Voting for Dubai — with their feet

File photo by M. Sajjad
File photo by M. Sajjad

There are people who got smitten by the city’s charm during brief visits, even stopovers, and returned for good... to stay

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By Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Fri 3 Sep 2021, 10:47 PM

If life imitates art, so does the pattern of people besotted by a city they choose to call home. Born and raised in different parts of the world, catapulted onto various stages of careers, and dictated by varying circumstances, it is fascinating to find a group of individuals who went through the following — a visit to Dubai, often brief, maybe even a chance encounter, turning into a life-long connection. The connection may have been established by a parents’ job, in some cases egged on by a doting grandparent, or a connection made in the south of France; they all led in one direction. Yet, once bitten, they converted forever.

Over 2020, when international travel was dramatically restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dubai’s global market share rose by 0.3 per cent year on year. It was the only city to register a positive spike when international tourism declined by 74 per cent. However, if any move is the outcome of a brief encounter, it says something about the individual and the city they have chosen to inhabit. It has to be more than a karmic connection, over and beyond a cost-benefit analysis, and a vote with the feet.

Career moves

Valérie Herring was born in Vienna and grew up in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. Her idea of the Middle East was probably based on the Disney movie Aladdin and the tales of 1001 Nights. “I thought of Dubai as ‘exotic’, but also a hub for business, trade, innovation, financial services, tourism, and the arts,” says Herring.

Herring’s tryst with Dubai endured with repeat vacations in the city with her mom for 10 years. In 2016, while studying for her Bachelor’s degree in Rome, she had to do a summer internship. “When I asked around with family and friends whether anyone had any connections anywhere in the world, preferably in media, where I could intern, my uncle’s girlfriend gave me a business card of someone she had met at the beach in the south of France. A couple of months later, I found myself at Al-Arabiya English in Dubai,” says Herring.

It proved to be a rough beginning with Ramadan falling in June. Not ideal, to say the least. However, that also meant her work ended at 2pm. “Even though it was hot, I had the best time and wanted to come back to live here ever since,” she says.

Herring spent her university years in Rome, across Morocco, in Paris, London, and Beirut. This is when some people realise that they have gotten “living in different parts of the world” out of their system and decide to return home. For others, like her, it is realisation that home no longer feels like home.

“The choice not to live in Europe was clear, but the question was, where then? When I lived in London, I had taken up Arabic with Fartun, a Saudi-Somali woman. She was the best teacher, and I ended up studying with her twice a week for three years.” Herring’s planned move to Dubai gained momentum.

“Dubai offers many opportunities, and I have friends from all walks of life that ended up here. I would be no stranger to the city and also not be alone. It is safe. It is a place where one can build a career and live an exciting life. There is no place I would rather be,” she says.

Laying the foundation

Laurent De Brabandt had a similar early life. Born in Hanover, Germany, he spent his childhood in Switzerland before heading to the UK for boarding school. De Brabandt visited Dubai with his sister in the late 90s for the first time. “I recall simply looking forward to escaping the London rain and finally meeting a camel, and although I finally managed to do the latter, I was simply blown away by the welcoming cultural heritage and modern synthesis that was before me,” he says.

De Brabandt and his family were at the opening of the Burj Al Arab, and they all got blown away by the incredible energy. “Soon after our first visit, my family and I would be in the UAE four to six times a year in some shape or form, and it soon became a hub for business and social elements. It personally hit me that there was no other city I found myself in, in which I would bump into old friends or business partners or make lasting connections so dynamically,” he says.

It became a natural step to relocate to the UAE, especially with the newly-created De Brabandt Foundation, which he wanted to establish in the region. “The Swiss headquartered non-profit advocates for sustainable tourism and reshaping the way we travel, and we have been fortunate to have found like-minded partners to be part of some incredible initiatives in the region,” says De Brabandt.

According to him, one of the key motivating factors was Dubai’s vast diversity. “People from abroad often underestimate the city in merely being a luxury holiday destination — which it certainly is — but neglects the incredible facets of the communities and both creativity and hunger for business initiatives,” he says.

The creative sphere

With a childhood well spent in India’s city of nawabs, Lucknow, and a happening career in New Delhi and Mumbai, Roshan Abbas’s many hats don’t fit his mantlepiece. Besides being a TV and radio host, producer, event manager, and creative director, he is also a film and theatre director, lyricist, CEO, angel investor, serial entrepreneur, author, and public speaking coach. For someone as creative and diverse, Dubai had to be a natural fit, and understandably not devoid of the drama. He chooses to call it “an interesting story.”

In November 2020, his family and cousins ended up at the Marina for a yacht cruise during a holiday in Dubai. The weather and ambience were excellent, and Abbas said to himself, “This is the kind of a place I could live in.” The family had another 15 days in Dubai and moved to the Marriott at the Marina. “We were on the 27th floor, and every day when we looked from our balcony, my wife used to say, ‘The building across the street (Jumeirah Living, Marina Gate) looks very nice’.”

