Dubai is a city determined to retain its heritage while still racing at breakneck speed to embrace the 21st century. As a vibrant, international city, it encompasses all the good, bad and ugly of any sprawling modern metropolis. The experience of living and working in Dubai can be most enjoyable and a great adventure if expats leave themselves open to the experience and abide by a few simple rules.
Here are some of our pros and cons of living in Dubai.
Cultural awareness in Dubai
It's important to always remember that Dubai is an Arab emirate. While it's the most liberal of all the emirates, there are a few cultural restrictions we'd encourage expats to take note of.
Islam impacts every aspect of Muslims’ lives, and they prioritise their life in this order: religion, family and country. The call to prayer occurs five times a day, and expats should be aware that some Muslim women may not be comfortable in the presence of a man.
+ PRO: Islamic country, but other religions tolerated
Although Dubai is an Islamic emirate, other religions are allowed to be practised (there is a church compound in Jebel Ali with Christian churches and a Sikh temple), but there is a strong warning that proselytising is not tolerated. Ramadan, the holy month, will mean shorter hours and plenty of Iftar parties in the evening after the fast is broken.
- CON: Cultural adjustments needed when in an Islamic country
The call to prayer five times a day can mean that non-Muslims may have to wait a bit to continue their business until Muslims return from prayer. During the holy month of Ramadan, work slows to a crawl and most restaurants will be closed during the day or serve a limited menu.
Arabs are generally gracious people, and it is ingrained in their culture to make sure nobody loses face. They often say 'no' in such gracious ways that sometimes one is not certain that they have refused, and this can be confusing for expats not used to this.
Accommodation in Dubai
Renting property in Dubai is a popular option with expats. There are many sections of the city to live in, depending on one's preferences.
Dubai Marina is an exclave of expats, while Deira is the more traditional area. Outer communities include Arabian Ranches and the Green Community. Jumeirah, Al Wasl, Al Safa and Umm Suqeim have lovely residential accommodation. All have mostly newer high-rise apartments and attached villas available for rent.
+ PRO: Housing is mostly new and short-term leases are available
Accommodation in Dubai is mostly new and pleasant. Serviced apartments are available everywhere in the city. These come furnished and are serviced as part of the rent; short-term leases are also available for this type of accommodation.
- CON: Dealing with realtors and landlords can be tricky
Annual rents on apartments in Dubai must sometimes be paid in full and upfront. Some companies will cover this for their employees and then deduct amounts monthly from their wages. Realtors can be difficult to work with. It's better to find a place by word of mouth and then go directly to the property or engage a realtor to handle matters thereafter. An agent is required to complete a rental agreement.
Doing business and working in Dubai
The economy in Dubai is moving forward at a rapid pace. This offers many opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs and professionals looking for career advancement. All kinds of services are needed.
As a young country, the UAE is still struggling to establish efficient operations in many segments of industry and relies on expats to provide this expertise.
+ PRO: Lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs and professionals
There exists a never-ending list of services, goods and expertise required in Dubai and the UAE. There are numerous 'Free Zones' for various industry segments that will help a new business get started, such as Media City, Healthcare City, Knowledge Village and the Dubai International Financial Centre.
- CON: Emiratisation and setting up a business can be frustrating
Emiratisation, an effort to increase the presence of Emiratis employed in the private sector, is a high priority for the government and is a serious consideration for all private-sector companies. This means it's not uncommon to have an Emirati superior who is less qualified than their subordinates.
Setting up a business in Dubai can be time-consuming and frustrating. Government regulations can be a maze and difficult to understand; it can even be difficult to get the same interpretation when working through the process. There are times when one department is not connecting with another and applicants can run around in circles. There is also the question of ownership – in some cases, an Emirati sponsor is needed to establish a business and the Emirati must own 51 percent of the business.
