Dubai. It sounds like a dream come true, with high tax free wages, glamorous lifestyle and non-stop parties. Indeed Dubai lures over 20,000 Brits and 7,000 Aussies a year to pack up and head to the Middle East.
Sure, they know the risks. Gay people had better keep quiet or they face harsh punishment ranging from jail to even the death penalty. Not married to your girlfriend? Then sex is illegal and also mandates at least jail, with the possibility of the death penalty. The UAE is one of 13 countries in the world that still punishes atheism with death. You had better not insult the UAE, be rude to somebody, “like” an unregistered charity on Facebook or get drunk in the wrong place or you are looking at punishments ranging from jail to execution.
The list goes on and the dangers are great, but we rationalise. “It’s their country, we’ll live by their rules,” cry the expats, and with the glint of tax free earnings in their eye, they put the risks out of their mind.
The perils at work are significant too, although not as publicised. For entrepreneurs wanting to set up a company in this rich market, by law they have to have an Emirati business partner. There are countless documented cases of the local partner filing trumped up charges against their foreign partners and blackmailing them for money, or even stealing the business from under them. One of the most famous being Dr Haddad, a Londoner reported to have had KM Holding (a company valued at around $1/2 billion stolen from him by the Royal Family. His business partner allegedly texted him one day, telling him to sell his half of the company for a pittance or he would go to jail. Haddad thought it was a joke until a series of incredible events led to a famous lawyer defrauding him of his half of the company and gifting it to the Royal family.
But surely you can be careful who you associate with? Can’t you avoid trouble by being careful who you do business with and who you work for?
The short answer is 'not really.' British and Australian businessmen who one might expect to know better due to their background in maturely regulated business environments, have no problem taking advantage of the lack of oversight.
Harry (name changed) was head of Digital Sales, then Event Sales for a Dubai based media company. Despite the facade of respectability, the company was steeped in a culture of racism and behaviour that would land them jail terms in the UK.
“When I was offered the job I was elated,” Harry tells us. “It was owned and run by English businessmen and they seemed honest and friendly. The wages were good and the office seemed to have a healthy culture.
“It was only a week or so in that the cracks started to appear. The MD turned out to have a mercurial temper, he loved to shout at and belittle people to confirm his authority.
“This isn’t the end of the world, I mean who hasn’t had to put up with a mean spirited boss? But it was only the start. Racism for example is rife in the UAE, but this was one area where I believed English senior management would set an example.”
“My MD and other bosses joked about how little they would pay an Indian national to do the same job as an English person, despite having the same qualifications. There is no minimum wage in the UAE, so bosses know they can hire people from a poorer background and pay them less. All the glittering skyscrapers and feats of architecture were only possible because of what amounts to modern day slavery.
"The English bosses take full advantage of the repulsive rules. They would give me permission to take on an extra staff member, but they'd tell me ‘get an Indian or Filipino, save us some money.’ I did manage to get wages for a couple of the Indian nationals I recruited raised to almost on a par with their Western counterparts, but it was begrudged, and the MD was always pressuring them to justify the ‘high’ wages by coming in weekends etc.
When I left it was because the media company was in trouble. A lot of businesses in the UAE wouldn’t survive in Western countries where they would have to pay tax and fair wages, and our company was very badly run. Some of our suppliers hadn’t been paid in years. The MD’s solution was to save money by cutting the sales team down by two thirds. He let all of the highest performers go, including me.
“For myself it was not a problem, I was immediately offered a job on higher wages by another media company. The company I was leaving heard about this but they didn’t have a workable non-compete clause. They resorted to type and used illegal dirty tricks. They asked for my passport so they could ‘cancel my visa’ but rather than return it, they kept it for months. In the meantime my rent, loans, credit cards and living expenses had to be paid.
“There was no way to get my passport back from them, so I was forced to start work for the competing company without my new visa. Turns out that was what my previous employer was waiting for. He placed an Immigration Case and a Labour Case against me for working for someone else while I was still on their visa, both of which would have landed me in jail. They only dropped the cases when I agreed to go back to work for them but for a fraction of the wages.
“By now, in debt and unable to pay my loans and rent backlog, let alone continue the new payments I was forced to flee the country owing money, which I am still struggling to pay back. If I had stayed I would be looking at a 3 year prison sentence, because the UAE treats debt as a criminal matter, rather than a civil one like Western nations.”
You might think, ‘sure, but there are always bad apples.’ Maybe, but even bosses who have worked at the very top levels in the Western world are not immune to behaviour that their home countries would be revolted by.
Shayne Nelson is the Australian former CEO of Westpac, one of Australia’s largest banks. He accepted a role in the UAE as CEO of Emirates National Bank of Dubai, which jails customers for missing even small credit card or loan payments. Mr Nelson, rather than bringing his culture of running a successful bank without threatening customers with jail, adjusted seamlessly to the UAE banking culture.
Radha Stirling, CEO of British based NGO Detained In Dubai issued the following statement:
“Expats used to the protections of Western society should be careful when travelling to, or working in, Dubai. As a worker or a customer you should not assume the same rights and safety as you are accustomed to and we caution people not to let the promise of high tax free wages blind you to the risks involved with an unfamiliar legal and social system.”