For many expats, Dubai is the perfect combination of east meets west; the emirate is a paradox of western sophistication blended with the mystery that characterizes Middle Eastern culture. This seemingly peaceful co-existence is what draws many foreigners to Dubai for a bit of adventure and new experiences.
Dubai is a fast-paced city racing to meet the demands of the 21st century; expats who choose to live here are bound to get caught up in the excitement and anticipation of growth at break-neck speed! Even so, it is harder for some people to adjust to life here, which can be very different from life in Europe or the Americas. Although an open mind, a thirst for adventure and tolerance towards other cultures are all good traits to possess, we have compiled a list of seven essential steps to help Americans, in particular, in adjusting to life in Dubai.
Before we dive into our tips for settling in to a completely new way of life, here are a few essential facts that every American should know before moving to Dubai.
American citizens who want to familiarize themselves with the emirate before making the final move do not need to pre-apply for a visa if their stay in Dubai is 30 days or less. They can get a visa-on-arrival at the airport.
Prior to moving here for work or living, a visa must be applied for before entry into the country. A full medical examination is mandatory in obtaining a residence visa and this test must be taken once you are in the country and includes an HIV/AIDS test. Those who test positive for AIDS/HIV may face detention or deportation.
The local currency of Dubai is the Dirham denoted as either Dh or more commonly AED. The US dollar is pegged (meaning the rate does not depend on market variations) in the UAE and the exchange rate more or less hovers around 1 USD = 3.6 AED.
The time difference between Dubai and the US is nine hours; Dubai is nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard time and this falls to eight hours during the summer months when daylight savings kicks in.
In Dubai the work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday with Friday and Saturday making up the weekends for most businesses.
The UAE country code is 971 and the area code for Dubai is (04) followed by the phone number. Mobile numbers begin either with 050 or 055 (depending on your service provider being wither Etisalat or Du). For international calls, you need to dial 00 followed by the country code and the number.
In Dubai, we drive on the right hand side of the road. Speed limits vary but most major roads allow a maximum speed of 120kph and major roads are all monitored by radar.
7 Steps to adjusting to life in Dubai
No matter how open minded, carefree and ready for adventure you are, it always helps to get advice from other expats and Americans who have made the move before you. Here is what they have to say:
Although Dubai is by far the most liberal of the UAE’s seven emirates, it is still an Arab emirate and much of Dubai’s culture is influenced by the religion of the region, which is Islam. Women are highly respected here and many feel uncomfortable in the presence of a man so don’t be surprised if you are not greeted by a lady. Muslims pray five times a day and hence it is best to cultivate patience as most devout Muslims will drop whatever they are doing to pray.
Although short dresses and skirts are accepted at Dubai’s many night hotspots, these are frowned upon in public places. Dress modestly with covered shoulders and knees to beat both the heat as well as avoid embarrassing stares. Rude behavior, abusive language, showing the finger, drug use and alcohol use when driving are all punishable crimes and can carry some heavy punishments. Public displays of affection are also severely frowned upon and may land you in jail.
Living in Dubai
When you first come to Dubai, renting is your best option. There are many places in Dubai that provide lovely accommodation with great amenities. Dubai Marina is very popular with Western expats, some of who also prefer the more outer gated communities like Arabian Ranches and the Green Community. Jumeirah, Umm Suqueim, Al Saf and Al Wasl also have lovely new high-rise towers with spectacular views for rent.
Serviced apartments are also available on short-term leases. For the most part, landlords require rents on apartments to be paid in full up-front and usually accept four or six post-dated checks. Bounced checks are punishable by law so make sure you have sufficient funds in your account when the checks are due.
The downside of renting in Dubai is dealing with landlords, many of whom can be difficult. Maintenance on some apartments may be sporadic and landlords will sometimes raise the rents to unreasonable amounts when your one year lease is up. RERA (Real Estate Regulatory Agency), operating under the umbrella of the Dubai Land Department, has a website with a useful rental increase calculator that tells you how much your rent can be legally raised and any disputes or complaints can be taken to RERA for settlement.