Within a week, she was looking at options, a property agent in tow. While they flirted with the mouthwatering prospect of a waterfront living, their trip to Dubai kept getting extended, and Abbas ended up meeting a whole bunch of people matching his areas of interest. “I met Gautam (Goenka) at The Junction, others at Al-Serkal, Rashmi (Kotriwal). It felt that a new world of people was opening in front of me,” says Abbas.

Back in India in January 2021, Abbas’ pursuit for more international bases for Kommune — a performing art collective for storytellers he had co-founded — prompted a fresh home-hunt. “Lo and behold, by the last week of March, we put a deposit on an apartment.” And then, “the strangest thing happened”. When the family entered the apartment in April and looked out from that balcony, they realised it was the same 27th floor unit they used to look on during their stay at the Marriott.

“Ever since, we have quickly set up Kommune UAE there. I feel that you set up a new base to build something internationally; Dubai is now where I would like to be. It has the best of cuisines, the best of company, the best of a multicultural atmosphere,” says Abbas.

Indeed, it is not so much about the buildings, but about the people. “I love that there are such wonderful individuals whose stories I am dying to hear and whose stories I am dying to tell.”

A generous scholarship

Besides the UAE, Alexander M. Wegner has worked in Germany, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia as a communications strategist. Advising high-profile clients, he specialises in brand building, reputation management, and strategic positioning. Wegner first contemplated moving to Dubai on a Sunday morning in October 2015. “Nestled in a king-size bed of a waterfront-facing room at the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, I watched the sunrise above the horizon, illuminating an armada of yachts lined up along the shore of the Dubai Creek,” he says, with a touch of nostalgia.

His move dream was fulfilled years later when a headhunter reached out to him on LinkedIn. “It was for a role that would challenge me to test what I was made of, allowing me to build a career in a region I had already spent over a third of my life in. I quit a job I would otherwise have stayed in, vacated my flat, and boarded a Lufthansa flight to the UAE,” says Wegner.

Wegner was adopted at the age of just two weeks and mostly raised in a small, riverside town in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. He also lived in Riyadh, where his father was a telecommunications engineer, working as an advisor to Saudi Telecom. Of the Dubai he visited in the late 1990s, he only has vague memories.

Many years later, he visited Dubai for an event hosted by the World Economic Forum. “At the time, Dubai appeared to me as a socioeconomic nexus, a welcoming, buzzing metropolis, defined not by probability but possibilities; for Dubai, the sky set the limit,” Wegner says. He calls his move in early 2018 a career decision, thanks to a generous scholarship.

Throughout these years, he was trying to find a resonance with his surroundings. “No matter how much I, a German-born black man, tried to fit in, I kept feeling out of place. Though the thought of having to leave behind family, old friends, and wonderful colleagues made me hesitate, moving to Dubai just felt right,” says Wegner.

Quoting Faulkner — “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore” — Wegner concludes: “And so, I dove into open water.”

The cocktail of decision-making

For any individual to make a move of this kind, several factors have to combine. However, there is always a trigger, which is usually difficult to pinpoint. Culture, weather, and food could all be contributing factors, but it is typically an individual, and a circumstance that prompts a change, provided it is voluntary.

When weighing the possibility of a move to Dubai, Valérie Herring happened to be living with her grandmother, who was “the sweetest and took very good care”. However, having grown up in an entirely different time, “first didn’t understand why she had to move so far way.” Eventually, she got around to accepting her decision. “She has supported me throughout, and I am looking forward to her visit to show her around this place that I love so much,” says Herring.

Laurent De Brabandt had the pleasure of befriending Gerald Lawless, the former Jumeirah Group CEO, who opened his eyes to the city’s potential. However, the one individual who vocalised that he must move to the UAE was a bedouin from the Otaibah tribe whose date farm he visited. “I listened to his incredible stories and told him some anecdotes from Europe, and I still try to visit him and his family with mine whenever we can,” says De Brabandt.

For Roshan Abbas, what stands out as a trigger was his automatic response to his wife’s unplanned house hunt — “Dekhne main kya harj hai? (what’s the harm in taking a look?).” It marked the culmination of everything going around in his head about the possibility of making Dubai home.

In his younger years, Alexander Wegner’s parents worked in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. “These adventures changed the trajectory of our lives and gave rise to memories we cherish to this date,” he says. For him, “Germany may be homeland — or Heimat — but I now call Dubai home.” Wegner is grateful to continue this association “for as long as its eclectic people are willing to host me — one day, Insha’Allah, as a dual Emirati-German citizen.”

(Ehtesham Shahid is an editor/writer/journalist based in Dubai. He tweets @e2sham)

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