Des: Oil & Gas Contractor

I’m at a seminar and away from a keyboard until Thursday evening, so in the meantime I’ll leave you with this tale I wrote in 2010 about a bloke I worked with in the Middle East. Enjoy!

I first met Desmond – let’s call him Des – on the first night I ever spent in Abu Dhabi, 12th June 2003.  I remember the date because it was the day I emigrated from the UK (even if I didn’t know it at the time), and you remember dates like that.  Des was the offspring of an English father and Swedish mother, and thanks to the latter sported a head of perfectly bleach-blonde hair with not a speck of grey, despite being in his late forties.  It was because of this hair that his colleagues nicknamed him Billy Idol.

Des, me, and a South African called Phil had come to the Middle East to join a consultancy carrying out risk and safety analysis work on various projects in the UAE and Oman.  I had transferred from the consultancy’s UK operations, whereas the other two were outside contractors.  As it happened, we all arrived in Abu Dhabi on the same day.  My flight got in late and by the time I’d checked into the hotel it was already dark, although still stiflingly hot.  It was a heat that I would quickly have to get used to.  I met up with another engineeer from the UK who had been to Abu Dhabi before, and we both went to a bar called 49ers where one of the Australian engineers was enjoying his stag do along with the rest of my new colleagues.  The 49ers bar in Abu Dhabi is one not to be forgotten.  It is situated way up in the upper floors of a skyscraper, I forget which floor, but plenty high enough and out of reach of any ladders.  The bar is accessed via a tiny, underpowered lift which can hold a maximum of 6 people.  The bar itself is decked out in a wild west theme complete with wood panelling, and features an open flame grill.  The place was packed with over 200 people when I arrived, jammed in cheek and jowl and barely able to move.  The lift was the only means of egress.  There was no fire escape.  This visit to 49ers was my first and only.

I met up with the others and enjoyed a round of handshaking quickly followed by a round of beers.  It was way too noisy to speak to anybody and, feeling a bit homesick, I was quite glad when after a while somebody decided on behalf of us all that we should go to a nightclub across the roundabout, behind – indeed part of – the Le Meridien hotel.  It took all of us about twenty minutes to get out via the tiny lift and congregate on the pavement outside, leaving me to shudder at the thought of a fire in the place.  I found myself with the others in a smart club filled with people who were anything but.  Dozens of low-class Chinese and Central Asian hookers lined the bars and the dancefloors, perfectly matched by the generally fat, sleazing expatriates and few locals for whom they were the sole reason for being there.  I remember being seriously tired and wanting to leave, but having no local money on me and no idea where the hotel was, or even what it was called.  It was a miserable experience, but I do remember meeting Des in the Foyer, shaking his hand, and him being very pleased to tell me we’d be going to Oman together on the Saturday (today was a Thursday, hence a weekend in the Muslim lands).

I didn’t know Des then, but by golly I knew his CV.  He was recruited on the basis that his CV was probably one of the finest anyone had ever seen in the oil and gas business, and I’d read it when I was still back in the UK.  I still have a copy of it, and it is in front of me now.  Des was fluent in three languages: English, Swedish, and German.  This much was true.  Des held 5 higher education qualifications (including 2 bachelors and 1 masters) in no less than 4 disciplines.  He was a chartered engineer twice over, a member of an additional 5 professional bodies, and had another 15 professional certificates to his name.  He had been the safety manager for all of Shell’s offshore facilities in the Dutch sector and a senior safety specialist for Sakhalin Energy, which caught my attention even back then.  He’d held senior positions with Fluor Daniel, Kvaerner, Occidental, Statoil, and Mobil.  And his overseas experience covered the UK, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, and Pakistan.  On the basis of his CV, you’d be stupid not to hire him.  On the basis of his CV, you’d be equally stupid not to do some rudimentary verification of even a fraction of it.

On his first night with his new colleagues, none of whom he knew, Des borrowed the equivalent of $120 from the Australian stag and left the club in the company of a ropey Chinese prostitute.  I hitched a lift back to the hotel with the engineer from the UK, thankful he knew where he was going.

Des and I caught a Gulf Air flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat the following Saturday, arriving mid-morning in heat equally as oppressive as that which we left behind.  We found our way to the apartment which would be our home for the next two months, buying some basic groceries on the way, and after a few more hours of getting ourselves kitted out with safety gear and other admin tasks we drove to the Mina Al-Fahal refinery situated on the coast just outside of Muscat.  Our job, as I remember it, was to carry out a risk and safety assessment of the refinery, most of which needed to be done at the facility itself.  The project schedule allowed two months for this phase of the work, so I was somewhat surprised when Des confidentally told me it would only take a couple of weeks.  However, Des was the lead engineer and I was his junior, so I trusted he knew what he was doing.

