equals the UAE.

Just as the skylines, lifestyle and cultural attractions of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is uniquely American, those symbols and lifestyles are not accurate symbols of the lifestyle and values of the whole of the U.S.

The UAE was formed in 1971.  It includes seven Emirates.  Qatar and Bahrain, who were invited to join the federation, decided to remain independent.  Eighty percent of the nation’s 3.2 million residents live in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

Emiratis comprise only 20 percent of the population.  Fifty percent of the population is comprised of expats from India and Pakistan.  Others include: 13 percent from other Middle East countries, and 2.5 percent from Iran.  Westerners make up about 1 percent of the population even though many consider the Emirates to be among the most progressive, the most westernized, and the most modern of all the Middle East countries, including Bahrain. Today, skyscrapers and new construction dominate the landscape but 50 years ago, the UAE presented a vastly different image:  there was no electricity, no plumbing, no telephone system, no public hospitals or modern schools, no bridges or reliable roadways.  Thirty-eight years ago, the city of Abu Dhabi, an island surround by canals and gulf inlets, was essentially a fishing village whose residents lived in mud houses.  Today, it is modern city of nearly 1 million residents with its own explosive construction boom.  In their new exposition center, seven hotels and 23 office towers are under construction or in the final stages of planning.  Apartments cannot be built fast enough.

The UAE has become an economic magnet, attracting adventuresome global entrepreneurs, bankers, construction and oil executives, and healthcare workers.  Oil is still the backbone of the federation’s economy with Abu Dhabi holding the vast majority of the nation’s proven reserves, which some estimate to be more than 90 billion barrels.  Dubai’s future is tied to banking, finance and tourism.

Ninety-six percent of all Emiratis are Muslim.  Islam is the official religion.  Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s largest mosque.

Recruitment of experienced workers to work in the UAE is a major industry.  There are thousands of open positions, and recruiters around the world are scrambling to fill jobs as basic as a driver or janitorial worker, to nurses and healthcare executives.  Recruiters also are searching for managers and specialists in industries from banking, to manufacturing engineers, to marketing executives.

With world attention gravitating to a country that some call the new Hong Kong, I am asked about life there.  Our Firm, JohnMarch Partners, a Dallas-based executive search consultancy, is currently engaged to recruit medical and operational executives for a major UAE healthcare logistics firm, Global Medical Solutions.  While my experience is limited to business trips, there is information I can share, although I am far from an expert.  This blog is not intended as the definitive work on living and working in the UAE.  These are my impressions: 

·         Yes, it is a safe place for Americans to live and work.  Surprising to me is that is one of the most frequently asked questions.  My typical response is that it is as safe or safer in the UAE as it is in most other foreign cities.  There have been no incidents with terror attacks.  There is crime – drug use is on the rise and prostitution is fairly common – and the newspapers routinely report on convictions and long prison sentences. 

·         While it is indeed a modern, progressive country, it is still a Muslim nation.  If you plan to live and work in the UAE, you must become familiar with their customs and respect their traditions.  This is especially true during the most venerated and blessed month of the Islamic year, Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day.  Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar believed to be the month in which the Qur’an began to be revealed.  Most bars and nightclubs remain closed and those that do open, at hotels, do so in the evening hours.  While restaurant food is available, non-Muslims take their lunch behind closed doors out of respect for Muslims.

·         While Emiratis are universally respectful of Americans – our system of education, our experience in oil, manufacturing, banking and healthcare, as examples – they are far more cautious of our foreign policy over the past seven years as well as what many perceive to be our foreign policy arrogance.  While that assessment is not the official position of the Emirates government, it is important to remember that this is a Muslim nation.  This is a deeply religious nation – there are roadside mosques so that travelers can stop during the daily prayer time.  Their devotion to their faith, their tribal ancestry, and the whole of their culture creates filters for their perspective of life in the U.S. and the U.S. role in the world.

·         If you are someone with strident views concerning the Muslim faith and customs, do everyone a big favor and stay home.  You do not have to embrace the faith or their religious customs to work in the UAE, but you must be respectful.  If you accept a job in the UAE with an underlying desire to proselytize for the Christian faith, this is probably not an ideal place to work. 

·         Nearly all citizens are Muslims, approximately 85 percent of whom are Sunni and the remaining 15 percent are Shi’a.  According to official ministry documents, 76 percent of the total population is Muslim, 9% is Christian, and 15 percent is other.

·         Western executives new to the country must move cautiously in establishing themselves as leaders.  In the major cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with its modern offices and vast shopping malls, there is much that looks familiar to life in the U.S. But the same cultural filters that govern their views on the world political scene are also at play in the workplace in terms of how they listen, how they respond, and how they process priorities and directions.  This is not only true in dealings with the Emiratis.  It extends to the Indians, the Jordanians, Iranians, and Pakistanis, for example.

·         Women are not required to cover their heads as is the case in some other Muslim countries.  Women drive and they go to the beach, but waiting rooms in hospitals and banking lobbies, for example, are segregated.  Sensible attire is the rule of the day.  For example, a revealing string or thong bikini in a public setting is really not a good idea, especially in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, which are more conservative than Dubai.  You are in a Muslim, Middle Eastern nation.  You must be ever respectful of their religion, their values, and their customs.  

·         There are numerous private schools, including those operated by the British and Americans.  They are expensive but most executive positions include offset allowances for housing, furniture, and travel home for annual leave and education for children.

·         Non Emiratis are restricted from acquiring property.  Foreign workers rent apartments – sometimes referred to as flats or they rent houses, which are called villas.  The secret to renting an apartment is being aggressive and patient.  There is a shortage of housing which is one reason for the building boom.  In apartments, look for those with underground parking.  Parking on the street is difficult to find in metropolitan areas.  If above level lots are available, be sure there is available covered parking.  The July and August temperatures are intense.

·         The weather is… Well, this is the desert.

·         The UAE currency is the Dirham.  The exchange rate remains set at 3.67 Dirhams per U.S. dollar.

·         Alcohol can be purchased at state-controlled stores.  You must have a permit to make purchases.  These are issued by the local police and are rarely denied.

·         Visitors do not need a visa to enter the country.  If you accept a position, a work visa will be required.

For healthcare workers – executives, physicians, nurses and other clinicians and support staff, this can be an enormously rewarding adventure. 

A Canadian dietician, working at a small hospital in the ancient oasis city of Al Ain, the home to many of the nation’s royals, said her decision to move to the UAE was one she will never regret.  “My opinion is valued by other healthcare professionals.  Much more so than in Canada.  Physicians and nurses seek my opinion to help them manage some of their cases, including diabetes which is very prominent here.”  JGS