Dubai is one of the most liberal cities in the Middle East region and hence, a popular destination for men and women from all across the globe. There is great opportunity for career advancement combined with the perks of a tax-free income, making the prospect of working in Dubai even more appealing.
Even so, as a single woman looking to settle and work in this part of the world, it is essential to understand the Arab culture and how it influences working women. Traditionally, men have been the providers in most Arab countries while it falls to the woman to maintain the home. However, as outside influences have permeated Arab society, this concept is slowly, but surely changing and it is not uncommon today to find many Arab women in the teaching and nursing professions. Local women are also commonly found in the banking, finance and service sectors. Despite this, expatriate women looking to work here should bear in mind that Dubai is still very much a Muslim country and it is advisable to come here with some knowledge of the traditions and cultures of the Arab world as well as a healthy dollop of respect for their customs and laws.
Although the work force in Dubai is still largely dominated by male workers and men still outnumber women in the work place, there are an increasing number of women in positions of power and many who own their own businesses. Most married women who come to Dubai usually have a stamp on their passports saying ‘Housewife – Not Allowed to Work’. If you are on your husband’s visa but would like to work, it is necessary to obtain a work permit or labor card from your potential employer that allows you to legally work in Dubai. You will also need an NOC (No-Objection Letter) from your husband. In other words, your husband can sponsor you to live in Dubai, but to be able to work legally, you will require the sponsorship of a local company as well as an NOC from your husband.
Compared to many Western economies, Dubai is a comparatively young and fresh new city with less than 50 years under its belt. Dubai’s glitzy and glamorous façade often leads new expats into thinking that it is very liberal and most behavior that is normally accepted in the West is accepted here as well. This is a misconception; despite its relatively liberal stand on women in the work place, Dubai’s culture is still rooted in Islamic law and this influences behavior at work as well. Alcohol is strictly restricted to licensed bars and restaurants, which means that most socializing usually occurs there. Alcohol is very rarely served at a business meeting or lunch unless this is held at a restaurant that serves liquor. Sunday to Thursday is the normal work week, while Friday is the Muslim Sabbath, when most Muslims go to pray at the mosque. Hence most Arabs will not do business on Fridays, and most offices remain closed on Friday and some on Saturday as well.
Punctuality is a respected quality in Dubai, but unfortunately not one that is always adhered to. Meetings and deadlines are often more flexible than in the West and it may take some time for a local business associate to come to a decision in a meeting. Informal chatting is a common introduction to start off a meeting and it is not uncommon to spend hours on informal chatting before getting to the agenda of the meeting. Arabs pride themselves on their hospitality and will often offer coffee or Arabic tea, which should be graciously accepted. Always accept food and drink with the right hand as the left is considered unclean. Arab men and many women may not shake hands with another woman (it is customary in Arab culture to avoid physical contact particularly for women)
There are two types of dress that are commonly seen in Dubai: one worn by the locals and the other by expats. Local women are expected to cover themselves from head to toe and will often be seen wearing a long black robe called an abaya. Some women will even cover their faces. In a business setting, expat women are expected to dress in business attire that is suitably conservative. Dark-colored business suits should typically cover the knees and may include trousers or a long skirt. Elbows should also be covered with a shirt or vest. For everyday office attire, the hot climate calls for informal but smart dressing and tailored trousers with a decent shirt are perfectly acceptable choices. Avoid wearing tight fitting clothing if you don’t want to be stared at; people are not accustomed to seeing bare arms and legs and are likely to stare for novelty rather than being sleazy.
While there are an ever increasing number of women coming to Dubai to work, there are still some professions where women are relatively rare. Engineering, technology and construction are largely male dominated professions; this has more to do with the nature of the job rather than a reflection of ability. Both these professions are demanding with long work hours requiring site visits and regular interaction with workers at the site; consequently most employers will specify a preference for male employees in such job postings. While Dubai is no exception to the barriers that face working women all over the world, there is a lot of support for working women. Websites such as the Dubai Business Women Council website are empowering women by sharing business opportunities, organizing networking events, encouraging partnerships and providing several opportunities for professional and educational development. Some websites such as the Dubai Women Establishment and the International Business Women’s Group cater to specific sectors such as the technology and business sectors, providing much lacking support in areas such as career advice, mentoring and socializing.
Most expat women who have lived and worked in Dubai feel that the best advice they can give to other women looking to move to Dubai for work is to look upon the cultural differences as a challenge and to respect the local culture and customs. Dubai has plenty to offer single working women including plenty in the way of entertainment, a vibrant night life and some world class venues; with domestic help commonly available and affordable, it is easy to balance work life and professional development with an active social life.