By Justine Gerardy
Shehnaz Cassim Moosa lives on the trunk of a giant palm-tree island along Dubai's beachfront strip. She works for an international property developer down the road and weekends are spent learning to ski at a snow slope built inside a shopping mall.
"It's an interesting place. Quite astounding," says the 26-year-old Durbanite, pointing to a ruling sheikh's arrival by helicopter.
Shehnaz and her husband Junaid are part of the growing number of South Africans who have chosen the glitz of Dubai over traditional destinations of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
In doing so, they join a multicultural society in which more than 80 percent of people in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) commercial capital are foreigners.
"South African names pop up all over the place," says Nigel Harvey, chief executive of Murray and Roberts for the Middle East and president of the SA Business Council-UAE. "The bottom line is that South Africans have excelled here. They're coming in all the time."
South Africans have added much value to the Dubai skyline with several landmark buildings such as the so-called "seven star" Burj Al Arab hotel that features 18 carat gold finishes, a pillow menu with 13 different choices, personal butlers and Rolls Royce-driving chauffeurs. They are also working on the new airport that has a target capacity of 60 million arrivals by 2010.
The number of South Africans in Dubai was put at anywhere between 40 000 and 100 000, with one expat referring to the city as another South African province.
Research has shown that the South Africans opting for the UAE are a highly skilled, educated, professional, cosmopolitan and mobile set. The top favoured sectors are construction, medicine, hospitality, management and education.
"Dubai and the UAE is fast becoming one of the top destinations for South Africans wanting to live and work overseas," says Anco Fourie in a MA thesis she wrote on the "brain drain" to Dubai.
The desert state has challenged the traditional migration trend by being Middle Eastern, predominantly Arab, Muslim, and being under royal and not democratic rule. It is also a relatively new destination.
Moosa, who read for her MA degree in London, was attracted by Dubai's location for future travel in Asia and the Middle East. In terms of lifestyle, the city replicates a middle-class life back home but the razzle-dazzle is noticeable.
"It's very bling-bling. People are a lot more dressed up and put a lot more effort into looking good. Dubai is a pretty place for pretty people."
In her study, Fourie found that 50 percent of South Africans moving to Dubai were graduates, with a quarter having post-graduate qualifications. Only 15 percent were in entry-level or non-management positions.
Top reasons for leaving South Africa are to gain international experience, and high crime levels.
Matthew and Lucy Winter and their four young children relocated to Dubai nearly three years ago and have no plans to return to South Africa in the near future.
"We live a comfortable and relaxed family life - fairly stress free. The community spirit is quite strong and it's great to have friends of different nationalities and cultures," the couple say.
The Winters live in a large villa-style complex with communal parks and swimming pools. In their spare time, they visit beaches, mountains, go snorkelling and camping. And the family believe life is good for their home-schooled children, with safe parks and beaches.
"We have taken the decision to home-school them as the price of schooling is very high and travelling is stressful on the children as well as myself," says Lucy.
"For the time being, we are quite settled here. After being here for nearly three years, we don't really want to return to SA where crime and government corruption is a great concern."
The chief executive of Durban-based recruitment agency York Personnel Services, Rob Fidler, says Dubai's glamour makes it the number one destination in the Gulf.
"Dubai has grown amazingly over the past 10 years and rapidly in the last seven to eight years. It's been a steady stream of people going there."
The idea for most jobseekers is that Dubai is a tax-free goldpot of fabulous money-earning opportunities. However, Fidler says that while top professionals make good money, this is not always the case further down the job ladder, with Dubai having grown increasingly expensive.
Petrol is rumoured to be cheaper than water and cars are astoundingly cheap. This week a 2008 Toyota Prado V6 4x4 with 3 500km on the clock was advertised online for R228 625 - half the price offered at a South African dealership of R488 500.
However, accommodation and schooling are pricey. And when it comes to negatives, traffic and humid "killer" summer temperatures that can hit 480C are also listed. A six-day work week is also in place for some companies.
A random snap look at online accommodation this week highlighted adverts for a studio flat, with no kitchen, at R62 000 for the year. A four-bedroom villa lease was priced at nearly R40 000 per month while the highest asking price for a two-bedroom flat was R11 million per year.
According to UAE immigration laws, there is no option for foreigners to become citizens and non-nationals have only recently been able to buy freehold property.
For those with children, education costs are a huge knock if unsubsidised by employers, with expats having to opt for private schools as foreign children are not eligible for the local schools that cater for the resident Arab population.
Some South Africans refer to the traffic with expletives. A tour guide tells of how a 20km commute from the neighbouring Sharjah state, often chosen for its lower accommodation costs, is a 90-minute to two-hour trip. And four hours of rain reportedly caused 513 accidents a few years ago.
The geographical location and multicultural make-up of Dubai society is a huge benefit for many working there. "You're straight away giving your family an opportunity to really appreciate different parts of the world that are relatively close by," says Harvey, who has been in Dubai with his family since 2004.
"Classes (at schools) are hugely multicultural. You look through their yearbooks and it's often that you don't get four kids from the same nationality in one class."
With an expat population of more than 80 percent, Dubai grew from a small fishing and pearling village 30 years ago after oil was discovered. Diversification into other areas followed and oil only makes up 6 percent of the state's GDP.
The result is an international capital that is celebrated as a foreigner-friendly base for numerous multinationals and for its glossy shopping and thriving tourism industry.
As the city expands, construction is constant and driven by thousands of developing-world workers. These include massive futuristic projects such as the man-made islands of Palm Jumeirah and The World and the still-under-construction Burj Dubai, which aims to be the world's tallest building.
A former bluechip construction company worker, who does not want to be named, says his time in Dubai with his family was made of negatives as well as positives.
The buildings, the conversion of desert into a livable city, safety and cleanliness are points that have stood out during his four years there. "In Dubai, anything that is 10 years old is regarded as old. One can only imagine what will happen in the next 10 years."
However, the gloss does wear off, he says. "You do notice things that people don't tell you about or aren't made public to people. I got upset with that and it is part of the reason why we came back.
"You can have a good life in Dubai as long as you've got the right position and have enough money but if you're non-white, you see the tensions that exist."
The growing number of South Africans in Dubai led the Homecoming Revolution to hold its first recruitment event in the city to encourage South Africans to return home. A second is planned for May.
However, the organisation's managing director, Martine Schaffer, said while numbers were growing, the community was transient, with most South Africans planning to return home. Average stays are also shorter than those in traditional destinations like London, she adds.
"They all feel strongly about coming back to SA. Our research after the recruitment event showed there was no one that was going to live in Dubai forever."
South Africans tended to slot in well but would probably not opt to live there forever, agrees Harvey.
"People keep asking me what makes us different to any other nationality," he adds.
"I think we try to be co-operative and look for ways and means of making it work.
"I think it's because of what we've been through in South Africa. We had to adapt or else you were toast. You learn to co-operate and make a success of things."