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Bahrain and UAE ranked best places for expats to set up home

Bahrain Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed
The golden licence is part of the priorities of the government’s economic recovery plan
  • Visa and other processes smooth to navigate, says InterNations survey
  • Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also feature in top 10
  • GCC countries want to attract and retain expats to diversify economies

Bahrain has been ranked as the best place for expats to settle, based on factors such as housing, bureaucracy, language and digitalisation.

The UAE took second place in the survey by InterNations, a Munich-headquartered online community for global expats.

Bahrain, the second-smallest GCC economy, scored highly for ease of administration and bureaucracy, with more than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents saying it is easy to deal with local authorities, above the 40 percent global average. 

Obtaining a visa poses little problem for 70 percent of respondents, compared with 56 percent globally, while 82 percent said it is easy to live in Bahrain without speaking the local language.

The UAE scored highly for ease of administration, with 61 percent saying bureaucracy is easy to navigate, and the country was voted first worldwide for ease of obtaining a residence permit.

Oman was ranked fifth in InterNation’s study thanks to its good availability of housing and ease of setting up, but digital services held it back, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar were sixth and seventh for similar reasons. Kuwait was 49th, four up from the bottom, with respondents citing visa and other administrative processes as frustrating.

GCC nations are diversifying their economies from oil and gas by developing high-growth sectors such as technology and professional services.

Bahrain and the UAE are the most advanced in this goal, with oil accounting for around 15 percent and 25 percent of their GDP in 2019, compared to almost 40 percent for Saudi Arabia, according to Moody’s.

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Building a talented expat workforce is a key pillar of GCC economic growth and diversification strategies, and nations regularly introduce new measures to attract and retain professionals from overseas.

The latest edition of InterNation’s Expat Essentials Index asked 11,970 expats in 181 countries or territories to rate 56 different factors of their life abroad on a scale of one to seven. To feature in the ranking, each country needed a sample size of at least 50 respondents and a total of 52 met this requirement, InterNations said.

The UAE and Bahrain were ranked above Singapore – a long-established expat destination – in third place. Hong Kong, another traditional favourite with expats, was placed 35th. It has become less popular recently, as a result of political instability and high cost of living.

Germany, in 52nd place, was ranked the hardest place for expats to move to, with a language barrier, lack of digitalisation and expensive, hard-to-find housing cited as key issues.

Accommodation issues

Despite their high rankings, availability of well-priced accommodation was an issue for the UAE and Bahrain, too, the survey showed. Just 38 percent and 39 percent of respondents respectively said housing is affordable, versus a global average of 39 percent.

Both nations also scored below the global average for unrestricted access to online services including social media. However, the UAE was ranked third for availability of government services online, and Bahrain eighth.

The UAE has consistently been named among the top expat destinations in studies over the last decade, but Bahrain has risen up the rankings more recently. The kingdom was eighth in HSBC’s latest annual Expat Explorer survey 2021, rising seven places from the previous year, while the UAE climbed 10 places to fourth.

Nada Al Saeed, chief of strategy at Bahrain Economic Development Board, the inward investment agency, told AGBI: “The [InterNations] report reaffirms Bahrain as one of the most welcoming places for expats to live.”

She said that “forward-looking policies” for expats looking to work and set up a business have enhanced Bahrain’s competitiveness to attract international companies looking for a “highly skilled global workforce to expand in the region”. 

Libbie Burtinshaw, head of operations at Dubai-based Pro Partner Group, which helps businesses to set up in the UAE, said: “GCC countries have made massive efforts to expand their portfolio of business investment opportunities and residency visa programmes to more individuals.”

She said that Pro Partner Group has seen a rising trend of expats applying for the UAE Golden Visa long-term residence permit or similar programmes.

“Bahrain and the UAE offer tax incentives to individuals and lower corporate tax rates for businesses in comparison to other typically international expat locations such as Singapore or Hong Kong.”

Rising demand is “encouraging governments to move quicker on certain decisions” such as the UAE’s guidance this month on foreign expats’ eligibility to become UAE tax residents, she added.

Higher-than-average salaries, good career prospects, lifestyle and climate have long been regarded as other draws to moving to the Gulf.