When I received an email from an acquaintance who needed a change of scenery and considered Dubai as a possibility, I realized that it would help her weigh her options if she knew the Pros and Cons of Expat life in Dubai.
Dubai is one of the 7 emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, and is estimated to have in excess of 3.09 million residents. Of these, more than 80 % are expatriate workers from over 200 countries.
What is working in Dubai really like
Though many assume that living and working in Dubai consists of sleeping until 10 am, followed by a leisurely brunch, a spot of retail therapy, lounging around the pool or at the beach and then a late dinner at a fancy restaurant; that is usually a treat reserved for when we are out with visitors from home.
The reality of living in Dubai as a woman is much less glamorous. We leave for work early enough to miss rush hour traffic, wolf down a short lunch, often working late or leaving on time only to be stuck in traffic on the way back home. By the time we reach home we are often too mentally and physically drained to do more than collapse in front of the television with a quick meal. Running errands, grocery shopping, and socializing, if any, is reserved for the weekends or national holidays.
I remember sitting in the prayer room at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg nearly 12 years ago, wondering what bumps in the road lay ahead for me on this year long separation from my family. Praying that Allah would bless it for me and protect me from harm during my stay in the country.
Little did I imagine that I would still be here today, living in Dubai as an expat. I know without a shadow of a doubt that there was indeed a blessing in it for me. From contracting Rheumatoid Arthritis and the subsequent journey from the darkness of constant pain and immobility into the light of healing and wellness, to the opportunities for local and international travel.
I have learned so much about myself and my place in the world travelling solo as Muslim woman. You can read about my Istanbul adventures in my posts about the Culinary Backstreets food tour of Istanbul and my Italian surprise in why Italy was not on my bucket list.
The PROS of living in Dubai
The first thing people think of when Dubai is mentioned is the year round sunshine and unbearable summer heat or the tallest buildings.
There is more to expat life in Dubai however, and though most of it is good, there are factors which may make it an unviable option for many. If you are considering leaving the comfort and familiarity of your family home for an expat life in Dubai, then perhaps my observations and experiences over the years will help.
Tax free salary
At the time of writing there was no Dubai income tax or any other personal income tax levied on employees in the private or public sector in the United Arab Emirates.
However, it is one of the few remaining jurisdictions without an Income Tax regime, and this does not sit well with many governments. The South African government passed a law that will tax all expatriate workers earning in excess of ZAR 1 million with effect from the 2020 tax year. There are legal ways to claim exemption but the process seems unnecessarily complex for expatriate workers abroad.
Many workers in the UAE engage tax consultants in their home countries to ensure that they meet the requirements of their income tax revenue collection agencies.
- No country is crime free, but I have never felt at risk of violent crime in the years since I first moved to Dubai. I realized this one night on my way home from the office. I had stayed late to finish up some work for month end and by the time I went home there was very little traffic on the roads.
- As I waited at a quiet intersection for the lights to change, I realized that I felt no anxiety or fear and was instead calm and relaxed. In contrast, when I waited at a freeway off ramp or intersection in my Cape Town neighbourhood a week earlier, I was tense and hyper vigilant due to the high incidence of smash and grab events in the area. Thankfully since then the visible policing strategy of the Cape Town metro police has helped reduce this type of crime.
- Petty crimes and crimes of opportunity that aim to take advantage of unsuspecting expats in Dubai are not unheard of. These are far and few between however, as punishment is swift and penalties are harsh, which does appear to act as a deterrent in many cases.
- As in all major cities of the world, there are areas that are more upmarket and others that are less glamorous. Here though, less glamorous doesn’t automatically mean unsafe or prone to higher crime rates.
- Moving to Dubai without a job is no longer the hazardous undertaking that it was in the recent past. Job seekers dreaming moving to Dubai have been given a boost new visa regulations announced by the UAE cabinet, and implemented by the end of 2018. It includes a 10 year residence visa for certain categories of investors, entrepreneurs and professionals as well their dependents.
