Dubai is weird. And beautiful. And hard to deal with. And exciting, all the time. And a real-life contradiction in itself. Honestly, it’s enough to make your head spin sometimes.
Aside from knowing it had a real big tower, we knew next to nothing about the largest city in the UAE before we moved here (including where exactly it was on a map). While we wouldn’t recommend going in quite that blind, there’s actually a dearth of information out there on what it’s actually like living in Dubai (aside from a glut of anecdotes about soaring temperatures, over-reliance on air conditioning, and pet cheetahs in Ferraris).
Moving to the Middle East is a big change, and one muddied by a lot of misconceptions and false truths about this part of the world.
So instead, here’s what we wish we knew before we showed up in the land of overindulgence.
1. The heat is hot.
The temperatures are a balmy mid 20s or so in winter, and well into the late 40s (Celsius, obviously) in summer. Yes, that means that winter is the desirable season here. No, you physically cannot exist outside in summer. But – where people definitely tend to deal in the hyperbole is talking about the latter. By our count, the truly hideous part of summer begins in about late-May, and lasts until the end of September. That means four months of weekends involving nothing but Netflix, scarpering from air conditioning to air conditioning, and driving even five minutes down the road. For the rest of the year, you’re safely walking outside everywhere, heading off to the beach for the day, and just genuinely living a normal life. Just don’t attempt a dip in the waves in summer. It’s like taking a plunge into piping-hot soup.
Adverse weather events include slight winds and possible haze. Okay, okay, in February-ish it also rains – but that’s because they’re cloud seeding and forcing the heavens to open up. Also, sand storms. They’re violent and scary at times, but nothing an afternoon indoors feat. Netflix won’t cure.
2. Your work week is different to most of the rest of the world’s.
Sunday to Thursday 9am to 6pm, to be exact. The extra hour is to make up for the sixth day of working per week that used to be a thing here, but honestly, you get used to it (it is a b*tch at first, though).
This is all good, because as you’re pulling a cold one out of the fridge, all your other friends back home are still sitting at their desk, counting down the minutes to the weekend. But also bad, because as you’re heading in for your first day of the week you’re hit with all the weekend Facebook photos from back home.
3. Finding a job is hard. Like, it seems no one actually wants to help you get employed.
I was lucky to find work through a friend. But my partner moved here without a job, and quickly discovered just how the UAE just works in really mysterious ways. S applied for close to 50 jobs and didn’t hear back a single one of them before he moved out here. Once he got here, he tried going to recruitment companies and the likes but they don’t let you go into their offices without an appointment, and they don’t answer their phones to give you an appointment. So that’s helpful.
Work had to come through contacts we made while we were here instead – which, luckily, eventuated in a really good gig. It just seems like jobs here come through word of mouth rather than a regular hiring process. Which makes it hard when you move here and don’t know a single person.
4. You can only be here for 30 days if you’re not in employment.
Your tourist visa only lasts 30 days, and after that, you have to do a border run. Luckily, the Oman border is only a couple of hours a way and there are plenty of companies who organise vans specifically for people needing to do border runs. Most nationalities can do this three times before they need to leave for good, but there have been stories of people doing it many more times. Wouldn’t risk it though.
5. Even if you do get a job, they might end up being cowboys.
S left his first job here after a month, after being offered a better and more stable gig. His first job (I resist the urge to name and shame) withheld his pay when he told them he was leaving (he wasn’t actually on a contract at that point. The first guys had told him to come along for a month and try it out, no-strings-attached. Potential first red flags). There are definitely some businesses who prefer to operate outside the law here, and unfortunately, there’s often not a lot you can do when you haven’t signed anything either. Luckily, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiritisation provide an excellent help service. The guys on the phone there have helped me out of many a confusing situation.
6. Take what you can at first.
Obviously don’t sell yourself completely up the river, but don’t hold out for that gold gleaming egg in your first gig here. Most companies value GCC experience above all else, so once you have that – you’re away laughing. My first job was comparable pay to what I was on in NZ so not a step up, and actually I was a little worse off when you consider the living expenses here, but I really recommend just taking what you can get at first. After a couple of months, I got a few other job offers, and ended up taking one that almost doubled my pay.