Now at the time I was delighted to be on this project with Des.  Here was me at 26 years of age, finally abroad and visiting a proper facility in a hands-on role with a chap whose experience was so impressive that I could not fail to learn from him.  And even though I was a bit homesick in those first few days and weeks, I did enjoy the experience.  It was roasting hot outside, and anyone sensible or not unlucky enough to be incarnated this time around as an Indian labourer stayed well indoors.  But Des and I had a job to do, so we walked down every pipe and vessel and piece of equipment in that refinery, crawling over hot pipes in an already oven-like temperature, me writing down every hazard that Des pointed out.  As a method of getting an up-close look at a refinery it was a good one, and it was even better at making you appreciate the Middle Eastern climate and the wonders of air conditioning.  As a means of doing the job we were contracted to do, it was almost worthless.  But this I didn’t know at the time, and we went on our merry way for the rest of the week.

Now Des liked to talk, and he especially liked to talk about himself, and most of all he liked to talk about how damned good he was.  At first, I quite liked his tales of the various jobs he’d been on and countries he’d visited.  I’m a gullible fool even now and generally believe what I’m told until proven otherwise, and I reckon it’s made me more friends than it’s got me into trouble so I’ll stick with it for now.  Des had been there and done it, and here was I on a job with him.  Yeah, this is all right, I thought.  We even talked about the next project coming up, the big one in Kuwait which would go on for a year, and we’d go together.  But as the week wore on, Des talked less about where he’d worked (tales which were suspiciously devoid of details, I saw in hindsight) and more about how great he was in other walks of life, especially his prowess with women.  Des was on his (if I recall correctly) fourth wife, the second of which had run away with his best friend and business partner, the two of them clearing him out completely and disappearing into the night.  The third wife was an Iranian whom he married for a joke, or convenience, or something.  He had a son by either the first or second wife.  And his fourth wife, who was a coloured South African, was living in his house in Holland with her two children (neither of whom were his own).  Describing his various marriages took up an entire evening, and his conquests with several dozen other women two or three more.  Then came the stories of when he was in the army and he was the best at shooting, driving, camouflage, escape and evasion, and every other aspect of soldiering which I can think of.  Next it was how he was almost shot to death in Pakistan, and how he saw a man executed in front of his eyes for some misdemeanour, and by that point I think even I’d stopped listening.  I used to scurry into my room, which unfortunately I shared with Des (who used to smoke in bed!), leaving a colleague assigned to another project but living with us, a chap called Chris, to make his own escape if and when he could whilst I lied and said I had to make a phone call to the UK.

By the end of the week, this had all got pretty tiresome, and so I was glad when Des told me we’d be going back to Abu Dhabi for the weekend for R&R.  I have no idea how we got the tickets, but when we got back the regional boss, whose villa we were now for some reason all living in, was somewhat surprised to see us.  He thought we were supposed to be down in Oman on the refinery tomorrow.  I looked bewildered and said I was following Des, who was supposed to be in charge.  It was all very confusing so Des, me, and another Brit called Steve who was also living in the villa set off to a bar somewhere in Abu Dhabi.  Within a remarkably short time we all found ourselves in the infamous Al-Ain Palace, or the Ally Pally, a low-down dive of a place known only for its abundance of cheap, third-rate Chinese hookers.  To cut a short story even shorter, the three of us ended up going back to the villa in a taxi with a huge Chinese prostitute with a smashed front tooth whom Des had picked up.  Steve and I weren’t interested in doing likewise, which seemed to annoy Des, which he showed by pretending the girl was actually with one of us even when she stopped at a McDonalds and came out with an armful of burgers which she presented to him as some sort of weird tribute.  I remember the four of us sitting in the villa around the nice, pine breakfast bar table (which, incidentally, I later took ownership of and it saw action in two of my apartments in Sakhalin, before I gave it away to a friend a week before my demobilisation in return for – ironically – a Chinese meal) with Steve, Des, and a huge Chinese girl with a smashed tooth who wouldn’t shut up or stop eating burgers.  Des had the bright idea of them going for a swim (in what was a family compound where hookers, much less nightswimming ones, were frowned upon).  She leaped from the stool, whipped up her dress to show a pair of large, sweaty, polyester granny pants and told us that she didn’t have a swimming costume.  However, she told us loudly in a comical Chinese accent, she could “go down for five minutes, no need come up for air”.  I have never laughed so hard.

Until, that is, Des thought the better of watching her perform strokes in the communal pool and took her to his bedroom, albeit for much the same purpose.  Within a few minutes Steve and I were stood outside the door listening to a Chinese girl screaming blue murder, an English-Swedish halfbreed grunting like a boar, and bedroom furniture testing the very limits for which it was manufactured.  This went on for about twenty minutes with all the subtely and finesse of a rock through a window, before the villa fell silent, Steve and I stopped laughing, and we went to bed.  The next morning, the Chinese girl safely paid off and sent packing before sunrise, Des denied having sex at all and insisted they were “just talking”.  Believing anything Des said after that was nigh-on impossible.

