Michelle Chaaya, 32, was a human resources professional at a multinational firm in Lebanon until a few months ago. She now works as a bartender in Dubai, sending money to her family back home where the financial crisis has left a lot of people destitute.
The United Arab Emirates has long been a destination for Lebanese businesses and professionals, propelled by instability in their tiny country.
Those who like Chaaya came to the UAE in the past year are leaving behind a Lebanon that was already in dire straits before a huge chemical blast tore through Beirut in August, exacerbating a financial meltdown that has seen the currency collapse and jobs vanish.
“After the explosion we felt like we were hopeless. So the first opportunity to travel outside Lebanon, I took it,” Chaaya said.
Fadi Iskanderani, one of Lebanon’s few pediatric surgeons who relocated to Dubai this month, said the plummeting currency reduced his pay by 95 percent for the same job.
After finishing his training abroad, he returned to his home to help in the rebuilding of his country following years of civil war. It was a difficult decision to leave.
Lebanon’s crisis has propelled more than half the population into poverty, locked depositors out of bank accounts and worsened shortages of basic goods.
The country’s prized education and medical sectors have seen talent leave in droves: around 1,200 doctors are estimated to have left Lebanon.
Psychiatrist Joseph Khoury, who moved to Dubai with his family this year, claims that Lebanese doctors are filling entire departments in the Gulf state’s hospitals.
“The pace of doctors coming from Lebanon is astonishing, “ Khoury said.
The UAE is stepping up efforts to attract and retain skilled workers as competition for talent heats up in the Gulf Arab region where countries are moving to diversify economies away from oil revenues.
In the UAE, where non-citizen visas are traditionally related to employment, select investors and qualified professionals are being offered new long-term 5- or 10-year renewable resident visas, as well as the possibility of citizenship.
Abed Mahfouz, a Lebanese bridal couture designer, said he was told he could apply for a ‘golden visa.’
After the Beirut blast destroyed his business, Mahfouz re-opened this month in a luxury mall in Dubai, a tourism and trade hub that attracts the high-end customers he caters to.
“Dubai has taken the place of Beirut. What I have seen here (this mall) for the past week or 10 days is what I used to see in Lebanon 4-5 years ago: Customers, people shopping,” he said.
However, unlike Lebanon’s professional elite, many younger people in the UAE are having difficulty finding work.
Soha, 28, came to Dubai to look for work after the bookshop cafe where she was employed in Beirut was damaged in the port explosion.
“You come from this tiny pool in Lebanon, so my CV looks like nothing, even though I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot,” said Soha, who declined to give her surname. She is rallying herself for more job seeking in Dubai, a city that could give her the sense of safety she longs for.
“I just wanted to be in a place where I could relax and not worry about things blowing at any moment.”
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