UAE’s reinventors: new lives in the Emirates

We speak to individuals who have come to the UAE to reinvent themselves, including a beauty queen, a fashion guru, a plastic surgeon and a musician.

The UAE has been likened to the ­feverish gold rushes of the 19th century. People from all over the world have come to claim their stake in a country that is developing like no other.

Some have moved here to start over again after mishaps of the past dried up the potential to carry on in the same place. Others came to be part of the rush. But most are here because the opportunities, they say, are just so much better than anywhere else.

Jessica Kahawaty, model, Australia

Jessica Kahawaty is in the UAE with one goal – to “revolutionise the modelling industry in the Middle East”.

The Australian-Lebanese Kahawaty has always dreamt of being a role model and came here because she feels the UAE has the right ­opportunities.

After just missing out on the prestigious title of Miss World as Miss Australia in 2012, the 2nd runner-up has already been on the first cover of L’Officiel Middle East and the first cover for Middle East Condé Nast Traveller.

She has also scored the job of presenting two of Yahoo! Maktoob’s entertainment shows, omg! NOW and omg! NUJOOM.

“There is so much happening,” she says about her new life in the Middle East, including being offered acting opportunities in Bollywood, Egyptian cinema and Arabic TV series.

“So, I’m evaluating them all.”

Derek Khan, fashion stylist, Trinidad and Tobago

Derek Khan is already a household name in the UAE. He’s invited to all the hot parties in the country, he’s often seen on TV and even has his own logo.

But things were not always peachy for the celebrity fashion guru.

He went to jail in 2003 for pawning high-end jewellery to pay off millions of dollars in debt he had accrued from splurging on parties and fancy dinners in New York City with the likes of P Diddy in the 1990s.

When he got out, he was a broken man, all his celebrity friends had left him, his US green card was revoked and he was deported from the country he had lived in for most of his life.

There was nowhere to go, but up.

And the UAE welcomed him with open arms.

Now, Khan is manoeuvring through industries he never thought were attainable, such as the oil and gas industry and billion-dollar charity foundation work.

He is assisting Kofi Rashid, an adviser of private donor engagement and Middle East outreach for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on what he describes as “high-level ­introductions”.

“I advise him on super high-end clients who are looking to put their money in something good – people who are appropriate for the foundation.”

“It’s amazing because it shows them the right way of giving,” he says, adding that his “network is really ­outrageous”.

His latest project with New York University Abu Dhabi, in which he does workshops at the campus, has “really made my comeback a complete circle. I can talk about my experiences, my mistakes and my successes”.

“In New York I was at the top of my field. I lost everything, but now I’m back again and more comfortable than ever. I’m showing the kids to never give up during the worst of times. There is always a second chance in life, especially in Dubai.”

Therése Neaimé, singer, Sweden

Therese Neaimé is living a life most would think was impossible.

The single mother with two small children is supporting herself as a singer – in the UAE.

And yet, the Swedish-Lebanese singer, who just released her third album, Sandstorm, does it with ease, thanks to the opportunities the UAE has given her. “My career was built from this place. It helped me to live on my music,” she says, which she has been able to do since 2007.

“I came to Dubai at the right moment. In 2007, there were more opportunities to fulfil new ideas. People were interested in new things. It was a very creative time.”

She says it helped that the UAE was open-minded to embrace her Lebanese heritage, which is why “everything was possible”.

Neaimé got a chance to be the opening act for Simply Red on their Europe tour, a connection she had established through the UAE.

Then she was signed to Music Master Middle East, which helped her release her first two albums, Livin’ and Stronger, in the region.

But it’s not all a breeze.

“It’s also about doing the hard work every day.”

Neaimé does corporate gigs at night and spends the daytime with her children, and writing songs.

“Having two children with me is fantastic. It’s not an obstacle. It was important for me to show that a woman can follow her dreams and have ­children.”

Maurizio Viel, doctor, Italy

Maurizio Viel moved to the UAE in 2009 with his first child, who was just five weeks old.

The plastic surgeon had been running the UK clinic, London Centre for Aesthetic Surgery, with his brother since 1990. He said his move to open the Dubai clinic came after many of his clients at the clinic asked him to open a branch in the Middle East.

Viel says the decision to move here was full of rewards.

“People here are open-minded, and the local patients are lovely and respect the doctor. They appreciate what you are doing.”

He says Dubai is not a place people can use to get away from it all.

“It is a very challenging place. Many people outside Dubai think it’s an easy place, that you can come here and make a lot of money with little ­effort.”

He says it is, in fact, “exactly the ­opposite”.

“You need to work hard and show you’re good. There is no room for ­mistakes.”

But mistakes do happen and he acknowledges a 2009 out-of-court lawsuit settlement with the Dead or Alive pop singer Pete Burns at his London clinic, but he says Dubai is “not a place you can hide”.

“That’s something in the past, it doesn’t affect the business at all. Dubai is not a place to reinvent yourself. You don’t come here to escape.”

His practice is booming with business, he says, and because women in the Middle East “like to look good” his clientele list is growing day by day.

According to the doctor, liposuction and body shaping are the most popular procedures.

Ash Hamman, businessman, Nigeria

Ash Hamman came to the UAE in 2007 after he made a bet with his mother that he would leave Nigeria.

It took just two weeks for the R&B singer to know this was where he could make things happen.

“Everyone who did something stood out back then.”

He didn’t think that, within a year, he would be sharing a stage with Akon and a year later, Kanye West.

“I was the only major opening act at the time, I was like the resident opener.”

But he quickly saw that even though Dubai gave him access to some of the world’s biggest stars, music would not make him any money in the UAE.

He enrolled for two years at the SAE Institute and learnt everything he needed to know to start his own company.

Four years down the line, Hamman has a successful video production company, Immaqul’8 Entertainment, which does corporate videos.

“Dubai is as far as you put yourself,” he says. And if he needs flash cars and yachts to star in his music videos, Dubai is where he can do it.

“That’ll cost you an arm and a leg in the States. Here you can get a friend to lend you his yacht, or his Rolls-Royce Phantom.”

His new single, Thirsty 4 U, is out now.

Terry Borden, musician, US

From rock star to entrepreneur, Terry Borden has truly reinvented himself in the UAE.

The Los Angeles-born musician, who has a gold record under his belt and toured the world for 20 years, came to the country two years ago to start a new chapter in his life.

And, he says, he couldn’t have chosen a better place to do so.

“People here are forward thinking and open,” says Borden. “It’s a ­business-friendly environment.”

He came here to take over a background music business, which has tripled in size since.

His company, Sound Me World, now provides the background music for shops and hotels in more than 100 locations in the region, including Emirates Palace, the Fairmont hotels, Juicy Couture and H&M.

“We’re growing so quickly in the UAE because it’s the best place in the world to go shopping and you have the best hotels in the world here.”

His background music venture was a natural portal to his second company, Tasty Digital, which does digital content for advertising and marketing, which is also growing ­exponentially.

“If you’re willing to work and bring something to the market that is useful, then it’s a great place to start a small business.”

He says he still picks up a guitar once in while, but doesn’t think he will return to that life full-time.

“I had a great career playing and performing music. But I enjoy running two small businesses as much as I enjoyed touring.”

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