The Dubai adventures of a British expat couple

  • Dubai Diaries
  • Dubai Diaries
  • Dubai Diaries
Published 2016-12-26 10:00

Ruth from London landed in Dubai in February 2015 following her husband to his new post. They will be staying for another year before moving back to the United Kingdom. A freelance writer, Ruth shares with her everyday life in the United Arab Emirates.

Hi Ruth, where are you from and what are you doing nowadays?

I'm a freelance writer and PR consultant living in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. A Londoner by birth, my husband and I left our settled life in the UK for an expat adventure before retirement.

Why did you choose to expatriate to the United Arab Emirates?

My husband’s UK employer offered us the opportunity to move overseas temporary. We had two or three options but Dubai seemed the most attractive, and we had an exploratory visit out here to see if it felt right for us. It is a very different life from the UK, and I feel very privileged to have been able to experience it.

What procedures did you have to follow to move to Dubai?

There is a substantial amount of official paperwork before you can live and work in the United Arab Emirates with full residency status. Essentially, this starts from the UK with an employer providing proof of a job offer. There are a number of background checks at this stage. Arrival in the country is initially on a 30-day visa during which time the next series of ID, security and health checks are carried out until the Emirates ID card can be issued. At the time, it all feels quite frustrating and slow but as there is nothing you can do to hurry it along it simply becomes a rite of passage. Gaining an insight into just how it feels to be a foreigner is a valuable learning experience in itself.

How long have you been in Dubai?

We arrived in Dubai, fresh-faced and with a thumbs up to the wonderful heat and light on February 1st, 2015. February in the UK, and especially in the north of England, is cold and gloomy. It gets dark at about 4pm at that time of the year, so we couldn’t have chosen a better month to start our expat life in the UAE. We had a few months to adjust before the hottest temperatures kicked in but it took several months of consistent blue skies and heat for us to appreciate that the weather here stays the same, day after day. Basically, there are two seasons: hot and even hotter! Summer is fierce with day time temperatures from May to September hitting 40 degrees plus. Winter in Dubai is glorious and lasts from October to April. People often ask us if we miss the annual cycle of nature that is so much part of the UK. Honestly? When I hear about snowdrifts, icy roads, endless rain and grey skies? No, I don’t, and I feel sure we will miss the certainty of Dubai’s sunshine when we go home.

Dubai Diaries

What has attracted you to Dubai?

We are coming to the end of our working life, and we could never have dreamed that this kind of adventure would be possible before we retired. The obvious advantage of tax-free earnings and the chance to enjoy a great lifestyle really sealed the deal on Dubai. There was a massive television advertising campaign in the UK promoting the city as a business and leisure destination just at the time we were making our decision. Everything about it looked so exciting, vibrant, and different.

What surprised you the most at your arrival?

That fact that we had actually done it! After all the months of planning, the enormity of packing up and storing a houseful of accumulated possessions, the endless lists, and the goodbyes to family and friends, arriving in Dubai was our biggest, most surprising achievement to date!

Of our new surroundings, the same thing surprises me now as when we arrived, and that is Dubai’s futuristic skyline. The buildings are extraordinary works of art, and the architects exceed expectation with each new addition. Construction is so rapid that there is always something new to see as you drive round. Close to where we live is the magnificent Opera House. We have watched with increasing excitement as this key addition to Dubai’s cultural life has taken shape over the past few months.

Was it difficult to find accommodation?

The most difficult part of finding accommodation is choosing the right area. When you are new, it is quite difficult to get a handle on the geography and the pros and cons of living in each district. Then you need to work out if you prefer to live in a villa, an apartment, a high rise tower, or something a little closer to the ground. I don’t drive over here, and have no desire to, so it was important for us that we found a place in an established part of town, with all the amenities close by. We also had to consider my husband’s route to work. Once we ascertained our particular needs it was relatively easy. We had come from a large family home in the UK and with just the two of us Dubai presented an opportunity to try apartment living. Most people opt for unfurnished accommodation but I didn’t really fancy starting from scratch, so we compromised and went for a furnished apartment in Downtown that had the basics supplied. By pure chance we found an apartment in Old Town, a low rise modern development built in a traditional style. Finding the right place to live is really the first step to settling in to a new life so it is really important to get it right. For anyone curious to know how exactly we found our accommodation, read more on my blog.

It is wise to be familiar with the obligations on both sides, the key documents, and the correct processes before entering into a transaction with a landlord, to avoid trouble further down the line. Rent is often paid in advance for a 12-month period.

What are the local labour market's features? Is it easy for an expat to find a job in Dubai?

From my observations, the local job market is a little deceptive. You cannot gain residency in Dubai without employment. The middle and senior management positions are harder to secure, and will probably get harder. There is competition from all around the world, and some of my friends who are here with their husbands have been looking for work in their respective professions for some time. That is not to say that businesses are awash with talent in every department. There is generally very little investment by small and medium sized businesses in training, website development, and customer service. We have seen shops and restaurants open and then rapidly close down due to lack of basic management skills. It seems to be much easier for people in the service industries to find a job. Most new residents are surprised at the sheer numbers of people employed in lower paid positions in shops, hotels and restaurants, in the domestic setting as maids, cleaners and nannies and of course, in the construction sector.

How do you find the Emirati lifestyle?

I don’t think Dubai is the place to really observe the true Emirati lifestyle because the population is so diverse. The outnumbers the local population by about one to nine! The Dubai lifestyle? Now that is something unique. The majority of expats that are in well paid jobs here enjoy a very easy, carefree, privileged lifestyle. I have taken a couple of cultural trips to the desert and visited the Heritage Village in Old Dubai to get more of an insight into Emirati history and traditions. The glamourous side of Dubai can seem a little superficial. I spoke to someone recently who summed it up in a nutshell – Dubai is like an Arabian Disney World for adults.

