The brain and brawn drain

UAE, 1 Nov 2005

The United Arab Emirates is heading for a brain and brawn drain and nobody seems to see it coming. Consider this the early warning system for the impending B&B tsunami.

I am talking about the fact that this country is home to an inordinate number of expatriate workers who do everything from plant the flowers we enjoy along Sheikh Zayed Road to educating the leaders of tomorrow.

Yet, everyday it is becoming more and more difficult for the expatriate population from Bangalore to Boston to justify being here in the UAE. Take a good look around and then a long look in the mirror.

The expatriate worker in the UAE is invariably a shining example of ingenuity, innovation and determination that can be worked to the bone, and still comes back asking for more.

The UAE is without question the home of the expatriate 'A' team. Take another look in that mirror and congratulate yourself.

Emaar, Nakheel, Dubai Holding, Emirates Airlines, Al Futtaim Group, and the list could go on and on, are all examples of success stories which owe a sizeable amount of gratitude to the expatriate workers in their employ.

The UAE is being built, as you read this rant, with the blood, sweat and tears of a thriving expatriate population. But how much longer is the UAE going to be able to attract the expatriate 'A' team or the 'B' or even 'C' team for that matter?

It doesn't take a telescope to see that the light is starting to appear at the end of the tunnel as far as the glory days go for the expatriate worker in the UAE.

The departure of those expatriate workers who make the UAE shine is starting.

And even more troubling is the fact that those 'A' team expatriates who would have been attracted to work here, as little as a year ago, are thinking twice about the move.

While the future is still bright we no longer need to be wearing sunglasses. Do you want to live in a high-rise built by the 'D' team? Do you want to have surgery done by a 'D' team doctor?

Do you want your children educated to the 'D' standard because that is the best you can get?

Of course you don't want anything less than the 'A' standard. But the 'D' standard may be the best you can hope for if something isn't done very soon to reverse what has been happening over the last several years.

Khalif Al Habtoor, member of the Dubai Economic Council and chairman of the Al Habtoor group, earlier this year questioned why an oil producing country like the UAE, with huge oil revenues as a source of national income, is passing on price increases to the public when it is fully aware of the ripple effect this would have across the economy.

Everything from a shwarma to a pedicure is tied to petrol prices in the UAE.

Al Habtoor clearly realises the simple fact that it is the competitive advantage of the UAE, which has allowed it to attract the best and brightest to facilitate extraordinary growth, and wonders out loud if this advantage is not being eroded. Look around, things are changing and changing fast.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in a study conducted between 2001 and 2005 has shown that food prices have increased in some cases by as much as 25 per cent, and this is before the last round of petrol increases.

Inflation and the cost of living are beginning to make the UAE less attractive, even to the common labourer who is no longer willing to live in cramped, dirty, squalid conditions for the salary whose transportable value is a shadow of what it once was.

GulfTalent has suggested that in general a seven per cent increase in compensation packages has been seen in the GCC this year due to inflation and buoyant economic conditions.

But are the compensation packages of workers across the board going up or only those in the upper echelons of the private sector?

Yes that was a rhetorical question. And then there is the public sector pay adjustment that has been often cited by all major media as both a response and simultaneous cause of inflation in the UAE.

Yet, I for one have yet to meet a federal public service employee, national or expatriate, who received this adjustment. What I am getting at is simple.

Exceptional growth and development of the magnitude the UAE has grown accustomed to are only possible if the best and brightest, from the labourer to the professional, are encouraged to relocate to here.

While the work environment today in the UAE still seems able to attract good candidates, the polish is definitely coming off the pot.

Unless something is done very soon to reverse the downhill slide in compensation and working environments the UAE is certain to experience an exodus of the brain and brawn 'A' team which fuels the economic expansion that has put the UAE on the map. And believe me, nobody wants that.