Dubai is one of the seven United Arab Emirates, a member of the UAE federation. Its capital city is also called Dubai, nicknamed the City of Gold. The country sits on the hot, dry south eastern coast of the Persian Gulf and has the largest population of the UAE countries.
Together with Abu Dhabi, it is one of just two emirates to enjoy veto power over critical matters of national importance. The country is comparatively wealthy, which makes working in Dubai a popular expat option. But what is it actually like living in Dubai? We thought it’s be useful to look at what people who have actually moved there say about living in Dubai.
About living in Dubai
First, an introduction to this fascinating and vibrant nation. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Dubai:
Today, Dubai has emerged as a cosmopolitan metropolis that has grown steadily to become a global city and a business and cultural hub of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. It is also a major transport hub for passengers and cargo. Although Dubai’s economy was historically built on the oil industry, the emirate’s Western-style model of business drives its economy with the main revenues now coming from tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services.
Dubai has recently attracted world attention through many innovative large construction projects and sports events. The city has become symbolic for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, such as the world’s tallest Burj Khalifa, in addition to ambitious development projects including man-made islands, hotels, and some of the largest shopping malls in the region and the world.
This increased attention has also highlighted labour and human rights issues concerning the city’s largely South Asian workforce. Dubai’s property market experienced a major deterioration in 2008–2009 following the financial crisis but is making a gradual recovery with help coming from neighbouring emirates.
As of 2012, Dubai was the 22nd most expensive city in the world, and the most expensive city in the Middle East. Dubai has also been rated as one of the best places to live in the Middle East, including by American global consulting firm Mercer who rated the city as the best place to live in the Middle East in 2011.
Job opportunities in Dubai
It’s clear the country suffered in the global financial crisis from 2008 onwards. So what is the situation right now with job vacancies in Dubai? It appears things are looking up again. As the expat arrivals site says:
“The economy in Dubai is moving forward at a rapid pace. This offers many opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs and professionals. All kinds of services are needed. Most of the goods available in Dubai have been imported. As a young country, the UAE it is still struggling to establish efficient operations in many segments of industry and relies on expats to provide this expertise.”
A quick search online finds one recruitment giant offering a total of 149 excellent jobs in Dubai, covering industries and sectors as diverse as marketing, financial services, engineering and teaching, which is probably one of the reasons why the country is such a cultural melting pot. As one expat says:
“You don’t have to go further than Dubai to see and learn so much more about the world. You will make many friends – some of them lifelong – because you will all have a shared experience of living and working in this exciting yet challenging, truly foreign environment.”
The cost of living in Dubai
By all accounts, living expenses in Dubai are pretty high. It’s a good idea to check carefully how far the seemingly-generous salary you’ll be paid there will stretch, tax-free or not, before it is completely eaten up by the necessities of life, things like rent, school fees and socialising. And once you’re there it pays to be careful with your cash until you get a feel for your everyday expenses.
Getting around in Dubai
Public transport is excellent, absolutely world class, a “nice, clean, affordable way to move around the city.” On the other hand the driving in Dubai is famously awful, and you might find yourself taking your life into your own hands on the roads. Some expats recommend you stick to taxi cabs rather than risk driving yourself.
Getting around the country’s bureaucracy is a challenge, too, unless you are lucky enough to have “extreme patience”. It helps to make contact with the expat community before you go, so you have a group of people who can help and support you through the red tape you’ll inevitably have to navigate.
Meeting the locals in Dubai
According to may expats, a stint in Dubai almost always comes with an end date. Apparently integration with local people isn’t the norm, and you’ll be unlikely to need to learn the language because the country is so international: most people speak English. On the other hand, the locals are typically delighted when you make an effort to learn a few words of Arabic, the country’s official language. As Dubai-based Rachael Harrison, a seasoned Dubai expat, says:
“Emiratis make up only 10% of the population in the UAE, meaning that expats are in the unusual position of being in the majority. However, these expats are a truly international bunch; Indians, Filipinos, South Africans, Australians…to name but a few! Everybody generally tends to socialise in their own cliques, however. As a teacher I’m lucky because there’s always a group of new people starting at the same time, and existing staff are very welcoming. Most of my friends in the beginning were teachers, and I have gradually expanded my network by getting to know friends of friends of friends and so on.
