According to government statistics, there are currently 1.3 million people working in Dubai (41,000 of those Emirati), whereas in 2000 there were just 500,000 (no wonder SZR is now so jammed in rush hour). This phenomenal rise in the emirate’s labour force demonstrates that people see Dubai as somewhere to be – and somewhere to make something of themselves.
The UAE was established a mere 38 years ago, making it an incredibly fresh country, ripe with opportunities. For instance, Hollywood has been churning out movies for more than 100 years, but Dubai saw its first feature film, City of Life, only last year. Likewise, to get a prime spot at London or New York Fashion Week you have to have proven yourself for years at smaller gigs, whereas Dubai Fashion Week takes designers who are fresh from their first collection.
People here can jump from career to career far more easily. In celebration of this – as well as Global Entrepreneurship Week, running until November 21 – here are five people who have turned their lives around 180 degrees, in an only-in-Dubai kind of way. We salute them!
Al Hassan Okine
Was: A security guard in Ghana and a construction worker in Dubai
Now: A title-holding kickboxer, aka ‘The Ghanaian Van Damme’, and a trainer at KO Gym
Within 30 seconds of meeting Al Hassan, we’re well aware of his strength: his seemingly friendly handshake packs a punch and our dainty writer’s hand goes limp. The surprisingly softly-spoken fighter grew up in the Republic of Ghana in western Africa, working as a security guard (we wouldn’t mess with him) and training in taekwondo, in which he went on to win seven medals in the featherweight division.
Then, in 2006, Al Hassan heard about the formation of a national Ghanaian kickboxing team, so went to try out. Of the 300-plus hopefuls, he was chosen, and that’s where he met Zack Taumafai, veteran kickboxing trainer and the man behind KO Promotions in Dubai.
When Zack moved to Dubai, 10 Ghanaian boxers followed him due to lack of fights and money in their home country, and, in order to obtain visas, they took up jobs as construction workers. ‘I would work all day, then come to the gym afterwards to do my training. The other men have all gone back to Ghana now, but because of my determination and the help of God I’m still here.’ This April Al Hassan got out of the construction game and now works full time with mentor Zack, training boxing hopefuls, running sessions and occasionally fighting.
Since moving to Dubai, Al Hassan has had nine fights (six wins and three losses) and now holds two titles: the UAE number-one spot and the tag team title. His best-ever win, he says, was his first in Dubai in
2008. ‘I was supposed to be fighting a guy weighing 65 kilos, the same as me, but they brought over someone of 97 kilos. Zack asked me if I’d be okay to fight him. “No problem, I can do it!” I said. I knocked the guy out in the first round and broke his jaw,’ he exclaims with a gap-toothed smile.
Al Hassan says he can’t plan how long he’ll remain in Dubai. ‘I love Dubai, but I’m growing old. Time waits for no man, and I want to have a family of my own. But my aim is to bring people from Ghana to fight here. There’s only one fight there every two years or so and money’s hard, so bringing them here would be an investment for me. Someone invested in me, and now it’s my turn to do the same.’
Tips for Dubai residents: ‘Good things take time. Remember that misfortunes can be blessings and appreciate whatever comes your way.’
Was: An ad manager
Now: Runs her own photography company
‘My life revolved around daily commutes, tight deadlines, sales targets, constant emails and phone calls…’ Sarah’s description of her London past, working as regional advertising manager with the Evening Standard newspaper, no doubt inspires empathy with many of us in Dubai. But she’s managed to change things. Since moving to the UAE in 2007 ‘in search of some sort of fulfilment – and year-round sunshine,’ she has set up high-end photography studio icandy.ae. ‘But my life is still just as hectic!’ she reassures us.
Initially, Sarah managed the commercial side of the business, but over the first three years was trained by business partner Felix Shumack, a professional photographer from Australia. Last year she then set up icandyforever.com, the wedding and portrait side of the studio. ‘I take each of our clients through the whole process myself and love that I can spend this time with them.’