Once again Des and I took the Gulf Air flight down to Muscat to continue our work in the refinery.  The stories continued in the same manner as before, with each one of his exploits being better and more impressive than the last.  It was getting embarassing.  Before he’d even start recounting how he and a whole group of people had to do some very difficult test, Chris or I used to pipe up “Let me guess: you were the only one that passed?” in the vain hope of saving half an hour by cutting directly to the inevitable conclusion.  By this time his previous wives, girlfriends, and lovers seemed to have caught up with him because the apartment phone started going and he’d sit at all hours of the night talking and smoking.  Then, to my complete surprise, my UK mobile rang with some woman asking for Des.  Assuming it was important, I passed him the phone and he giggled like a schoolboy and launched into a twenty minute chit-chat with some ex-lover of his.  My UK phone was on roaming at a cost of over a pound a minute, and I was seriously unimpressed.  The cheeky sod had given her my number because he was too damned tight fisted to buy his own SIM card, and was now busy running up my UK bill whilst he relived one of his affairs.  Eventually I got the phone back from him, but he couldn’t see the problem.  He’d pay me back, he promised.

And that was another problem with Des.  He was a tight-fisted old sod, refusing to pay for anything and expecting the company – or failing that, his colleagues – to pick up the bill for everything.  He didn’t see why he should have to pay for his food even when on a per diem; when everyone in the villa went to the supermarket and chipped in, he’d be nowhere to be seen until he was spotted guzzling the beers we’d all just bought; and he certainly wasn’t going to pay a few dollars for a SIM card so his tarts could call him in Oman, not whilst he had my number to dish out!  And he was pulling the classic contractor’s trick of claiming destitution on arrival and needing an advance on his salary, which the boss gave him out of his own pocket.  Despite all this, Des would boast that back in Holland he owned a huge house, a yacht, and a Merecedes SUV.  Once I got the phone back from him, it stayed in my pocket and I’d told him the credit had run out.

Then halfway through the week he probably wished he’d not picked up a phone.  He had called his wife back in Holland on her mobile and from the music in the background it had sounded as if she was in a bar or nightclub, but she had told him she was at home.  I think there was a man’s voice in the background as well, I can’t remember, but Des got very agitated.  He called her at home (all of this using the extortionately expensive apartment phone) but there was no answer.  He called her again on her mobile, but she didn’t pick up, and nor did she answer her phone for the rest of the night.  Des was beside himself, confessing to me almost in tears that he thought his wife was having an affair.  By that point I’d lost all respect for the man, and just sloped off to bed leaving him to brood by himself (until he went to bed and smoked his way through five or six cigarettes on the other side of the room).

It wasn’t just the personal stuff that was going wrong with Des, the work itself was fast falling to pieces as well.  After a week on the site, and consulting the programme of work, it became clear that Des had not the faintest idea what he was doing.  He barely consulted the scope of work or project execution plan, and breezily dismissed my concerns that we should be doing certain tasks in a certain way with a wave of a cigarette-filled hand.  As it happened, the regional boss didn’t have much of a clue either (and if you want to extrapolate that across the entire company feel free, I’ll not stop you), so things just carried on the way they were for another week, with me doing what I was told and getting more confused and disillusioned by the day, until we were summoned back to Abu Dhabi.

Upon arrival, for no reason which I can remember, a decision was made that the work on site had been completed, I was to go to Dubai to prepare for the Kuwait project, and Des was to stay in Abu Dhabi to do the desk work associated with the refinery job.  Within minutes of Des having sat down in the office, a huge problem arose like a mushroom cloud.  Des’ bags had gone missing on the flight from Muscat to Abu Dhabi.  One or two of the old hands in the office swung into action, made a few calls, and told him not to sweat.  Happens all the time, they said, they’ll show up in a day or so.  But Des was beside himself.  He demanded to be driven to the airport and a search for his bags begun immediately.  The boss told him not to worry, he could buy some clothes in the M&S over the road, toiletries he had spare in the villa, and it would only be a couple of days.  Des refused to calm down, and would not do any work until something was done.  Smelling something a little fishy, the boss asked what exactly was in his missing bags.  Des flew into a rage during which we learned that in the bags he had checked into the hold of a Middle Eastern airline were the keys to his house, the keys to his car, the keys to his boat, the ownership documents for his house, boat, and car, his birth certificate, his bank documents, and seemingly every essential document a man will possess.

“Why the hell are you carrying all that about with you, Des?”, asked the boss, reasonably.

It turned out that Des did not trust his wife and had to carry all his worldly documents around with him to stop her from selling up and absconding in the same manner as his second wife.

“Why the hell did you put all that into checked baggage, Des?”, asked the boss, again reasonably.

Des didn’t know.  Nor did we.  But we did wonder if Des was half as well travelled as he, and his CV, said he was.

