Glittering towers, vast deserts, high-dollar shopping and high-tech workplaces–Dubai has a reputation for glamorous excess in just about everything. But for would-be expats, it’s worth dipping below the surface of the typical Top Ten.
1. No Income Tax
You may still owe your home country, depending on your salary, but yes, most income is tax-free here. Net monthly salaries are fourth-highest in the world–greater than Australia, USA, and most of Europe. It’s practically de rigeur to be a high-roller here.
Watch out for: High rolling comes with high prices. If you enjoy happy hour, lavish brunches, fancy trips and excellent schools, you may find yourself spending it all. It’s a stereotype here–the expat who comes, plans to save up, and leaves with only what they came with. Plan a reasonable budget, and set a goal for savings based on how long you think you’ll stay.
2. It’s a Sure Thing
There is no moving to Dubai without a job. Sure, you can visit–but if you’re planning to stay, your residence visa requires a job, health insurance, and a place to live. Consequently, expats don’t usually pick Dubai unless they already have a job in mind.
But what about: Are you a freelancer, self-employed, or have an idea for a small business you think would be perfect in Dubai? It’s definitely doable to start your own gig here. Check out business incubators and Free Zones that have sponsorship systems for writers, designers, and marketers, and support systems for artists, all designed to help the solo practitioner or new partnership fit into the UAE economy.
My husband and I came home from a five-day trip. “Go ahead in,” he said. “It’s open.” Sure enough, we hadn’t locked the door. Most days, we don’t bother. Sometimes I lock my car in the mall parking lot, if I’m leaving a handbag, but not normally. If I’m at a cafe, I can leave my purse, phone and laptop at my table while I go for a refill, and be confident they’ll all be there when I return.
Don’t get caught by: Local laws count. When you live as a guest in another country, it’s your job to know the deal. Don’t criticize the government or your employer on social media. Don’t show the effects of happy hour in public. Don’t get into a situation where you’ll have to confess to breaking a law in order to complain about someone else breaking a law. You may not agree with a law’s moral underpinnings, but it’s your responsibility to respect it anyway.
4. Household Help
Having a maid, nanny, driver, and/or gardener is normal enough in Dubai that most villas above a certain price come with a maid’s room. Workers from Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and other countries are just as eager as you are to make their fortune in Dubai, and support their folks back home. Because they usually come from places with lower average national incomes, servants are very affordable here.
It’s up to you to: Treat your workers fairly. Legal protections for household laborers are less-strict, and guest workers often lack education and worldliness. As the employer, you have the moral burden to assist your staff with their visas, trips home, personal crises, and to make sure they know their rights, while working for you and moving on to their next employer. Learn your legal responsibility–and add as much compassion as you can afford.
5. Great Weather
The only weather forecast you’ll ever need is “Sunny, with possible haze.” We have a brief rainy spell in mid-‘winter’, but the rest of the year ranges from sunny and pleasant to sunny and insanely hot.
Don’t forget: Sunscreen! Every day, on you and the kids. Yes, there’s great plastic surgery here, too–but won’t it be nice not to need it?
6. World-Class Events
Cirque du Soleil. One Direction. Dubai Jazz Festival. Formula One. Rugby Sevens. Les Misérables. There’s more live entertainment, sports, exhibits and culture than you can shake a stick at! Venues such as the World Trade Center, the brand-new Dubai Opera, and the racetracks and playing fields host events for all tastes, year round.
Mind the price tag: Ticketed events in Dubai come at world-class prices, too. Splash out for special occasions, but don’t overlook the fun, free or cheap attractions, too. The massive aquarium window at Dubai Mall and the Dubai Fountains are both free to watch. Riding a traditional abra across the Creek is a single dirham, and docking in Deira or Bur Dubai leads to fascinating warrens of souks, spices, temples and gold.
7. Incredible Food
For big-name chefs, a signature restaurant in Dubai is as essential as a Michelin star. Check out the offerings from Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsey, and Yannick Alléno among others. And lavish Friday-morning brunches are an expat tradition.
Don’t miss out: Local food comes in all flavors–inexpensive eateries serve up Emirati, Lebanese, Indian and Filipino food for almost pennies. Check out the food court at Global Village for authentic Indian, the back streets of Deira for Arabic tastes, and surprise yourself with sweet treats in Al Safa.
8. English Spoken Here
It’s actually harder to learn Arabic than it is to just speak English everywhere. English is the language of business, and Dubai is all about business. If you’re from a non-English speaking country, your kids will be fluent in weeks. If you’re a native English-speaker, you can make it through a whole day without a single unfamiliar word.
Reach out: Learning even a few pleasantries in Arabic can make interactions more pleasant, and show respect to your host country. Start with, “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you” and “What a beautiful child you have!” to earn some smiles.
9. A Whole New World
For expats from any country, it’s fascinating to see our world from another perspective. Sure, you can watch the same news you always watch on cable, but it’s also easy to flip to a regional news channel, Al-Jazeera, or the BBC. Flipping through a local English-language paper or magazine gives new insight into world affairs.
Stay polite: So many cultures, religions, and nationalities mix in Dubai, it’s better not to express a strong political opinion until you know someone well. Political “truths” you may have taken for granted your whole life might be something your new acquaintance has personal experience with, and they might not be happy about it.
10. It’s the Little Things
Culture shock in Dubai makes it hard to settle in. But once you’ve got your daily rhythm, your go-to coffee shop, your favorite takeaway Thai food, and you know how to tell the taxi driver to find your house, Dubai is full of tiny delights.
Exercise in air-conditioning: Walking the long halls of the Dubai Metro is good for you and the planet.
Sparkling toilets: Forget the air-squat, and make sure to spare a smile and a friendly hello to the attendant patiently cleaning each stall after nearly every use.
Everything delivers: You want dry-cleaning, a manicure or even McDonalds, but you don’t want to leave the house? No problem.
Nowhere to go but up: The smaller size of the Dubai branch of many multinational corporations means your efforts are easier seen–and rewarded.
Make your own social life: Almost everyone here is an expat, so everyone is starting a brand-new circle of friends. Hundreds of Meetup groups convene for interests and hobbies. Exercise classes happen in gyms, on the beach, and in office buildings. No matter what you love to do, there’s almost certainly someone in Dubai who loves it, too.