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Friday, September 11, 2009

Lessons Learned

The following is my response to an email I received from an American woman whose husband had recently accepted a job in Abu Dhabi. She was naturally anxious about the move and wrote me asking some questions about my experiences here. She said would have to leave her own job, rent their house for less than the mortgage, leave friends and family behind and was apprehensive about her role of being a Western woman in an Arabic society.

After I wrote it, I thought it would be a good idea to post it on this blog for all to see. Although I touched on some of her particular issues, the advice is generic enough for anyone who is contemplating a move to this part of the world. My advice is from my own experiences of being in Abu Dhabi for a little over a year now. So here goes:

Dear "Concerned in Colorado",

I understand what you are going through. My last few months as a US resident were also filled with anxiety, fear of the unknown and second guessing tempered with the excitement of starting a new life in a new country. There was so much to do to prepare for the move, the more I did, the more I saw that needed to be done. I was zombie-like in the last few weeks before my departure.

When getting settled here, I realized that I underestimated the effort needed to keep the ball rolling back home regarding bills, taxes, cars, property and friends/family. Problems with any of these are magnified when one is on the other side of the world.

I also have a house I am renting to someone back in the States and the rent doesn't cover the mortgage I have to pay. Plus if you get a bad renter you could find yourself with months of no rental income. That will take a big chunk out of your Abu Dhabi salary. That and other things that happen "back home" are much harder to deal with and settle from here. Get a trusted friend in the US and open a joint bank account with them to help you deal with issues that arise(an they will!) back home. Get a rental management company to deal with your house, that should help. The stuff that has occurred to my interests back in the US has been as stressful as some of the things here.

I have found out the idea is to keep thing simple here and back home as well. Try to reduce your US financial obligations before you come. Consolidate your debt so you will only have one or two bills to pay from the UAE. Sell all you can before you move. Put the rest in storage on an "auto pay" deal. The almost unattainable ideal situation is to move here with no assets, debts, propery or vehicles back in the US.

As far a simplicity goes in the Emirates, do not succumb to temptation and purchase a new car with a five year note here as soon as you arrive. Most people do this (I did and regret it). It is easy as the banks are very accommodating. You can get a brand new Mercedes or Land Rover here with as little as two months on the job and a signature. You will get the payments too, of course!

While the car may seem like a nice symbol of your new lifestyle here in the UAE, it will become a millstone around your neck if one of both of you decide the Sandbox is not for you after a year or two. If you quit your job, the employer has to cancel your resident visa, you have 30 days to vacate the country, your bank is notified and the account is frozen. You then have that 30 days to sell the car (probably at a huge loss even if you CAN sell it in 4 weeks) and repay the bank. If you can't sell the car or settle with the bank and try to leave you can be detained and arrested at the airport. It is illegal to leave the UAE if you owe money. There are no bankruptcy laws here. The only other option is to sneak out and leave your employer and bank holding the bag. That won't make for peace of mind or expected good recommendations from your ex-UAE employer for future jobs. There are a lot of dust covered cars in airport parking lots left by people who saw no other way out.

My best recommendation is to lease car(s)on a monthly basis. You stay financially agile that way, the most you would owe is one month's rent. These leases are quite cheap here and usually include insurance. In other words, don't bet your freedom on a long term financial commitment with such an unsure thing as moving to and working in a foreign country. The rules are different here. You can always buy your dream car later after you both feel happy and comfortable.

Another thing to keep in mind is accommodation. Rents are still insane in Abu Dhabi (they are easing in Dubai). Most landlords want an entire year's rent in advance. Some want only 6 months but it still is a lot of money.

In this case, you would have to get a personal loan from a bank or an advance from your employer to secure a pad. Unfortunately that puts you right back into the long term financial obligation category that is to be avoided.

If you paid for a year in advance and decided to leave before then you lose the balance or,if you had a loan for the rent from a bank or your employer, you will have to sneak out of the country or get detained at the airport again if you quit properly. see the pattern here?

I am lucky to have a very nice apartment given to me gratis by my employer. That is what you guys should strive for, employer supplied housing, it is much simpler that way, you owe nobody.

As far as most employers go, the usual probation period is six months, you must be with the same company for a year before you can change (and even then you need permission to do so) and if you don't stay with the same employer for at least 3 years there are financial penalties such as owing back the "Settlement Allowance" they fronted you to move here. However, if you stay 3+ years there seems to be some substantial financial benefits to doing so. Have Hubby check his contract carefully. Two years sounds too short You will need 3 years anyway to save any amount of money to make the move worthwhile.

As far as the emotional ups-and-downs go, there have been plenty for me. But I am a guy and probably cannot sufficiently convey those to a woman's satisfaction. There are the usual experiences of lonliness, isolation, homesickness and irritation at the different ways of life over here. For me, these were most intense between the 3rd and 9th months after getting here. The first few months are full of excitement and after about a year here you become more acclimated.

As a background, I was divorced about 5 months before I was offered my job over here. Newly free, I considered it a good idea and still do. Personally, I don't think my ex-wife would have flourished over here and I would not have considered it in my wedded state but that is me. Additionally, the position I was hired for what is considered the pinnacle of my profession and I would get experience that was not to be had in the US.

I too left a good job back in the States. I was at that job for 10 years and made many good friends that I still love and miss dearly. Not to see them everyday pains me. However, I felt I was getting stale there and I considered this an adventure that not many people get to do in their lifetimes and when I get down, I reconsider that thought and I get a better attitude.

Your big difference that you have that I don't have is being in a married situation. That can be a great asset or a problem in my opinion. I am sure you are tired of hearing "It's all what you make of it", but part of that is true. It seems that some don't, but you may "find your paradise" here. It's up to you and how adventurous and open you are. If your marriage is strong now, it will continue to be strong. If not,then problems will be exposed. This is not a place to "fix" a relationship.

The expat community is great over here and you will find a lot of help and kindred spirits. The cultural differences between males and females over here is not as great as you may have seen on the American TV network news. You do not have to wear a Burkka and you can wear bikinis at the wonderful beaches. You can get a job if you want. I work with many expat and local women. The travel opportunities are great and it has been life enrichening for me to live and work among many different nationalities. The US is somewhat isolated and it has been a breath of fresh air to get out for awhile.

I realize you guys have already made your decision to move and I remember how crazy I was the last few months before my departure, it was overwhelming! I was almost catatonic most days. It gets better.

Remember: keep it simple (especially finances), have a sense of humor, have a Plan B, try and stay adventurous and optimistic!

Good Luck and keep in touch!