Dubai’s unemployed head for the beach

(BBC) – With sweat pouring down her face, Kate Shannon is first to cross the line.

There are cheers and hugs from her teammates, before she collapses onto the sand to catch her breath. It is only 9am but already 38 degrees celsius.

This is a warm-up with a difference. This is the Bad Times Boot Camp.

Kate is one of about 30 unemployed expats who sweat it out on Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach three times a week.

In the shadow of the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, they jog and sprint, do press-ups and sit-ups and occasionally an odd star jump or two.

And in their colourful t-shirts, they are a diverse group. Young and old, men and women and a whole host of nationalities.

But there is one thing they do have in common. They have all lost their jobs in Dubai in the last few months.

Networking and support

As the economic slowdown takes its toll here, laid-off expats have two choices. Either pack up and go home, as many have already done, or stick it out and look for another job.

That is what these expats are doing.

And in between the job hunting and interview preparation, they come to the boot camp.

“I’ve been looking for work but there’s nothing available in what I want to do,” says Kate, who lost her job in marketing.

“But the group is great. It’s very supportive, it gets you up in the morning and at the end of the session we chat, support each other and see how we’re all getting on.

“I’ve already made some contacts today for another possible opportunity, so it’s a really good idea.”

Great motivator

Alex Light, 26, got the idea when he lost his job as a business consultant in January after four years in Dubai.

Rather than dwelling on his bad luck, he created the Bad Times Boot Camp.

He runs the free sessions on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and for those feeling the stress of job hunting, there’s even a yoga group.

“Losing my job hit me pretty hard,” says Alex.

“But then I started training for a local marathon and noticed how much better I felt after exercise.

“So I got thinking, ‘what if I do something to get people up in a morning, get them out of the house and give them something to focus on?’,” he says.

“The response has been amazing. People say it helps set them up for the day and then they go off, motivated to apply for jobs. Otherwise, I think most of them would still be in bed.”

Expats depart

But while the expats at the boot camp do want to stay in Dubai, it is not quite so simple.

To live and work in Dubai you need a visa. But that visa is sponsored by your employer. Lose your job and you lose your visa.

In most cases, that means you have just six weeks to find a new job, and a new visa, before you have to leave the country.

In response to the widespread layoffs, however, many employers have been sympathetic to their former staff.

Some have not cancelled visas immediately, giving people more time to find other work.

But that has had only limited success in persuading people to stick around.

A report from the investment bank EFG-Hermes suggests that Dubai’s population could fall by up to 17% this year.

Skills shortages loom

So, in a bid to stem that tide of departing expats, the UAE government says it is now considering a change in the law that would allow redundant expats to stay in the country for up to six months while they look for work.

It is a move that will be welcomed by both expats and businesses.

After years of trying to attract the right skills and experience to the region, there is growing concern that it could be difficult to win back the staff who have left, if the market picks up again.

“Firms have spent millions recruiting people from overseas to work in the region,” says Matthew Taylor, international director at MacDonald and Company recruitment.

“There’s now a danger that if these people are laid off, they’ll go home and never come back. That means firms won’t have the right staff or skills when conditions improve.

“They’ll have to pay even more to entice them back. Especially those that got their fingers burned in Dubai this time round, they could take a lot of convincing”.

No benefits

When – or even if – things will get better is, of course, the million dollar question.

How long can expat workers stick around, hoping for conditions to improve?

In a big reversal of recent years, demand for jobs here now vastly outstrips supply.

And whilst the year-round sunshine and sandy beaches might make unemployment in Dubai more appealing than in many other places, it is not all fun in the sun.

Dubai is expensive, with rent, food and household bills amongst the highest in the world.

For those with families, the recent hike in the city’s school fees has hit hard.

And of course, there is no unemployment benefit or state support for those feeling the pinch.

Gaining confidence

Back on the beach, the expats are turning to each other for support instead.

Thousands of miles from home, family and friends, the group becomes an adopted family.

“It’s nice to know that other people are in the same situation as you,” says Kelly Grant, who lost her job with an events management firm last week.

“I think it’s good for morale. I’m not sat around the house feeling sorry for myself. It’s made me realise there are other people out there with great CVs and great experience, people that had really good jobs, but were also made redundant.

“It means you don’t feel so bad about yourself.”

But as well as support, the group is about networking too. In Dubai’s traditionally closed society, finding work is all about who you know.

“You never know, someone might have heard about an opening somewhere, or they may know someone who works at the firm you’re applying to,” says Desmond Soon, one of the boot campers who was made redundant from his marketing job earlier this year.

But could the boot camp become a victim of its own success? What happens to the group if everyone finds work?

“Brilliant,” says Alex. “That’s what we’re here for.

“I don’t want to see anyone left in my boot camp. I want everyone to be in work. We’ve already had several success stories. People email me saying they can’t come any more because they’ve found a job. That’s what I want”.

Career plan

But in the meantime, Alex is working on plans to expand the concept to neighbouring Abu Dhabi.

But to do that he needs financial backing.

“I’m happy to give my time for free,” he says. “But if I want to open more groups, I need to employ staff and that costs money.”

Alex is already in talks with a number of potential sponsors.

His ultimate aim is to turn this into a career.

“If I can run these free classes, but take a small wage for myself from the sponsorship, that’d be great,” he says.

If the plan works, he’ll be able to add his own name to the list of expats who’ve found work at the Bad Times Boot Camp.

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