Be very careful of an employment contract. Everything should be in writing up front, including salary, end-of-service payout, health insurance, etc. Some companies have been known to take advantage of their workers. Expats should not bring their family members over until they have their work visa, which allows them to sponsor family resident visas.
Lifestyle in Dubai
+ PRO: English is widely spoken and the nightlife scene is vibrant
English is a common language in Dubai, spoken and understood by most people in the emirate. People are generally very friendly and eager to make new friends and, since it's an international city, expats will have the opportunity to make friends from all over the world.
The plethora of fast-food franchises means it's possible to get familiar foods. Expats can get anything delivered at almost any time, including food, groceries, dry cleaning and office supplies. Friday brunch is a popular activity for expats, with every hotel and restaurant offering delicious arrays of food and drink to patrons.
Dubai is a fun city that caters to the young. Nightlife is lively but doesn’t start until after 9pm and goes on to the wee hours. Big-name entertainment and parties are advertised all the time.
- CON: Bureaucracy
Getting official paperwork, such as resident and work visas obtained, utilities set up, bank accounts opened and mobile phones connected can be a bit frustrating as it can be difficult to navigate bureaucracy in Dubai. Many documents will have to be translated into Arabic, so expats should be sure to use a reliable company.
Education in Dubai
+ PRO: Wide range of international curricula and high standards
Dubai offers a plethora of international schools, allowing expat children to continue their education without interruption and in a language they are comfortable with. These schools often follow curricula from the UK, US, Canada, France, Germany, India and other countries, ensuring a seamless transition for students from their home countries. The high standards of education in Dubai enable students to gain qualifications that are recognized and respected worldwide, opening doors to international universities and career opportunities.
- CON: High cost and competitive admissions
The cost of education in Dubai's private schools is notably high, which can be a significant consideration for expat families. Additionally, the competitive nature of admissions into the best schools requires early and diligent application processes. This can add an extra layer of complexity and stress for families relocating to Dubai, particularly for those with children in critical educational phases such as primary and secondary school. It is crucial for parents to budget wisely and plan well in advance to secure a spot in their preferred school.
Getting around Dubai
+ PRO: Good public transport
Public transport in Dubai makes it easy to get around. The Dubai Metro is a good, clean, affordable way to move around the city, and there is a system of feeder buses offered at most of the major stations. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and so are e-hailing services. For air travel, once expats have their residence visa, they can get an eGate card which expedites clearing customs.
- CON: Driving can be hazardous and temperatures are extreme
Driving in Dubai is for the stout-hearted. The road system is difficult to navigate and the driving can be erratic and fast, especially on the main expressway, Sheikh Zayed Road. There are limited street signs and not all streets have names, so directions are often given in landmarks. If making a wrong turn or taking the wrong exit in Dubai, the city is totally unforgiving. It can take more than 30 minutes to get going in the right direction again.
It is usually far too hot to walk any distance in Dubai, with the exception being the emirate's slightly cooler period between November and March.
Healthcare in Dubai
+ PRO: Good healthcare system
There is good healthcare in Healthcare City, an area of certified healthcare providers and hospitals. A wide variety of alternative medicines is also available in Dubai, including Ayurveda and acupuncture.
- CON: Outlying hospitals and clinics are not as reliable
Outlying hospitals and clinics can deliver sub-par medical care, so it's best to choose the big brands.
What do expats love about life in Dubai?
"Life in Dubai is so much more normal than most people may think. I think if you're willing to adjust then it can be done fairly quickly. Getting used to language barriers and the crazy driving on the roads may have been the hardest part. There really is no order to these roads!" For more, read Laura's expat interview.
"I love the advanced technology, the desert, entertainment, world class sporting facilities and the fact that it’s clean and most certainly a leading first world country. Dubai is an expensive city, but it offers quality of life that very few countries in the world do." Read Schalk's interview to learn more.
►Learn more about managing your finances in the emirate in Cost of Living in Dubai
Are you an expat living in Dubai?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Dubai. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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