- The cabinet decrees with respect to visas for widows, divorcees and children; for parent-sponsored children who have completed high school or reached 18 yrs of age; and extending entry permits came into effect on 21 October 2018.
- Job seekers already in the country who have overstayed or whose employment has come to an end will benefit from the new 6 month Job seeker visas. All these new visa categories are intended to boost the country’s global competitiveness.
- There is also a free transit visa for the first 48 hours with a nominal AED 50 for an additional 96 hours.
- Career opportunities abound in the fields of medicine, teaching, engineering, accounting and finance, law, hospitality and IT. Salary levels and benefits depend on the size of the company as well as the education and experience of the job seeker.
- Generally western educated job seekers command a higher salary than candidates from developing or third world countries. I assume that it’s because the salary expectations in the countries of origin vary so much along economic and geographical lines. There are certain fields in which the professional qualifications from certain home countries must be supplemented with extra courses or exams before the individuals can be registered here. This occurs mostly with medical professionals.
- Expat life in Dubai is facilitated through the residency procedures that ensure that employers are responsible for all the arrangements relating to the employment of a foreign worker from abroad. This includes arranging and paying for flight tickets to Dubai if recruited from abroad; work permit and residence visa applications; as well as the mandatory medical check up required to process the residence visa.
- Those candidates who do not pass the medical fitness test must be repatriated to their home countries immediately. Since 2015 employers are required to provide all employees with medical insurance from approved providers.
- In 2009 the Emirates added a federal protection for workers with the implementation of the Workers Protection System. The system facilitates the timely and full payment of salaries to employees via banks or other authorised financial institutions and allows these payments to be verified by the Ministry of Labour.
- In reality what this means is that companies with more than 100 employees must be pay their employees within 10-15 days of the end of their pay month. If an employer fails to meet the payment deadline they face punitive action by the Ministry of Labour. Any employee with a grievance may approach a Ministry of Labour office in their city for assistance.
Improved standard of living
- For now there is no Dubai income tax and the tax free salary packages often ensure that residents of the Emirates enjoy a higher disposable income and improved standard of living compared to compatriots in their home countries.
- It is relatively easy for residents who have permanent jobs and the qualifying salary to obtain vehicle financing, and one of the first things that many expat workers do, is buy a new car. The restriction on the age of vehicles accepted for trade-in by many car dealerships means that there are not many old cars on the road. Insurance companies do not provide accident insurance for vehicles 10 years or older.
- All employees in Dubai are covered by mandatory medical insurance provided by their employers, and the medical facilities even for the lowest category of insurance, is better than in many home countries. Dubai is a forerunner in the provision of state of the art medical treatments and procedures, which is something I can attest to. I discovered last year that many of the Rheumatoid Arthritis treatments that were unsuccessful for me have not even made it to the market in South Africa.
- Residential neighborhoods have parks and green spaces as well as retail spaces that include banks, grocery stores, and a host of entertainment and leisure activities for residents. Many higher income earners are able to afford live in domestic workers or nannies, and houses and family size apartments are even built with a maids room.
- The Emirates are home to more than 8 million citizens of other countries who have each sought out an expat life. This has led to a multicultural society where each nationality brings their own culture, social mores and food to the mix.
- It has given us each the opportunity to learn about and from people we may never have encountered in our home countries whether it is by sharing a meal or by learning about their festivals and customs.
- This multicultural nature of the society forces every single person who chooses a life in Dubai to be more open minded and accepting of cultural, social and religious differences.
- It has also exposed the indigenous people of the UAE to customs and practices that are different to the conservative Muslim morals and standards of their own culture.
- Dubai has a large population of expatriate workers from South Asia and South East Asia. My colleagues all proclaim that life in Dubai for Indian workers is the highest standard for the Gulf region and that many of their compatriots have gone on to build billion dollar multi-national companies.
