Returning residents: 'Why we boomeranged back to the UAE'

Is the grass always greener financially? Suzanne Locke meets expatriates who said goodbye then hello again

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 12 OCTOBER 2019. Tariq Bell and his daughter Eleanor. Tariq is one of the expats who did a stint in the UAE, left, and then returned. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Locke. Section: National.

Millions of expatriates live in the UAE, with many tending to do their ‘time’ — anything from an 18-month contract to 10 or 20 years — before heading home. But some leave and then return a few years on. So is the grass really greener elsewhere?

More than half of expatriates have lived abroad at least once before their current move, according to HSBC's Expat Explorer Survey 2019. It says that over a third of the 18,059 expats it surveyed globally move abroad to improve their quality of life (37 per cent) and to progress their career (36 per cent) — and stay overseas for the same reasons. In the UAE, which came ninth in the January study, only 35 per cent were first-time expats.

Typically expatriates in the UAE have a three- or five-year plan, and move on when they feel they've experienced and achieved what they set out to do.

The average income of respondents was $117,802 (Dh432,600) and the top financial priorities for UAE residents are saving and investing for retirement, children’s education and property, the banks says.

The most important factor for serial expats to consider when moving is taxation, says Paul Cox, HSBC’s regional head of wealth management for Mena and Turkey: “As customers’ finances become increasingly complex, the need for specialist international tax advice grows."

Sam Instone has lived in Dubai for a decade and says he can “certainly appreciate the appeal” for expatriates looking to return.

However, the chief executive of financial planning company AES International, says it is important to consider the two main reasons for residents to leave in the first place: by choice, when they return home or move on to a new country, or by necessity — for instance, if they lose their jobs.

“Typically expatriates in the UAE have a three- or five-year plan, and move on when they feel they’ve experienced and achieved what they set out to do,” Mr Instone says. “Many use their time to build up a healthy nest egg, so they can comfortably retire home to raise a family or even retire.

“On the other hand, if they’ve lost their job — especially high-paying jobs — an experience like this can deter returning," he adds. "It also takes a lot to move countries, both physically and emotionally, and often it’s done with spouses, children and pets in tow. So for those who have returned home, a move back would be a huge endeavour.”

Here, two serial expatriates, who boomeranged back to the UAE, tell The National what prompted their return:

Tariq Bell, 38, a teacher 

History: Lived in Dubai from 2007 to 2011 with his Polish wife Karolina before moving to Hong Kong, where they had their daughter, now six. The couple returned to Dubai in 2015.

British geography teacher Mr Bell, who rents a three-bedroom villa in Town Square on Al Qudra Road, left the UAE for a promotion and pay rise, taking on a role as a head of faculty.

His wife, an accountant, was studying when they arrived in Hong Kong then became pregnant. The couple were able to afford her taking an extended maternity break and Mr Bell says they “lived very well” during their Hong Kong years.

“We travelled a lot throughout South-East Asia, we bought a house (a four-bedroom villa on the Spanish island of Majorca) and, even though my daughter was born, we still saved a lot.”

But once Ms Bell wanted to return to work, she struggled to find a suitable job in Hong Kong, her husband says. Without speaking Cantonese or Mandarin, her salary would have been “pretty low” and they would have had to pay for full-time childcare.

The Bells made the decision to relocate back to Dubai for a better overall quality of life, swapping their small Hong Kong apartment for a house and garden. Mr Bell came back as an assistant principal in a Dubai school and was promoted twice to become vice principal, while his wife now works for a Japanese bank in Dubai International Financial Centre.

While his pay was higher in Hong Kong and he finds Dubai more expensive in terms of food and transport, he rates his standard of living highly.

“If I compare our life here to Hong Kong,” Mr Bell says, “we have a much higher standard of living now because of the space we have, our garden and two cars. Dubai is also half the distance back to the UK."

However, he says he worked shorter hours in Hong Kong.

“The quality of life in terms of work for me was far superior in Hong Kong — I felt my career really blossomed and grew. Personally I’d like to be in Hong Kong … but family-wise Dubai is good.”

Mr Bell recently made the big decision to take a pay cut and return to a pure teaching role, at the same school where his daughter studies. “I felt I wasn’t having any time with my daughter. I was working very, very long hours and was very stressed,” he says.

“My take-home is the lowest it’s ever been in my career and we have to be much more careful with our earnings but I’ve postponed earning more, for the time being, to make more of family life because I don’t think you can get that back.”

He is now studying for headship qualifications to drive his career forward again in the future, when his daughter is older.

Lana Allen, 44, a teaching assistant

History: Briton Ms Allen and her workshop manager husband lived in Dubai from 2004 to 2008 then came back the UAE four years later, moving to Ras al Khaimah's Al Hamra in 2014. The couple have two sons, ages 12 and 10.

The Allens bought a villa in the Springs in Dubai a year after emigrating in 2004, but decided they wanted to go home to Essex in England in 2008. Selling their villa in a day, and with the complications of capital gains tax to pay if they transferred the money to the UK, they instead invested it in a Dh1.2 million, off-plan two-bedroom apartment in the Royal Breeze development in Ras al Khaimah.

However, two months after returning to the UK, the recession hit. Having made cash down payments, they could no longer get a mortgage on the property and were about to hand back the property to the developers when Ms Allen’s husband was offered a job back in Dubai.

They returned, renting a two-bedroom villa in Jumeirah Village Triangle and using the now-finished Al Hamra apartment as a weekend home. However, with their rent and school fees rising in Dubai at the time, Ms Allen says their landlord wanted to increase their Dh100,000 rent by 40 per cent. They decided to move to Ras al Khaimah full-time to live in their property, which is now worth Dh450,000.

“The way I look at it we’re living in a property that’s our home, with a 180-degree sea view,” Ms Allen says. “There’s no landlord, so we can do what we like. We’ve saved on rent and that’s paying for our property.

“We have the best quality of life in Ras al Khaimah: we have a whole mix of nationalities as friends, celebrate different festivals with them and it’s the best experience for my sons."

While the couple are not struggling financially, they still need to budget carefully.

"A lot of people in the UK think we all earn heaps in the UAE — it’s not like that at all," says Ms Allen. "You have to watch what you spend. It’s a good life but you have to be careful as well. Feeding a family of four can cost Dh900 a week and this is the first summer we haven’t been able to travel back to the UK.”