Des’ bags turned up a couple of days later.  But the problems didn’t stop there.  I was the youngest person in the regional office by about 20 years and most of the expat employees were middle aged with a wife and family somewhere, so the degree of compassion offered at that time was probably greater than you’d find in most companies, and certainly greater than that displayed a few months later (but that’s another post).  In short, Des wanted to see his wife and step-children, presumably to make sure the former was still around and not still in a nightclub somewhere with her phone switched off.  It is not easy to get a visa to the UAE for South African nationals (which is what his family was), it is more time consuming and requires more documentation than for, say Brits, who just turn up and walk in.  Rather than being grateful for the efforts the company was going to, Des was raging against the company for taking so long and not having enough power or connections to just get them all in.  Eventually, enough paperwork was collected to submit an application, but the immigration authorities returned a rather surprising decision:  Des’ wife and younger step-daughter were allowed a visa, but the older step-daughter, who was 12, was not.  The reason: the elder girl did not appear to be anything to do with Des, hence she could not be admitted as his family.  The boss asked a few basic questions, which Des, poor chap, did his best to answer.  It transpired that Des and his wife had sensibly decided some years ago for Des to formally adopt her children as his own.  The adoption of the younger girl went well enough, but at the 11th hour the elder girl – who had a mental age of 7 and a whole heap of behavioural problems and learning difficulties – decided she wanted to be with her biological father, who was some sort of bum or criminal or loser down in South Africa, who was long separated from the mother.  The adoption couldn’t proceed without her consent, and so she was never formally adopted by Des, even though she reversed her decision mere days later and came to live with the rest of them in Holland.  The result was that the company couldn’t get a visa for his elder daughter.  Des went bananas, bellowing that the company was useless and had no power or influence.  The boss’ exasperated reply is immortal:

“Des!  It’s not the company’s fault that you didn’t adopt your daughter!”

It was agreed that his wife and younger daughter would come over anyway, and so Des awaited their arrival.  In the meantime, he continued to demonstrate incompetence of impressive proportions as he burned through the remaining manhours allocated to the project.  Nothing that was supposed to have been done was being done, and sitting at my desk in the Dubai office I received several phone calls from the boss asking what the hell had happened down in Oman.  What I told you was happening, I replied.  The guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.  Chris, a good mate of the boss, backed me up and I was in the clear.

Things also got a little complicated for Des when he was asked to provide his degree certificate in order to get his work visa.  Des replied that he didn’t have it, even though on his CV it says, as I have pointed out, he has five such qualifications which would suffice.  The story Des told was that the University of Gothenburg had moved and the records never moved with it.  Later the story changed to the records having all been lost in a fire.  Either way, he could not possibly get his hands on a degree certificate.  None of us was convinced, except possibly Des himself who was turning out to be a pathological liar.  Meanwhile, they decided to get Des working on something else until they could figure out what to do, and asked him to help write the method statements for some proposals they were putting together.  Des refused point blank, said it wasn’t his job, and put his feet up on the desk until his wife and daughter arrived.

Which in due course they did, and the company – in a rare display of generosity – put them up in a nice hotel with a beach in Abu Dhabi.  Des seemed to perk up when his family were around him, and although I wasn’t there I heard that they all went out for some nice meals in the evening and enjoyed themselves.  That is, until the Dutch embassy called the office with the news that Des’ neighbours had alerted the authorities because a 12 year old girl had been left home alone whilst her mother had cleared off to Abu Dhabi with her other daughter.  The daughter was now in the care of the authorities, and the mother really should get herself home pronto.  At this point, Des’ colleagues just shook their heads and wondered whether to laugh or cry.

The boss wasn’t sure what to do with Des.  He was lined up for the project manager’s role for the big job in Kuwait, but he had proven himself useless, unreliable, and uncooperative both in work and in every other way we could think of.  But we were short of people, and mobilising expats on short notice is not easy, and the boss was considering keeping him on.  Fortunately, Des made the decision for us.  His colleagues in the villa woke one morning with Des saying he was sick and would stay in bed.  By the time they came home after work, he had disappeared along with all his bags.  He never paid the Australian the $120 from his first night, I never saw the money from my phone bill, he owed the boss a few hundred dollars and the company even more.  He just upped and left.

We heard from Des a few months later.  The boss received an email from him saying he was working in Iran, the job was terrible, and could he have his old job back.  The email went unanswered, but it gave us a laugh.

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Ducking Responsibility

One of the most liberating things about living abroad is the self-satisfaction you get from knowing the chaos and idiocy you encounter is not of your doing. Be it gangsters running Russian towns, Indonesian maids flogged in Dubai, or Lagos international airport, none of these things can be blamed on me. Living abroad I am a tourist, a mere observer of things around me.

This wouldn’t be the case if I lived in the UK. One of the reasons I find the attitude of the British police so contemptible, why I detest the jumped-up British jobsworth in the hi-viz vest, and why I can’t stand the juvenile posturing of the BBC is because I cannot distance myself from them. These are products of my culture, they are people much like me, and it is difficult to  shrug my shoulders and say “nothing to do with me”. The same is true for Britain’s awful roads, the rise of the nanny-state, and the whining, over-entitled middle-classes. These things start to affect you personally, which doesn’t happen when abroad. There, you can just look on with bemusement and declare these foreigners slightly mad.

I left the UK in 2003, at the height of the New Labour years. I knew when David Davies failed to gain the Tory leadership and Iain Duncan Smith was a complete flop with the voters that I was completely out of step with the rest of Britain. Not that I thought IDS was much good, but I thought him infinitely better than Blair. I was ploughing a lonely furrow with that one. David Davies I thought was pretty good, and still do: he’s the only politician that makes the right noises regarding civil liberties, and for that alone he’d get my vote. But most people think him a deranged right-winger.