Have you been able to adapt to the society?

It has been very easy to adapt to life here. Compared to many other places in the world, life in Dubai is trouble-free. It is a very safe place and crime is virtually unknown. It is also a very respectful and polite society. The extreme heat took a while for me to get used to, though! The size and splendour of the malls and the showpiece hotels are breathtaking, and it is easy to become blasé when these are your meeting places on a daily basis. One of the first things I did was to join a book group, and it amused me when I turned up to my first meeting. Here I was, leaning back into the sumptuous upholstery of a five-star hotel with a glass of prosecco in one hand, rose petals at my elbow, overlooking a pool bar! A bit of a contrast to a previous UK experience: a mug of instant coffee in a dusty community hall! My first priority was to make friends, and after a few months of getting involved in activities that I find absorbing, I soon found people to click with.

What does your everyday life in Dubai look like?

I have cut down the amount of paid work I do, so day to day life is much less pressured than it used to be. I have started writing a book, and have a number of other personal projects on the go. I mostly work to my own timetable so if I fancy meeting a friend for lunch or go for a walk, I can put my work aside. In the winter months I spend much more time outside and by the pool. Eating out and exploring what’s on in the city are usually reserved for the weekend. Shops stay open till 11pm, and while you can get pretty much anything delivered, I fear that such a convenience would make me lazy, so I haven’t taken advantage of it.

Any particular experience in the country you would like to share with us?

My main interests are arts-based, and two big annual events helped me fall in love with Dubai and make friends. One is the Short and Sweet Festival of Theatre, a competitive showcase for local writers, actors and directors, as diverse and creative as the participants. Short and Sweet because each play is just 10 minutes long. I got involved as an actor last year, and am currently working on writing a play that I hope to submit for this year’s event.

The 9th Emirates Festival of Literature takes place in March 2017, and is the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word. It’s an opportunity for residents, nationals, and visitors of all ages to engage in debate with world class authors and their work, listen to readings, sign up for workshops and much more.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Dubai?

If you earn an expat’s wage, it is very easy to live here. Even lower earners take home more than they would in their home country, so it is all relative. The cost of living is higher than I expected it to be though. It has taken me a year or so to stop converting prices to sterling and to get used to thinking about everyday costs in dirhams. Apart from petrol, which is a giveaway compared to the UK, just about everything else is more expensive than home, especially food, because so much has to be flown in. Now we know where to go to pay less, buy locally grown food, and make the most of farmers’ markets when they are on.

How do you spend your leisure time?

I have just joined a local writers' group. I go to the theatre, and enjoy the cinema, though it can be difficult in Dubai to catch films that sit outside the predictable Hollywood blockbuster genre. Dubai is a great place to travel from, and most expats take advantage of the global connections. A good deal of our leisure time is spent on short trips or planning where to go next. Since arriving in the UAE we have visited Oman, South India, Lebanon, Jordan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Greece. Iran is in the pipeline, and we will also be returning to Jordan later in the year.

Your favourite local dishes?

In Dubai, it is more about the venues and restaurants, rather than individual dishes. You can find every kind of food here, served up in fantasy locations with incredible views but when I think about the places I really love and go back to, it is not those places that come to mind. Baker & Spice, for example is an artisan food shop and restaurant specialising in uncomplicated, organic food, made fresh daily on the premises. Ravi, expats's favourite to get that Pakistani food fix at a bargain price. For special occasions, the La Serre bistro is a favourite.

What do you like the most about the United Arab Emirates?

The contrasts. You can be in open desert just a short drive from the cosmopolitan modernity of Dubai but sometimes nature invades the city with sandstorms cutting visibility and coating windows with sand. That said, the pavements, malls, and other showpiece public spaces are kept spotlessly clean. An army of people are constantly busy, sweeping, polishing, preening and perfuming the environment. On the other hand, there are many residential areas that are little more than building sites. In Old Dubai, the luxury and glamour is a world away but these areas are culturally rich with small Indian traders in spices, fabrics and gold engaged in back-to-basics business in the souks.

Dubai Diaries

What do you miss the most about your home country?

I miss the UK’s postal service and it baffles me why a modern city like Dubai doesn’t have one. I feel fortunate that I am here at this time, when social media, mobile phones and effective online communication keep me in regular touch with friends and family. I miss home when it becomes a news item. The aftermath of the Brexit vote and the death of a cultural icon like David Bowie, made me miss home and the conversations I would be part of.

Would you like to give any advice to soon-to-be expatriates in the United Arab Emirates?

Accept that everyone — from the dry cleaners to the dentist — will demand your mobile phone number. You basically don’t exist without a mobile number, and resistance is useless.

What has motivated you to write your blog Dubai Diaries?

Initially, I wanted it to be a way of recording this expat adventure as it unfolded, so our friends and family could follow our progress. It has turned into something more than that now, and it could be the basis for a book. It is a very helpful way to capture our experiences — not just in Dubai — but in all the other places we visit whilst we are here, and it is a good discipline for me to put it together and keep it going. In years to come, maybe it will offer an insight to future generations on how our lives were at that time and in that place. I have been engaged in online research on a book I am writing, and I know how exciting and useful it is to find first-hand accounts of particular places and lives lived decades ago.

What are your plans for the future?

We have another year here before we return to the UK. There are a number of practical matters we have to sort out but in the long term we hope to spend a good deal of our retirement travelling. We have made a lot of friends in Dubai, and I hope we will be able to catch up with them at some point. We might also explore the possibility of doing some voluntary work abroad too. The adventures will definitely continue after Dubai!