The Pros and Cons of Being an Expat in Dubai
For the first time since April 2008, just recently, I decided that Dubai is “home”. I’m sure it has quite a bit do with an excessive amount of travel recently. It’s hard being homesick when your home is not really home, and so I would imagine that subconsciously I have been reaching out for a physical link to some place on this Earth. Now, it would seem, I have become so accustomed to Dubai, it is no longer a holiday. It is no longer exotic. It is mundane. Everyday. Sometimes, it even really gives me the poops.
When I return to Australia I seem to get three different responses to people learning that I live in Dubai. The first is what mine would have been, four years ago: “You’re kidding! That must be amazing! Tell me all about it…” The second is probably closer to what mine would be now: “Really? Do you like it? Is is hard?” And the third generally comes from people born pre-1950: “Why?” and is accompanied by a sneer of disbelief, and usually a sidestep, and then further questions, such as: “Are you allowed to drive?” and “Do you live in a compound?” and “Are you safe?”
So, this is for all the folks back home, and those who are considering a move here. A brief and truthful summary of all the things I have noticed recently, and enjoyed or put up with over the past few years. What an Aussie expat should expect….
What you will miss
Defensive driving is an art you will quickly learn. Despite the 20-odd lessons required to obtain a drivers license if you are not lucky enough to have one from one of the lucky countries (Australia is a lucky one), it is remarkable the lack of driving ability you will see on the road. Indicators become pretty flashing lights only used in unison when the traffic slows unexpectedly. Pedestrian crossings are ignored. Lane markings are only a guideline, to be crossed at the will of the driver, usually at very high speeds. It is not counted as tailgating unless your rear sensors are going off, and if someone is tailgating you, it is your fault because you should be driving faster. If you do happen to have an accident, all vehicles must stop no matter where they are (even if they cross the three fastest lanes on Sheikh Zayed Road during peak hour), and wait for the police to arrive and hand out forms written in Arabic (you want the green one – the pink one means you are liable). You will need to anticipate stupidity at literally every turn, and you will learn that it is not speed that kills, but morons and slow reflexes. Below, just a little bit of fun around the corner from my home.
I can’t really speak for Arabic or Hindi radio stations, but the English-speaking ones totally blow. They are either teeny-bopper dancy pop, geriatric drivel, or painfully mainstream, and six months behind the rest of the world. Despite having some fairly decent regional music (e.g.) in Dubai, you never hear it on the English stations. Live music is fairly limited to covers and the occasional import, which is either old-skool, teeny-bopper or painfully mainstream again. There are a few music festivals, that are fairly decent – eg. Creamfields and Sandance, but the possibility of turning on the radio, or walking into a bar and hearing something new, of true talent and originality? Unlikely. Get used to paying for big downloads so you can stream triple-J.
Similarly with live music, sporting events are either expensive imported events like Formula 1 and Rugby 7s, or low-scale local clubs playing on a patch of grass in a 200-seat arena. There are no weekend Wembley Stadium or MCG events, with only one exception, horsies. (Polo and Horse racing are quite accessible during the season). But supporting a team at the weekend game with your children? It will be school footy or nothing.
Yes, you will even begin to miss this species. Not because poncy waiters constantly make you feel inferior, but because they actually know what they are doing. There must be something about momentum gathered while wiggling one’s butt and sticking one’s nose in the air, because the efficiency of one of these waiters equals the efficiency of at least four Dubai waiters. It’s not entirely their fault – they get paid a quarter as much, are totally unappreciated, receive no training, and are probably sleep-deprived and underfed to boot (no, I’m not joking). They cannot make a good cup of coffee to save themselves, and have absolutely no knowledge (and in many cases, desire of knowledge) of the menu, which is to be expected, because they probably get sacked if they get caught sampling anything from the kitchen (where in Australia, menu sampling is part of the job description). Besides – there is no hope for promotion – why would they bother trying to excel?