I’d not say that the state of British politics was the main reason I left the UK – adventure, better money, and house prices accounted for most of it – but it certainly made it easier knowing I was leaving a place where few agreed with me politically. Now it’s true that few agree with me politically in France either, but here it doesn’t matter: it’s not my problem, I’m a tourist. My French colleagues, however, are fully invested in the nation’s issues, unable to stop caring. Nigerians speak about little other than the state of their nation and where it’s headed. I saw the same in Russia where people took to heart intractable problems that have plagued the country for a century; it didn’t look good for one’s health. By contrast, I wake up not giving a damn.

I suppose in some ways I’ve sloped my shoulders, run away from the responsibility of participating in a modern society.

Well yeah, I have. So what?

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Expatriates and School Fees

Once again the BBC gets stuck in to the trials and tribulations of expat life:

A few years ago, competition for places in Dubai’s best international schools was so intense that British expat Jemma Schilbach felt she had to get her two children on the waiting lists for her preferred schools before they were even out of nappies.

A situation to which the average license-fee payer can no doubt relate.

Work ended up taking the family away from Dubai for a couple of years.  When they returned in 2014, they were relieved to discover there were plenty more schools to choose from, but there was another issue: cost.

Both Schilbach and her husband, who’d previously worked in jobs where companies paid for children’s schooling, were now self-employed, and would need to pay for their children’s education themselves.

The horrors!

She was impressed with the small class sizes and Foremarke’s reputation, but with tuition fees there starting at 65,000 AED ($18,000) a year, it meant the family had to be more careful about spending to ensure they had the money to send their children, aged five and seven, to the school.

Parents who spend $18k per year on a nursery school for their five year old find they can’t splash out as much as when somebody else was footing the bill. Who knew? Note that these extortionate school fees only get noticed when the parents have to pay themselves.

“We economise on other costs during the year,” says Schilbach, adding that ordering some household items from the UK and closely watching what the family spends on weekends have helped to save pennies. “In our opinion, the money is better spent on educating our children to a high standard.”

And therein lies the whole scam, which is ably propagated by the schools themselves and parents whose status depends on what school their child attends. There is absolutely no need to be spending that kind of money educating children younger than ten or twelve, especially as these aren’t even boarding schools. But hey, it’s your money.

As expatriate contracts change and people accept more flexible benefits, move onto localised employment packages or decide to find their own jobs overseas, finding the money needed for education is a growing challenge for families living abroad. In Dubai, for example, falling oil prices have led to many employers cutting the salaries and benefits packages they are willing to offer their expat staff. It leaves many expats no option but to pay for their children’s schooling themselves, partially or in full.

Well, yes. I am of the opinion that one of the greatest scandals perpetuated by international companies is to dress up expatriate positions (particularly those in the oil industry) as family-friendly and encourage men and women of child-rearing age to embark on careers where overseas postings are mandatory. They effectively promised that entire families could go abroad without any of the traditional drawbacks, taking advantage of the various international booms that were running full-pelt at the time to pay for it all: schools, villas, regular flights home, etc. A generation or two ago there was none of this: expat positions were either set up for men who would leave the family behind (and/or find a new ‘wife’ in a bar upon arrival), or the family was expected to rough it. Things obviously improved since the time Sir Arthur Grimble wrote A Pattern of Islands, but I know old-school Shell expats who lived in places like Gabon and Bintulu who say things were…primitive.

But then the financial, property, oil and gas, and other industries boomed at the same time a generation of women graduates entered the workforce expecting full careers compatible with raising a family, and the international companies – egged on by powerskirts in HR – simply told them they could have the lot. The companies themselves will claim that they needed to offer these packages in order to attract the right people, but I don’t buy it. Personally, I think a lot of these expat policies in the multinationals were put in place by the managerial classes who wanted a tax-free salary in an exotic place without any downsides. The shareholders’ interests didn’t even get a look in.

But now times have changed and what we have is a generation of people mid-career who have gotten used to these all-inclusive family packages now finding they’re no longer available. Whoops. The money just isn’t there any more, but there is another factor at play which I doubt international companies even admit exists: the locals. Places like Dubai, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, etc. have changed in the last decade or two and now there are plenty of locals (or locally based people) who can fill the middle management and senior technical positions. As local hires these employees will not get school fees paid for their kids, they have to use their own salaries. These staff might not object to one or two very senior managers getting a full expat package which includes school fees, but they will when they find a mid-level engineer or financial analyst is being handed $18k per year so their toddler can go to a posh private school run by a pencil-necked Brit with a prominent Adam’s apple and a cut-glass accent. The subsidiary itself may also be a joint-venture with local ownership, and the stakeholders might ask why they are paying for the children of wealthy expatriates to go to fancy schools when their own kids are going to the local state school.

And right on cue:

The cost of education is among the most popular topics of discussion on BritishMums. “It’s an employer’s market,” says Schilbach, who founded the site in 2012. “The old-time expat contracts are few and far between these days.”

Indeed.

This month, in a survey by HSBC involving nearly 8,000 expat parents, 62% said it was more expensive to raise a family overseas than at home. Some 58% mentioned that the cost of childcare, in particular, was more expensive.

Well, yes. Maintaining a Western standard of family life outside Western countries is expensive. The trick is to lower your expectations a little.

