Last week I had the opportunity to interview my friend from back home in Toronto, who has recently embarked on an expatriate adventure in the city of Dubai. Dubai lies within the United Arab Emirates, a Middle Eastern country sharing borders with Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Almost a month after his move, our gracious interviewee took the time to peel back some layers on expat life in Dubai and also took some beautiful pictures which you will see below. Let us begin.
Q: What has your experience been living the expatriate life so far? Do you feel welcomed overall?
A: I do feel welcomed, mainly because the country is full of expats from all over the world. Most expats I’ve run into are from the UK, Canada and the US. Because the country is somewhat dependent on these people for their knowledge and skills, they have made Dubai a very expat-friendly place to live. Dubai has everything a westerner is used to enjoying (night life, American chain restaurants, fast-food and every retail store you could imagine). Side note: alcohol is only available in clubs and hotels; if you want to purchase it for personal use at home you need to apply for a “license” which is easy to get as long as you’re not muslim.
Q: This is not your first trip to the UAE, but when you first visited, do you remember your biggest surprise?
A: When I first visited back in 2003, Dubai was still a fairly young country. The only major well-known landmarks at the time were the Burj Arab (the world’s first 7 star hotel-a rating they gave themselves) and they were just in the beginning stages of starting the Palm Islands (man made palm tree-shaped islands). The biggest surprise was the speed at which the city was growing and how everything seemed possible as long as you threw money at it; there was nothing that couldn’t be bought.
Q: Now that you’re there as an expat and not just a visitor, what do you feel is the biggest difference?
A: Once you start living here you stop being in awe of the architecture, sights and sounds and start taking notice of things. As a resident I notice that compared to Canada, Dubai has no soul. Dubai’s identity has been purchased. Dubai is like a teenager trying to impress its older friends around the world and it thinks that can be done by spending excessively. Canada, (Toronto specifically) has so much culture and character. You can find little stores in Toronto full of cool things and amazing out-of-the-way restaurants with great food but in Dubai it’s all tourist orientated restaurants and shopping. I’m sure Dubai has its own identity but it’s not very apparent. Also you’ll notice and very quickly get used to the call to prayer being broadcasted in the mall’s PA system and just continue shopping like nothing’s happening. That’s one thing I really like: they maintain their religion and let it be known but never force it upon anyone or inconvenience anyone with it. They do their thing and the expats and tourists do their thing too.
Q: What is the cost of living like?
A: The cost of living is strange here. Things like rent for example, (compared to Canada) is high. Expo 2020 is coming to Dubai and because of that, real estate prices have already gone up. If you’re looking to rent or purchase something reasonably comfortable you are going to be paying a lot. Groceries like fresh fruits and veggies are also expensive because it all has to be imported from surrounding countries like Australia, Iran and India. However fast-food like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s etc., are fairly cheap compared to Canada.
Public transit is affordable and reliable unlike the shitty TTC that services Toronto.
Expect to spend roughly 2,000 AED (approx. $600 CAD/month) on food, clothes, transportation, cell phone and activities (movies, sight seeing, restaurants and clubs). Add another 8,000 AED (approx. $2,500 CAD) for rent (for a fully furnished clean apartment that includes water, hydro and wifi). If you buy an apartment/house your monthly fees will be less but add the cost of furniture and monthly water, hydro, wifi and cable TV if desired.
Q: What is the food like?
A: Fast-food and chain restaurants dominate. There are some hidden ethnic places but I have yet to find any except for the one that I was taken to.
Q: What do you think is the best selling point for expats to live and work in Dubai?
A: Being an expat in Dubai can be very profitable and enjoyable. Most companies that hire you supply you with accommodations, transportation to and from work, one month vacation pay plus airfare to wherever you are going on said vacation and health care too. Some even give you a cell phone, food allowance and your own personal car. Also there is no tax in Dubai so everything you make you keep.
Being a citizen from the UK, Canada or the States is a benefit because you are more likely to get paid more than someone from a “lesser respected” country. For example myself (a Canadian) and a person from India could be doing the same job and be equally qualified but I will get paid more because of the country I am from.
As for living in Dubai, although you might find yourself making a lot of money you will also spend a lot. The age range for expats working here are from late 20s to late 30s and they all love to go out at night and spend money. Everyone here wants to live an excessive lifestyle mainly because you’ll find yourself surrounded with excess and luxury. High-end sports cars, clubs and clothes, you find yourself always trying to keep up and spend. A lot of “peacocking” goes on; who has the best this and the latest that. So if you find yourself moving here make sure you have lots of discipline and self control. Don’t get sucked into that lifestyle, as tempting as it may be.
Q: What would you say is the downside to living and working in Dubai?
A: One downside would be the excessive spending. Also get use to the heat! It gets bloody hot here; at the peak in the summer it can go up to as high as +40, but everything is air conditioned here. Just make sure you have a car because even though the bus stops are air conditioned it’s just not gonna cut it.
Q: What are some things from back home that are not available or hard to find in Dubai?
A: Other than bacon, which is hard to find but still available (I still haven’t found it but have been told it’s here) there isn’t a single thing you can’t find here. You want it, they have it. They want to make sure they keep their expat workforce happy!
Q:What do you think is the biggest misconception about Dubai?
A: I think perhaps people think that everyone is rich here but it’s not the case at all. In Dubai you’re either rich or dirt poor. Tons of Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and South-East Asian labourers hardly make enough to live; they are essentially living to work. Most of their pay is about 1,500 AED (approx. $450 CAD/month) and that’s it. However, as I mentioned before if you are employed here you will be given accommodations, health care, vacation pay and transportation to and from work. It doesn’t matter who you are, you will get it. That being said, the accommodations for a labourer are not all they’re cracked up to be. Most times it’s 4-6 people living in one single room. They basically go there to sleep, eat and rest. Most of the laborers I’ve met are working just to send money back home to their families. The situation is a tough one to swallow; living in excess knowing there are people living in the same city making 1/10th the money you are and are not being respected at all.
Q: How long can expats stay in Dubai without a visa?
A: Citizens from most countries can stay for 30 days. But you can take a quick drive to Oman and turn right back around and return for another 30 days if desired.
Q: Do you think it would be easy for a traveler to arrive in Dubai on a travel visa and start looking for work?
A: They can as long as they can afford to pay out of pocket while they stay here looking for work. You basically have to make looking for work your full-time job. Wake up at 9am and start e-mailing companies everyday until you get interviews. Try not to get distracted by the sights and sounds and focus and you can find a job in 30 days. You’ll just have to be tenacious and not give up.
Q: How long did it take you to find work?
A: I found it fairly quickly only because I knew someone that knew somebody. For others, from what I’ve heard its not too hard to find work. As long as you have a degree or a ton of experience in your field it’s all a matter of sending out a bunch of e-mails to companies until one bites.
Q: If you could tell a newly arriving expat something you wish you were told, what would it be?
A: It’s not as easy as everyone makes it out to be and it’s expensive. Make sure you are ready to spend out of your own pocket for the first little bit and don’t give up. Make contacts whenever possible and network as much as you can. Find websites with fellow expats and start talking. Make friends asap.
Q: What are the main languages spoken there?
A: There are many dialects of Arabic, Hindi, Pakistani spoken and everyone speaks English (either broken or proper).
Q: Is there any sort of expat community where you are?
A: There are a few, mainly on facebook like the group “Canadians living in Dubai.” I haven’t had a chance to get involved yet but I’d like to.
This concludes our interview with Amir, an expat in Dubai. If you are thinking of moving to Dubai and have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment and let me know! Be well Dear Readers, until next time.