Wine at Picnics
Unless the picnic is in your own back yard, forget it. Drinking alcohol requires a license for the person and the premises. If you have a liquor license, this entitles you to drink in your own home, or any other licensed premises. I have heard a rumor that you can enjoy a tipple at the dubai polo club picnic, but have to test the theory for myself – and I thoroughly doubt it is BYO.
Sincere Advertising and Labeling
It appears anything goes here, so just because a nursery says it is “Montessori”, doesn’t guarantee it is, nor will the green tea canned beverage “make you light and feel more active” as promised in the ad, and the Cambridge School has no actual connection to Cambridge. Regulation on labeling and advertising is scant, as is the sale and import of many products that would be banned back home so if you care about what you put into your body, where you send your kids to school, how you exercise, even what handbag or car parts you buy, you better put in the research and make sure you are getting what you think you are getting. On the other hand, it’s nice to be able to get a cheap knock-off…
A “Fair Go”
Australia prides itself (possibly a little too whole-heartedly) on being the “fair go” nation. They say that everybody has a chance to succeed. While I lived there, I did not understand how unequal life could be. George Orwell said it: “In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance” (1984). Dubai is a lovely place to live because many must willingly and unwillingly contribute to make it so. You will encounter a different poverty line, and classes within classes, within classes. There is elitism, racism and sexism, and you will become elitist, racist and sexist – hopefully in the way that you start to realise that the treatment one receives is very much dependent on one’s social standing, race or sex, not in a way that hates or undermines those of other standings, races and sex, and not in a way that supports this prejudice where you can help it. Oh, it’s a very fine line…
Living in Sin
You must be married to share a home space with someone of the opposite sex. No ifs, no buts. If you do happen to be unlucky enough to get caught, you will have your sheets subjected to DNA testing, and probably a whole heap of other intrusive procedures, before you are then required to go to court. But you don’t even have to live with someone – sex outside of marriage is a big no-no, and there are horrible stories of women having babies and leaving them in boxes on church steps (and worse things I don’t want to mention) so they don’t get caught.
Of course, I’m not saying people don’t break the rules… Just don’t get caught.
I can’t believe it. But yes, you will might actually miss winter. But it’s more about the winter boots and coats, and cool hats and accessories you just can’t wear in the heat. You will only ever wear light clothing. Funnily enough, men don’t seem to miss the winter much at all.
Nearly everything is imported, and so nothing is squeaky-fresh. The range of food here is exceptional, but you must sell your environment-loving soul to eat well. I’ve spoken about it before here, and here. There are however some farmers markets cropping up (ripe and baker and spice), with both fairly local, and slightly more regional produce, sometimes organic. But those weekend trips to the strawberry farm or the nearby dairy? Not going to happen. Unless you really, really like dates.
What you won’t miss:
The UAE has relaxed its alcohol laws where expats are concerned in most emirates (not Sharjah), and you will find that you can get a drink at many hotels and clubs. There are also local bottle-shops, with a fair range of product at slightly inflated prices on what you’ll find back home (you must hold a license to both buy here, and drink it at home). In fact, there is also a weekly celebration of the expat love of alcohol, and it’s called “Brunch”. It is in fact lunch, where the entire Friday afternoon is spent indulging in way too much of the good stuff, and Friday night is spent trying to get all the pissed Aussies and Brits off the streets. Disgraceful. Just don’t forget you are in a Muslim country amidst the merriment and go and have sex in a public place, or even just give your spouse a big sloppy smooch in front of an Emirati family. That will get you in trouble.
