In the last five years, my husband and I have created and operated two restaurants in Dubai. The first was a small pizzeria that focused on take-out and deliveries. The second was an Italian restaurant inside The Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world.
(It sounds strange to open a restaurant inside a mall, but malls in the U.A.E. are unlike malls in North America. Because of extreme temperatures, indoor spaces like malls are designed to be your one-stop-shop to beat the heat. The Dubai Mall has a hospital, a cinema, an ice rink, 1400 retail outlets, an underwater zoo, a gold market, a shoe district, two hotels, a waterfall fountain and more than 200 restaurants. It is also a major tourist destination. A year ago it received more visitors than the Great Wall of China.)
Our Dubai Mall location was large and upscale. It employed 50 people from all over the world: Nepal, Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Russia, Morocco and the United States. There were Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and within these faith traditions, adherents of different sects. Everyone had left family members behind in their home country.
What makes people leave their children to live in a foreign country for months, sometimes years on end? For members of my team the reasons were clear: to seek better employment opportunities so they could support their families and provide a better future for their children. It’s one thing to read about globalisation. To see it up front makes the cliched explanations crystal clear. For lower level and blue collar workers especially, the burden of supporting a family usually fell on one person. The reality is salaries at home are too low, and job opportunities too few.
Dubai is a big draw because it is safe, politically stable, and has a growing economy. It employs large numbers of expatriates, or foreign workers, in the core areas of it’s economy: aviation, tourism and hospitality, logistics, transportation, and marketing. Due in part to the relatively small size of its local population, Dubai must import workers to fill the jobs it needs to power its growth. Dubai’s expats make up a massive 94% of the population. This is abnormally high. According to Expat Focus, the U.A.E. ranks amongst the top 5 countries in the world with the highest percentage of expat workers. In comparison, the island nation of Singapore – another hugely popular expat destination for work and play- has a population of 5.5 million, of which 40% are foreigners.
Without expats, Dubai would not be able to achieve what it has in such a short period of time. Now, the UAE government has approved a new visa system designed to attract “geniuses,” or individuals with exceptional ability, across sectors. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, tweeted, “The UAE is a country of vast opportunity; we aim to provide a tolerant environment that can nurture potential and support outstanding talent.”
Given the recent flurry of initiatives in the realm of science and technology, measures like this highlight the UAE’s current focus on innovation. More importantly, they underscore a commitment to an exchange of ideas and dissemination of knowledge that are foundations of Dubai’s long-term vision and strategy.
This blog post was updated on March 15, 2017