- Islam is the official religion of the country and there is freedom to practice religion for other faiths.
- All the faithful of the major religions may worship in buildings or compounds dedicated for worship and there are numerous churches and Hindu temples in the city of Dubai.
- The public propagation and distribution of religious material for the purpose of calling people to religions other than Islam is prohibited however.
- Dubai is a modern technologically advanced metropolis and often expats who have chosen to make a life in Dubai, forget that it is a society based on Islamic principles.
- Muslims are guided by the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) in our ethics and morals, and we are urged to engage in good deeds and conduct that benefits ourselves, as well as our families and communities.
- One of the blessings of living an expat life in Dubai has been the fact that as a Muslim woman I am not stared at in public when I cover my hair and wear an abaya over my sleeveless dress. Neither would anyone stare if I went out sans the head cover and abaya.
- In my experience women have an elevated status as far as our dealings with public institutions is concerned. Every government department and many banks have separate counters for ladies only, to ensure that we are served as quickly possible and do not have to wait for our turn in a long queue or get jostled by strangers.
- Expats living in Dubai are not required to wear the National dress of the Emirates that fully covers the body of both genders and the hair of women, but they are required to observe modest dress when visiting places of worship.
- It is prohibited for Muslims of both genders to gaze at the exposed body parts of members of the opposite gender who are permissible for them to marry. That basically means everyone outside of our immediate family.
- This is why observant Muslim men and women are discomfited when we are faced with very short dresses, skirts and shorts or see through clothing that leave little to the imagination. Don’t be surprised if you are offered an abaya to cover exposed skin or told to go home and dress properly if you show up to a government department or facility with low cleavage or see through clothing.
- For the most part the society is a tolerant one but there are certain standards of modesty that are expected in public places and may be enforced in malls or places where families may gather for leisure and entertainment. This includes wearing clothing that is not see through and that cover the shoulders and knees.
Public transport services
- Dubai has a very reliable public transport service now, compared to when I first arrived more than a decade ago. To utilize Dubai’s metro, tram, bus and water bus services passengers must have a nol smart card to pay for services. The nol cards may be purchased online or at various locations.
- The metro system includes a Dubai International Airport metro station and stops as far as Jebel Ali. There is also the Al Sufouh tram line running between the areas of Al Sufouh and the Dubai Marina. This makes expat life in Dubai much easier for the thousands who have to commute to work every day, as they can avoid rush hour traffic snarls on major roads.
- I have used the metro for one occasion only when I went on a food and photography tour that started in the Naif area. I found the metro stations very modern and well laid out but the directions to platforms were confusing and less intuitive than those I have used in European cities.
- Dubai Taxi is available 24 hours a day and services all areas. They also have an option of a lady taxi driver for female passengers.
- Uber has recently launched in Dubai but costs around the same as a taxi at peak time and they may not go out to all areas.
- Careem is a local transport network that was launched in Dubai but now has a presence in 14 countries and more than 100 cities worldwide. Their prices are higher than the normal taxi rates but they provide a fare estimate at the time of booking online or via their app.
- Dubai also has an extensive bus service that includes neighborhoods that are not on the metro or tram lines as well as water busses, abras and ferries.
Travel connections from Dubai
- The UAE has world class airlines, the most well known being Emirates and Etihad Airways that routinely make it into the Top 10 lists of the world’s best airlines in multiple categories.
- The gulf airlines have made other national carriers look feeble by comparison because of the amenities and services available on even the lowest class of ticket. As their networks have expanded, the destinations available on their routes have opened up so many different cultures for exploration.
- There are also no frills low cost airlines like Fly Dubai and Air Arabia that operate to destinations in Europe and Asia and are very competitively priced.
Very strict cyber crime laws
- The social media age has given rise to an entirely new class of crimes that are perpetrated against individuals online and through social media channels. In the UAE the occurrence of cyber crimes especially against individuals and vulnerable young people has been stymied by the potential punishments.
