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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In From The Cold

by The Media Office

Helene Ballout
Katarina Premfors

The Arabian Desert may be a far cry from the icey wilderness of northern Europe, but as David Williams found out, there are plenty of Scandinavians who have swapped snow shoes for sun cream to call the UAE home 

The Scandinavians are a truly nomadic race. Most countries of the world have a small but influential community from the northern European region, and the Middle East is certainly no different.

Archeological records show that the notorious Viking onslaught of Europe spilled as far south as Baghdad some 1100 years ago and, while there's nothing to back this up, many believe they may have even advanced further into the GCC before being beaten back by the deserts and the searing heat.

The Scandinavian presence in the Middle East, although you may not realise it, is everywhere, with the region benefiting from the technological breakthroughs introduced by the Nordic race.

Two of Scandinavia's biggest exporters are now household names here, while expertise in the oil industry has resulted in many Scandinavians, particularly from Norway, landing prime jobs in the GCC's oil industry.

Mobile phone giants Nokia and Ericsson hail from Finland and Sweden respectively and they now dominate one of the most lucrative industries in the Middle East. Statistics show that there are more phones per head of population in some Arab countries than in many western countries, and it will not be long before a piece of northern Europe will be carried around in a majority of pockets and handbags in the UAE.

The Scandinavians are also one of the most popular races of people of the modern age too. Their love of life and travel comes to the fore when you speak to many of them whatever their age, and that is no different whether you encounter one in the freezing temperatures of Oslo, or the boiling heat of Dubai.

Katarina Premfors is one such Swedish 25 year-old with a love of life and travel that is typical of so many Scandinavians her age. While many Europeans talk and dream of travel, Katarina, and many like her, have actually gone and experienced it.

"I love the challenge of arriving in a new country and finding my feet," said Katarina, who is what many would describe as 'typical looking Swede' with long natural blonde hair and what seems to be a permanent, welcoming smile.

Having been born in Sweden, Katarina left here homeland at the age of 12 and was schooled in Pakistan to "learn English". Spells in Turkey and the USA followed before she got her first taste of Dubai at the age of 18.

"My parents had come out here to live so I decided to see what it was like," she said. "I came out on holiday for 10 days and I am still here seven years later."

That time has not been spent entirely in the UAE. She spent 1995 in England and five months of 1998 in France, but she is now building a career in Dubai as a photographer for one of the top agencies called The Studio, based in the Courtyard on Sheikh Zayed Road.

"There seems to be so many opportunities for young people to build a career in Dubai. I am doing work now that I don't believe I would be doing at my age if I was living somewhere else. I am very happy living here at the moment and can't see myself leaving in the near future." Katarina says she loves the unpredictability of living in the Middle East: "In Sweden you get into a routine and know what to expect week to week, but over here something always takes you by surprise. You never know what is going to spring up next. Life in Arabia is certainly a little bit different!

"I have lived in so many countries of the world and every one has its own local community followed by various foreign communities. Dubai is so different because it is made up of so many different nationalities all living with each other. You come across many different cultures living in Dubai. It is without doubt one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world because you encounter various aspects of life."

It is difficult to put an accurate figure on the number of Scandinavians living in Dubai, a rough estimate would probably be less than 1000, but those that are here hold key positions in multi-national companies.

While a consulate does exist in Dubai, the Swedish embassy in Abu Dhabi was surprisingly closed down last year and the nearest is located these days in Kuwait. "It shocks me to think there is no embassy here when you consider the rate at which the city is growing. Maybe it will return in the future," she said.

While Katarina has adjusted to every day life in the emirates with consummate ease, she says fellow Scandinavians should fully research the area before making a move to the Middle East.

"Find out about life here before hand," she warns. "It's a little bit different here and could surprise someone who is not prepared. You have to be ambitious and determined if you are to do well and being a woman in a male-dominated career, you sometimes have to prove a lot more to be recognised. I think being blond helps me get away with it sometimes!" Katarina's main grumbles about the UAE are the same as most other people... traffic. "People are so irresponsible on the roads out here, which are very dangerous compared to back home."

Despite being well travelled, and well prepared for the unexpected, Katarina still fell foul of red tape when she was on a photo shoot. Having acquired the necessary documentation to be able to shoot satellite dishes at Jebel Ali, she was still held in police custody for two hours by one suspecting member of the local constabulary who thought he may have apprehended a spy!

"It was all sorted out eventually and I have to say that the police were very nice," she recalls. "The policeman at the end of the day was carrying out his job and was well within his rights to check me out." The UAE enjoys its fair share of tourism dollars too from Scandinavia, and one market that has also done well in the 1990s is the incoming travel from the business, conference and incentive sector.

Eva Premfors runs a small family business which arranges conference and incentive travel to the UAE from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and also makes similar arrangements for companies, particularly Scandinavian, already based here.

Having arrived in Dubai in 1990, Eva, and her husband Kent, experienced the aftermath of the Gulf War and several years of finding their feet before getting their company, Leisure Time, established in this fluctuating market.

"For us, our business has grown because a lot of businesses in this field went bankrupt," she said. "We concentrated on being a small family business while others went for much bigger things and wasted too much money.

"It's very tough in Dubai to get established. We've been here for nine years and it took us seven years to get to the position we are in today. There is a lot of hard work to be done to be successful in Dubai. We don't have weekends because Europe works on Thursdays and Fridays and then the Middle East opens again on a Saturday."

Eva first came to Dubai on a short break with her husband in 1989 while they were living in Turkey, and they later promoted the emirate through an airline they helped to set up in their native country.

"We were getting two full planes to Dubai every week so it was becoming quite a popular place to visit back then," she recalls.

Despite missing the "trees, mushrooms, and blueberries" of home, and making the popular complaint about driving in the UAE, Eva says she is settled here and points out the balcony in her office as one of the many luxuries she would not get back home.

"I am also very lucky because I have my two daughters, a son and a grandchild all living here too," she said. "While most people have to travel thousands of miles to be with their families, my grandchild is only five minutes up the road. I can look forward to spending Christmas with all my family around me and not have to go anywhere."

One thing that particularly annoys Eva about Dubai is the state of the beaches.

She said: "The police should go down to the beaches on a Thursday when people are having barbecues and warn them. If people leave their rubbish behind, they should be fined. It's such a shame to see how dirty some beaches become."

Scandinavians have a great command of the English language and speak it better in many instances than the natives themselves, and Petr Larsson has made a career out of it by teaching English in Dubai.

The 32 year-old Norwegian has been here for the past year and has decided to settle after spending the previous four years travelling the world.

"I passed through 31 countries when I was travelling and the UAE was by far the best I went to," he said. "The generosity of the people, no matter what their nationality was, struck me more than anything else. I intend to stay here a couple of years at least because I love the climate, my job and not paying taxes is also pretty neat!"

Petr teaches English to mainly young Arabic children and says they are quick to learn.

"Most of them already know they want to go to school and college in the UK when they are older and are determined to learn the language early. The parents are very supportive too because they want their children to take advantage of opportunities they probably never had."

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