This pastime is not only allowed in many public places, including restaurants, but is almost encouraged as traditional ethnic activity. Cigarettes are criminally cheap at about $2 to $3 a packet, and have even been found to be handed out as promotional items at public events. If cigarettes are not your thing, you can always take up shisha smoking, which can be done in any flavor under the rainbow, and will permeate the air with its candy-scented vapour, bubbling away like a giggling Girtie under the table, and filling your lungs with the equivalent of 24 cigarettes in one pipe. Best not to draw back…
No. Don’t miss it. Not one little bit. Although some would say this lack of tax also contributes to the lack of the “fair go”. Deserves thought…
Dressing like a trollop
Although provocative dressing is disapproved, this will not stop some from flaunting their godly gifts (and some wholly ungodly gifts too). This is not Saudi Arabia – expats are permitted do dress as they customarily would, but are asked ever so nicely to try and keep covered from the neck to the knee. Fines for dressing outside these guidelines are rare, and if caught looking like you should be at the beach when you are in fact at the supermarket will probably only result in a reprimand, and several withering looks from people like me and the odd mobile phone picture taken up your skirt by a sexually repressed man with a shopping basket at your feet. The beach is fairly unrestricted so long as the rude bits are covered –but this must be with swimwear – you can get arrested for taking a dip in your undies. Nightclubs and the afore-mentioned brunch are also havens for dimpled thighs under meagre slips of stretchy fabric, and vast expanses of jiggly silicone cleavage trying to escape their v-shaped confines.
On promiscuity, considering I had been advised to leave my Gustav Klimt booby prints in Melbourne, I expected some prudity on-screen. Not so. Game of Thrones episodes last year had near-pornographic scenes on Showtime (Pay TV), and it seems no word is banned except the p-word (pork), which was bleeped all the way through Australian Masterchef. Odd, considering we can actually buy it here (pork – not porn).
Vegemite and Tim Tams
The only things I have found I can’t buy and miss are Hundreds and Thousands, codeine and Paraderm (There are inferior substitutes). Nearly everything else can be found – vegemite, Tim Tams, Marie biscuits, gluten free bread, tinned pumpkin for thanksgiving, bourbon vanilla, all those little things you thought you wouldn’t be able to get here still make their way in, and if they cannot be found elsewhere, can usually be discovered at Park n Shop in Jumeirah 3 or Safestway in Al Wasl. Codeine is of course banned, as it is an opiate derivative, however is more than made up for because you can buy just about any meds you want straight over the counter. As mentioned, pork is readily available in many specialty supermarkets.
350 days a year.
Despite the population being about 55% Muslim and 25% Hindu, the 10% Christian population still get their go at Santa – after all, who doesn’t like Santa? A happy dude in red who boosts the economy and has very little to do with religion anyway? He’s welcome. You will also find that most religions are respected and allowed places of worship. There is some confusion regarding Judaism. People with Israeli passports are not permitted inside the UAE, and people with an Israeli stamp in their passport may be held up at customs. Judaism is however not banned in the UAE, nor are Jews refused entry. It is however the ‘quiet’ religion in the UAE. There are rumours of synagogues, however they are under ground, and I’m not in the loop.
There are many websites that are banned in the UAE, and Skype is one of them. However, it is not necessary to access the website to ‘skype’ someone – you simply need do download the free software before you get here. If you forget to do so, you can either download an app through iTunes, or use Proxy and VPN service providers to access these sites anyway, or just forget it and use something like yahoo messenger. I find the web sites blocks are actually quite helpful – it prevents the need for parental block-out software.
Well, I miss my friends, but when using the word as a collective, rather than applying it to each particular friend, no, I don’t. Making friends in Dubai is as easy as walking up to someone and saying “so, how long have you been here?” A population made up of 80% expats puts the majority of us in the same boat. People here are open, welcoming and accepting. Not only that, they are like-minded folk. Think about the decisions you went through to get out to Dubai – they all went through the same kinds of things. Social networks are prolific here, whether online or not, and so if you don’t have somewhere like the office or the school-ground to meet people, access meet-up, twitter, expatwoman.com or the UAE Community blog, or a myriad of other organisations, clubs or events. The biggest issue is that the population is transient. You will become very good at making friends, because you will also be losing them at no fault of your own.
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Sarah Walton runs The Hedonista blog, and is a lover "of all things warm, fattening, velvetty, far-away and funny". Sarah has managed restaurants, been a sommelier, a waiter, a bottle shop attendant, written a very small wine magazine, been a wine sales rep and had my own wine website with cellar management and online sales. She can be contacted at [email protected]