ISS Shipping company staff load up trucks at their warehouse in Al Quoz. An estimated 400 moving companies in the UAE help expatriates pack and ship people’s belongings back home — or on to another new life abroad. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News


After a slowdown in 2016 which saw a multitude of workers lose their jobs and fly home, moving and relocation companies in the UAE are preparing for a more stable year of coming and going.

Every year, an estimated 400 moving companies help the UAE’s heavily transient expats pack up and ship people’s belongings back home — or on to another new life abroad. And with expats making up around 80 to 90 per cent of the country’s population, that’s a lot of business.

Packing and relocation firms tend to start getting busy from December, when many start to arrive or head off.

Then, from April until August, as school years and work contracts end just as temperatures rise, movers and packers work at a feverish pitch.

Compared to the same time last year, when companies were downsizing, the inflow and outflow of workers seems to have stabilised, some moving firms said.

But as energy prices stay low and local firms stay cautious, there’s still a noticeable large uptick of people upping sticks and moving on, according to one removals firm. “In the last two years, suddenly the numbers have been increased,” said Abhilash Nair, the regional manager of ISS Worldwide Movers.

Last year, the company managed 5,000 moves to and from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Of these, 65 per cent were from people leaving the country for good.

“I see a good volume of people who have been here for a long time [who are now leaving],” he said.

“They feel that the cost of living, and school cost, is far higher compared to many countries that they are migrating to.”

Most clients migrate or return to Europe, followed by Canada, Australia, the United States, and South Africa.

New Zealand and Switzerland were increasingly becoming destinations for moneyed expats, he added.

Fresh blood

However, despite the outflow, some growing sectors are drawing plenty of people into the UAE. Nair has seen many new arrivals who have found jobs in the construction and hospitality sectors.

Another UAE branch of an international moving firm, Crown Relocations, said it has seen a 35 per cent year on year increase in enquiries for its services.

“This can be attributed to an increase in number of expats coming and going,” said a Dubai-based spokeswoman for the firm, which mostly deals with mid to high level managers.

“The trend will only continue to grow as we get nearer to the very busy summer season in June and July.”

One moving firm reported handling more people coming to the UAE than going, with many arrivals taking up jobs in the retail sector.

“We are seeing more coming versus this time last year,” said Simone Percy, a director of Dubai-based family firm Dasa. She added that this year so far seemed no less busy than the year before.

“An educated guess is that we’ve seen in a increase in the number of people coming [into the UAE] by at least 15 per cent.” The firm mostly does contract deals with large corporations who relocate their staff.

But not all moving firms have seen an increase in business. Sana Movers, a smaller Dubai-based firm reported that this year so far, less people had moved back home.

“People are watching the market, [to see] what will happen,” said Thomas Kuzhuppil,the firm’s director.

He said that most of his customers who are moving home are European, with the number of internal moves — made from one emirate to the other — also decreasing

“Compared to last year, very less people are moving locally,” he said.

But Kuzhuppil also blamed what he described as an unregulated market, with cheap but unlicensed ‘man-with-van’ operators stealing business away from established firms.

“Because of less price, the quality will also be less,” he said. “If they [customers] want to get good quality work, they should pay more.”

Another small firm, Reef Movers, reported that this year, widely fluctuating rents between emirates had given a 5 to 10 per cent increase in internal moving jobs.

“More people are moving inside the country to other emirates because of the rent variance,” said Jobi Joseph, the company’s owner and founder.

Time to say goodbye

If you’re looking to make a move — whether outside or inside the UAE, this year is a good time, Joseph noted.

“The market is really competitive nowadays,” he said. “Our costs are high and the customers are getting good competitive rates.”

A corporate trainer and human resources veteran with decades of experience in the region said that rising school fees and living costs — coupled with economic uncertainty — is making some decide to leave.

While the UAE’s economic fundamentals were sound, a perhaps unnecessary cautiousness over costs had been affecting the hiring market, he said.

“Companies are tightening their belts all over,” Robert Mosely, CEO of Lemon Pip Consulting told Gulf News.

He noted that many large companies are practicing “extreme cautiousness… because they don’t want to be in the position they were in 2009,” he said, recalling the Great Recession.

“That cautiousness could become self-fulfilling.”

A question of clutter

Making a move away from the UAE can have its challenges, many movers noted. As well as winding down work and other commitments, most expats will have to make one judgement call.

Do you sell your stuff or take it with you? For people who move in the summer months, selling their possessions for a reasonable price can prove tricky.

Second-hand bulky items, such as televisions or sofas, sell for very little in the UAE, noted Nair, the ISS Worldwide Movers executive — particularly in the summer when the market is flooded.

For those who don’t want to ship their stuff, and can’t face the hassle of selling it piece by piece, there’s always a last-ditch option.

“They know we’ll take anything,” said Faisal Khan, the owner of Take My Junk. The catchy-named company declutters over 2,000 homes in the UAE every month.

“We’ll take the cleaning supplies, canned food, packet spices, unopened things. So all they do is just sweep up and give the key back to their landlord,” Khan added.

“It’s a little less headache for someone who has a flight to catch or a new job in a another country.

The firm frequently pays cash for people’s belongings – but not a lot. “The average house is getting like 2,000 to 2,500 dirhams now.”

Despite the comparatively small sum, Khan reports some of the firms’ customers preferring the quick cash over the barrage of “silly offers” people report when they list their items for sale online.

“We’re just a phone call for people who have panics,” said Khan. ”We’re like the last resort.”

POP-UP BOX: How do I pick a good moving firm?

A simple internet search reveals several horror stories from people who left the UAE — but then found that their possessions had not followed them.

A good way to distinguish between the hundreds of moving firms on the market is to check they are accredited, said Simone Percy, an executive at Dasa, a Dubai-based relocations firm.

One of these bodies is Fidi (Federation Internationale des Demenageurs Internationaux) a global industry body of moving firms of which Dasa is a member.

People looking for a moving firm “should look at the all the forums, get recommendations, do your homework basically,” said Percy.

“Ask to see a copy of trade license. Don’t assume anything is above board. It’s the old adage — you get what you pay for.”

Once you’ve checked online, make sure the company has a real, physical presence, said Abhilash Nair, the regional manager of ISS Worldwide Movers.

“Ninety-five per cent of moving companies are one person, and one chair,” Nair told Gulf News.

“That’s why there are so many moving companies. They are not actually moving companies but brokers.”

He recalled one incident where a European lady ended up paying a whopping Dh10,000 more than market rates to a shipping broker of the same nationality — instead of approaching his firm directly.

The cost of shipping a home-full of goods overseas seems to range from Dh12,000-35,000.

Lastly, if you’re planning to move, start planning — and making calls — early.

“We advise clients to start to make their arrangements and book their moving company well in advance,” said a spokeswoman for Crown Relocations.