Why are women queuing up for a new life abroad? And why is the UAE top of their bucket list? Jai Breitnauer investigates

When you live in a small and dynamic expat community like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, sometimes it’s easy to forget the rest of the world even exists. So, when I first read the research by Finaccord, the figures initially didn’t faze me. There are 50.5 million people living as expats worldwide, and about eight million of those live in the UAE.

In the last five years alone the global expat community has grown by 2.4 per cent year on year, with the majority leaving India. Around 70 per cent of those were moving for work, rather than love, retirement   or study. They predict another 6.2 million people to move abroad between now and 2017, and top of their list is Saudi Arabia, closely followed by the UAE.


Middle Eastern haven

Once I’d digested all the figures I was left with a burning question Finaccord hadn’t answered – how does all of this affect women? After all, we all know the stereotype of the ‘typical’ expat woman; trailing along behind her husband, making full use of the hired staff, filling her days with coffee mornings and volunteer work… But those of us who live expatriate know she is the exception, not the rule. So how has the face of the female expatriate changed? Well, a 2012 report from the Global Relocation Trends Survey shows that working female expats numbered at around three per cent in the 1980s, but that figure has grown to around 25 per cent. And even more heartening is that this figure is still on the increase – largely because women are becoming a more attractive prospect for overseas promotion than male counterparts.

“I consciously looked for a first job with an international consultancy that would hopefully give me opportunities to travel with work,” says Civil Engineer Geraldine Bean, 38, originally from Ireland. “My willingness to travel was a good thing, as far as they were concerned, and led to me being sent to Jordan in 1999 to help out on an irrigation project for three months.” In 2003 she was offered a permanent position in the UAE and has lived here ever since. Geraldine believes her career has been fast-tracked by that move.

“I had early exposure to levels of responsibility I would have had to wait longer for in the UK or elsewhere,” Geraldine says, although she admits she had to ‘prove’ herself when she first arrived. “As a woman working in the Middle East, you learn to approach business relationships in a different way. It’s not appropriate to be as aggressive as you might be in a western environment. It’s more about subtle diplomacy at work – relationships are very important in business here, as are the concepts of respect for seniority and not ‘losing face’ in front of others.”

Women, it seems, are better placed to cope with these nuances. One 2012 study showed that female expats fit into their new environment better than males, with sensitivity, empathy and respect for local customs and more diplomacy cited as essential skills women seem to have in abundance. A study a few years earlier, in 2005, showed career women more willing to make sacrifices for overseas assignments, and better placed to deal with the isolation. And a 2012 study by Accenture showed 80 per cent of women in the UAE were willing to take on extra responsibility to progress their career, making female expats in the UAE the most ambitious in the world.


A sense of adventure

But not all expats move because of a job offer. Indeed, a recent poll in the UK by AXA PPP International found that 39 per cent of Brits in 2013 were relocating without any work lined up. Five years ago, 55 per cent of British expats left the UK because of career opportunities, but in the wake of the recession it seems it’s not jobs, but the need for work/life balance and better weather fuelling a new breed of movers. With UAE salaries set to rise by 5.9 per cent, and the government planning to increase the workforce by 41 per cent between now and 2030, David Fuller of Emigrate2 ( believes the Emirates certainly has more than just good weather to offer.

“It’s largely the employment opportunities – not to mention high salaries – that attract so many expats to the country,” says Fuller. “Opportunities abound for trained finance workers, construction workers, healthcare workers and, increasingly, teachers. Teaching is one area where expat women are increasingly finding work, and the signs are that the number of women employed in the country is set to grow rapidly over the coming years.”

British Veterinary Nurse Georgina Firth, 34, moved to Dubai in 2006 for a change of environment. “I love it here – I have a better quality of life. I can go to the beach, I do lots of activities like dancing and horse riding. It’s very multicultural, l have friends from all corners of the globe. There’s lots of opportunity and people are generally more positive and happy than in the UK.” Georgina also feels blessed to live in the UAE as a woman. “It’s a very safe environment for a woman to live by herself. Western women get treated very well by people, especially the Emiratis.”


Michaela Heidenfelder, 33, from Berlin also came to the UAE for lifestyle rather than work. “When I finished my studies at my business school in Vienna my uncle was doing business in Dubai. I understood Dubai to be a very dynamic place, multicultural and fast growing.” That appealed to Michaela, who visited with her uncle in 2005 before securing a marketing job in the city. Coming from vibrant metropolitan centres like Berlin and Vienna, Michaela settled into the fast pace of life here quickly, and found the good weather, variety of people and abundance of free time almost addictive. She admits there are frustrations.

“I was drawn to come here because it is very multicultural, but in reality the cultures don’t mix that much. I miss the old buildings of Europe, the history, but I made a conscious decision to focus on the things I loved – the open-minded people, the ‘holiday feeling’ I still get driving in my car, even after nine years.”

And Michaela is a new breed of expat making the most of opportunities available in the UAE. Last year she gave up her marketing career to launch her own brand of ladies’ accessories, TA’ANSAMI (, and cites the affordability of help with cleaning, laundry etc as one of the big benefits of UAE living, as it gives her time to focus on her business start up.


Green grass of home

One of the biggest pitfalls for any relocate, whether they are expat wannabe or been away so long they’ve ‘gone native’, is homesickness. Indeed, the Brookfields relocation trends survey 2011 cited problems with family adjustment (32 per cent) and partner resistance (47 per cent) as the two biggest factors in failed relocations.

“The challenges that immigrants bound for the UAE face when emigrating are similar to those moving to any other country,” says David Fuller. “There will be the emotional issues that inevitably come from missing friends and family, while getting used to the culture shock of a new country. But the amount of expats already living and working in the UAE means that there will more likely than not be a ready-made support group of people from your home country who have been through similar experiences and emotions. Speaking to people who have been there and done that can be a huge help.”

Georgina says that at first, she missed rural England, saying: “I am from a small village in the beautiful countryside which is very green. I missed the open spaces and fresh air.” She admits you have to make a conscious decision to change your perspective. “Now I live in a great multicultural city, which is surrounded by some beautiful desert areas. And the sun is always shining!”

Geraldine also admits to missing Ireland, even though she wouldn’t go back. “When I visit I have a sense of not fitting in. You’re not around for the day-to-day stuff with family, which means that you don’t understand the ‘in’ jokes anymore, you weren’t there that one time when someone said something daft that everyone keeps reminding them of and teasing them about…you don’t know the ‘stories’ and have to be ‘brought up to speed’ on your own family’s comings and goings. It erodes your sense of belonging.”

For Michaela, this is just the price you pay for a better life. “Being an expatriate by choice is something that reflects in your personality, you have a different approach to life. There is something open minded about people that have made the choice to call a foreign place ‘home’,” she says. Michaela admits that it still feels strange to work over Christmas, and on Sundays, and that Berlin will always be a place where she knows instinctively how to go about things. She adds: “I’m the born expat; I always thought if there are places in the world that resonate with me, my personality and that make me happy – go for it. We’re not trees in the end, we can go.”