Light living in the UAE: Residents who only pay for what they need

Imagine no possessions, sang John Lennon – and now an increasing number of people are making that a reality by getting rid of all but the essentials. This is leading to a ‘sharing economy’ in which like-minded people pool their resources.

Benjamin De Teresac, founder and chief driver of Carpool Arabia.  Jeffrey Biteng / The National
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Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi used to like cars. But in 2009, the year that the Dubai Metro launched, the Emirati decided to get rid of his Land Rover Discovery and stop driving. Forever.

The move was the start of a complete lifestyle change, which now involves him living as lightly as possible – in every sense of the word.

“I set my mind to thinking that I needed to just offload things”, explains Mr Al Awadhi, 42, who provides advisory services to government on media, community building, tourism and entrepreneurship. “I had to carry my work stuff with me because I couldn’t put it in my car any more, so I moved everything to cloud files because I didn’t want to have any­thing physical in terms of documents. Right now in my bag, I have everything I need to work from anywhere in the world.”

Next, Mr Al Awadhi, formerly the co-presenter of the 2014 TV social travel series Peeta Planet, decided to purge his wardrobe.

“I put most of my clothes into a giant bag, went to my mum and dad’s house and asked them to give it to somebody. I wanted just the absolute basics.”

Mr Al Awadhi is representative of a growing number of young corporates who value spending their hard-earned cash on experiences and good quality food rather than possessions, and follow the principle that you can declutter your mind by decluttering your space.

“There’s a trend that we don’t want to buy things any more, we want things on demand when we need them – whether that be a car or an office space,” says Karim Karam, 38, who is exploring smart mobility within cities at the Department of Engineering Systems Management at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. “Hence the increasing reliance on Uber rather than purchasing a car, Airbnb, and coworking space. We want things when we want them. And we don’t mind sharing, because that helps bring down costs.”

These days, Mr Al Awadhi claims to only buy what he needs.

“I just have one pair of jeans, two pairs of shoes that I usu­ally wear, and a few kanduras,” he says.

When he does splash out on a new pair of trousers, he’ll spend between Dh300 and Dh400. “If you buy something that’s cheap, it gets broken easily and then you have to buy it again, it’s a vicious cycle. So I buy better quality. I just got rid of my trekking boots, which I bought back in 2009.”

Mr Al Awadhi’s “light living” now touches on every aspect of his life. “When I go to a mall and people pass me a brochure, I always read it and then I give it back. When somebody gives me a business card, I take a picture of it and then return it. I say ‘thank you very much, I have a digital copy now.’”

According the market intelligence firm Jeremiah Owyang and VB Profiles, the global sharing economy has so far created 17 billion-dollar companies that provide jobs to 60,000 employees and have received a total of $15bn in funding.

That list includes eBay and the relative newcomers Etsy, Chegg, WeWork, Airbnb, and – of course – Uber.

Research from PWC estimates that the five main sharing economy sectors (peer-to-peer finance, online staffing, peer-to-peer ac­com­modation, car sharing and music and video streaming) could generate $335 billion in global revenues by 2025, stealing market share from traditional rental sectors such as cars, equipment and DVD rentals.

In 2013, the Frenchman Benjamin De Teresac, 32, co-founded Carpool Arabia, one of the UAE’s first home-grown “sharing economy” companies. The online plat­form matches drivers with empty seats to those needing a ride in the same direction. Carpool Arabia now has more than 300 regular public users, and also offers dedicated carpooling platforms to corporates, acces­sible for their employees only.

“Increasingly, access is more important than ownership,” says Mr De Teresac, who lives in Dubai. “It’s very simple – nowadays salary increases are not that much, unless you change jobs. At the other end you see so many pressures that you have to buy this or that, but it’s not possible for everybody. I believe that in the next decade, the biggest change to the economy will be that people will only pay for what they use.”

Another sharing economy platform popular in the UAE is, which matches travellers with empty beds in people’s homes. The site has more than 11,500 hosts listed in Dubai and 600 in Abu Dhabi.

Some might argue that libraries never spelt the end of bookshops, so why would the sharing concept suddenly gain more relevance today?

“The world only has finite resources”, argues Mr De Teresac. “There’s only so much we can produce, so we need to share what we have. We produce so many things that are stored somewhere not being used, and definitely this has a huge environmental impact.

“At Carpool Arabia, we are not like a taxi car company, we are a community of people giving a helping hand to each other, and trying to impart these values. My dream is to have a Middle East where you can borrow a car from your neighbours to drive part of your daily commute, then borrow a bike to do the last mile to your office.”

Mr Al Awadi says getting lifts from others – as well as walking and taking the metro – has meant he has more time to talk with people. “I also have more time to think. You can use ‘things’ to build a wall around you, and the more that you have, the more that you are trying to hide about yourself.”

Rasheda Khatun, a Dubai-based financial life planner and author of Millionaire Mindset – 6 Steps To A Wealthy Life, also believes that an accumulation of too much stuff is unhealthy. “It puts a dent into your savings and clutters your space”, she says. “Downsize some of your items – ask yourself ‘do I really need this?’ There are amazing resources available to us: Dubizzle and Buy It, Sell It, Swap it are just brilliant to get rid of stuff. Also, your community Facebook Group.”

But not everyone feels ‘lighter’ when they say goodbye to their possessions. When the South African Shereen Jerrod’s job in Abu Dhabi as an English teacher ended five years ago, she moved to Saudi Arabia and got rid of all her furniture – a choice she now regrets.

“In hindsight I wish I’d put my stuff into storage,” she says. Last year, Ms Jerrod, 46, moved back to the UAE and had to start afresh. “I know they’re only furnishings, but I mourn my old things, especially my kitchen ­table. It was one of the first things I bought and I remember all the fun the dinner parties around it over the 13 years that I had it.”

When the American expat Jody Ballard’s husband’s job as a business development manager took him from Abu Dhabi to ­Poland in 2013, the couple chose to put most of their worldly possessions in storage, and furnished their new flat in Poland “very sparsely”.

But Ms Ballard, 59, a women’s wellness coach with her com­pany Strategic Wellness Systems, still spends two weeks a month living in a hotel apartment in Abu Dhabi – which is furnished simply with a desk, two chairs and a bed.

Each time she arrives back in the capital, she only brings a suitcase containing her swimming costume, tennis shoes, two dresses, and a bag with her laptop and passport.

Ms Ballard estimates that she saves at least Dh1,800 a month by no longer shopping for items she doesn’t need. Her “less is more” approach extends to birthday and Christmas gifts for family and friends. “I was so tired of having a checklist and making sure everybody was equal at Christmas time. Now we give experiences. I just took my kids and my mother to Hawaii to be together for a week. Did I save money by paying for that instead of buying presents? I probably spent more. But now the only ‘prized possessions’ I have are my friends and family.”