‘You can’t emi­grate here for­ever – you’ll al­ways be an ex­pat’

Ir­ish en­tre­pre­neur’s busi­ness train­ing firm thriv­ing in Abu Dhabi

The Irish Times - Business - - CAVEAT - Bar­bara McCarthy

For Ca­rina De­vlin and her fam­ily, 2008 marked a turn­ing point. The re­ces­sion was hit­ting Ire­land and grad­u­ally in­sin­u­at­ing it­self into peo­ple’s lives.

“My hus­band, a con­struc­tion en­gi­neer, saw projects across the coun­try dry up. So he took up a con­tract in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emi­rates and we packed our bags and moved to the Emi­rati cap­i­tal with our two young kids,” she says.

De­spite be­ing Dubai’s lesser known lit­tle sis­ter, Abu Dhabi is an oil-pro­duc­ing metropo­lis, at­tract­ing ex­pats from across the globe, look­ing to fuel up on high salar­ies and zero in­come taxes.

“I had lived in the Mid­dle East be­fore, in the early 1990s, when I worked with Royal Jor­da­nian Air­lines as an air host­ess. I was based in Am­man, but trav­elled widely across the re­gion so it was in­ter­est­ing that I was drawn back here again,” she says.

You can’t just move to the UAE with­out be­ing spon­sored. De­vlin, who was work­ing pre­vi­ously in Dublin as a re­cruit­ment di­rec­tor, was happy to pig­gy­back on her hus­band’s spon­sor­ship and try some­thing new.

“Ini­tially we only planned to stay two years, but here we are, 10 years later and count­ing.”


Get­ting the chil­dren set­tled and into school and Montes­sori was a pri­or­ity at first, be­fore she started teach­ing busi­ness English.

“It was great as it wasn’t full time and I was meet­ing in­ter­est­ing peo­ple and get­ting to know the cul­ture of the place.”

A meet­ing with a friend and fel­low Ir­ish ex­pat, Bri­ona Cor­ri­gan, a cre­ative trainer and ex-singer with 90s band The Beau­ti­ful South led to a joint ven­ture, The Cre­ative Train, a busi­ness-train­ing com­pany that de­liv­ers in­ter­ac­tive solutions via games and tasks.

In 2016, the com­pany got a busi­ness li­cence through one of the UAE’s many “free zones” which aim to give en­trepreneurs and small busi­nesses a sim­pler way to set up in the re­gion. The li­cence has to be re­newed ev­ery year.

“Es­sen­tially the free zone of­fers you 100 per cent com­pany own­er­ship with­out the need for lo­cal spon­sor­ship, which is fan­tas­tic,” she says.

“We of­fer be­spoke tai­lor-made train­ing and work­shops for busi­nesses in the UAE and around the world. We merged our far-reach­ing knowl­edge across the train­ing sec­tor and our cre­ative el­e­ments to­gether to bring some­thing dif­fer­ent to the ta­ble.”

De­vlin says the com­pany hit the ground run­ning af­ter it pro­cured a large con­tract from a South African global en­ter­tain­ment and in­ter­net com­pany, one of the largest tech­nol­ogy in­vestors in the world af­ter cre­at­ing a “Sto­ry­telling for Busi­ness” work­shop.

“It was specif­i­cally tai­lored to suit the needs of the com­pany, and we de­liv­ered it in South Africa, Brazil, In­dia, Poland and Hol­land.”

“Sto­ry­telling” en­ables you to present in­for­ma­tion in a more in­ter­est­ing way, she says. “It is the great­est tech­nol­ogy we have and the ba­sis for how we in­ter­act and com­mu­ni­cate.”

A re­cent Stan­ford Univer­sity sur­vey found that sta­tis­tics com­bined with sto­ries have a re­ten­tion rate of 65 to 70 per cent.

“Hence its a highly ef­fec­tive way of mak­ing sums or sta­tis­tics eas­ier to di­gest and keeps busi­ness, who in­vest in sto­ry­telling work­shops ahead of the pack.”

The Cre­ative Train holds work­shops for cor­po­rates in ho­tels or con­fer­ence halls around Abu Dhabi and be­yond. “We have an of­fice space out­side Abu Dhabi in the ‘free zone’, though we mostly work from home or cof­fee shops, which is great when you have a fam­ily,” she says.

And although the com­pany is young, De­vlin says it has big plans. “We want to look at ways to help women feel em­pow­ered and ex­ceed their ex­ec­u­tive po­ten­tial and to en­cour­age more fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion at high lev­els, which is good for ev­ery­one.

“It’s an ex­cit­ing time for us and we are pas­sion­ate about cre­ative train­ing with in­no­va­tive com­pa­nies.

“We are cur­rently pre­par­ing work­shops for some ma­jor com­pa­nies here in the UAE to be de­liv­ered in the com­ing months and would love to in­crease our pro­file in Ire­land and else­where.”

De­vlin says the fam­ily en­joys a fab­u­lous life in Abu Dhabi. “There’s lots of out­door sports, beach life and great kids ac­tiv­i­ties – and be­ing so far from home, the friend­ships you forge here are re­ally strong.”


She and her fam­ily also en­joy the fruits of the vi­brant Ir­ish and in­ter­na­tional community.

“In 2008 when we ar­rived, there was a mas­sive in­flux of ex­pats from across the world which drove up rental prices for quite a few years but it has stead­ied a lit­tle in re­cent times, though it is still ex­pen­sive.”

For any­one think­ing of mov­ing to Abu Dhabi, De­vlin warns that it is a very tran­sient place. “You can’t emi­grate here for­ever be­cause you need spon­sor­ship, so you’ll al­ways be an ex­pat.”

Peo­ple also need to be aware of the cul­ture in the Mid­dle East and how eas­ily you can of­fend peo­ple un­know­ingly. “So do fa­mil­iarise your­self with lo­cal cus­toms – both for­mal and in­for­mal.”

And while you mightn’t pay taxes on your in­come in Abu Dhabi, costs are high. “We pay €40,000 a year per house. Schools are €20,000 per year. Re­cently a 5 per cent VAT rate has been in­tro­duced on goods and ser­vices.”

Main cour­ses cost around €25 and drinks don’t come cheap in the many bars and clubs.

“It also gets so roast­ing hot in the sum­mer months, so we head back to Ire­land to our mo­bile home to get away from the sti­fling heat.

“If you de­cide to move here, you might want to plan a lit­tle escape here and there.”

Ini­tially we only planned to stay two years, but here we are, 10 years later and count­ing

Ca­rina De­vlin’s The Cre­ative Train holds work­shops for cor­po­rates in ho­tels or con­fer­ence halls around Abu Dhabi and be­yond

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