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The oasis of opportunity

Its huge number of stores makes Dubai a land of opportunity for expat fashion and retail staff. So what is life like there?

Dubai's rapid growth as a retail, business and holiday centre has created a wealth of opportunities for expats seeking a slice of the pie. The pace of change has been dramatic. It has been said that Dubai, along with other emirates in the United Arab Emirates, has made the transition from ancient souks to super malls in less than a generation. By 2006, the region had 70 million sq ft of shopping centres - a figure set to grow to more than 76 million sq ft by 2008. This has led to a wealth of retail and fashion jobs for Brits willing to relocate overseas.

The malls are huge. The Middle East's largest, Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, is owned by Majid Al Futtaim and is billed as the world's first indoor shopping resort. The 2.4 million sq ft scheme houses retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Hugo Boss, Burberry, Mango, Gucci and Next.

Helen Taylor, branch manager at recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel, says Dubai sells itself to those looking to work in the Middle East. "Dubai is seen as a millionaire's playground and its sexy image is helped by its celebrity associations," she says. "But if candidates really want to progress their career, they also have to consider places such as Turkey and Kuwait, which might not be on their radar."

Kate Dixon, head of international at Freedom Recruitment, agrees that the jobs market in Dubai is strong, with candidates attracted by tax-free salaries, the climate and a different way of life. "The market is always evolving and there seems to be no end to the demands on retail and fashion. European candidates appeal to Middle Eastern clients because of the training and skills they have," she explains.

For retail roles, she adds, candidates with customer service and store management experience are in demand, while design roles look mainly for versatility. Opportunities for rapid promotion are widespread, with staff often working across several major brands.

So what is it really like in the city that some call the New York of the Middle East? Drapers spoke to three expats about their experiences.

ROWAN PIENAAR, visual merchandising manager, Marks & Spencer

"I've been in the Middle East for six years - the first two were in Bahrain, the rest in Dubai for the Al-Futtaim Group, which runs about 40 firms in the region, including Marks & Spencer.

"I am now responsible for visual merchandising for nine M&S stores across the Middle East, the Gulf and the United Arab Emirates.

"Dubai is safe, clean and diverse. There's something for everyone here. I am among 50,000 South African expats, and there are lots of Brits and Americans, as well as a large Indian community. There are lots of opportunities here and lots of big brands are in Dubai, including Zara, Promod, Mango, Chanel and Tommy Hilfiger. It's known as the world's shopping capital.

"I have a similar amount of responsibility as I would have at home. But in the UK people tend to do the same thing every year. Promotion is easier out here - if you have the right qualification, are with the right group, or if you work hard, it pays off.

"The cost of living - the price of apartments, for example - has gone up over the past year and is pretty expensive. But culturally, I've not found a huge difference. One of the most noticeable differences is that there's a separate ladies' section in restaurants, banks and mosques. But in general you can go a bit wild and enjoy things - the nightlife, social life and the friendliness of the people. Dubai is home now, and I'll be here for some time."

JEREMY JOHNSTON, chief executive officer, Majid Al Futtaim Group

"I worked for franchise retailer Alshaya in Kuwait for five years until 1999 and had responsibilities across the whole of the Middle East. I returned to the UK, then had an opportunity to come to Dubai with the Majid Al Futtaim Group, which operates a portfolio of malls, supermarkets, hotels and property in the Middle East and north Africa.

"There are more lifestyle restrictions in Kuwait than Dubai, notably alcohol. I would say that most people come to the Middle East for the career opportunities. A few years ago, it was a place people used to go if they couldn't find a job in the UK.

"But things have changed, and retailing is now state of the art. There are many retailers here and the standard is as good as, if not better than, the UK. One of the world's largest shopping centres is here and other malls are planned in the next few years.

"Dubai is a very Westernised, very safe place to live and there are plenty of career openings. Several excellent retail businesses are based here - including Alshaya, Majid Al Futtaim and Al Tayer - all of which are seen as sophisticated and very good at what they do. The standard of visual merchandising and displays is excellent.

"There tends to be more responsibility out here - people often work across several brands. For example, Alshaya operates for brands such as Next, Mothercare and the Arcadia Group. Remits are wider and more challenging.

"I haven't come across any significant challenges to working out here. We are very lucky in that everyone speaks English, which makes a huge difference. Most road signs are in English and Arabic.

"From a cultural viewpoint, either you like it or you don't. You have to accept that you are working in a multicultural team, and often that becomes part of the enjoyment.

"Dubai is no longer a hardship posting or a place for people who are a bit washed up. Instead it's for people who want to enhance their career. Neither is it a country in which to make loads of money - the companies no longer have to pay a big premium to bring staff here."

DEBI SIMCOX, designer and brand manager, Al Boom Marine

"I oversee Bambu Beach, a United Arab Emirates lifestyle and beachwear brand and retailer that is owned by Al Boom Marine and aimed at the whole family.

"A lot of expats are out here. I came out to Dubai in January 2005 after finishing university in Manchester. I had also worked in Spain and New York and knew I wanted to work abroad again - it's a way to travel and further my career at the same time. I love the diverse cultures and the excitement of being somewhere new.

"It's a very different experience working out here, compared with the UK. Dubai is a very fast-paced environment, but mindsets are different - they are more old-fashioned. The native Bedouins have seen their country develop into one of the world's busiest cities in only 20 years.

"English is the main language but there are up to 400 different nationalities living here, so there can be plenty of different views on working practices.

"There is so much more opportunity on the career front here. Within five months of my arrival I was running the whole brand. I came as an assistant designer, but quickly took over the role of designer. In the UK that wouldn't have happened.

"Since I've been at the company there has been a 10% growth in sales. The fact that I'm female has not been a problem at all.

"Even though it's a Muslim country and you have to respect the culture, expats are well provided for. There aren't bars on the corner of the streets but there are plenty in the hotels and the social life is brilliant, with a huge choice of restaurants and an increasing amount of clubs and culture.

"As long as you're in a job where you are paid a decent salary, you can have a good standard of living - including a maid every day to do washing, ironing and cleaning.

"There aren't many fashion design houses here, but I expect that to change within five years because the fashion industry is a major part of the Arabic lifestyle. They don't drink, so they spend money on shopping instead.

"I came to Dubai for the opportunity and experience, rather than for the money, and am now in a position where I'll be able to get a good job somewhere else."

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