Thankfully there’s a large and lively expat community to socialise with, and the countryside is stunning. The reliable climate means there’s an exciting outdoor lifestyle to enjoy, dining alfresco more or less all year round and taking advantage of the amazing variety and number of things do to and see. As Rachael goes on to say:
“After a hard day or week at work, I love the fact that I can just head to the desert or mountains camping, or nip to the beach and get on my stand up paddle board and forget the stresses and strains of everyday life. Back home, I would never have been able to do this due to the cost and bad weather. You may work harder here, but you can certainly play harder too!”
New, spotless and rich
Everything in Dubai city centre is new and clean and works perfectly, which makes it a remarkably comfortable place to live, work and explore. Visit other countries and you find yourself,“constantly comparing everything from shoddy service to tatty hotel rooms with what you can get in Dubai”. And every shop, office, home and building has excellent air conditioning, vital when it is very hot and dry almost all year round.
On the darker side, there are poor people in the country, who eke out a living in the outskirts of the city and live much less comfortably than their city dwelling neighbours.
Discrimination in Dubai
Under the civilised surface, there’s plenty of racism and discrimination in Dubai. But it is seldom talked about or acknowledged. The Islamic religion impacts every aspect of Muslims’ lives, who prioritise religion, family and country in that order. It’s vital to respect Muslim women, and it’s worth bearing in mind that some women won’t be comfortable in the presence of men.
Where to live in Dubai?
As the expat arrivals site says:
“Renting property in Dubai is the best option as purchasing a place can be difficult because of the restrictions on foreigners owning property. There are many sections of the city to live in, depending on one’s preferences. Dubai Marina is an exclave of expats, Deira and Burj Dubai is the more traditional area. Outer communities include Arabian Ranches and the Green Community. Jumeirah, Al Wasl, Al Safa and Umm Seqeim have lovely residential accommodation. All will have mostly newer high-rise apartments and detached villas available for rent.”
Healthcare in Dubai
The healthcare system is excellent, especially in Healthcare City, an area dedicated to certified healthcare providers and hospitals. You can also find alternative treatments like Ayurveda and acupuncture. Just beware of hospitals in outlying areas, where treatment and equipment can be sub-standard.
25 Top Tips for Living in Dubai
- Learn a few handy phrases in Arabic to smooth your way with the locals
- Find out about the Islamic culture in advance so you don’t make embarrassing or offensive mistakes
- Hook up with the expat community before you get there so you have help ready on the ground
- Dress modestly
- Respect local traditions
- If you drive, be incredibly careful
- Residents need an alcohol licence if they want to drink legally
- Learn the fine art of sticking to a budget to avoid over-spending
- The working week runs from Sunday to Thursday, with friday the official religious day
- Cars are allowed to overtake on the left and right
- Arabic men often hold hands in public
- You can only get alcohol in hotels and sports club restaurants
- Never point the soles of your feet in someone’s direction. It is incredibly rude
- Always eat and drink using your your right hand. The left is for going to the loo
- You also need approval from your company to rent property, get a telephone or satellite TV
- Only wear beach-wear on the beach
- People pray at 4.45am, 12.25pm, 3.40pm, 6.25pm and 8.20pm
- Heat exhaustion is common
- Never photograph an Arab woman
- Friday brunch is a popular family meal, often eaten in a hotel, a bit like British Sunday lunches
- Tips are almost always included in tourist hotels and eateries
- There are no postmen in Dubai. You will need a PO Box, which you arrange via your nearest post office
- The internet is government controlled and restricted
- Internet connections in some areas are not great
Your best Dubai expat tip?
If you already live in Dubai, what’s your best tip for would-be expats?