Working in Dubai
Dubai’s economy is expanding at a rapid rate; as a young country still struggling to establish efficient operations in many of its sectors, the UAE and Dubai rely heavily on expat expertise to bridge this gap, hence the opportunities for work are plentiful. The government has established a policy of Emiratization, which is a push to increase the numbers of local Emiratis in the private sector and so you might find yourself working under a local boss who is less knowledgeable and less experienced than yourself.
Setting up a business can also be complicated as all private businesses operating outside free zones require an Emirati sponsor who will own the major share of the business. Read all work contracts very carefully as it is not uncommon for ruthless employers to take advantage of their workers. The employment contract must clearly state the salary, benefits, end of service gratuity, employment period, health insurance and any other major components of the employment package.
Business is also conducted very differently here than in the US where time is of the essence. Most Americans will find business here much more slow paced and it can take a substantial amount of time to get a local client to give a firm decision. As maintaining face is at the heart of business in the UAE, a local client will hesitate to say ‘No’ directly so an affirmative response may not always be what it seems.
Travelling around in Dubai
Dubai is not a pedestrian-friendly city and most months of the year it is too hot to travel by foot. Although Dubai does have a good public transport system, the system is still being developed and the Dubai Metro, although a very clean and convenient way to travel, does not connect all the different parts of Dubai. There are feeder busses that can take you from metro stations to places you want to go but these are not as frequent as regular travelers would like.
Owning a car is still the cheapest, fastest and most convenient way of getting around the city. Navigating traffic in Dubai is not for the faint hearted; many drivers are of the opinion that bigger cars have more rights on the roads and traffic is usually fast and erratic especially on major freeways such as Emirates Road and Sheikh Zayed Road. Directions are usually given via landmarks and freeways can be unforgiving; one wrong turn or a missed exit can add over half an hour to your commute.
Healthcare in Dubai
Dubai’s network of doctors and hospitals is comparable to the international healthcare standards maintained by other large metropolitan cities. Provision of healthcare by the employer is mandatory for all businesses in Dubai, but many find coverage provided by companies inadequate for their private healthcare needs.
Major private hospital brands such as Welcare and the American Hospital provide good specialty care and are equipped with the latest in medical equipment. Government hospitals also provide very good care and are best equipped to deal with emergencies with dedicated and highly trained staff. It is advisable to opt for healthcare from some of the larger well known brands as smaller clinics and hospitals may not provide the quality of care expected by most expats.
Lifestyle in Dubai
Expats in Dubai enjoy a high standard of living. There is plenty to do here for both individuals as well as families. Dubai boasts museums, art galleries, shopping and music festivals featuring artists from all over the globe. Emirati life can also be experienced by exploring local markets, sampling the local fare and participating in activities such as dune bashing, desert safaris, pearl diving and camel riding, all of which give us a glimpse of Dubai when it was a simple fishing village.
Life in Dubai is very convenient too and you can get everything delivered to your home without setting foot outside, including groceries, food, laundry and office supplies. There are so many expats from all over the world who call Dubai home that there is plenty of opportunity to meet and make new friends and sample new cuisines offered by a plethora of international restaurants. Wining and dining is a pleasure with the wide choice of cuisines with different budgets available to suit every palette.
English is widely spoken and you can live and do business here even if you do not speak Arabic, although locals do appreciate expats who make an effort to learn the language and this can be a distinct advantage for any expat who wished to call Dubai home. On the flip side, Dubai’s population is transient and people often move on to new destinations or return home making it difficult to find long-term friends.
Taxes for US Citizens living in Dubai
An American citizen or a green card holder living outside of America is still under obligation to file his taxes annually back in the US and failure to do so can result in some very harsh penalties imposed by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) which is very strict in auditing Americans living overseas. Taxes can be made all the more complicated by overseas employment or marriage to a non-US citizen. It is, therefore, advisable to seek professional advice on filing your tax returns.