Challenges faced by expats in Egypt

by Mark Benson on April 4, 2012

Expats find cultural differences to be the main challenge when moving to Egypt

Egypt is a country which is very much in the news at the moment after a military coup effectively called time on the Egyptian government with the intention of converting to a more democratic political system. While this on-going conflict and violence across Egypt is certain to have an impact upon those looking to move to the country to begin a new life, there are other issues to take into account in the longer term. Egypt is a country which has a history few can match, sites which few will ever have seen the like of before although it is somewhat shrouded in mystery with regard to human rights and treatment of the domestic population. However, a number of expats living in Egypt have joined in our online poll to give an idea of the challenges faced by expats in Egypt.

The main findings of the research conducted by Expat Forum in conjunction with Barclays International Banking are that for the expats living in Egypt, the main challenge up to the date is Cultural differences (33.33% of the votes). Loneliness closely follows with 27.78% of the vote, being Cost of living (22.23%) the third issue faced by foreign national in the country.

Whether it is the fact that Egypt is currently in the throes of a revolution that has led many to vote for cultural problems as the main challenge for expats is open to debate. However, despite the fact that Egypt has for some time now been a very popular tourist destination for people from all over the world it does have something of a “mixed” record to say the least on human rights and treatment of the population.

Over the last few weeks there is no doubt that freedom of speech has come something of a rarity in Egypt and religious leaders who recently took to the streets to protest about the treatment of various religions in Egypt were attacked by a number of parties. There have even been claims that the Egyptian authorities deliberately set about those carrying out peaceful protests which resulted in the death of a significant number of people. It is these cultural differences within the country which are starting to impact upon the thoughts and minds of people outside of the country looking to move there to start a new life.

If there is as much infighting as the worldwide press would have you believe then surely the introduction of more foreigners to the region, with their own cultures and their own beliefs, could spell more trouble. Historically in many ways the Egyptian authorities have been willing to turn a blind eye to a number of Western cultures and Western activities which were perhaps at odds with the local culture. This seems purely and simply to have been a means of attracting overseas interest, overseas visitors and overseas investment for Egypt to shore up the economy – but more help is needed after recent events. Indeed a number of Gulf States have come forward with financial assistance to the tune of US$1 billion and the country is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund about a bailout package.

In the longer term it may well be that the introduction of more democratic processes into the Egyptian culture may well see more compromise and appreciation of other beliefs and cultures. However, the transfer from what was in many ways a dictatorship towards a more fully fledged democratic system will take many years to complete, if it is ever completed, and there will be much conflict and many challenges to overcome. If the democratic movement within Egypt is successful this could literally change the future of people living there. However, if there is something of a vacuum in between the transfer from dictatorship to democracy this will impact upon the image of the country, overseas investment and the number of people looking to make a new life in Egypt.

Loneliness (27.78%)

The issue of loneliness is something which is never far from the surface with regards to the expat community and challenges wherever you move. However, the culture of the Egyptian population is very different to that of the Western world and in many ways this can exacerbate problems such as loneliness which can then impact upon other areas of your everyday life. When you also take into account the ongoing violence in the region can you imagine how anyone left alone would feel as the looters, rioters, demonstrators and the authorities clash literally on your doorstep?

If we take a step back and look at the picture with regards to loneliness and a more “peaceful Egypt” there is no doubt that loneliness is still a very big issue for many people. As we have mentioned on numerous occasions, it is vital that all parties looking to move to a new country to begin a new life are pulling in the same direction and “want the same thing”. If one party is under pressure from others to make the move then at some point their reservations and their concerns will come fighting back to the surface. In the pressure cooker arena of a move overseas, where your social network may be very sparse initially to say the least, a simple problem can quickly be multiplied to become a major issue.

In reality there is nobody in the world who has never at some point or another felt lonely but what can you do about it? In order to combat this very dilapidating “condition” you need to get yourself out and about, mix with the local population, appreciate the local culture and ensure that you are not kept within the four walls of your home 24 hours a day seven days a week. A lack of fresh air, lack of exercise and a lack of time away from your home will impact upon your mental and your physical health. We do not appreciate sometimes how important it is to speak to others, build new friendships and basically communicate with a variety of different people. This is really the only way to combat loneliness in the longer term.

Cost of living (22.23%)

The cost of living in Egypt is obviously a major concern to anybody looking to move to the country and there is no doubt that the ongoing violence within the country is impacting upon everyday life. While the rate of consumer inflation in Egypt fell to a four-year low in October it is worth pointing out that the cost of living year-on-year to October 2011 still increased by 7.1% even though this was a reduction from 8.2% in September. When you take into account the fact that the current figure is the lowest for four years we can only imagine the problems and issues being faced by those living in Egypt. These are but a few reasons to start doing your financial homework as soon as possible, so you can benefit from the alternatives that expat banking offers, such as an offshore bank account or appealing interest rates.

In the UK we feel that an inflation rate of 5% is “extortionate” even if this is set to fall in the short to medium term to around the 2% or 3% target of the Bank of England. If UK inflation was anywhere near 7.1% everybody would be up in arms and more and more families would be struggling to survive. It would appear that the recent reduction in the rate of consumer inflation in Egypt came due to the reduction in the price of rice in the country which fell by 22% due to a very good harvest. There is no doubt that the current political leaders, or military commanders as some would call then, have a very difficult situation on their hands. The ongoing violence in the country will affect the economy, the ever increasing cost of living will stretch budgets further and further and more and more people will be pushed towards poverty.