- Punishment by imprisonment or fines are prescribed for amongst others:
- public slander of any individual using a computer network or any means of technology
- invasion of privacy of any individual using a computer network or any means of technology
- disclosure of confidential information by any individual using a computer network or any means of technology obtained through the course of work
- praise or promotion of ideas and campaigns that could lead to riots, sectarianism or public disorder.
- Whenever I see something new on television my first thought is usually: ‘I wonder if there is a restaurant in Dubai that serves this type of food’.
- The multi-cultural work force of Dubai has resulted in a plethora of eating options unlike any other country I have visited. From the well loved Persian, Pakistani and Indian cuisines that came over before and with the first expat workers during the oil boom of the 1960’s and 1970’s to the newer kids on the block, there is something for every taste.
- Lebanese, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Peruvian, Uzbek, Mexican, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Moroccan, Cuban, Argentine and these are only a few of the cuisines available for delivery via online ordering platforms like Zomato, Talabat and FoodOnClick.
- Dubai even has it’s own permanent food truck installations serving gourmet street food at multiple locations on the roads out of the city.
Insta friendly, Biggest and best
- Whether it be malls, iconic architectural marvels, luxury hotels or leisure and entertainment venues, no place does it better than Dubai. From the Burj al Arab to the Burj Khalifa, an iconic architectural backdrop is only a half turn away.
- One of my favorite places in the city is the Zabeel Park where they also happen to hold weekly organic produce and artisan markets during the cooler months. The Dubai Frame is a 150 meter high architectural structure erected at the edge of the park and looks like the biggest picture frame that you can possibly imagine. It sets out to frame the old Dubai and new Dubai and serves as a metaphorical bridge between the old and the new.
- The new retail and leisure destinations at the Waterfront Market – Deira, La Mer in Jumeirah as well as The Beach in Dubai Marina provide ample opportunities for relaxed dining, retail therapy and insta friendly backdrops.
The Cons of living in Dubai
High house rent in Dubai
- One of the most stressful experiences for any expat starting their life in Dubai, will be to arrange suitable accommodation for themselves, if it is not provided by their employer.
- The cost of accommodation will include the annual rent and security deposit, usually payable in advance as well as deposits for utilities and telecommunications. In the past few years more landlords have started to accept multiple cheques for accommodation, but that is the exception rather than the rule.
- Real Estate agents are a dime a dozen and very few actually bother to provide any service or advice to justify the 5% commission that they earn for the sale or lease of a residential property. In most cases, the lessee has to pay that commission before they even take occupation of the property.
- Prices for studio apartments approximately 400 square feet in size vary in price according to location:
- in the older areas of Dubai prices start at around AED 20,000 per year
- in the Downtown area the same size apartment starts at AED 45,000 per year
- in Al Barsha prices start at AED 37,000 per year
- in Dubai Marina prices start at AED 40,000 per year
- For many expats it is too expensive to live in Dubai and they are unable to afford private accommodation or come up with the advance payment required to rent an apartment. Fortunately there are options for shared accommodation for those who do not have accommodation provided by their employer:
- Private room with bathroom in a shared apartment – usually one person or couple per room.
- Shared room with bathroom in a shared apartment – usually two people per room.
- Bed space in a shared room with bathroom in a shared apartment – usually 4 or more people sharing a room.
- The shared accommodation is not always convenient for preparing meals if there is only one kitchen and too many cooks. More often than not, the single occupants sharing accommodation with family units will make alternate arrangements for meals. This usually involves finding a regular local cafe to eat evening meals.
- Unskilled workers and manual laborers are usually housed in company provided accommodation away from residential neighborhoods. The employers also provide transportation to and from the place of work. The biggest challenge for many low income workers is the lack of personal space and privacy in dormitory style accommodation and the absence of family life.
High cost of living in Dubai
- Although there are many farms that are diversifying from date crops to organic fruit and vegetable crops, the bulk of the fresh produce to feed the population is imported from various parts of the world. The organic produce is often sold via farmers markets or direct to the public via delivery services.
- This means that prices of foodstuffs are high compared to the home countries of expats working and living in Dubai, even before the introduction of VAT. Likewise with clothing, furniture and household furniture and electrical appliances where local manufacturing sectors are lacking.
- Fuel and motor vehicles are still more affordable than in most countries on the planet with many mid-income workers able to afford to purchase a private vehicle.
High cost of private education in Dubai
- Any expat with young children who chooses a life in Dubai will inevitably be faced with the cost of educating their children.
- There are government owned public schools that provide free education for the citizens of the country with Arabic as the main medium of instruction. The expat work force are obliged to send their children to one of the many private schools that offer accredited American, British or Indian School Board curriculums amongst others.
- Many employers do not provide any schooling benefits or subsidies and this can have a significant impact on a family’s disposable income.
- In recent years there has been an increase in the popularity of home schooling with tutors available to guide learners.
- Recently the government has announced that they will regulate private school fees for learners in Dubai and that should help families with school going children.
Rush hour traffic
- One of the banes of my expat life in Dubai is encountering rush hour traffic to and from work. I live around 8kms from the office but on a bad day it can take me 30 minutes or more in one direction. Many drivers on the road at that time are parents dropping off school going children or other workers.
- The traffic snarls in the evening have ensured that I very seldom venture out to any place further than the Mall of Emirates during week nights.
- Expats traveling to or from the Northern Emirates during rush hour can spend anything between 2-3 hours traveling per trip if they don’t start their journey early enough.
- The Emirates are mostly sandy desert landscapes with extreme summers that are blazing hot during the day with high humidity at night.
- Very often new arrivals underestimate how hot it gets during Summer and find themselves suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke after extended periods in direct sunlight.
- The country has a law that prohibits outside work under direct sunlight between 12:30pm – 3pm from 15 June to 15 September of every year.
- During summer the warm Shamal (wind) blows through the Gulf states bringing dust and sandstorms that last for days. The air quality becomes very bad and it is difficult to breathe outside. The dust makes life miserable for people with allergies.
- There is a very short cooler season between November and February when it becomes possible to do more outdoor activities during the day. Heavy rains sometimes occurs during this season and leads to flooded roads and road accidents.
- The change of seasons brings it’s own perils in the form of heavy morning fog, so thick that it makes it impossible to see vehicles ahead of you. On 11 March 2008, it also resulted in one of the worst and most extensive auto-accident scenes involving more than 200 vehicles and resulting in numerous fatalities and a few hundred injured.
Work life balance
- When I came to Dubai I thought that I knew what long working hours were, since I often worked until the early hours of the morning to complete audit assignments. Nothing prepared me for the the demands of an expat’s life in Dubai. 5 or 6 day working weeks that seemed longer and that were mentally if not physically draining.
- Although many employers have fixed working hours, employees are expected to work the hours required to complete their tasks. The time spent traveling to and from work added to a long day at the office often leaves me too tired to do much else than collapse in a heap in the closest armchair or sofa.
- For those that are in Dubai without their immediate families, there is a tendency to choose work over a social life because it keeps them from missing their loved ones too much. Too much time alone and they start to feel bored, homesick or melancholic and miserable.
- Many of the expats who have chosen a life in Dubai tend to socialize with their family circle, relatives or compatriots who live in the Emirates and share similar interests.
- More often than not socialising with family, friends or co-workers happens outside of the home. I suspect its because home entertaining is so much work and not everyone has the space to so do. It is quite easy and affordable to host a get-together at a cafe or restaurant or in one of the public parks or beaches.
- Those who have school going children may also find that they have opportunities to widen their circle of friends by socializing with other parents.
- The opportunities are endless, from sporting events to the countless dining and entertainment options available in the city. The famed Dubai brunches are renowned for their party spirits.
- For those expats who have no family circle or compatriots to serve as a support base, life can be lonely and miserable, especially if they are accustomed to a large social circle in their home countries. It seems to be a problem for single women especially who may be viewed with suspicion by their married counterparts.
Easy access to personal finance
- You are probably wondering why I have categorized easy access to personal finance as one of the cons of life in Dubai. During the periods of economic prosperity and growth, before and after the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown, many of the banks made obtaining personal finance exceedingly easy.
- Many expats were lured by easy to obtain loans at low interest rates, at multiples of their salary, by bank sales reps who recommended that it be used to finance property purchases or investments in their home countries or even expensive holidays. The high value loans often did not take into account the affordability of the loan and whether the disposable income after monthly expenses would cover the monthly repayments of the loan.
- The Al Etihad credit bureau is a federal government organization that provides credit reports to individuals, companies and financial institutions based on the data collected and analyzed from the banking system and financial institutions. All new personal finance applications are subject to credit checks and affordability tests.
- Websites that publish content deemed to be contrary to morals and public decency or the values of the country are blocked in the Emirates.
- There is no indication of why a website is blocked and I recently clicked on the website of a mommy blog that I could not access. To be honest, I don’t mind that I am occasionally unable to access a website that has seemingly inoffensive and innocuous content.
- What I do miss is the ability to use Skype for occasional conversations with family or friends. It helped that the application provided mostly clear audio and video calling capabilities if one had the required bandwidth. I have not tried the paid packages available from the telecommunications providers here because the reviews thus far have not been complimentary about either the audio or video quality.
In most cases the authorities will only prosecute offenders if they perpetrate the offense in public or if a member of the public makes an official complaint to the police.
Crimes against religious creed
- Insulting Islamic religious beliefs and rites
- Insulting any recognized divine religions whose beliefs are protected according to the Islamic Shariah
- Muslims knowingly eating pork
- Approving, encouraging or promoting sin or tempting people to commit it
- Publicly declaring that one eats or drinks or commits acts that break the fast during Ramadan
- Muslims are prohibited from consuming alcohol
Flagrant Indecent Acts
- Anyone who openly commits indecent acts may be prosecuted. This may include two unrelated people being alone together, fornication, or adultery.
- Indecent verbal or physical molestation of a female in a public place will be prosecuted
Alcohol Related Offences
- The purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages without a valid liquor license is a crime under the Law on Alcoholic Beverage Control of 1972.
- Consumption of alcoholic beverages and public intoxication, outside of licensed restaurants and hotel bars is also prohibited.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol is a criminal act and offenders may be prosecuted under federal traffic laws as well as the Law on Alcoholic Beverage Control of 1972.
EXPAT LIFE IN DUBAI – YAY OR NAY?
I have had opportunities for travel and personal growth that may never have presented themselves if I had stayed in Cape Town. I thank Allah every day that the company I came to in Dubai was able to survive the economic depression of 2008, and that I was blessed to remain a part of the organization for as long as I have been.
Part of what has made the past 12 years seem to fly by has been the fact that I had the benefit of a scrupulous employer whose policies and practises have made my expat life in Dubai more easy to navigate. Not all expat workers are that fortunate, and the professional ethics and financial stability of the employer is probably the single most important factor in the success of any expat’s life in Dubai.
Before accepting that offer that seems to be so much more than you are earning at home, first fully acquaint yourself with the pros and cons and financial implications of such a move. Only then can you know whether you will be able to pay for suitable housing, transportation, household items, utility and telecoms expenses, foodstuff and personal items from the salary offered.
If you are single, think long and hard about whether you could endure the loneliness of a solitary life and the pleasure of your own company for extended periods.
If you are gregarious and fun loving consider whether you will be able to live within the strictures of a seemingly modern but essentially conservative Muslim environment.
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