Arriving in Dubai to start a new job and a new phase of life is an exciting and enticing prospect. There are, however, a few “road-rules” to life in the UAE that you probably should know about. Following just a few social, financial, and cultural guidelines will make day-to-day living a lot easier, and ensure that when it’s time to leave, you do so on your terms with all goals fulfilled.
Kingly salary? All the more reason to budget carefully
I’m assuming that the salary and benefits package that you have accepted is overall a better deal than you could have achieved at home. That’s why we uproot ourselves and make new lives in culturally and climatically very different places, right?
I’m also guessing that in three, five, or nine years (when it’s time to leave), you want to be able to point to a solid sum saved – better than you could have saved staying and working at home.
So, that’s all the more reason to budget very carefully. Dubai is a very easy place to be swept into a lifestyle of highly conspicuous consumption – glittering toys and eye-wateringly high restaurant bills – which can leave you even more broke when it’s time to depart than when you arrived.
Try this simple formula: how much would you like to leave with? How long do you anticipate staying?
Divide the first figure by the number of months you plan to be here, and that is your monthly savings figure, which must not be touched. What is left over is your accommodation, your weekly/monthly household expenses, your holidays, transport, and entertainment.
OK, so you can’t afford a Porsche Cayenne by sticking to this plan. Big deal! Keep your eyes on the real prize and you’ll sleep a whole lot better.
Contracts and agreements – seek help
To be honest, signing contracts in Dubai for car finance, health insurance, and somewhere to live is no more of a minefield than it is anywhere else. There are two usually very reliable sources of assistance and advice to the newly arrived expatriate: long-term colleagues and a website (more on this a little later).
Colleagues who have been here a while, and who are not overly negative about things that go on in Dubai, can usually be a great source of local knowledge, where to go, what to do, and what not to do.
Be wary of people who are doomsayers, or are overly critical of Emirati nationals, other Middle Eastern nationalities, Indians, Pakistanis, and so on. These are obviously people who have been soured by the experience, people who maybe have not followed the budgeting advice above and who feel trapped here…
Any advice they give is likely to be tainted by their own less than happy experience and inability to accept the cultural boundaries of the place they are in.
Expatwoman.com is a great source of “local knowledge” – where to, how to, who to, and the like. A search of the Dubai forums is highly likely to give you good guidance on who to seek out, what to do, and what to avoid in the matter of legally binding dealings over finance, insurance, and real estate.
My experience with insurance has been as it would be anywhere in the world, and maybe a little better with cars. Accidents are so common and repairs are usually handled swiftly – although it does depend on the age of the car.
Once the car is five years old, the insurer will only want to offer third party insurance, but most will give you full coverage if you insist.
Health insurance has been less satisfactory, so take care when committing to a company. You may have no option (my situation) if your company has an agreement with one particular insurer. You can always buy extra cover from a more reputable provider.
Privileged but still principled
As a western expatriate working and living in Dubai, you are by default in a very privileged position. You’ll command the best salaries and you’ll live in the best accommodation.
Spare a thought for people less fortunate whose aspirations are still basically the same as yours. They want to provide for their families and they want a better future for their children than they had.
A smile and little bit of common courtesy towards the person who is packing your groceries in the supermarket or filling your car with gas when it’s 50°C outside goes a long way toward keeping your humanity grounded, which is where it should be.
Misunderstandings do occur, and you may find yourself dealing with some unexpected situations. Don’t shout in order to get your way. It rarely works and it’s never a good look, whatever the circumstances.
Try to hang on to the notion that there are language and cultural barriers that can turn seemingly simple exchanges into something entirely unexpected.
For example, on a recent grocery shopping trip with my adult daughter, I was astounded to find her being accused of shop lifting by a very animated security guard new to the country and the job.
It was sorted by the much more experienced store manager, who later rang and apologized to us. Tempers were nearly lost, but doing so would have made an embarrassing incident so much worse.
If you employ a “maid,” be realistic
Most of the domestic staff come to the UAE from countries that are far less developed than the UAE. For many of them, it is the first time they have been out of their country, and they are on a steep learning curve.
If your new live-in cleaner is just such a person, you will have to teach her how to clean the way you want the work done. She will be largely untrained, and used to quite different ways of doing things. Try not to expect too much too soon.
Also, it is not wise to assume that your cleaner can also look after your baby or even babysit older children successfully. Untrained, she will fall back on the way she was raised, which may bear no resemblance to what you had in mind. As a baby-sitter for older children, she may struggle to exert authority over the children.
Learn by watching and listening
The next three “mistakes” are all examples of cultural insensitivity to local practices and sensibilities. As an expat, you are a guest in Dubai, so let your behaviors be guided by how you would expect guests to behave in your own home.
Yes, Dubai has a dress code. You can read about it here. It’s really not something that will cause any problems for the majority of people, but large amounts of flesh on display in the mall and streets really is a no-no. Look. Learn. You’ll very quickly see what you can wear and sometimes, what you can’t or shouldn’t wear.
The big malls often have a dress code written and displayed as you enter the mall. Emiratis are very tolerant, but with the aid of air-conditioning, it is not difficult to dress sensitively.
What you do at home is your business (mostly), but in public…
Following our guiding rule of looking and learning, you’ll see some discreet hand-holding (more amongst Indian and Pakistani men than male and female). You won’t see a lot of hugging, and the continental pecks on the cheek are pushing it, though I see a little more of that these days. Full on smooching will get you arrested.
Making approaches to women is not a good idea
Behavior that is acceptable in Dubai’s bar and nightclub scene is not worth trying on in the malls, public parks, or on the beach.
It is an especially bad idea for a man to try to strike up a conversation with Emirati national women – there’s almost always a male family member nearby and if not, someone else will dub you in.
Then you are in the unenviable position of having to prove that what you said or did was entirely innocent. You may have been trying to have an innocent conversation, but it easily can be seen as harassment.
The Dubai stone (14 pounds)
It’s not a myth. The “Friday Brunch” tradition in particular, and the general overconsumption in Dubai, are really responsible for weight gain in almost all expat residents. That, and the lack of normal forms of exercise like walking and cycling so often mean that we take in more calories than we are burning.
Maybe a gym-membership is a necessary countermeasure.
Finally, drinking and driving…
In a word, don’t!
Beware of the clever ones who tell you that one or two are OK and they’ve been doing it for years. Dubai shows zero tolerance towards drunkenness. All the media-sensation cases of young expats being arrested in recent years were alcohol-fuelled, often a coda to an all-you-can-drink Friday Brunch.
Public drunkenness is bad; being caught driving while under the influence is worse; and as for causing or being involved in an accident with alcohol in your bloodstream, the consequences don’t bear thinking about.