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Dubai expats winning the struggle to be taken seriously

It is exasperating that the same tired old stories get re-hashed every year by the western press

Expat businessmen in Dubai Shutterstock/Dusan Petkovic
Expats in Dubai are now 'serious people' and more focused on the job at hand

Dubai doesn’t always get the fairest treatment at the hands of the western press, and I think I know one reason why.

Jealous News Editor Syndrome (JNES) afflicts journalists on certain newspapers in the UK, who often start showing symptoms in the cold, wet, dark months of February and March, when the rain is lashing or the snowstorm howling, and summer sun seems an eternity away.

The news editor – a poor deskbound apparatchik whose job it is to prioritise news and assign reporters to stories – is surfing Facebook or Instagram for some news ideas, and comes across a posting of an expat pool-side brunch in Dubai, all sun-kissed flesh and flashing smiles as the plates groan with food and the glasses seemingly never run dry.

Perhaps he recognises somebody in the posting? A former colleague who escaped the drudgery of London hackery for a life in the sun? 

“I’ll get them,” thinks the narrow-minded hack, who either books himself on a plane for a bit of drive-by revenge journalism, or assigns a reporter to the job of writing a hit-piece on the emirate, centring on allegations that saw the light of day in a slightly different form last February or March. JNES is a seasonal complaint.

I know it exasperates the people who run and regulate media in the UAE that the same tired old stories keep getting re-hashed every year, but what can you do about it? It is personal and vindictive, motivated by a desire to attack the expats by attacking their chosen place of residence.

I was thinking about this the other day when I came across an article by Robert Willock, Mena director of the Economist Corporate Intelligence Network, entitled You are serious people – Reflections of an expat.

This well-articulated piece tells us that maybe, some years ago, there was some truth to the allegation that expats in Dubai were all hedonistic has-beens seeing out their declining years in the sun with a bulging wallet and avoiding the tax man back home.

“This was a fun place to be,” writes Willock, “but – if you had designs on reaching the very top – it was also somewhere you didn’t want on your CV for more than three years lest you were tainted by its reputation.”

He quotes “one Arab CEO” as telling him: “You Brits are the worst thing that ever happened to this place. You send us your worst people, and all you do is drive Jaguars, play golf and do pub quizzes.”

So, while a JNES-suffering journalist would have found a steady stream of targets some years back, this has all changed now.

In 2023, Willock sees “a richly diverse, multilingual and highly talented cadre of C-suite executives, all with impressive academic and executive educations, serious ambitions and big ideas”.

With the economic boom of the post-Covid recovery, people based in Dubai will be hub to an executive class that can serve the Middle East and North Africa, huge swathes of Central and Southern Asia, and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa too.

Expat executives are suddenly “serious people” (a phrase taken from the Logan Roy character in the hit TV series Succession) and therefore far less likely to trigger the jealousies of the poor JNES-suffering hack in London.

I agree broadly with that account of the past couple of decades in the UAE. Expats are now far more focused on the job, and regard Dubai not as a hardship posting at all, but rather a lifestyle destination.

I think it began to change around about the time of the global financial crisis, which hit Dubai hard, before it called for and got assistance from its brothers in Abu Dhabi.

After that scare, the emirate seemed to knuckle down to the economic job at hand, perhaps in the desire to prevent such a thing happening again.

I remember a cute headline of the time, also in the Economist, after Dubai had announced a “standstill” on debt repayments – effectively a default: “Standing still, but still standing.” Fourteen years later, Dubai is not just still standing, but jumping.

Meanwhile, the JNES sufferer back in London can watch his schools falling apart, his local authorities bankrupt, his hospitals in crisis, and his airports vulnerable to the merest glitch – and wonder when to get on the plane to Dubai in order to be taken seriously again.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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