British expatriates move to UAE in search of new lifestyle after Covid-19 and Brexit

New arrivals say better job prospects, lifestyle and sunshine also motivational factors

Brian Myers with his wife, Sacha, and their sons, Jack (right) and Bobby (left), and daughter, Molly, at their home in Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai. The family relocated to the emirate this year. Pawan Singh / The National
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Relocating his wife and three young children from Essex in southern England to Dubai this summer made perfect sense for Brian Myers from a lifestyle and career perspective.

For Mr Myers, chief executive of Equiti Brokerage, a shift to the UAE took him away from the seemingly endless cycles of lockdown in Britain, as well as growing fatigue with the UK’s handling of the pandemic and Brexit.

“In the UK, it's hit an inflection point with coronavirus and all of the politics that's just relentlessly around you,” the Briton, 40, tells The National.

“When you look across the world, particularly as a family with small children, there seems like very few places better than in Dubai. We love Dubai because of the weather, the infrastructure, the ease of transport and getting whatever you need quickly. It really fits our requirements as a family.”

Mr Myers is not alone. The UAE has experienced an influx of British expatriates in recent months, attracted by the lure of new job opportunities, more visa options, a tax-free salary, year-round sunshine and a better lifestyle.

Russell Owen, chief operating officer at Lootah Real Estate Development, says the company has noticed a strong surge in the number of British expatriates looking to relocate to the UAE over the past few months.

Many who relocated to the UK during the Covid-19 crisis due to job loss are now returning, he says.

While their decision to return home ensured they could secure free education and financial support during the pandemic, now that the UAE has reopened and “things have returned to normal”, the country is seen as “a shining light in terms of how it deals with Covid and the support residents get from the UAE, especially when compared to what’s happening in the UK,” Mr Owen says.

The handling of Covid coupled with a tax-free environment and a lifestyle that can’t be offered in the UK is why we have seen so much demand from British expats.
Russell Owen, Lootah Real Estate Investment Development

“The second reason for the influx is from new expats, who for many of the same reasons have decided that Dubai is in fact a better place to be than in the UK,” he adds.

“The handling of Covid coupled with a tax-free environment and a lifestyle that can’t be offered in the UK is why we have seen so much demand from British expats.”

There are more than 120,000 British citizens living in the UAE, the British Business Group in Dubai and the Northern Emirates reported.

The number of UK-registered companies in the Emirates – those registered, banked and taxed in the UK – is around the 6,000 mark, up from a previous figure of 5,000, said John Martin St Valery, chairman at the BBG.

This is in addition to the “many more thousands of British-owned and managed businesses operating throughout the UAE who don’t necessarily have a UK presence”, he says.

PRO Partner Group, a company set-up provider with offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman and Qatar, has reported a 60 per cent rise in UK registrations in the Emirates in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Meanwhile, BBG has seen a 24 per cent increase in new members since March with “a good return of interest” from multinational companies.

“The majority have requested our top-tier membership level – Advance – for the increase in event attendance, representatives named on the membership and opportunities to promote their offering to the rest of the membership and our stakeholders in the UAE and the UK,” says Mr Martin St Valery.

The organisation has also noticed a rise in job postings in its e-newsletter, particularly in marketing roles

Bradley Jones, executive director of the UAE-UK Business Council, is not surprised by the influx of new expatriates, with expectations numbers will continue to go up as Britons consider fresh opportunities in the country.

Mr Jones, who has lived in the UAE on two occasions, first between 1991 to 1994 as a teacher working in Fujairah and later between 2018 to 2019 as global business development director for education provider Gems, says the British expatriate population was slowly diminishing during his last stint in the country.

The arrival of the pandemic in late January 2020 accelerated this trend.

“Then, during Covid, some expats made the decision to return to their home country,” he says. “Now there is going to be a surge because this is all about opportunity in the UAE.”

The game changer, he says, is the UAE’s new visa regime, which includes a one-year residency permit for remote workers that makes it easier for highly skilled specialists in certain industries to live and work in the Emirates.

However, he expects the profile of the British expatriate and the types of industries they work in “might be a little different from how it was in the past”.

“There might be less demand for senior managerial staff and more demand for people with very specialist skills in the medical or engineering sectors,” he says.

“Anything to do with technology, such as specialist skills in AI, robotics, 3D printing and FinTech – it’s those kind of sectors where there will be high growth.”

For Mr Myers, the ease of doing business was definitely a factor for his decision to move to Dubai.

“The UAE is so open to business and the way they've managed to keep society moving through the crisis has been fantastic,” he says.

“In the UK, people are very battle worn after 18 months of lockdown and staring at a Zoom screen. And then you come somewhere like here and you're like, 'Oh, wow, life's moving.'”