A separate survey by Singapore-based advisory service ExpatFinder.com, which covered 98 countries and 707 international schools, found fees rose 3.43% last year compared with the year before.

Yes, it’s a racket. The schools guilt-trip the parents and tap into their “my child must have the absolute best” mentality by implying they will be failing their offspring if they don’t cough up extortionate fees to enroll them in their institutions.

The most expensive schools for international education were in China – median fees for children aged 11-12 came in at $36,400 a year – followed by Switzerland ($28,300) and Belgium ($27,800), according to the survey.

The reason it is expensive in China (and Moscow) is because the international schools are full of the children of wealthy locals. The reason they are expensive in Switzerland and Belgium is because of the number of international organisations that are based there, meaning the costs can just be dumped back on the taxpayers somewhere. Whereas I can understand the difficulties of putting expat kids into a Chinese state school system, there is nothing wrong with Belgian or Swiss schools. Yes, there are arguments to be made over curricula and language but hey, you’re abroad: what do you expect? If the kids can’t adapt, then stay at home. I don’t see why taxpayers (or shareholders) should be expected to cough up thousands of dollars per year so that toddlers can avoid having to adapt to a different culture and school system. Case in point:

Emma McHugh, a 39-year-old mother of three and Schilbach’s co-founder at BritishMums, is in the process of returning to Dubai from Abu Dhabi. Her children will start at Safa Community School in September, where tuition fees start at 47,000 AED ($12,800).

While her choice wasn’t all about the cost – Emma felt the school had the feel of a typical UK primary with an emphasis on nurturing and care

Nobody is forcing people to take these jobs and bring their families with them. If it is so important that her little darlings attend a school with the “feel” of a typical UK primary then perhaps she should have stayed in the UK?

But international education in Britain, Hong Kong, the US, Singapore and Australia also cost more than $20,000 a year. Schools may also charge extra for uniforms, examinations, extra-curricular activities and even books.

What we’re seeing here is children’s education being used as a status marker. Anyone who pays $20k per year for a kid to go to a private day-school in Australia is either extremely rich or an idiot.

“Schooling has become very expensive over the years,” says Sébastien Deschamps, ExpatFinder’s chief executive and founder. “That’s a challenge not only for the expatriate, but also for HR professionals because they still need to attract foreign talent and find ways to keep them.”

What he means is HR professionals (stop laughing at the back!) find it difficult to apply their ludicrous criteria of only recruiting from the very top universities, meet diversity quotas, and retain only the meekest and most compliant employees who they can bully and cajole into submission by threatening their career prospects at every point and turn. The last thing they want is a competent single bloke with little to lose turning up and trying to get things done.

When the oil price crashed in 2014 I thought the game was up for expatriate families in my industry and it would soon revert to being mostly local hires with the odd senior manager and a gaggle of single blokes living out of Porta-Cabins. I still don’t think I was wrong in that regard. The big players are still hanging on as their army of employees shriek over any changes to their entitlements, but it’s just a matter of time. The locals have gotten better, and there simply isn’t the money any more. The scrapping of the school fees is an early casualty of this new reality.

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Single in Sweden

Following on from it’s puff piece about Geneva, the BBC has another odd article about the difficulties of dating in Sweden.  I’m going to make fun of it.

Dating in Sweden might conjure up dreamy images of candlelit dinners in minimalist Nordic apartments, or snowy hikes with well-toned nature lovers.

Or orgies with buxom blondes.

But international professionals — there are more than half a million foreign citizens of working age in Sweden according to national statistics — hoping to find a relationship face a challenge in a nation that boasts the highest proportion of singles in Europe.

Is there any country where finding a relationship isn’t a challenge?  Sure, Thailand and Russia are good for men, but for women?  I get the feeling this article is going to say as much about the people looking for a relationship as it does about Sweden.

But, behind the numbers is a cultural norm that almost outright promotes being single. Swedish cities are full of compact homes carefully designed for independent living. Even in the capital Stockholm, in the grip of a major housing shortage, it’s still more affordable to live alone than it is in many other hubs for global talent like London or San Francisco.

Do “international professionals” in London and San Francisco really go dating to share the bills?

For expats like Raquel Altoe, 34, the novelty of working in one of the most single societies on the planet has a distinct downside.

“I moved here three years ago, I’m still single and it’s a super-frustrating situation, because I love everything else about Sweden,” says the Brazilian, who works for a business research start-up in Stockholm and, like many thirtysomethings, has hopes of settling down.

She’s 34 and has hopes of settling down.  That’s nice, but I don’t think it’s being in Sweden that is the problem here.  See, most blokes settle down in their late twenties and early thirties.  At 34 she’s going to be looking in the 34-42 age range of available men, which means divorcees, players, and hopeless cases who either don’t know what they want or no woman wants them.  She’d face the exact same difficulties in any country, not just Sweden.  I hear the laments of single women in their 30s complaining about the dating options in Paris and London, asking where are all the men.  Answer: married to women who got their act together when they were 29.

“I have no trouble getting a first date,” she adds. “But finding something longer term is much harder here.”

She’s found Tinder, then.  Again, this says more about her than Sweden.

Sweden is frequently ranked among the most attractive locations in the world for expats, thanks to its high standard of living, flexible working culture and abundant nature.

Yeah, yeah.

Swedes are also the best in the world at speaking English as a second language, which helps provide a soft landing for fluent newcomers.

I’m surprised about this.  I have friends who’ve lived in Sweden and thought the Danes and Dutch spoke English better.  But anyway.

But a report released by Statistics Sweden in 2015 revealed that only one in four people who relocated to Sweden as singles had found a partner after five years.

Hmm.  The report is in Swedish and my name is not Olaf, but I’d be interested to see if this was the same for both men and women.  I have a sneaking suspicion this article might actually be about how hard it is for mid-career women to date in Sweden, not men.

The study concluded that economic migrants from other Nordic and EU countries were even less likely to get together with a Swede than those who’d fled conflict or moved for family reasons.

Uh-huh.  What’s the betting 99% of those fleeing conflict and marrying a Swede are men?  I bet there are not many Iraqi women refugees hooking up with Swedish men.

Dr David Schultz, an American psychotherapist who has lived in Sweden for 13 years, agrees that expat dating struggles may be tied to cultural differences that are broader than just the independent mind-set of Swedes.

“A lot of my clients struggle with socialising here, in general. Swedish people don’t tend to talk to strangers much in public areas like the subway or buses or the supermarket,” he explains. “So it may feel like a lonely society to a foreigner.”

For a start, if you’re going to a psychotherapist to discuss why you can’t get a date you’ve probably got issues that are unrelated to Sweden.  Secondly, how is this different from anywhere else?  Parisians won’t talk to you on the subway even if you’ve been lost down there for days and are near to death from starvation.

Schultz suggests that, although not all singles are unattached by choice, Swedes are also perhaps less conventional than other nationalities when it comes to relationships, thanks to “a more liberal society”.

“You can be with someone but not live together, marriage isn’t such a strong thing, you can have children and not be married. It’s a whole different culture [relative to many other countries] in some ways,” he says.

So Swedes like being single.  Okay.

The Nordic country’s strong emphasis on gender-equality leaves women much less likely to depend on men financially than in most places. The average age for a first marriage is 33 for women and 35.7 for men, according to Eurostat. (It’s 27 for women and 29 for men in the US by comparison.) Childcare is highly subsidised, making mothers less dependent on having a partner to pitch in for income. Sweden’s divorce rate is the highest in the EU.

So like in a lot of enlightened Western countries, Daddy Government has replaced the need for a woman to find (and hold onto) a man, and the men are increasingly just giving up on long term relationships.  The million dollar question is does this substitution bring about happiness?  Judging by articles bemoaning the lack of dating options and the amount these Nordics drink, I’d say not.  It’s going to be interesting when the kids move out, isn’t it?  Can you buy futures in cat sales?

“It’s very different for me, coming from a more macho culture,” says Altoe. “I have no problem splitting the bill, but it can be confusing. Should I be more assertive here? Should I make the first move? Or do I still wait for the guy to make the first move?”

You’re confused!  How do you think the men feel?

However Sweden’s more egalitarian norms do benefit many expats, including American divorcee Rachel Matchett, 36, who moved to Stockholm with her Bulgarian then-husband.

“We broke up [here] when my son was three and it was affordable for me to live alone in Sweden in a way it would not have been in the US, or in Japan, where we had lived previously,” says Matchett, who now has a boyfriend. She adds that the “practically free” day care is also a big plus for independent living.

You mean you might have had to work to keep the relationship together – like you did in less generous countries – rather than sponge off the taxpayer?  How does the three year old kid like your new boyfriend?  Sorry, but an expat professional using the term “practically free” day care alongside “independent living” grates somewhat.  Income tax in Sweden kicks in at 31% above $2,690 per year, i.e. there is almost no tax-free threshold.  I wonder what hospital cleaners working minimum wage think about being taxed in order to look after the offspring of an American and a Bulgarian?

Anyway, my guess is that none of this is unique to Sweden only the situation is exacerbated by a long-running government policy of removing the incentives for women to get married and stay that way.  I’d also guess that the problem is far more acute for women over 30 than men, despite the BBC wheeling out a coloured British man to balance out the article a bit (the other man mentioned, an Australian of 32, has found somebody).

That said, there might be another explanation which I heard from a Russian girl who lived in Stockholm for a while: Swedes are fucking weird!

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Geneva: Still Dull and Expensive

Sometimes I wonder if the BBC is a bit like the Clinton Foundation and receives hefty bribes cash donations in exchange for favourable treatment, in this case puff-pieces on various trendy expat locations.  This week the city under discussion is Geneva:

For an affluent country once considered one of the most stable economies in the world, Switzerland is going through a rocky patch.

In the country’s financial hub, Geneva, a slowing economy and an investigation into the country’s secretive banking industry has led to almost 2,000 jobs being cut over three years, about 9% of the sector, according to the Geneva Financial Center.  In the coming years, more jobs could disappear following Brexit, since the UK is Geneva’s fourth largest trading partner.

