Saturday, 8 September 2012


The opportunity costs of a move to the Arabian Gulf, unlike the benefits, are difficult to quantify, yet it is impossible to overstate them.
Omar Chatriwala/Doha News
Photo by Omar Chatriwala

Since the beginning of the oil boom in the 1970s, the attractions of expatriate life in the Arabian Gulf have been almost too obvious to enumerate.

The pros have consistently outweighed the cons, especially for middle-class foreign workers who come from Asian countries with crumbling public utilities, slothful bureaucracies, a venal police and frequent natural as well as man-made disasters.

No matter how scorching the Arabian summers or what the risk of regional conflicts, the twin blessings of tax-free salaries and inexpensive petrol are enough to make even the most objective cost-benefit analysis seem like a one-sided picture of expat life in the Gulf.

Combine that with India’s declining rupee, prohibitive fuel prices and chronic power cuts, and it becomes still easier for expatriate Indians in the Gulf - who accounted for more than 30 per cent of their home country's estimated $65bn remittance income last year - to figure out how much they profit from working abroad.

The loss, on the other hand, is difficult to quantify yet sizeable all the same.

In recent years, the international media and rights watchdogs have highlighted the hardships and deprivation suffered by the Gulf's low-salaried foreign contract workers, the category to which a large majority of the region’s nearly 4.5 million Indians belongs.

Less publicised is the fact that big Gulf companies have long relied on skilled Indian executives to fill their management posts as well.

A recent report in Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper on India as a "source of top business talent" quotes Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer of the UAE retailer Jacky’s Electronics, as saying: "Whereas, once upon a time, [India] was the place to go to recruit cheap labour, today is about quality and qualified talent."

Lonely and isolated

The elite segment of expatriate Indians, whose jobs do not require them to toil at construction sites in the burning desert sun round the year, are certainly better off in a material sense.

However, feelings of loneliness and isolation are pervasive in the Gulf’s highly transient expat communities, especially for those reluctant to socialise with compatriots purely on the basis of common professional and cultural interests.

Reading about flashy functions and party lifestyles of cosmopolitan Gulf metropolises in glossy magazines is one thing.

Cutting through the invisible barriers of nationality and language and developing a diverse social circle is quite another, unless you are heavily into sports like golf and squash or a fixture of the cocktail circuit.

For those with a regular job, working 9-5 or shifts, maintaining a busy social life is almost out of the question.

Indeed, most families with children find they have little time, except during the weekends or short breaks, to invite friends and colleagues over for small parties.

With Indian schools following a policy of continuous academic assessment, parents who actively monitor their children's school performance invariably find their "to do" lists spilling over to occupy even the weekends.

As for parents who have to accompany their children for an extra-curricular activity, such as swimming, painting or sport, the weekly routine can get hectic, to say the least.

In the midst of so many commitments, the expatriate dream of being able to meet like-minded people, have intellectually stimulating conversations and to establish lasting friendships and support networks often ends up as just that.

To be sure, there are many Indians in the Gulf who have a sibling, a close family friend or an old college mate living within driving distance.

In what is a common sight during weekends and public holidays during the cooler months in Dubai and Sharjah, large groups of South Asians have lunch or dinner alfresco, the conservative family ties that bind them together evident in the attire of the women.

Contact with other people being a basic human need, many expat families do keep in regular touch with each other via weekend phone calls and dinner parties - only to see a sudden change of job, Canadian immigration or relocation to India snap their tenuous links forever.

Disposable incomes

Looking at the brighter side of expat life, as the months grow into years and the years into decades, research shows that skilled foreign workers in the Gulf are likely to enjoy much larger disposable incomes than their peers in India.

A global survey of expats commissioned by HSBC Bank International in 2010 found, for example, that 79 per cent of those who entered the United Arab Emirates were saving more there than in their home countries.

Those who become quite wealthy begin to take regular vacations in Europe, USA and South East Asia, acquire assets in different countries, and send their children to expensive colleges in North America and Britain.

Considering the insecurities of middle-class life back home, it is no surprise that so many Indians, whether young or middle-aged, grab a job offer in the Gulf at the first opportunity despite the known constraints on career mobility.

After all, a few decades of earning in Dubai, Doha, Manama or Jeddah can make all the difference between one’s children having to join the rat race in India for a seat in an average college, or contemplating an international career on the strength of a US university degree.

Frayed friendships

As with any decision, however, there are opportunity costs involved with a move to the Gulf.

From the poignancy of parting and separation to the bittersweetness of fleeting reunions, these cannot be expressed in monetary terms. It is also impossible to overstate them.

It may be elementary knowledge for psychologists, but for most laypersons the fact that forming and nurturing relationships becomes progressively difficult as one moves from childhood to adulthood, is a lesson that becomes clear only in the fullness of time.

People who come to the Gulf intending to work for a few years and end up staying for decades, learn first-hand that not only does it get harder to make new friends the older you get, even the most cherished relationships start to wear under the strain of time and distance.

Over the years, family obligations, filial duties, divergent career paths and irregular communication take their collective toll on expats’ ties with relatives, old friends, neighbours and former work colleagues back home or in distant parts of the world.

In the West as also in several other parts of the world, the unspoken pain of an isolated expat existence is relieved to a large extent by the certainty that one’s children, and their children, will gain citizenship or at least permanent residency.

In the Gulf, however, no such mitigating factors exist.

While it lasts, expat life essentially involves a trade-off between the mundane comforts of a stable power supply, ubiquitous air-conditioning, orderly traffic and low crime rates, and the emotionally superior benefits of proximity to ageing parents and grandparents, face time with relatives and close friends, and reliable support networks.

And in the end, it all boils down to whether the nest egg you have accumulated is tidy enough to buy a comfortable retirement for you and a head start in life for your children.
The past, by then, is already a foreign country - "There is no going back ... No second chance" either.