7. Pay, pay, pay. What everyone wants to know…
It’s hard to give an indication of pay cause there is such a huge variance. For instance, when I tell people what my first job paid here they react in a state of shock – and that for me, was about normal by NZ standards. As a gauge, most people I know here are on between about Dh16,000 a month and Dh20,000. Some less, some way, way more.
8. Yes, your salary includes a living package – but that doesn’t mean your work pays your rent.
In your total salary your workplace tends to allocate a base salary, accommodation allowance and transport allowance – but that all means nothing really. If it did, that would mean your base salary would be peanuts.
So, for instance your salary might be Dh15,000 a month, including a Dh5,000 base salary, Dh4,000 accommodation allowance and Dh3,000 transport allowance. So you’re not actually getting any extra money. Also, your gratuity (or your end of service payout) is calculated on your base salary, so that’s why that’s quite often rather low.
Your workplace usually pays your flight to Dubai, and will put you up in a hotel for two weeks at the start.
9. As opposed to popular opinion elsewhere in the world, you can drink alcohol here. It will just cost a small fortune. And there are certain rules.
Every hotel or bar in hotel or associated with hotel serves alcohol (which is most of them) – it’s just HIDEOUSLY expensive. Get ready for $30 per glass of wine. If you want to buy alcohol from an off license, you need an alcohol license, which costs Dh170, and you need to be a resident earning over Dh3,000. You’re not supposed to buy alcohol without an alcohol license in Dubai, but there’s also an alcohol shop in the desert in a neighbouring emirate (Barracuda, Sharjah) with cheap booze where an alcohol licence isn’t a necessity.
You are, technically, supposed to have an alcohol licence if you’re drinking in a bar too. Regardless, happy hours are going to be your lifeline. As will Dh400 all-you-can drink brunches (don’t even get us started. This needs a post in itself).
Really, it’s just a case of knowing your audience. Historically, this is a devoutly Muslim part of the world – so, being an outsider, you need to respect the religion and culture. Sure – if you’re walking down the street in the touristy bits with your significant other, a hand hold or an affectionate peck isn’t going to get you in trouble. But, if you’re cavorting in a pool, or rolling around in the sand dunes with your plus one, it might earn you a talking-to from a security guard – which, to be honest, we wish happened in all countries of the world.
Dubai is really trying to drive its tourism industry though, and that means being a bit more liberal about things. People do still say ‘my husband’ when referring to their partners still, though, just in case.
10. On that same note, women can relax a bit
You don’t have to cover yourself from head-to-toe here. If you’re in the touristy areas, fortunately or unfortunately, anything goes (including booty shorts and bare midriffs which we nonetheless look unapprovingly at anyway). However, if you’re going in to old Dubai or any of the more traditional areas where there are more locals, just be smart. Cover your shoulders and your knees. Use your brain.
11. The extremities of the last two points should absolutely apply for Ramadan
While we did bear witness to more flesh than we would’ve hoped for this Ramadan, the rules are still there. In Ramadan, it’s respectful to cover up, not engage in PDA, and for god’s sake don’t eat or drink in public. Some of the more liberal tourists might not care, but you absolutely should. Can you imagine having not had a sip of water in 12 hours, and some knob opening a Coke in front of you?
13. Things are about to get more expensive, albeit marginally
VAT and excise tax are about to be brought in for the first time ever, and everyone is freaking at the idea that might mean income tax will be introduced at some stage (your income is currently tax-free).
VAT is only going to apply to non-essential items though, (gold, commodities, play things) and excise tax has bumped up the price of cigarettes, soft drinks and energy drinks – so as long as you’re not big smokers, energy drink guzzlers or capitalists, you might be fine. Government ministers have ruled out income taxes for now, but no one knows for sure if that means ‘never’.
14. Oil is not the winning ticket it used to be
With the international oil slump, the UAE is not the land of milk and honey as it used to be. Salaries are still super high don’t get me wrong, but they’ve certainly been scaled back a bit.
For instance, a business editor I’d heard of used to apparently make Dh120,000 a month. That’s $55,000 NZD. That is just stupid. It’s fair to say he wouldn’t return to that money in the current climate. As a general rule, you could expect another 30 per cent at the very least to what you were making at home, but with the oil slump comes cutbacks – less jobs, less perks and less money.
15. It costs a stupid amount to live here
Living expenses are high. We pay about $30,000 a year in rent for a one bedroom apartment in Dubai Marina (expat central). But considering that’s your only huge expense it’s almost just like writing that off as the tax you would be paying in NZ, or elsewhere.
Plus, it’s gotta be said, life is good here. Our apartment is super nice, has a pool (most complexes do) a gym, and a maid is like $40 a pop. Also, it might just be because we are from NZ but I consider other things relatively cheap. Groceries are good value, fuel is ridiculously cheap ($20 to fill my tank), and most other things are comparable.
16. Yes, most people have a maid. Or a nanny. Or a chef.
There are a lot of immigrants from the Philippines and India and the likes here trying to earn a good living. But for the higher-paid working class, that means cheap labour (which sometimes is taken advantage of, and sometimes not). Some of my colleagues have a chef who comes into their home and cooks for them four or five times a week for Dh500 a month (which, to be fair when you’re out of the house for 12+ hours a day is quite the blessing). Maids are just a part of life here – if you don’t have one coming in to clean your apartment you’re just about a philistine. Which, admittedly, we are. At $40 for a top-to-bottom spotless apartment though, it’s worth it. Nannies are affordable too.
There is the ever-relevant internal crisis about taking advantage of lower-paid workers when everyone else in this city is making a mint, but just make sure you give them a decent tip. And remember, the workers came here for a reason (a lot of the time because they’re still making much more here than they would at home). You will find yourself re-evaluating your morals on all almost daily basis, though.
17. Setting up here is a freaking nightmare
Between finding an apartment, setting up your power and electricity, getting your visa, getting your Emirates ID, setting up a bank account – it’s markedly harder than in other countries in the world. For starters, to get an apartment, you need to have your Residence Visa, which often takes a month or so to get. All we can say is look to others for support, and take many, many deep breaths.
18. Finding an apartment sucks. But you need to know exactly how you can win at this.
For starters, the rental market is in a downward spiral. There’s a glut of residential apartment buildings and the likes coming online, and not enough people to fill them. Prices are falling rapidly. But, looking at rental websites – you wouldn’t know that. The shifty property agents and those in cahoots with them will be quick to tell you why this apartment is Dh5,000 more than all the others in the area, and how it will be gone in a week if you don’t take it now.
But you need to barter with them. My friend knocked Dh20,000 off her annual price for a 2-bedroom apartment, and while we only managed to get Dh5,000 off our one-bed, we’ll definitely go in more aggressively next time.
Beware of scams too, the amount of people I’ve heard of who have been scammed of their savings by a dodgy agent who failed to tell a landlord he’d moved people into the apartment is scary.
19. You don’t have to pay in one-cheque, but it helps
Once upon a time, you had to pay a year’s worth of rent in one cheque (one upfront payment) at the start of the year. As with the current rental climate, that’s no longer a thing – though the rental agents would certainly prefer it if you thought that way. However, if you know you’re going to be around for a year (which is a big call in a volatile market), by all means go ahead and pay in one cheque, it should get you a sizeable discount. Landlords want to know they’ve got guaranteed income for a year, so you’ll be able to negotiate a bigger discount in line with the less instalments you’re willing to pay in. Don’t have that kind of money upfront five minutes after you’ve moved country? Don’t fret. Most of the time, your work will help you pay and then they’ll take it out of your wages going forwards.
20. The sharing situations are shit
If, like us, you don’t have your Emirates ID to get your own apartment when you first arrive, by all means take a month in a room in a 4-bedroom apartment. But, unlike us, do your research. We moved into a disgusting cesspit in an apartment with holes in the walls and a living room converted into a bedroom. One of our flatmates was a 60-ish year-old-man who insisted on washing his clothes daily at 5.30am, which is made the more unbearable when you have a giant hole in your wall and are right beside the washing machine, another one may or may not have been an escort, and the rest could’ve been invisible. Our ‘maid’ came once a day for 4.5 minutes to rush a dirty mop over the floor, there were bugs everywhere and mouldy food in the fridge, and our bathroom was a lake. But for Dh3,500 a month, that’s what you’re going to get.
There are other, nicer, flatting situations – but most landlords are out for a quick buck and willing to cram as many people into as many edifices as they possibly can. Plus, when you work out how much you’re spending per month for a decent room in an apartment (from anecdotal evidence from friends, about Dh6,000 a month), you can get your own apartment for that – excluding what bills cost. We pay Dh6,250 per month before bills, but for an extra Dh200 or so, it’s beyond worth it. Not one of our friends living in a sharing situation here is happy.
It’s also a legal grey area – meaning it’s actually quite illegal for some agents to be renting out rooms in apartment buildings. So there’s that too.
21. For a city of mostly expats its surprisingly isolating
I have one good friend here, who I knew before I arrived, and I haven’t bothered to make any others outside of work, which is where I’ve tripped myself out. One too many meetings with vapid girls only interested in Instagram and Coach handbags. That is, however, a sweeping generalisation. There are plenty of non-superficial people in this city, I’ve just yet to find a tonne of them that I remember to catch up with on a Thursday night.
22. Life is good though
In New Zealand, a very average motel room can cost you $200 (Dh500) a night. In Dubai, for that same pricetag you’ll be sitting pretty in a 5-star hotel that blows any 5-star in New Zealand straight out of the water. Restaurants are expensive, but when you’re paying $1000 to sit atop the Burj Khalifa, it’s almost worth every penny. Almost.
Then there’s the gold-dusted burgers and that shit – it does exist, but that’s just too far.
23. Cars are cheap, and considered ‘old’ at the point in NZ they’d be still brand-spanking
In case you ever wanted to fulfil that childhood dream and buy that brand-new Audi, here’s the place to do it. We paid about Dh50,000 for a 2015 Pajero – which is also one of the most common things on the road.
People can afford to drive nice things on four wheels here, so you’ll Mercedes, Jaguars, and supercars aplenty – not just because of the higher incomes, but because of cheaper retail prices.
We also had one guy apologise to us about his ‘old’ car. It was a 2014 Jeep. If we were driving around in that in NZ, we’d be the envy of the street.
24. Embrace the culture
Because, you kind of have to. At all times, a person in Dubai is supposed to be within 300m of a mosque – which means you’re not going to escape the call to prayer wherever you are. The warbling is a beautiful piece of your day in Dubai, and while it is a largely expat community, you’ll still see everyone leave their cars in the middle of the road and rush over to pray five times a day.
Once or twice, while you’re trying to get through a particularly poignant episode of Grey’s Anatomy, the piercing wail might prove testing – but the same can be said for when it’s caught you on a good day. If the rest of Dubai lacks the Middle Eastern touch sometimes, this will help you remember it.
25. Useful tips for anyone going into journalism or PR
You might think because you’re coming to the land of top pay rates and no tax, that you’ll be better off as a journo here. You might be wrong. The magazine industry here certainly won’t pay you well. But at the same time, the perks are just about beyond compare. $300 meal at the newest restaurant in town? You invite’s in the email. New trainers? They’ll be sent out tomorrow. New $1000 handbag? No worries, it’s in the post. Many companies tell their employees not to accept this stuff, but it’s kinda hard when it arrives on your desk.
Newspapers are slightly better at paying (with less perks) but it’s not a windfall by any means. Before you get here, sign up for Gorkana alerts and trying to join The Media Network here for job listings and info.
The other thing about journalism here is it’s obviously rather censored. It’s hard to deal with sometimes, but you just have to be careful. A wrong move can be serious. With the ongoing Qatar crisis, there’s another layer of complexity to be taken into account.