Frustrated by the effect of Brexit on the UK’s financial services sector in the City of London, in which Britain lost up to 7,000 financial services jobs because of its exit from the EU, Mr Myers says coronavirus made many realise you could work anywhere in the world and thrive without paying high rates to live and work in the UK capital.

“Prior to Brexit and coronavirus, a lot of people assumed you wanted to make it in the City because then you could make it anywhere. But now things have been deconstructed, so people aren't really tied to that notion. Whether they come to Dubai or somewhere else, people are more open to it now.”

Mr Myers has swapped his daily train commute to London for a 20-minute drive to the office on Sheikh Zayed Road, with the community spirit he has encountered living in Dubai’s Jumeirah Golf Estates also a bonus.

“We already know three people down our road and we went to the clubhouse the other day there was a party there for the kids going back to school,” says Mr Myers, who has moved into a five-bedroom villa in the development.

“These are things I haven't seen in the UK too much. Obviously, there is also weather and so much for the children to do with all the soft plays, water parks and beach days and we have a pool for them to play in,” he says.

“We just fancied a change and all of those things added to it.”

The family plan to stay in Dubai for the children’s primary school education, with their eldest child, aged 6, securing a place at a British-affiliated school.

Schools have also noticed a rise in demand, with some institutions managing wait lists across certain years, “meaning some families are committing to two school runs – in the short term – while they wait for all of their confirmed places at their preferred school,” says Mr Martin St Valery.

For Briton Sonia Fuller, who relocated from Singapore to Dubai in June, a move to the UAE was preferable to returning to the UK full-time, because she is not “cut out for UK life”.

However, she struggled to secure two school places at the same institution for her young daughters.

“School places are difficult,” says Ms Fuller, who has lived in the Emirates before. “At the school I wanted, they only had six leavers this year, which is crazy compared to other years.”

Other newly arrived expatriates laud the ease of making a doctor’s appointment in the UAE compared to the UK, where the National Health Service is still hampered by high coronavirus cases as well as a backlog of medical care demands.

And when it comes to the cost of living, Mr Myers has found fuel to be cheaper as well as services such as having a handyman fix things in the house, while eating out and entertainment is “comparable to the UK”.

For Susan, a financial services professional who did not want to reveal her full name, her decision to move to the UAE was driven by a desire for a change.

“I’d just had enough of London,” she says.

“I went to the ladies' get-together last week and I was quite shocked at how many new Brits have arrived in the past month or even six months.

“It's definitely a trend, a huge trend. If you look at Facebook groups, there are loads coming in September asking for advice such as where to stay and which schools.”

However, Susan says new arrivals will find some things, such as food and everyday items, can be more expensive.

“I went to buy some wrapping paper yesterday and it had the UK price on it of £1.75, which is about Dh9, yet they charged me Dh17,” she says.

For Ms Fuller, Dubai is less expensive than her former lifestyle in Singapore.

“You're paying so much money to live in a place where you can't enjoy all the local travel to Thailand and Bali and the local lifestyle and then you're not seeing your family,” she says of her former life in Singapore.

With her business also having a Dubai branch, it seemed the perfect alternative to life in the UK.

“I'm seven hours from Singapore and seven hours from the UK,” she says.

“I've been abroad for 14 years and I am used to live-in help at a normal cost and the sunshine and swimming pools. At the weekend, the kids can go in the pool,” she says.

As a headhunter, Ms Fuller says a number of clients have asked her to find them a job in Dubai.

“These are people who are not quite ready for England lifestyle and those whose kids are going off to boarding school or university and, again, they don't want to go to England but they want to be closer but they want the UK schooling,” she says.

“For those coming from the UK, you're going from 40 per cent to 0 per cent tax, from grey skies to blue skies – it’s a bit of a no-brainer.”

The rise in the number of new Britons is also having an effect on the property market, with residential transactions in Dubai hitting an eight-year high in the first half of 2021 as demand for bigger homes increases.

And rents are also on the rise. Prime rental prices in Dubai climbed 5 per cent between January and June, driven by a 20 per cent increase in rents across certain villa communities, Savills said, with the emirate recording the highest level of rental growth in the first six months of the year alongside other cities such as Moscow and Miami.

The preference for more indoor and outdoor space has seen demand for villas soar, in both the rental and sales markets, says Mr Owen.

“Key communities such as the Springs, Lakes and Arabian Ranches have seen demand surge with availability of units becoming more scarce,” he says.

While escaping Britain’s long winters and political system appears to be a key driver for some, Mr Jones says everyone “likes to moan about Brexit and the weather but the factors driving people to leave the UK and work in the UAE are pull factors rather than push factors.

“It's quality of life. It's the fact that they can do a skilled job for which their talents are recognised and the opportunities for professional growth.

“It’s also a good environment for those looking to relocate with their families, with good schools on offer for children and opportunities for work for a spouse.”

Updated: September 18, 2021, 5:55 AM