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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

Inside and Outside the Expat Bubble

Local friends are hard to come by in the Middle East, whereas in South America making local friends is a breeze.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some destinations where expats either have lots of local friends or very few. Then we’ll examine possible explanations for these results.

For some countries it is relatively easy to explain the existence (or absence) of an "expat bubble", while for others the reasons are less obvious.

The Expat Bubble

The Expat Bubble
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"The Expat Bubble"

The ten countries where expats have the least number of local friends are mostly located in the Middle East (Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia). This list also includes somewhat more surprising results like Luxembourg, as well as typical expat hotspots like Singapore and Hong Kong. Panama rounds out the "top 10".

A majority of expats in Kuwait (51%) find it difficult to make local friends, and 32% even think it’s very difficult. A similar number of expats consider making local friends in Qatar and Saudi Arabia (45% and 37%, respectively) rather hard. Oman (21%) and Bahrain (19%) fare much better in this category, though.

One possible reason why not many of our survey participants have a high number of local friends in these Middle Eastern countries may simply be the considerable number of expats living there. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a sizeable percentage of respondents also settle in expat-only neighborhoods (26% and 23%, respectively), further limiting their contact with the local population.

It is common for people in these locations to meet their friends at expat events or through expat clubs and associations. Most of these countries show results well above the global average (36% and 18%, respectively) for these two ways of socializing. However, other destinations – such as China and India – have even higher percentages, so this alone doesn’t sufficiently explain why people in these countries have mostly expat friends.

Between one-quarter and one-third of expats most Gulf Arab states cannot speak the local language at all. However, most of them indeed disagree that life there is difficult without sufficient language skills. This may point to the fact that expatriates are frequently able to remain within their "expat bubble" and do not have much daily contact with local residents.

The results also indicate that the perceived friendliness of the population does not necessarily correspond directly to how many local friends our survey participants have. Whereas in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia our respondents think the local population is quite unfriendly, in the UAE and Bahrain expats are, on the whole, fairly satisfied with the friendliness of the population.

And yet, despite these differences, these countries are all listed among those where expats have the least local friends.

Going Local

A majority of the top ten countries where expats have the most local friends are located in South America – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The remaining destinations in this list – Greece, the Philippines, Portugal, and Russia – are scattered across the globe.

In terms of making friends in general, Ecuador ranks first in the finding friends sub-index, and Argentina comes in third. Interestingly, however, Chile comes in 39th out of 61 and Greece only holds spot 45.

Between 63% and 70% of respondents agree that it is easy to make friends in most of these South American nations, as well as the Philippines. Slightly less than half of the survey participants in Chile (47%) and Greece (46%) agree with this statement, despite the fact that expats there tend to have more local friends than expat ones.

The top two ways expats meet new people in these ten countries are through other friends or at work. As a majority of expatriates in these destinations (62% or more) work for companies with more local employees than expat staff, this may explain the higher number of friends from the local population.

Nonetheless, going to expat events remains one of the top five ways for meeting new people in every single one of the ten countries mentioned above.

Whereas the Philippines holds spot five in our Language sub-index, Brazil comes in 50th place out of 61 and Russia even comes in last. Russia’s last-place ranking is partly due to the fact that 70% of respondents say living in this country is rather difficult if you cannot speak Russian. Luckily, 58% state that they can speak the language well or very well. Language issues aside, expatriates in Russia do not seem to be having trouble finding local friends.

Again, the perceived unfriendliness of the local population does not mean that expats in a particular country do not have many local friends. For example, over a quarter of expats in Russia (26%) think the general population is unfriendly, but this fact hasn’t kept many foreign residents from leaving the expat bubble.