As a consequence, if you’re looking to move to Egypt then not only do you need to take into account the cost of living at the moment but the fact that it is increasing at a rate which many in the Western world would find unacceptable. While few would potentially look to move to the region with the ongoing conflict between the public and the military leaders, even if you do consider moving to Egypt when everything is calm again you will need to have financial strength in depth. Despite the fact that billions upon billions of dollars have been promised to the Egyptian authorities to build up a more democratic environment and support the economy, this support may take years to come through and have an impact. In the meantime, the difference between the poor and the rich in Egypt continues to grow ever wider and is having a major impact upon those at the lower end of the income scale.

It will be interesting to see what the forthcoming “democratic government” decide to do with regards to the cost of living in Egypt and indeed whether a free-market economy could emerge. It is well-known that the authorities still have a relatively tight grip on some goods which are subsidised but surely a free-market would allow the “fat” to be trimmed from the cost of living in Egypt?

Relationship problems (5.56%)

Relationship problems have fared fairly low down the scale of issues facing those living in Egypt although whether this is purely and simply because of the ongoing friction or a sign of the times is open to debate. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that relationship problems and relationship issues will emerge for each and every person looking to make Egypt their new homeland. It is how you cope with these issues and these problems which will define how successful your move is and in many cases whether one or more of the parties involved move “home”.

Very often relationship problems will come to the fore because of one or more of the parties experiencing significant loneliness and a feeling of being “cut adrift”. This is very common where one of the party has an employment position in Egypt while the other maybe looks after the family home and the children. Spending all day every day in your home looking after the children is not easy and when your partner comes home you may feel like socialising. However, very often those who have had a full working day may feel like resting which can in some cases cause friction.

The best way to avert and reduce relationship issues is to talk, talk, talk and ensure that small problems are not left to fester and grow into enormous issues. Discussing your concerns with your partner in a calm and sensible manner is more likely to lead to a solution as opposed to leaving your concerns to fester and turning them into an argument. This all seems very easy when you read it on paper although the truth is that under the microscope of a move overseas, relationship problems of the past can come back to haunt you and in many cases have broken long-standing partnerships.

Healthcare (5.56%)

There are a number of factors to take into account with regards to healthcare in Egypt which on the whole is very modern and very forward-looking. You may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of doctors in Egypt have an understanding of Western culture and indeed the vast majority will speak English to a very high level. However, while the facilities in Egypt are very impressive and the healthcare system is available to everybody, there may well be payment issues!

Anybody who moves to Egypt, whether for a short time or to begin a new life, is well advised to take out private healthcare insurance at the earliest opportunity. However, despite the fact that you may have healthcare insurance, and can claim back any costs, the vast majority of doctors will expect payment in cash for any treatment. Therefore it is vital that not only do you take out private healthcare insurance but you also have sufficient fluid funds available at short notice if required.

The authorities in Egypt also have access to evacuation services for those requiring state-of-the-art medical facilities which may not be available throughout Egypt. So while there may well be issues with regards to payment and settlement of outstanding bills, with cash king in Egypt, on the whole there are more than enough facilities available to cover the vast majority of issues you may encounter. If you’re looking for private healthcare insurance there are also more than enough expat companies operating around the world that will be able to model a particular package to cover your requirements in full. Indeed, those who are working in Egypt may well be able to access private healthcare via their employer.

Other issues (5.56%)

There were very few in the way of other issues mentioned with regards to expats in Egypt although one which was entered into the poll was the problem of “scammers and money vampires”. However, in reality there are few countries in the world now where you can move to without the potential for scammers and fraudsters to try and “reduce your wealth”. You need to have your eyes open, be realistic, do your research and above all do not take offers and opportunities at face value. A good way to be aware of the Egyptian banking and economic landscape is to take a look at the banking guide that experts at Barclays Wealth and Investments have put together.

Conclusion

Over the last few days it has become apparent that the problems in Egypt, which earlier this year led to the undignified exit of Egyptian president Mubarak, are far from over. When the friction began to mount and protesters took to the streets it was the military that eventually stepped in to take control and forced the resignation of the president. This brought to an end a 30 year rule by President Mubarak with high hopes that this was the beginning of a new era for the country.

However, unfortunately it seems that the population of Egypt is now growing impatient with regards to the transfer of government from the military backed system to a fully democratic government. Indeed just this morning we have reports of deaths on the streets of Cairo where protestors have clashed with the military. Despite the fact that significant overseas aid has been forthcoming from a variety of different parties the problems which dragged Egypt to the brink of civil war just a few months ago do not appear to have left.

As a consequence, many expats who were initially looking towards Egypt as a new homeland may well need to delay this particular adventure for the short term. However, if as many people believe, the Egyptian political scene is transferred from a dictatorship type scenario to a fully democratic and incorrupt system this will help the image of the country. Cultural differences, loneliness, cost of living, relationship problems and healthcare are still very much in the minds of expats (in this particular order) and are likely to remain so for some time to come.

The path to democracy has never run smoothly for any country around the world and with a history littered with effective dictatorship rule it seems Egypt is but the latest challenge for the democracy movement. The potential benefits of a translation from dictatorship to democracy could be absolutely huge for a country where the gap between the rich and the poor effectively continues to grow on a daily basis.


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