CAIRO: Was the ritzy, superlative-laden allure of Dubai too good to be true? Ask Ismail Farid.
Farid, 31, was working in the marketing branch of Coldwell Banker in the United Arab Emirates last November when he caught wind that his department’s staff, which had swollen from two to seven employees during boom times, was due for a trim.
“I was going in the morning, not doing anything, then leaving at the end of the day, he said. So he hopped on a flight to Egypt, where he met a friend who mentioned the construction firm where she worked was hiring. After landing a new job, Farid came home, leaving an increasingly gloomy Dubai behind.
Farid was lucky, in a sense. As the global recession batters the economies of the Persian Gulf, stories like his are expected to abound in Egypt – albeit without such happy endings.
Local media recently reported that up to half a million Egyptians may return this year, straining an economy already burdened with high rates of joblessness and poverty.
For now, such figures are guesswork. Officials have mostly declined to release information regarding the number of returnees, allowing rumors to mushroom and fostering claims that Egypt and other states are in denial.
It is largely agreed, however, that the return will be significant and that it will mean more jobless Egyptians soon.
“During 2009, the picture will become worse rather than better, unfortunately, said Sultan Abou-Ali, a former minister and author of a recent report on the impact of the economic crisis on Egypt.
The global slowdown has already sapped jobs in tourism and manufacturing in Egypt, Abou-Ali said. Add to this that the Gulf’s property boom is coming to a sudden and severe end, dragging down other sectors that employ many Egyptian expatriates, such as marketing and sales.
Finance is also suffering in both Egypt and Dubai, Farid said, noting that some of his friends have been asked to work solely on commission in recent months.
Remittances, a big source of household income in Egypt, are likely to fall further as these jobs vanish.
For national governments, mounting unemployment bears political risks.
Experts have often pointed to the region’s lack of stable employment opportunities as a major factor in the growth of anti-state radicalism.
Business Monitor International, a British research firm that analyzes political risk, recently downgraded its short-term rating for Egypt, citing unemployment worries.
“Politically, this year will be even harder than last year, the company noted in a report. “We expect a significant influx of returning workers from the Gulf, where growth is slowing. This coincides with an increase in domestic anger towards the government over the Gaza conflict, which will boost the already popular Muslim Brotherhood.
So far, Egypt has kept mostly silent about the returnees. The Ministry of Manpower and Emigration, which deals with returning workers, declined to release statistics or comment for this article.
The UAE has been equally reticent. A representative at the Dubai Department of Naturalization and Residency – himself an Egyptian – said the number of Arab workers who have returned to their home countries from the Gulf state is classified. The nation’s legislature is considering imposing a fine for organizations that publish glum economic news.
Such measures have stoked a perception that regional governments are either frightened or indifferent.
Writing on her website “Egyptian Chronicles late last month, the blogger Zeinobia vented her impatience with what she saw as the state’s lackluster reaction to the crisis: “The government does not want to admit [that workers are returning] because it knows that those expats from employees and workers mean more burden it can’t handle, she wrote. “Those expats won’t find jobs easily in Egypt.
Officials here have long insisted that they are focused on creating jobs, an often thorny task given Egypt’s burgeoning population and overburdened education system.
But it is unclear just how much they can do to accommodate the returning workers. Traditional realms of government spending, such as infrastructure, tend to benefit unskilled or semi-skilled laborers, whereas many returning Egyptians are professionals.
Yet there is room for more action, critics say.
“They [the state] are not doing enough, Abou-Ali said, “mainly in the [areas of] monetary and short-term policies, trade policies, foreign exchange rate, fiscal policy, as well as trying to mobilize people to react in a proper way to the crisis and encourage the private sector to be more optimistic.
Broader coordination between governments could also ease repatriation, according to Mauro Guillen, a professor of international management at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Governments can obviously do much more, he said. “These sudden movements are highly disruptive. For example, he said, Spain has offered cash payments to immigrants who wish to return and give up their residency status.
Farid suggested that the state could allay matters further by helping workers get their possessions home. “You live in the Gulf for three years, you’re going to accumulate things – furniture, a TV, a fridge, he said. “You have a life there.
Farid himself said he couldn’t sell his car in Dubai. Because of customs taxes aimed at protecting local manufacturing, it would have cost him half a million pounds to bring it to Egypt (the car was only worth LE 200,000).
This fee could be lowered or removed for people who can prove that they have owned a car for several years and do not intend to sell it, he said.
For years, breakneck economic growth in the Gulf’s oil-rich countries drew skilled Egyptians in droves.
Now, wide-stretching recession is reportedly draining the population of countries such as the UAE, where fewer than 20 percent of residents are Emirati nationals. Visas in Dubai expire after a month without employment, meaning even a short slowdown can spark a large exodus.
Yet while many returnees are likely to have trouble finding work back home, they will at least have some degree of support, Farid said.
“In Dubai, you have no one to fall on to, he said. “At least here you have family, friends.