Does she believe in luck? ‘Fortune definitely favours the brave. I believe when you start something new, something you are truly passionate about, then the universe always helps you out a bit,’ Sarah says. ‘From that moment on it comes down to pure determination to follow your dream, because that’s not an easy thing to do. I can vouch for that!’ And what about leaving Dubai? ‘I’m very open-minded about my future, but right now, at this moment, I’m really enjoying myself and my successes here. I haven’t finished this part of my life yet.’
Tip for Dubai residents: ‘Make sure you watch at least one sunrise out in the desert – and remember to take your camera!’
Was: A recruitment account manager
Now: A networking, kiteboarding, salsa action man
Phil’s Dubai dream started on holiday. ‘I met a guy in the UAE desert,’ explains the former account manager. ‘We got chatting over an ice cream, and he invited me to see his place of work.’ When Phil returned to the UK, desert man followed him up. ‘At the time, August 1998, the UK was like dead man’s boots – I just wasn’t going anywhere. I thought: stuff this, I’m going to have an adventure!’
A pay cut followed, to a job as a sales consultant in Dubai. But he didn’t stop there. ‘I made contacts quickly and people soon started requesting salsa lessons – something I’d just started doing in the UK.’ At the time, Dubai’s salsa scene was in its infancy. Within a month Phil was teaching three or four classes a week. While at work he got promoted to a sales manager, in his spare time he got involved with kiteboarding, going on to became an instructor. Then, in January 2009, at the beginning of the recession, Phil opened a business here: the Referral Institute. So what does that mean, exactly? ‘Imagine someone pitches at a client, but the other person pitching is mates with someone at the company and gets the deal,’ Phil explains. ‘We show people how to be that mate.’ By the end of 2009, Dubai’s Referral Institute was the number-one franchise of 53 in the world. His secret? ‘The more people you help and surround yourself with, the more luck you have,’ he says.
As for the future, Phil is most concerned with making sure his hard-working wife retires soon and, in the distant future, he plans to move to Australia. ‘I’m not greedy,’ he says. ‘I just want to enjoy my life.’
Tip for Dubai residents: ‘Remember that everyone you meet can teach you something.’
Was: A mechanic
Now: A promising motorsports driver
Growing up on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, which has a population of just over 100,000, Andre had his sights set on becoming a marine biologist. Then, at the age of eight, he went to Barbados and saw a car rally, ‘and the bug kicked in’. Moving to Florida as a teen, he began work as a mechanic at an oil-change spot before occasionally karting and doing some autocross time trials. Then, in 2007, Andre and his now-wife decided to move to Dubai, without jobs, just for an adventure.
Thanks to persistence, passion and proven skill, Andre landed a part-time job as an instructor at Dubai Autodrome, and a full-time job as a mechanic at local motorsports group TAM. ‘It was a rocky road. After about six months I was fed up with being a technician, so I bought a ticket home.’ Luckily, he met the team from MSW (a premium tyre and wheel supplier with its own racing team) at the Autodrome just before he was supposed to leave, and managed to bag a new job. ‘I kept going on about how I wanted to drive, and Jonathan Simmons, the managing director at MSW, was either crazy or just fed up with me enough to give me a shot this season, racing touring cars at the Autodrome.’
Andre’s first race weekend, in October, saw him qualifying in pole position, finishing second in the first race and first in the second race, and posting the fastest lap in both races – quite an accomplishment. ‘It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me,’ he points out. ‘Well, apart from meeting my wife!’ He’s only had one race weekend since, in which he had trouble with the Seat Supercopa (his race ended with a smash), but Andre is gearing up for his third event and aiming to secure enough sponsorship to take part in the 24 Hours of Dubai endurance race in January, which will involve driving two-hour stints over a full day.