Eh?  Geneva – located in a non-EU country – could see jobs disappear because Britain leaves the EU?  What’s the mechanism for that, then?  The BBC doesn’t say.

Yet the city (which is not the capital, that’s Bern) remains an incredibly popular place for expats to relocate to for work. Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey ranks Geneva among the top ten cities to live in, scoring highly for personal safety and quality of life.

Ah yes, we’ve been here before: these surveys tend to identify which cities upper-middle class wives with husbands who draw large corporate salaries most like to live and raise kids in.  The result is usually a list of cities which are clean, safe, expensive – and mind-numbingly dull.  Geneva, then.

One of these fans is Silvana Soldaini. After nearly 20 years working in Milan, Italy, Soldaini received a job offer to work in banking in Geneva. She arrived in March 2004 as a single parent of two.

Before she arrived in Geneva, she held some common preconceptions about it.  “Being an Italian, my stereotype of [the city] was that it was stiff, that it had a culture without much soul to it,” she says.

Twelve years on, she’s a convert. She lives in a spacious apartment a 10-minute walk from Lake Geneva and has no desire to move back to Italy. Her two teenage children speak French, Italian, German and English.

Okay, good for her.  But if you’re looking for somebody to disprove the stereotype of Geneva being a boring city, you might want to pick a 25 year old bachelor rather than a middle-aged woman bringing up two kids on her own.

Switzerland is one of those places where the 1% – that tiny chunk of the global population who are rolling in money – are conspicuous. Luxury watchmakers specialising in diamond-encrusted watch faces line the riverfront, and it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising down the spotless streets.

So a bit like London, Paris, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, then.  With the possible exception of the spotless streets in those first three.

Initially drawn here by higher salaries, expats – especially those with families – often choose to stay for the year-round cultural events such as the Geneva Music Festival or Nuit de Bains, a contemporary art event, plus a wide range of outdoor activities around Lake Geneva…

…but mainly for the higher salaries.  And wifey’s ability to park the Porsche Cayenne without some brown oik nicking it.

While it used to be standard practice for multinational firms to fork out for housing and children’s school fees, this is not always the case today, says Laetitia Bédat, managing director of relocation agency Welcome Service. Now, most foreign hires will either get no allowances or they will only get relocation services, tax assistance and medical benefits.

Bless.  How will they cope?

According to research from global consultancy firm ECA International, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, second only to Zurich. In other words, you will need good salary prospects to even consider living there.

For American Sarah Brooks, who moved from Washington, DC to work at a human rights organisation, she found her expenses comparable.  “There is more take-home salary,” Brooks says, “and I find I tend to spend it in different ways, like I don’t spend it on commuting anymore.”

Why a human rights organisation chooses to base itself in one of the most expensive cities in Europe is a question the BBC didn’t bother to ask.  But I’m glad those who work selflessly for the betterment of mankind aren’t having to slum it:

According to the survey, nearly a third of expats in Geneva earn more than $200,000 a year, second only to Hong Kong’s high-earners.

Which will no doubt bring comfort to those rotting in the dungeons of a third-world kleptocracy.

For Olivier Greneche, his reason for relocating from Paris in 2012 was simple.

He could finally escape French meetings?

Besides the job opportunity from a French bank, it was also for his two children who were toddlers at that time. Geneva’s access to nature and green spaces made it an easy decision.

“To understand Switzerland, and to fully enjoy Geneva, you should be keen on going to a chalet in the mountains on the weekends and the countryside quite often,” he says.

Similarly, to understand France, and to fully enjoy Marseilles, you should be keen on taking your yacht out at the weekends.

Soldaini’s family were much more city-centric, and state benefits – such as allocating 250 Swiss francs (about $260) per child to a family or the four public swimming pools within a 15-minute bike ride from her apartment – made life as a single working mother much more manageable.

Which is great, until you learn that:

Eating out could terrify frugal newcomers. Lunch in a low-key restaurant will generally cost more than $20, while a mid-range restaurant can quickly surpass the $100 mark with wine.

Does having free stuff offset ludicrously high prices?  I’ve generally found it doesn’t.

As for their schooling, Geneva is spoiled for choice. Public schools are free, and generally considered very good. Due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of international and private schools, although tuition fees can hit 30,000 CHF ($31,200) a year, says Greneche.

I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about the type of people who show up for expat positions in Geneva and the taxpayer-funded international organisations that are based there.

Much of the residents’ social lives revolve around stunning Lake Geneva, a pristine, freshwater lake measuring roughly 21 sq km.

Tim Worstall is forever bemoaning journalists’ lack of grasp of orders of magnitude: Lake Geneva covers 580 square kilometres.

So Geneva sounds awesome.  Only:

Often, residents cross the border into France at weekends to buy groceries, to avoid Switzerland’s higher prices. Produce is generally double supermarket prices in France, while meat generally costs triple.

What the article doesn’t mention is how many people work in Geneva but choose to live over the border in France, getting the best of both worlds with high salaries but lower living costs in a place which doesn’t shut down and go to sleep at 6pm.  This practice is so widespread that the canton of Geneva and others deduct French taxes from your salary. Yes, there is a reason why Annecy and its surroundings are so popular, and it’s not just because of the lake.

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