Opportunities and challenges for expats in emerging economies

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Published on 2023-11-15 at 08:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Choosing to relocate to an emerging economy is a bold decision for anyone seeking to navigate environments undergoing rapid growth, often characterized by robust economic dynamics but slower social changes. Before getting started, it is crucial to understand what 'emerging economy' truly means and how these swiftly evolving countries present unique opportunities and stimulating challenges for prospective expats.

What is an "emerging economy"?

An emerging country is one that is experiencing rapid economic growth but slower social development. The term originates from Antoine Van Agtmael, a Dutch economist who first used it in 1981 to refer to developing countries that were attractive to investors. The term was first used to describe "emerging markets". The expression, which defined only the economic sphere, was extended to cover entire countries, giving rise to the term "emerging country". The focus remains on strong economic growth. However, strong economic growth often goes hand in hand with rising social inequality because social change does not keep pace with the economic boom.

As a result, emerging countries are sometimes different. Since the parameters used to define an emerging country are numerous, there is no official list of emerging countries. Economic studies are numerous, and they do not always reach the same conclusions. The definition of "emerging country" has changed over time and continues to evolve, but a few "trends" can be agreed upon.

The World Bank classified China, India, and other countries as emerging economies in 2007. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a British consultancy and auditing firm, identified 20 emerging countries in 2008, including Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). These have been classified as emerging economies since 2005, as have Argentina, South Africa and the Philippines. Depending on economists ' interpretations, Chile and Hungary may or may not be classified as emerging economies.

What are the emerging countries in 2023? 

Are the emerging countries of 20 years still relevant? In August 2023, the conclusions of the BRICS summit (South Africa joined the initial grouping) herald a future expansion. Iran, Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Ethiopia are already among the prospective members of the BRICS, which will increase from 5 to 11 States (from January 2024). About 40 other states, including Nigeria and Cuba, have expressed a desire to join the BRICS or their interest in the organization. The BRICS still embody the strong core of emerging states and seem determined to represent the other way, in competition with the United States and the dollar. So why should you relocate to these countries?

First, several of these emerging economies are welcoming to foreigners. This is especially true for China and the UAE. India attracts a lot of tourists. Argentina has been attracting tourists and digital nomads since the launch of the digital nomad visa in May 2022. Saudi Arabia is opening up to immigrants. Amid a struggle for power with the UAE, Saudi Arabia wishes to establish Riyadh as the new Eldorado for expatriates ahead of Dubai.

However, it's worth keeping in mind that tourism and immigration are two different things. Although they stay for several months, tourists are only on temporary visits. They live at a different pace than the other locals and prefer to stay in tourist areas, whereas expatriates live in residential areas. Their living experiences vary depending on the area where they live. On the other hand, locals may feel different depending on whether or not they are used to being around foreigners. Even in popular expat hotspots, everything depends on where expats choose to live, their field of work, and whether or not they speak the local language.

Things to keep in mind when relocating to an emerging economy 

As with any international relocation, careful planning is essential. Take the time to seek all relevant information about Brazil, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Is the job market dynamic? What is the corporate culture like? Is it easy to find a job there? Are the companies willing to hire foreigners? But finances are not the only crucial aspect. You also have to consider social factors. Even when the economy is keen on eradicating social issues, they manifest themselves to the point of altering the perception of the workplace and the company itself. Debates about protecting mental health, eliminating open spaces and teleworking are all part of this social dimension.

It's a fact that social change is slower than economic change in emerging countries. This is especially true in rural areas, far from cities and power hubs. Some expatriates are uncomfortable with this ambivalence and acknowledge that the major powers are also dealing with rising inequalities and unequal distribution of wealth. They also feel that these differences are more pronounced in emerging economies. For others, it's more of a political argument. Despite all this, is it possible to build a career in China, Saudi Arabia or Iran where you are more likely to be treated better than locals? Furthermore, the opening up of a country like Saudi Arabia could "force" the reviewing of other values instilled for the benefit of its citizens. The UAE, for instance, has gradually relaxed its policies, mainly to attract more foreigners.

However, from a more realistic point of view, not everything is perfect, even in the United Arab Emirates. Expatriates have a choice: they can either stay, keeping in mind the numerous challenges facing the emerging economy, or move to another country.