Workers look abroad as Dubai slows down

Immigration consultants say more people are seeking greener pastures in Canada, Australia and elsewhere as the emirate's economy slows after years of growth.

DUBAI // Six years of unabated growth at breakneck speed, fuelled by high oil revenues and an unprecedented rise in the property and construction sector made Dubai a destination of choice for ambitious people. Property marketing wizards, geniuses who reinvented the term "fast-track" in the construction sector, bankers, professionals in retail and hospitality, and even researchers and academicians all had one goal: be here and be part of an incredible success story.

But the days of pulling strings to grab a corner office in a Dubai International Financial Centre investment bank, or be the top man of a property firm selling projects worth billions of dirhams without even putting a shovel in the ground, are a distant memory. Some of the expatriate talent who had called the UAE home during the boom years were rather unceremoniously made to leave when the contraction hit the economy with real force in the last quarter of 2008. Some of those who survived the mass redundancies are now looking elsewhere, to Singapore, Hong Kong or even a return to Europe or the Americas.

Does that mean the UAE is facing a real threat of brain drain? Immigration consultants and executive placement experts think so. There has been a "substantial increase" in the number of cases filed by expatriates living in the UAE to migrate to countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand since the financial crisis hit the Gulf. "There has always been a global demand for immigration, but it is more so now in the UAE since the beginning of last year. Expatriates opting to immigrate feel insecure about long-term prospects of their jobs and financial security here," says Sony Nellissery, the resident director at Aries International, an immigration consultancy firm in Dubai.

Expatriates from all sectors of the economy are interested in migration, but construction professionals are perhaps more enthusiastic than others. The construction and property sector and record high oil prices were the primary drivers of the UAE's 7.4 per cent growth in GDP in 2008. However, construction projects, both commercial and residential, estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars have either been suspended, shelved or scaled down since the beginning of last year in response to virtually non-existent project finance.

There is no official data available on how many people have lost jobs since the last quarter of 2008, but economists say tens of thousands of positions disappeared as developers and construction contractors had to adjust to painful market realities. Shuaa Capital, the UAE's largest investment bank, said in a report last week it expected the population of Dubai to contract by 3.6 per cent this year.

Some countries, such as Canada, have cut the time for processing immigration applications from two to three years to about a year, which, the consultants say, is one of the major reasons why they are receiving applications in bulk. Construction professionals are joined by financial managers and workers in the health care and hospitality sectors as those most interested in emigrating from the UAE.

These sectors have taken a major beating in the wake of the economic contraction as businesses took drastic measures to cut the cost of operations in order to compensate for declining demand and shrinking business volumes. Redundancies in these sectors were as widespread as in construction and property. "There are about seven categories in health care and as many in hospitality. Open categories such as financial and construction managers are attracting many applicants from the UAE," says Anup Suphia, the branch manager for Worldwide Immigration and Consultancy Services Canada that operates from Dubai Airport Free Zone.

He says the shortened period for the application process, social security, unemployment benefits, free health care and education for children are some of the attractions the would-be migrants do not get in the Gulf markets. "They might be making less than what they make here [in the Gulf ], and end up paying taxes, but they become citizens and enjoy all benefits that comes with it," he says. "Here they will always remain expatriate."

There are more than 40 immigration consultants operating in Dubai and they are all are busier than ever, which is a reflection of how much interest there is in immigration, Mr Suphia says. "It is even more difficult to qualify for immigration under the new skilled professional category system in Canada, but the interest from applicants is huge." And those who do not qualify in the 38 professional categories to call Canada their new home have an option to apply to live there as investors. People with liquid assets of at least C$500,000 (Dh1.7 million) can be classified as investors. Consultants in Dubai say they are getting more applicants in that category.

The Canadian authorities, undeterred by economic contraction, are planning to accept a little over 250,000 new immigrants this year. "The focus of the 2010 plan is on economic immigration to support Canada's economy during and beyond the current economic recovery," Jason Kenney, the Canadian minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism said last year. The highest number of migrants the country has received in a single year is 429,649 in 2007.

The UAE expatriate population is dominated by South Asian and Arab expatriates, who in most cases have less than reliable economic buoyancy in their home countries. The security situation in their respective countries is another reason why expatriates are hesitant to move back. "For example if a Pakistani expatriate is interested in immigrating to Canada, he is more driven by security issues than economic concerns," says Mr Nellissery.

"But whatever the reasons are, the make-up of the labour market is changing rapidly." Jack Montgomery, a senior consultant at Stanton Chase International, one of the largest global executive search firms, agrees. "The talent pool available is definitely shrinking. It is difficult to get the right people for the job." The main reason for that, he says, is the exit of middle and senior management from the job market when companies merged positions to cut costs during crisis days. Also, employees are now more interested in a "safety net", such as an unemployment allowance in case they lose their jobs, a practice more prevalent in western countries and non-existent in the Gulf market.

"An expatriate from the European Union might be a little less stressed about having a safety net than an expatriate from an Asian country," Mr Montgomery says. The pressure of losing a settled job and moving on to a new job market is the same for any expatriate, but Asian middle managers would consider it more favourably as they would have better social benefits in countries such as Canada, he says.

"Top managers are not really interested in immigrating to other countries for social benefits. Even if they lose jobs, they have the qualifications and experience to get relatively easily into a new job market with or without a social safety net."