What is it Like to Live in Dubai for an Expat?

Last Updated on April 4, 2024 by Jamie Marshall

The short answer: pretty good. It must be. I came to Dubai on an open-ended “try it and see” contract that was to last about four months, and almost sixteen years later, even though I’ve changed jobs a couple of times, I’m still here.

In my work, I meet people who have lived the nomadic expatriate life even longer than I have, and others for whom their new posting to Dubai is their first experience of being a global citizen.

We’re all drawn here by a multiplicity of reasons, and how long we stay can often be measured by how well these expectations are met and satisfied.

The Money

Let’s get right down to it: very few of us are here to avoid earning too much money in our homelands. In Dubai, on any given day, you’ll rub shoulders with people who earn more or less the same monthly salary as you do, people who earn an awful lot more, and people who earn substantially less – far less than basic labor laws in most western democracies would allow.

But no matter how many UAE dirhams end up in our monthly pay packets, or how good our benefits packages are, we almost certainly wouldn’t be here, in many cases, separated from extended families, lifelong networks of friends, and the comfort of the homeland nest unless there were fairly compelling financial reasons to stay.

There’s no point getting all bent out of shape because the person occupying the villa next to yours is earning three times your monthly salary. Just remember that the guy who comes in to mow your lawns and water your plants is probably earning less than five percent, and maybe as little as one percent of what your pay packets amount to.

You’re here because you have every expectation of stockpiling substantially more over two, five, or sixteen years than you could if you’d stayed at home. It’s the same for the man mowing your lawn and watering your plants.

He, however, doesn’t have anything like the same degree of protection from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that you (and your even luckier neighbor) do.

The Lifestyle

Cars, big villas, maids to clean up after you, club-memberships, extravagant Friday brunches, wonderful five star holidays in exotic locations: Dubai will give you all of these, if you stay long enough.

It’s all a matter of degree. Some people can have the lot instantly; others have to budget for it and eke it out a bit: Maldives this year, new Nissan Armada next year, Friday brunches no more than one a month – that sort of thing.

And Dubai can so easily give rise to a dangerous kind of Micawberism – no matter how much you earn per month, you always seem to be able to spend just that little bit more.

A lot of expats, particularly people in the finance and construction sectors, found out in 2008 (to their cost) just how quickly things can change here. Suddenly, the jobs just weren’t there, but the banks still wanted monthly car loan payments, as did the credit card companies, and the landlords wanted their rent cheques.

There were stories, possibly apocryphal, of up to three thousand cars being abandoned at Dubai airport per week during the last months of 2008, as people fled, leaving their obligations and debts behind them.

So there’s plenty to enjoy, but keep your eyes on the big prize. Budget sensibly and allocate a hefty whack of your salary each month to savings. We are all going to leave one day, and there are too many tales of people who have spent as long as I have working here, yet left with almost nothing.

Your Place in Dubai

I said above that eventually, we will all leave. Unlike Singapore which has, to a very large extent, provided the model for so much of Dubai’s development path and strategies, permanent residency leading to eventual citizenship is not an option in the UAE.

It’s too easy to fall into the dangerous trap of thinking that “we’re in charge, really. They can’t do without us.” They being the Emirati nationals.

Well, we’re not in charge and they can do without us. A whole layer of highly paid top-level expatriate management at one of the biggest educational institutions in the country was summarily dismissed at the end of the academic year a couple of years ago, their places taken by Emirati managers.

It’s called Emiratization – the gradual replacement of the expatriate workforce by trained, experienced, and competent local people.

So, it’s a good idea to have your own exit strategy ready and waiting in the wings – whether you stay as long as you anticipated, longer, or get your marching orders with just thirty days to pack and leave because your job is going to be done by a local hire.

Friendships and Networks

Earlier, I remarked that we leave our extended families and friends behind us when we choose the expatriate life. For some, families are just six to seven hours flying time away. For others, they’re on the opposite side of the globe.

I’m one of the latter. In 1999, when I began work here, I was one of a large number of new hires. We bonded and socialized; weekends were fun in a way that might be difficult to imagine now.

In time, people began leaving. By the end of 2005, pretty much all of the 1999 intake, apart from myself and my immediate family were gone. Sadly, although there are 10 million people in the UAE now (not the three million there were when I arrived), it seems to be harder to make close friendships.

Enjoy the times you have in Dubai with like-minded people, because the chances are sadly quite high that when you leave, or when they leave, most of these temporary relationships will fade also.

It’s part of the price that the expatriate pays.

Finally…

The expatriate life in Dubai is, on the whole, going to be a very positive and rewarding experience if you can manage to stay positive. You’ll meet your share of people who are always looking at the one centimeter of the glass that is empty, but there are others who can see the humor and irony in every little situation, whether it be work-related or just the daily challenges of living outside your own culture in a foreign land.

Stay close to these latter people; they’ll keep you sane, grounded, and content with the very big choice you have made to be an expat in Dubai.

 

 

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