When Walid Ataya left Lebanon for Dubai after last summer’s war, he never imagined that a year later he would be back. “I was offered a salary three times more than I was making in Beirut,” he says. “The decision to go was easy.” But the 44-year-old lawyer soon found that after housing and schooling for his children, he had less disposable income than he had at home. “I knew Dubai was expensive,” he shakes his head ruefully, “but I had no idea it would be that expensive.”
The most expensive city in the Middle East after Tel Aviv and one of the 50 most expensive places to live in the world, Dubai isn’t getting cheaper any time soon. A report commissioned this year by bayt.com, an Arab online recruitment portal, suggests the cost of living in Dubai has risen 28 per cent since 2006.
The rise is rent-driven. Even with Dubai’s blink-and-you’ve-missed-it pace of growth, demand for new properties outstrips availability. Many new properties are pre-purchased by speculators eager to make a quick return. Most of Dubai’s residents, 85 per cent of whom are expats on short- to medium-term contracts, do not buy property. Consequently, rents have more than doubled in some areas since the beginning of 2005 and in gated communities such as Emirates Hills and International City prices have risen by 30 to 65 per cent since January.
With Emirati nationals entitled to free healthcare, education and other forms of support and most westerners on generous expatriate packages, it is Dubai’s Asian and Arab residents, the bulk of its population, who have been hardest hit.
Increasing numbers now choose to live in neighbouring Emirates and commute. Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and Ajman in particular have benefited and are cashing in with huge new property developments of their own. Meanwhile, some western residents, who have seen their disposable incomes drop in recent years, are moving to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, countries that unlike Dubai are still considered hardship postings and where salaries are 30 or 40 per cent higher.
For now, this outflow is still a trickle but with countries like Qatar and Oman eager to take its place, Dubai knows it needs to remain competitive. Last year, the government introduced a 7 per cent cap on rent increases. While this has had some effect on existing rents, new rents are not covered and in a flurry of highly publicised cases, new residents moving into existing estates have discovered that they are paying twice as much as their neighbours.
Is Dubai becoming a victim of its own success? Possibly, but in many ways it is light years ahead of its competitors. Plus, it is unlikely that a city that went from backwater port to global hub in under 30 years is going to give in without putting up a good fight.
In power since 1967
Bongo is fond of claiming to be the world’s longest-serving elected head of state but allegations of shenanigans in Gabonese elections necessitate the application of inverted commas around “elected”. He won another seven-year term in 2005 with 79.2 per cent of the vote and, at 71, the rule of this father of 30-odd children is beginning to have the feel of president-for-life about it.
The setting sounds unlikely: a veiled woman browsing the walls of an unlicensed tattoo parlour in the centre of an ancient Middle Eastern city. But in a region where outward declarations of love or individuality are unbecoming, women have found another way of striking out – tattoos.
It’s not the easiest of manoeuvres as there are just a few tattoo artists in the Middle East – operating out of their homes or in unauthorised premises – but escaping from vacationing parents in Cairo to sneak some tattoo-time in has become something of a trend for Saudi and Kuwaiti women.
“I had my boyfriend’s name tattooed across my belly,” says Nahla, a 26-year-old Saudi national. “And then we broke up, so I had to find a way to come back to Cairo and have something done over the top of it. She now has a collage of flowers and butterflies sprawled across her abdomen. “Men bring their girlfriends to me,” says Mark, a tattooist who shuttles between Cairo and Dubai. “Their veiled girlfriends!” Tattooists such as Mark can make up to $1,000 (€745) a day and he is booked for weeks in advance. “They respect the art,” he says of his female clients.