Known as a smooth, controlled driver, Andre is one to watch, and is still bowled over by the support he has received in Dubai.Original Fitness Co is one of his sponsors, and he hauls himself out of bed at 5am every day to train with the team. His dream? He currently only gets to practice once or twice a month and says he’d love to be in a car full time like his favourite driver, Lewis Hamilton. ‘His dad is from Grenada, so he’s the closest thing to a countryman I have in the sport!’
Tips for Dubai residents: ‘People kept telling me to go into real estate to make a quick dollar, but I believe you need to do what you enjoy in life. It’s not just about making money.’
Marwan Parham Al Awadhi
Was: IT student
Now: TV presenter and DJ
One of three brothers, Marwan’s destiny seemed set for software until an opportunity arose at former Satwa nightclub Henry J Beans (of all places) during his second year of university. ‘I was under parental pressure to get a steady job at a multinational company, so I studied IT at Dubai University,’ he explains. ‘Then, after a summer stint DJing at Wonderland waterpark in Dubai [where he was sacked for spending too much time learning how to use the equipment], I managed to score three gigs a week at Henry Js.’
The soundwaves clearly picked up on this, and stints at free local radio station 967FM and a part-time show at Dubai 92FM followed. But Marwan still wasn’t sure the media scene could really provide a stable income, and later quit the radio station for a job at BA Tobacco. ‘I learned a lot about the corporate world and professionalism,’ he says. ‘But I immediately started saving so I could leave and introduce my own music events, under the name Real Flava.’ The chances just kept coming, and soon he was working at Radio 1 104.1FM as DJ Bliss, the name by which most of us recognise him, first in a drivetime slot and later as a DJ on the sought-after breakfast show.
Not wanting to restrict himself to the airwaves, this year Marwan moved to local TV station Dubai One to work as a presenter for popular new show Twenty Something. But he also realised he couldn’t keep juggling all the opportunities Dubai had thrown at him. ‘At one point I was doing six radio shows a week, four TV shoots and four DJ events,’ he recalls. ‘I had to quit one of them.’ Which brings us to the latest twist in the tale. Marwan left Radio 1 a few months ago to pursue his TV job as well as the events production company he has now set up: Bliss Inc. Surely there’s no way he can leave Dubai now? ‘I don’t know – I went to New York and, because of my music industry connections, I felt more at home there than in Dubai,’ he says. ‘You never know.’
Tip for Dubai residents: ‘Don’t complain about the place. It’s safe, warm and there’s so much culture. It’s like a duty free. You can learn about everywhere from the people living here.’
Success in the city
Fittingly, this week is Global Entrepreneurship Week, and girls-only networking group Heels and Deals is celebrating the art of the entrepreneur with a speed networking event on November 21. ‘Our networking nights are extremely popular,’ explains Heels and Deals co-founder Georgie Hearson. ‘The largest turnout was 185 women – the noise level in the room was unbelievable.’ So, ladies, if you’re willing to take the plunge, it could be the first step toward your dream career. As for the men?
Check out www.unleashingideas.org to find out about networking opportunities around the world. Dhs150 for non-members. November 21, 6.30pm-10.30pm. Media Rotana, Barsha, www.heelsanddeals.org.
Are you in the right job?
According to Dubai-based career coach Daniella De Buvry, we need to look after four dimensions of energy in our lives: the physical, the emotional (positive versus negative), the mental (the focus of your energy) and the spirit (your purpose). Before you can truly assess if you’re in the right career, you should take care of these by getting enough sleep, eating well and looking after your body.
If you’ve followed these steps and are still unsure of your career path, Daniella says you need to ask yourself some questions to figure out if you’re on the right track. ‘Do I feel energised when I start my working day in the morning? How do I feel after a regular working day? Do I spend time at work doing what I do best and enjoy most? Is there a significant gap between what I say is important in my life and how
I actually live?’
If all of these answers point to the fact that you’re in the wrong job, maybe you, like Andre, Hassan, Sarah, Phil and Marwan, should take some measured risks and seek change. www.debuvry.com.