Financial challenges of UAE expats living the single life

The early months of a new expatriate’s life in the UAE have been described by some as a “red tape obstacle course”, but the challenge is even tougher when you have to sort all the paperwork on your own.

Setting up as a singleton in the UAE can pose more challenges, as you only have yourself and a single income to rely on.

What you need is plenty of stamina because you will have to scramble over a lot of bureaucratic hoops and regulatory hurdles before getting the essentials such as residency, bank account, apartment and credit.

Here three single expats document their way through the early financial challenges to become happily settled in the UAE:

Briton Tom Southgate, 33, encountered “hurdle after hurdle” after moving to Dubai in August last year but says his “exciting” new life was worth the effort.

Mr Southgate’s decision to move to the UAE was prompted by being made redundant from his job as a pharmacy buyer in south London and deciding to try something new.

A friend had a construction recruitment business in Dubai, Ignite Search & Selection, and hired Mr Southgate for his sales and marketing skills. He decided to take the plunge, but first had to navigate the UAE’s visa and banking system.

“New arrivals need a visa, work permit, medical card and health insurance, and it all takes some time to get,” he says.

Mr Southgate, from South Wales, was renting with stran­gers while he waited for his residence visa to be processed, paying Dh5,000 a month.

“I was excited and relieved when my visa finally came through, only to be told by a letting agent to hand over a full year’s rent up front in one cheque,” he says.

He approached a UAE bank for a loan but was told he wasn’t eligible, even though he was earning a good wage. “I hadn’t been here for a full year and my employer is a free zone start-up company that wasn’t registered on the bank’s system.”

After finally securing a loan in September this year, when he passed the one-year mark to qualify, he then had to apply for an auto loan to buy a car. “I had to fill out endless forms and the bank visited weekly and called me daily to ask more questions. It seemed a little unnecessary at times.”

While waiting for approval, he had to pay about Dh2,250 a month renting a Toyota Yaris. “The Yaris isn’t the most exciting car in the world. I wasn’t exactly living the Dubai lifestyle.”

The executive now rents in a high-end tower in the Marina overlooking the beach with pool and gym, and has traded his Yaris for a second-hand Mercedes 200 C AMG that was less than a year old.

He now plans to clear debts he had accumulated in the UK from travelling and overspending by the end of next year and then start saving in a pension. “The hard work is mostly over and the rewards are flowing,” he adds. “The big danger is that you spend money having fun rather than saving for the future, and I don’t want to fall into that trap.”

Kanchana Bala, from India, 31, moved to the UAE in July 2012 after being drawn by a job offer and the prospect of trying something new.

When Ms Bala was offered a job as a content manager for a real estate portal in Dubai, she decided to take the plunge.

“I come from Chennai, southern India, so it isn’t so far from home,” she says. “Also, Dubai is a great transport hub, with easy links to most parts of the world.”

But her first stumbling block was finding a studio apartment to rent in Downtown Dubai.

“All the landlords wanted one or two monthly advance cheques, for about Dh70,000 each,” she recalls. “I was looking for a personal loan of about Dh40,000 to help with my advancement cheque, but it wasn’t easy.”

Ms Bala was easily earning enough from her job to qualify for the loan, but that didn’t help. “I was working for a start-up that wasn’t listed with most of the leading banks, so it was very hard to persuade them to lend me a small amount. The entire process is pretty overwhelming.”

She was stuck sharing with strangers in temporary accommodation in Dubai Marina, paying Dh5,000 a month for three months while she waited for the loan to come through.

However, with persistence, the bank eventually agreed to lend to her.

“Finding somebody to talk to was really hard, I was put on hold countless times,” she recalls. “Getting a loan is especially difficult for those who want to borrow small amounts. Ironically, it is much easier if you are borrowing a large sum to buy a home, for example.”

Applying for credit took a couple more weeks, but then things started to get easier. “Once you are in the system, things improve dramatically. Finding a studio wasn’t difficult at all. There was plenty of supply at the time.”

Ms Bala also learnt how easy it is to run up debts in Dubai after she noticed many expats spending beyond their means.

“You really need to put a check on yourself,” she adds. “I pay my rent and utilities, save a set amount every month then indulge myself with some nice food or retail therapy.”

Dan Sherratt, 34, from the UK, decided to relocate to Dubai this year after visiting for a short break.

Flying into Dubai to stay with friends for a holiday in May this year was a dazzling experience for Mr Sherratt, who decided to quit his job in Cardiff, South Wales, and start afresh.

However, he found setting up his new life more challenging.

“I was offered a job at a Dubai comparison site and decided to go for it. It was all a bit of a whirlwind,” he recalls.

Like many Brits, the Dubai sunshine played a part in his decision, but UAE bureaucracy cast a long shadow. Although he had a job, it took him two months to get a permanent visa. “The process dragged on and on, and was a real pain,” he recalls.

Without a visa, he couldn’t open a bank account or rent a flat. “I was moving from temporary apartment to temporary apartment for three months. I didn’t even bother unpacking, because I knew I might be moving on.”

This made it harder to focus on his busy job. “Constantly having to move and not being able to get into a routine became quite stressful.”

With no bank account, Mr Sherratt took his salary in cash. “Having a month’s wages sitting around the house felt very alien to me. You have to keep on counting notes to see how much you have left.”

When he finally secured his visa, he says setting up a bank account with Emirates NBD was a quick process. “I wanted an account with online banking, useful mobile apps and the ability to send money to the UK free of charge. It had everything I needed, including a credit card with air miles.”

He was luckier than many expatriates, because he had sufficient savings to pay his annual rent of Dh135,000 on his first flat, which is based in the Dubai International Finance Centre. “Paying upfront also helped me secure a cheaper deal,” he adds.

Finding the right flat wasn’t easy in the cut-throat Dubai housing market, though.

“I lost two flats I really liked because I didn’t move fast enough,” says Mr Sherratt. “The same thing can happen in the UK, but it is even more aggressive over here.”

Mr Sherratt says the whole process was eased by his company’s relocation package, which included one month’s free rent.

His next challenge is to make a long-term financial success of his UAE tenure by saving in a pension.

“I’ve booked an appointment with an independent financial adviser to help me start planning,” he adds. “My early problems now feel like a blip.”


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