Setting up is hard to do. Before you get started, you need to understand where you’ve landed
Time Out Dubai staff
Where are you? It’s hard to say. You’re in a city-state with a GDP per capita higher than France, Germany and Italy, where thousands earn less than US$10 per day. You are in the most liberal, modern city in the Gulf and a benign dictatorship run, effectively, by an absolute monarch. You are in an Islamic state, where family law is governed by sharia principles, and a millionaire’s playground, visited by film stars and holidaying footballers.
You are in a city with a zero tolerance drugs policy, and the clubbing capital of the Arabian Gulf. The images churned out by the city’s marketers have become immediately recognisable across the world; the sail-shaped Burj al Arab, The Palm Jumeirah, Emirates Towers poking through early-morning clouds. The reality, as always, is different; full of social quirks and customs, traditions and taboos. It can all be a bit peculiar, but you should get the hang of it soon enough.
Your new home
By moving to Dubai, you’re taking part in a colossal experiment. Can a major hub of commerce and tourism rise out of the desert in a generation? So far, the answer seems to be yes. Yet many other questions remain unanswered. How can Dubai attract Western tourists and businesses while remaining an Islamic country? How can it retain its identity when expat residents outnumber UAE nationals? How does Western rhetoric about delivering democracy to the Middle East apply here? And how does Dubai solve its problems of pollution, wealth inequality, racism, unaffordable housing and a flawed traffic infrastructure? No one really knows, and the thoughts of a new arrival are likely to be as valid and informed as a mahogany-tinged old expat.
Chances are, you’ve come for the same reasons as everybody else; tax-free earnings, sunshine, the chance to jump a few rungs on the competitive career ladder, the opportunity to travel in the Middle East and western Asia, and low crime levels. But, there are negatives, too, such as hidden taxes (the housing fee, for example, is effectively a tax by a different name). The cost of living is high and constantly rising, but salaries aren’t keeping up. Rent has fallen but is still pricey, and housing regulations will seem deeply unfair to anyone that isn’t married or part of a nuclear family unit.
And then there are the questions of conscience. Even the fly-by-night tourists can’t fail to notice the bus-loads of labourers who graft all year round, building Dubai’s new luxury hotels and homes. Most of them come from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, live in what are openly called ‘labour camps’ and work long shifts. The free market argument is that they are better off; earning money for their families in the Gulf rather than struggling to find work back home. But stories abound of workers arriving under false pretences, collapsing in high summer temperatures and enduring dangerous work and inhumane living conditions.
Despite Dubai’s generally harmonious and tolerant outlook, and its reputation as the most liberal of the emirates, you may note a degree of subtle racism – from the patronising attitude of some expats towards service staff, to club bouncers sometimes refusing entry to groups of Indian men. Dubai can seem to be a collection of different ethnicities living in parallel, rather than a mixed, multicultural society; more of a salad bowl than a melting pot, if you will.
Certainly, the old order that places Emiratis at the top of the pile, followed by Westerners and then other Arabs before Asians, has shown staying power. But the increasing influence of an Asian professional class, the slow creation of democratically elected local councils, and new laws encouraging foreigners to own freehold property could change this, creating new ‘stakeholders’ in the emirate’s society. Only time will tell, and as with most developments in Dubai, that time may pass very quickly.