I pedaled along the smooth, purpose-built cycling path as the sun peaked over the desert dunes. Unlike cycling on public roads, I didn’t have to deal with cars, broken glass or even sharp stones. At first, I didn’t see any other riders. But after pedaling 12 miles, I passed a parking lot. At least 100 cyclists were pulling their bikes out of cars for their early morning ride. No, they weren’t there for a race or a special event. It was just a typical weekend in Dubai.
I continued to ride. Ahead of me, I followed a dozen other riders who pulled off the path. They leaned their bikes, unlocked, against an outdoor railing beside a coffee shop. Dozens of other cyclists sipped cappuccinos or drank sports drinks at the outdoor tables. It was like the United Nations in Lycra.
Plenty of the voices were American.
I travel to the Middle East a couple of times a year to speak about investing. I once believed Americans in the Middle East all wore combat fatigues. I figured they rode around in Hummers and tanks instead of Treks and Cannondales. Later, I learned that civilians lived here too. But I thought they lived behind compound walls, trading freedom and lifestyle for the almighty dollar. I didn’t know that the Middle East is almost as large as the United States, and it includes 17 different countries.
It’s true that some Americans earn more money working in the Middle East. Robb Hoiseth is originally from Minnesota. The 54-year old Social Studies teacher worked with his wife at the American School of Doha, in Qatar from 2009-2017. “We saved a minimum of $50,000 a year in Qatar,” he says, “and during our last year we pushed it and saved $110,000.”
But not every American earns more money living in the Middle East. And many of those who do, don’t choose it for the money. Robb says Doha was a great place for his two children to grow up. “We loved our community,” he says. “It was all about the kids…sports teams and school plays.” They also enjoyed exotic vacations to nearby locations: safaris in Africa; the famous ruins in Petra, the beautiful countries of Georgia and Armenia.
Last week, I visited the location where Robb once lived. The teachers all stay in a large, townhouse complex. “We had a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, squash courts and everyone had a helper [a maid],” says Robb.
Elizabeth Jaffar and her family plan to move to the Hoiseth’s old stomping grounds in Doha next year. The 46-year old teacher used to live in Boston and Southern California. But she moved to Cairo, Egypt and has spent the last four years living in Abu Dhabi. Next year, she’ll move to Doha, where she expects to stay for the next seven years.
“I don’t work in the Middle East for the money,” says Elizabeth. “I work in the Middle East because it allows for an easy and entertaining high quality of life.” As an avid runner, Elizabeth enjoys the abundance of road races in the region. Her husband, Sy, places a lot of tennis, and the couple enjoys co-ed softball. “Our son also plays Little League ball,” she says.
Forty-two year old Amy O’Meara moved to Bahrain from Chicago five years ago. When I asked why she stays, she gushed about the culture. “In Bahrain, as you become friends with the locals, they treat you as part of the family,” she says. “Their traditions and cultures become part of your daily life. One of my favorite days of the year is National Day, or their version of Independence Day. We all dress in the traditional dress and celebrate with food and games. We even got to shuck oysters in the hunt for a pearl…a time honored tradition.”
The United Arab Emirates is about 500 miles south of Bahrain. It’s a collection of 7 nations, each of which is independently ruled. They include, among others, the city states of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You might wonder about safety in the Middle East.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime International Homicide Statistics database, the United Arab Emirates is five times safer than the United States. Based on 2017 data (the most recently compiled) the United States had five intentional homicides per 100,000 people. In contrast, the UAE had just one per 100,000 people. In 2017, The Nationalreported that Dubai is one of the ten safest cities in the world, based on the Crime Index compiled by Numbeo.com. The same report says Abu Dhabi is the safest city on the planet.
That’s one of the reasons Bryttani Kay likes it. The 33-year old single woman moved to Abu Dhabi from Texas two years ago. “It’s the safest I’ve ever felt in my life,” she says. “I can walk in the middle of the night and not fear for my life. There are no mass shootings or police brutalities. I’m able to relax and meld into my environment the way a person should for optimal health and learning.”
But this doesn’t mean such places are perfect. The weather is extremely hot in the UAE from May to October. And a few other elements can make it challenging.
My wife and I have driven in dozens of countries, and we see common traits. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, drivers typically stick to lanes and drive with a precision that most Americans never see. The UAE, in contrast, is the polar opposite. Drivers often drift, sometimes careening (without signaling) across five lanes at a time. A dozen Ferraris might fly past at 120 miles per hour.
Based on the geography and extreme climate, fresh produce can also be expensive. Almost everything is imported.
But that doesn’t reduce the magic for one of my favorite countries: Oman. It borders the UAE to its north, Saudi Arabia to its west and Yemen to its southwest. The Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf are part of the country’s eastern coastline. I highlighted Oman’s location on the world map below.
Where In The World Is Oman?
It offers spectacular sailing, diving, hiking in the mountains, camping in the desert, and some of the best warm, fresh-water swimming spots on Earth.
One of my favorite places to swim is Wadi Shab, a narrow canyon with crystal clear water and a hidden keyhole cave. It makes the scenic beauty in The Lord of the Rings films look blah by comparison. To see what I mean, watch this video to the end.
Pele-Hallam Young swimming: Ash Sharqihah, Oman: Photo courtesy of Andrew Hallam
Emmee Haun, a 41-year old business advisor, lives in Oman with her husband, James, and their two children. Emmee grew up in Indiana, but she has lived in Oman since 2006. “Our children were born here,” she says. “I stay in Oman due to safety reasons – my children are safe at school. I don’t have to worry about random shootings, and the quality of life is amazing. The money and tax-free status is an extra perk, but I stay in Oman due to the high quality of work/life balance and safety for my family.”
Like many people, I used to think the Middle East was a dangerous place. But the region is a massive 3.5 million square miles. Pockets of fear, like Syria and Iraq, make up a tiny fraction of the region. As I cycled along that path in Dubai, I began talking to another cyclist. He looked across at the rolling dunes. “We’re just so lucky to be here,” he said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth.” Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But there’s no shortage of Americans who love living in the Middle East.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas