Dubai, by far the best known of the United Arab Emirates’ seven states, is a popular destination for Brits dreaming of a fresh start and an escape from dark dreary winter days. And for good reason: year round sunshine, tax-free salaries – as job adverts go, it’s an attractive one.
But what is it really like to live in the ‘sandpit’? Our former expat spills the beans…
Read the article here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/before-you-go/really-like-live-dubai-expat-westerner/
Dubai is an Islamic state, even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia
Dubai is often described as Las Vegas without the casinos but, scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find it’s nothing like that other world-famous desert-city destination. For while the emirate may outwardly seem as ‘western’ as anywhere, it’s also a police state where a hard-line interpretation of Shariah law can land expats in jail for acts that few would even dream were illegal.
I was out in Dubai during the Michelle Palmer and Vince Accor furore (the British duo who discovered that sex on the beach isn't a cocktail, but a way to end up in jail). Perhaps you’d expect sex in public to lead to arrest but acts as innocous as kissing or simply holding hands outside of your home, can land you in jail in Dubai.
Elsewhere too many former colleagues and comrades to mention had brushes with the law for dancing in public, swearing (the F-word “disgraces the honour or the modesty” of a person, according to Article 373 of the UAE Penal Code), being inebriated, promoting a charity, posting anything anti-government on social media, being gay or living with a member of the opposite sex. Case in point? I flat-shared with a Kiwi chap called Guy who had no choice but to pass me off as his ‘cousin’ during my tenancy, because the Dubai authorities couldn’t comprehend that was possible for different sexes to live together if they weren’t family.
Change is the only constant
Change is the only constant in Dubai and this commitment to change is reflected in the dazzling skyline. The world’s current tallest building, the needle thin Burj Khalifa, was still being built during my Dubai days. Fast forward to 2019 and it soars 2,716m into the sky, not that the emirate’s leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is content to rest on his laurels: construction is well underway on the Dubai Creek Tower which will become the world’s tallest tower and tallest man-made structure upon completion in 2020.
Factor in the world’s second largest shopping mall, the $20 billion Dubai Mall that’s home to an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, a virtual-reality theme park and an aquarium, and you’ll need to be prepared to hear the phrase “the world's biggest” on a daily basis.
“If you build it, they will come” is a line that works just as well for the horseracing-mad Sheikh Mo as it did for Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams.
Living your best life
I touched down in Dubai having grown tired of the daily grind of London life – of cramming myself onto the tube to get to work, of sharing a bathroom with four strangers, of being permanently skint and stressed – to discover that living in the desert city is incredibly easy.
Friendly petrol pump attendants filled up my car, supermarket assistants bagged my shopping with a smile and, instead of waiting for a night bus home in the cold, I’d hop in a ridiculously cheap taxi after a night on the town. Weekends meanwhile were spent brunching or beachin’ it with friends who knew what it was like to start over.
Dubai isn’t only a convenient destination, it’s also an incredibly safe one – so much so that my housemates and I would happily leave the door to the rented villa we shared unlocked, reassured (and alarmed in equal measure) by the presence of closed circuit TVs on every corner of the city.
The city has a traditional side
You’d be forgiven for thinking Dubai is all about skyscrapers and super-sized shopping malls but you’d be wrong. Dig underneath all the glitz, glamour and gold and you’ll discover historical sites such as Al Bastakia and the creek – arguably the heartbeat of Dubai. Here I used to watch dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries.
I also enjoyed strolling through the souks (Arabic market places) browsing and bartering for everything from juicy dates and Indian sweets to Moroccan slippers, silver trinkets and colourful scarves (shopping malls and cinemas are cold owing to Arctic air conditioning levels, so you’ll need a cover-up).
Dubai also has a dark face
The world’s image of Dubai is of five- star hotels and indoor ski resorts, a place where – as Sheikh Mo once said – “the word impossible doesn't exist”. That’s all very admirable but less laudable is the way in which the migrant workers, who helped transform Dubai from a sleepy fishing village into a futuristic city, are treated.
A large percentage typically arrive in the UAE deep in debt, having paid employment recruiters (who promised them the Dubai dream of great jobs and accomodation) substantial fees for work visas and plane tickets. On arrival, their passports are confiscated (despite this being illegal) by the construction company they are working for and they are forced to toil 14 hour days in the desert heat – which can hit 55 degrees in summer (when western tourists are advised to stay inside). At the end of their shift, the workers who build Dubai are then bussed to cramped labour camps on the edge of town, out of sight of the tourists. For the foreign migrants who are conned into coming and unable – without their passports and promised wage – to leave, Dubai isn’t heaven: it’s hell.
Yes the words “tax-free salary” sound appealing on paper to most westerners but, if you work in a mid level job, you won’t have as much spare money as you think. As a writer on Time Out, I earned approximately 12,000 dirhams (£2,645) a month which is more than a similar position pays in the UK but certainly not life changing – especially when you consider that rent has to be paid annually (and not monthly) and you’ll probably want/need to fly back to the Motherland once a year. All of which means it’s not unusual for expats to start their Dubai days in debt (a criminal offence).
That’s not to say Dubai isn’t an attractive place to work for sun-starved Brits but the days of lucrative British expat contracts – when companies offered annual return flights home, all expenses paid accommodation and covered shipping costs etc – are long gone.
It’s a proper melting pot
Dubai might be a favourite holiday haunt of footballers and their wives but happily the city’s residents are a much more diverse crew.
Dubai prides itself on its “melting pot” of cultures and it’s not a myth. At various stages I lived with Antipodeans, Egyptians and Filipinos before being taken, by a Bangladeshi born taxi driver, to work – where I’d mix with colleagues from Lebanon, South Africa, Syria, Jordan, Canada and more. Make no mistake: nearly all nationalities are represented in Dubai making it one of the world's most culturally diverse destinations. Very few places on the planet open their arms to so many.
But you can’t stay
If I had a dirham for every time I met a newbie western expat who insisted that they were “only staying for a year”, I’d be a rich woman. The 24/7 sunshine (nobody ever misses the dismal British weather) and sheer convenience ensures that one year turns into two and so it begins… A caveat: don’t get too comfortable. If you lose your job (as many of my friends did during the financial crash of 2008), you’ll have to exit the emirate within 30 days. Reaching retirement age? The government recently announced a visa programme for people aged 55 and over whereby applicants can be granted a five-year residency with the possibility of renewal – providing that is, you’re able to prove you have savings of at least one million dirham (£220,409) or Dubai properties worth at least 2,000,000 dirham (£440,819). There’s no alternative but to leave which is what my friends the D’Souza family, who had called the emirate home for some 30 years, were forced to do.
Now back in India, Mark D’Souza tells me that he enjoyed certain parts of his Dubai expat experience and will always be grateful for the employment opportunities that didn’t exist at the time back home, he is in no rush to return to the “adult Disneyland that’s riddled with double standards.”
Having escaped the emirate’s claws myself, I know exactly what Mark means. In Dubai, not everything is as it seems.