posted on June 5: A letter from Sharjah: Expatriates enjoy a charmed life in United Arab Emirates


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”Liz Rideout and David Palmer in Sharjah”]Two members of the McMaster community, David Palmer and Liz
Rideout are spending a year at the University of Sharjah where Palmer is teaching and Rideout is director of the nursing program.

Palmer is an academic skills counsellor with the Centre for Student Development and Rideout is a professor of nursing at McMaster.

This is Palmer's third letter to the McMaster community describing his experiences in the United Arab Emirates. In November, his first
“letter home,” describing his teaching days at the University and the educational environment at Sharjah, was published in The McMaster Courier (Nov. 22). His second article, Seeing Ramadan through the eyes of a westerner, was posted on the Daily News in December.


“Yes, I suppose we ex-pats live a charmed life here,” the Englishwoman opposite me agreed.

We were sitting in the afternoon sunshine in the garden of a luxury hotel near Abu Dhabi, at a barbecue for hundreds of people who had just spent their weekend charging across the desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles on the annual Gulf News Fun Drive.

We had been discussing techniques for driving across sand dunes. Or rather, as a novice, I had been receiving some tips. Roaring around in huge Land Cruisers or Nissan Patrols is a popular weekend activity here in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fronted by their massive bull bars, such vehicles also give their owners a sense of security in a country where traffic accidents account for nearly 20 per cent of deaths while, with gas at 15 cents a litre, there's little concern about their equally massive fuel consumption.

A lot of expatriates here have a most enviable lifestyle. Well-paid – at least if they're working for foreign companies – and in most cases tax-free, with spacious and often free housing packed with the latest consumer durables, they enjoy the country's almost continuous warmth and sunshine, the beaches and year-round tennis and golf – while escaping to Europe or North America during the worst of the summer heat.

Young couples seem to find it a great place to raise a family. Freed from domestic chores and from extended-family responsibilities, they have maids to clean and cook, and nannies to look after their children. They salt away their substantial savings, buy a significant stake in the real estate market back home – and rent out their London flats until their eventual return.

Even those of us of relatively modest means have access to the benefits of cheap labour. The neighbourhood restaurants are inexpensive and good. Run out of milk? Don't worry, the little grocery store around the corner will deliver anything you need in five minutes. A man washes the sand and dust off our car each night, another man collects and returns the laundry and dry-cleaning, two women come regularly to clean the apartment – and all at a fraction of the price in Canada.

The obverse of this privileged life is always apparent. The ubiquitous cleaners who work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week for about $200 a month plus hostel accommodation. The hordes of young men from India and Pakistan who do not earn enough money to be allowed to bring their wives or children. The endless trucks you find yourself driving behind, under the stoical and stony gaze of workers being shipped from labour camp to worksite and back each day.

The “underclass” is all around us. The only thing we all share is an uneasy future: no foreigner can count on job security, or be confident of continued residence here.

Foreign residents outnumber the citizens of this country by about five to one. In the workforce the ratio is even higher, approaching 10 to one. These non-citizens include large numbers of people who were born here, as well as people who have lived here for a long time, and many of them have invested their money and their working lives in businesses here. In many cases the countries in which they hold citizenship are in economic or political disarray, to put it mildly, so they don't have much in the way of alternatives if they lose their jobs and residence permits. Needless to say, this tends to have a major impact on the climate of the workplace.

As in the other Gulf states, the UAE government is making major efforts to wean the country off dependence on a foreign work force and to encourage employment of its own citizens. The question of how many of the jobs available in this society the Emiratis themselves are willing or able to do remains to be answered. But for some years there has been a big push to provide UAE nationals with the education they will require in the labour force.

The University of Sharjah, where a number of McMaster people (including my wife Liz Rideout and I ) are working, takes students regardless of citizenship. But the two technical colleges across the road are for nationals only. As a British administrator there remarked to me the other day: “Our only purpose here is to train a national so that he or she can take a job at present done by a foreigner.”

Photos: Top: Rideout and Palmer in Sharjah. Bottom: Palmer and friends enjoying the drive across the desert as part of the Gulf News Fun Drive.

(Photos courtesy of David Palmer)