Planning on moving to the UAE? Or maybe you already live here but an old friend has reached out to you who is considering a new job prospect in the Emirates and wants to know what life here is like.
Things I take for granted now I sometimes forget used to baffle and confuse me, until a new person lands in town and they ask the questions that were once on my mind too. And then there’s the insider knowledge that someone new to the country should be armed with, but would never think to ask.
Based on my own experiences and those of people who came after me, here is my list of nine things that you may need to know, want to know, or just be interested to know about moving to the United Arab Emirates.
1. Admin takes a lonnnng time here.
A really long time. You will probably work this out before you even get here. You’re nervously waiting to hear back from that interview that will turn your life upside down and countless follow ups and months later you are still not sure whether you should be packing your bags for your new life or giving up hope. And when you do finally get that start date, well that’s just the beginning.
Getting your paperwork in order and setting up your home will take you on a mad goose chase around the city and sitting in queues (that don’t always look like queues) wondering what on earth is happening. Getting things done requires a delicate balance of assertiveness and endless patience.
When you have to go and sort your affairs, go armed with the knowledge that it may take a while and from there you can only be pleasantly surprised. Maybe pack a book just in case.
2. The desert is a day trip
Expats often playfully refer to residing the UAE as ‘living in a sandpit’. Whilst we do have an extensive and very majestic desert out there, if you are headed for one of the main cities such as Abu Dhabi or Dubai, it’s easy to go long periods of time when you simply forget it is there.
You go about your day to day business in the metropolis, going from office to park to restaurant, sometimes it takes mother nature to whip up a one of her infamous sandstorms to make you remember there is an entirely different world just an hour or so from your doorstep. Make the time to get out there and enjoy the beautiful expanses. Desert camping makes for a wonderful winter time activity.
3. You can get almost everything you need here
If you’ve never travelled to the UAE, it’s understandable to think that you might not be able to get all the items you want or the home comforts you need. Visitors from home often ask me, “What can I bring over for you? What do you miss?”. There are certainly a number of non-tangible things I miss from home, but in terms of products, besides a very particular brand of crumpets, I actually get almost everything I need here.
There are hypermarkets that stock products from all over the world, western supermarkets and you will find all the high street brands, such as Zara, Marks & Spencer, Forever 21 and BHS. Things can be a bit pricier here sometimes, but once you lived here a while you work out what and can stock up on that when you take your next trip home.
4. The rules and regulations vary slightly from emirate to emirate
The majority of laws are applicable across the country, but sometimes things do vary. For example a traffic fine you receive in Dubai may be different and be paid differently to one you accrue in Abu Dhabi. Rules on alcohol vary too – so make sure you get familiarised with the things that apply to you and don’t assume because things work this way where you live, that down the road it will be the same.
5. Pork and alcohol are available
I have friends from home who think these items are completely banned here. I also have friends who would wonder why this is even a topic for discussion! These items are haram, meaning they are forbidden to Muslims and this being a Muslim country, there are a few limitations around these. However, for non-Muslims, you will have no problem getting your hands on these items if you so desire, if you know where to look.
For alcohol, let me start with the important thing, you will need an alcohol licence from the emirate that you reside in.
Alcohol and pork, are both only sold at select supermarkets and outlets (such as Spinneys) and even then, are hidden in windowless rooms out of sight. It’s much less sinister than it sounds.
When out and about, most restaurants and bars connected with the main hotel chains serve alcoholic drinks, but do watch your behaviour and conduct when you leave said bars. As for pork, only very few places have a licence to serve it and pork ingredients are often substituted for beef, chicken and veal variants – so if sausage is on the menu, don’t necessarily expect that it will be the type you are used to.
6. Your communication style will change
The UAE has a highly multi-cultural population. As a Brit working for an American company I know all too well the types of double entendres that can happen absolutely unintentionally based upon fine difference in dialect, even across nationalities where English is a first language. Add dozens of other tongues and nationalities and cultures and you quickly learn which words and phrases to avoid.
You may become more economical with language in some ways. For the majority, English is a second language and you might find yourself starting to cut out superfluous words to help make yourself understood.
Then there is the accent – when you find yourself somewhere where people speak differently to you, people often assimilate. Your accent may start to merge towards an understandable centre point, losing the edge of your regional lilt.
You might also add some new words to your vocabulary. You might end up asking a taxi driver to take you to the ‘backside’ or ask a colleague to ‘do the needful’. And a few Arabic phrases could start creeping in, such as ‘yalla’, ‘habibi’, ‘khalas’ and of course, ‘inshallah’.
With all the new influences around you, it’s unlikely that you will ever speak in quite the same way again.
You can walk, but things are often fairly spread out. You will find yourself relying on motorised transport for much more than you did at home, and come the hotter months, you will be thankful for the AC that comes with that!
8. Rent is paid yearly
In the UK, and I believe many other places, rent is due in monthly instalments, corresponding to the way salary is distributed. In the UAE however, whilst your salary still comes in a monthly package, your rent is paid for the entire year in one go, upfront.
It seems inconceivable at first but companies often offer accommodation loans to help you face this, which you pay back in monthly instalments, and banks also offer special housing loans.
Be prepared too, when apartment hunting your agent will want typically 5% of the yearly rental fee as commission, regardless of how much work they actually do. You will also need to set money aside for the security deposit and deposits for your utilities and telecoms setup fees.
9. We have brunch, but not as you know it
There are brunches for birthdays, weddings, welcomes and goodbyes and often just for fun. But don’t go expecting bagels and grapefruit juice. The word brunch has evolved in the UAE to mean something entirely different. For a start, at the earliest, these events don’t start until 12.00pm. They vary from venue to venue, often each has a theme.
Depending on where you go you can expect to see anything from cook-to-order steak, caviar and foie gras stations, chocolate fountains and beautifully crafted bite size desserts ready for the taking. This is buffet taken to a haute cuisine level. And then there is the booze. Many people choose to take the alcohol package, meaning four hours of open bar. Needless to say, it’s often better not to plan anything too civilised after a brunch, should you choose to partake.
I could go on, but I’m keen to hear from you. If you are new to the area or thinking of moving here, what questions and reservations do you have? If you have lived here a while already, what did you learn that surprised you? Let me know in the comments below.