Middle East supplement: Home away from home

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The lack of traffic jams on the Sheikh Zayed Road - a 25km artery through "new Dubai's" skyscrapers, malls and luxury hotels - is the surest sign of the emirate's economic troubles. Fifteen years ago, the road was little more than the start of the desert highway to Abu Dhabi, but a building frenzy between the Creek and Jebel Ali port saw it become regularly choked with commuters and construction trucks. Today, free-flowing traffic is one of the silver linings in the cloud of depression hanging over Dubai.

It is easier to find a taxi, too, and rent an apartment. The global crisis has made life more bearable for those in secure employment for whom Dubai's 21st century boom, with its spiralling prices and building sites on your doorstep, had its downside. But for many expatriates who had come to the city to cash in on a latter-day gold rush, the economic slump has come as a painful reminder that they are there as a guest of the government, not a citizen. Work permits are usually rescinded immediately a contract is terminated and defaulting on loans is a criminal offence.

So is the Gulf still somewhere to make your home? Certainly, it is an advantage to work for a reputable employer and in a profession with long-term prospects. Tax-free salaries - although their value wavers depending on which currency they are weighed against - remain attractive. And if you are into year-round sunshine, crime-free neighbourhoods, outstanding service and leisure activities that range from sailing and golf to off-roading and even skiing, the region is the place for you.

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 © Rex Features

The Gulf is far from homogenous. It ranges from fast-and-loose Dubai - one of the world's most exhilarating cities - and liberal Bahrain to traditional Kuwait and the strictly Islamic Saudi Arabia, where expatriate packages usually reflect the strictures on Western lifestyle, such as bans on alcohol and female drivers. In between are wealthy and fast-expanding Abu Dhabi and Qatar, keen to put their capitals on the international map with luxury hotels, sporting events and world-leading airports.

Changing lifestyles reflect the way the countries themselves have changed. When Emirates launched in the mid-1980s, Dubai was a sleepy port with big ambitions and Abu Dhabi was adjusting from being a traditional Arabian settlement to a centre of the oil industry. Houry Pappin, human resources manager at Falcon Aviation Services in Abu Dhabi, grew up in the city in the 1970s and remembers when it had just one building over two storeys, camels strolled around downtown and a shopping trip to Dubai meant a 6h trek over sand in a Land Rover.

At the time, Bahrain was the region's thriving hub and where its only airline to speak of, Gulf Air, was based. While professional guest workers led a privileged, Raj-like existence - with villas, servants and private pools - there was little in the way of entertainment beyond the small communities of fellow expatriates.

Now Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have some of the world's top hotels and golf courses, and sailing in the Gulf itself is unrivalled, say enthusiasts. Whether you fancy spending your free time watching a George Michael concert, visiting the Guggenheim Museum or enjoying the Grand Prix, cultural, sporting and leisure facilities are among the best. Add to that top-rate schools and health services, sandy beaches and the finest shopping malls.

But there are rules to follow. Even in easy-going Dubai, being drunk or rowdy in public, or dressing immodestly (especially during Ramadan) is frowned upon - or worse. There is some censorship of imported publications. And do not expect to be consulted on whether that piece of land next to your quiet villa is going to be turned into a 50-storey hotel. None of the Gulf countries is a democracy and, although the ruling families permit some debate and open reporting by the media, the press is not the rottweiler it is in the West.

But as long as you do not expect California or the Costa Brava transported to Arabia, for many people, working in the Gulf is truly living the dream.