Having recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, I thought there might be a few of you out there within the property and construction market keen to cut through all the noise about Dubai and suss out whether it really is somewhere you could seriously consider living.
In short, whilst still clearly a drawcard for its ease of living and full-time sun, Dubai is not the professional playground it once was. Whilst money is still in abundance over there in many ways it will never be elsewhere, its streets are not necessarily paved with gold for the everyday expat.
Following a decline in oil price and what was a mini boom in 2013, the market has certainly softened and has been relatively flat for the last 18 months or so. That said, this will have to change with absolute certainty given the number of mega projects already committed and where deadlines for huge construction schemes are non-negotiable, such as the Expo 2020. The cyclical nature of Dubai's heartbeat is a microcosm of the cyclical nature of the construction industry generally, intensifying the volatility of the UAE's property and development market tenfold. When times are tough, developers are forced to use local contractors and western consultancies are bypassed. This explains why there are still so many cranes in the sky and holes in the ground and yet a shortage of jobs for the average expat property professional. When times are good, Dubai can't help itself and the sharp increase of salaries that ensues within the expat community results in a mirrored increase in rent and living costs. The momentum picks up until it inevitably crashes. And so Dubai pulsates in time with its own theme tune.
The remuneration packages on offer are still decent in whatever stage of the cycle you find yourself but they are certainly not what they once were. Intermediate to senior level UK trained Quantity Surveyors or Project Managers can expect somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 - 50,000 AED per month. The package on top will likely contain medical insurance (no dental) and an annual flight home, no pension though. You are also likely to get a month's accommodation or so when you first arrive. The main fiscal reason for heading out there is obviously the fact you will pay zero tax. Which is great, if your rent for a two bed apartment wasn't the equivalent to £3000-£4000 per month or your grocery shop double the price of that in the UK. And you had better choose where you want to live wisely because if you want to move at any point, stumping a fair few grand up front for rental deposits, etc is unavoidable.
This is where Dubai comes into its own. Your extortionate rental costs (note, probably half the cost now of what they were in the pre-recession years of 2006-2007) is equivalent to living in London's most unaffordable boroughs; however, you definitely get more for your money. Often included in your rent is parking, potential valet services, use of a beach club on the beach behind, an in-house gym / pool / spa. The apartments are spacious, air conditioned, impeccable, although many are a little outdated. Living in the city's latest development is not feasible for the regular expat, you will make do with something that was shiny and new 10-20 years ago instead, albeit it will be big.
It is totally normal to have a maid or cleaner and if you have children, a nanny is expected and far from a luxury. School fees are through the roof but then so is a private education in the UK. You are also likely to have a personal trainer and/or belong to a number of high-tech gyms and fitness studios. Shopping is a pleasure although the prices more than compensate for no tax. Groceries are expensive and fresh fruit and veg are below par. But you are likely to get healthy, deliciously pre-prepared meals delivered to your door anyway or your maid might also cook for you as an inclusive deal. You will need a license to drink alcohol and it is not cheap, where you can find it.
Going out of an evening is like being on permanent holiday. Drive your car and get free valet services or get a cheap-as-chips taxi to the latest hotel, lounge in a poolside bar set amidst palms reached by golf buggy and view the city's skyline in awe. Drink cocktails and moroccan tea from authentic silver pots, smoke shisha in your most fancy finery. The tab might well be the equivalent of a long weekend in Europe but the easy access to an evening of pure decadence is deliciously tempting.
Dubai's traffic is horrendous although you'll likely be travelling in style wherever you go. It is a large sprawling city and with different areas serving different purposes. Downtown Dubai, is the financial district and where most business is done but it is the opposite end of the shoreline to the Palm and its most spectacular beachside living. Getting between the two in rush hour, or indeed during many hours of the day, can be painful. New public transport systems are in place or in planning at least but locals tend not to use them. Walking between tram stops in the heat of the summer sun, crossing highways or being battered in the face by an unannounced sand storm is not appealing when you have a brand new Range Rover in your underground car park. Nice cars are reasonably priced and petrol next to nothing, so driving is preferred all round.
Wherever you are going, you will be driving with intent. Pottering is not an option in Dubai. Taking a stroll around 'the streets' and seeing what restaurant takes your fancy or the excitement of a newly discovered mews or laneway shop are not activities afforded in the UAE. Unless you head to the old town to the local spice and gold markets (highly recommended as a tourist by the way!), you will miss the enjoyment of meandering.
Job Opportunities as a QS or a PM
In the current market, household consultancy names are ideally looking for prior UAE experience. They are very particular about certain skill sets and there are numerous people already over there competing with you for an elusive role on the latest flagship development. Your CV is likely to need direct approval from a consultant's client with a particular project in mind rather than companies hiring strategically based on a general pipeline of work. If the upcoming project is a hotel, you need hotel experience. If it's a retail development, having a background in pure residential, despite which company you worked for and how good you are, is unlikely to be enough. That said, the foresight and ability to pre-empt issues with cost and programme inherent to a UK trained QS or PM are attractive qualities for clients over there. The claims consulting and dispute resolution services sector is gathering more and more pace and so hiring those who can avoid the related costs will remain an active pursuit for Arabian developers seeking value for money from their supply chain.
In conclusion then, if you are a professionally qualified QS or PM with a solid client-side / consulting background then there is still ample opportunity to be explored in Dubai. But it may take 6 months for the right role and project to come up so you will need to be prepared to wait. Your salary is likely to be roughly equivalent to a London salary with a leading firm. You will certainly save money on not paying tax, but only if you don't spend it on the lifestyle choices that seem to go hand in hand with Dubai living. You will need to ensure you can balance the temptation to keep up with the Joneses out there in order to truly save some cash. As always, my advice would be to speak to people you know who are out there right now. Not someone who heard about so and so who was earning x amount 5-10 years ago!
Whilst salaries may have dipped and living costs risen, the lifestyle on offer in Dubai is still unbeaten when it comes to luxury living. It works for both singletons and families in different ways. Whatever your position, make sure you are happy to subscribe to the 'Dubai way' and don't just presume you'll walk away a millionaire in 2 years' time.
Heron Partnership works in collaboration with a local agency in Dubai so should you wish to explore opportunities in the UAE further, please do get in touch.