Relocating to Dubai from the UK is quite an upheaval and not for the culturally cautious. Differences in language, customs, religion and climate can all pose problems for incoming Brits. Those willing to overcome their misgivings though will find Dubai very welcoming, much more diverse than one might initially expect and much more affordable than the UK. In addition there is a thriving expat community with whom you can socialise, play sports and indulge in the favourite British pastime (drinking).
Myths about Dubai are prevalent in the media but in fact you can buy alcohol in bars and specialist shops (with a liquor licence granted to non-Muslims), you don’t have to adhere to an Islamic dress code (though there are prohibitions against ‘indecent clothing’) and you can buy pork (in the western section of some supermarkets). Public displays of affection are frowned upon as are rude hand gestures - some could even land you jail time. Speeding is common so jaywalking is ill advised.
While permanent residency visas are relatively easy to obtain for Brits with employment in the UAE, it’s virtually impossible for those without - especially since the global financial crisis which precipitated a severe downturn in the UAE and led to the government introducing quotas for foreign workers. As such, you really shouldn’t move to Dubai unless you have a job which will lead to a work permit, which will in turn lead to residency and the right to rent an apartment, access healthcare and education etc.
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Of all the changes undergone by world cities in the last few decades the most startling and dramatic have occurred in Dubai. Once a mere business hub for the oil industry the Emirate has taken advantage of rising oil prices and businesses fleeing unrest or conflict in other parts of the middle east to massively expand its economy and explode onto the international scene.
Nowadays oil and gas revenues make up less than 7% of Dubai’s income - the city has radically diversified its economy to encompass real estate, construction, trade, financial services and tourism.
This transformation has seen the landscape and population change as much as the economic balance: Dubai skyscrapers continue to shoot up, piercing the Arabian skyline, while man-made islands create real estate and tourism opportunities; Emiratis are now a minority in their own city as foreign workers have been sucked in to sustain the boom.
Opportunities for people emigrating to Dubai are therefore plentiful and many have taken advantage of the low crime rates, enhanced spending power and low property prices to vastly improve their quality of life. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true for some - there are concerns over human rights abuses in the largely South Asian labour market.
Dubai was named the 2nd best place to live in the Middle East (behind Abu Dhabi) in a 2012 Bayt.com and YouGov survey.
Haifa moved to Dubai in 2012 from Beirut, Lebanon. She chose to move because of political instability around Lebanon, and chose Dubai for a number of reasons:
“I decided on the UAE because it’s an Arab country, close to where I was born… My work allows me to be based anywhere really. So long as I have my laptop and my smartphone I’m good to go… Almost everybody speaks English and is accepting of all cultures and backgrounds. I chose Dubai because it really is the city where east meets west.”
Since moving to Dubai, Haifa has launched a new business as well as continuing with her existing line of work.
“When I first moved… I quickly realised the incredible entrepreneurial buzz going on. The city is filled with opportunities and people over here are all about making business a pleasure.”
Haifa has a few key pieces of advice for anyone moving to Dubai. Firstly, prepare for the heat.
“July to October are the worst [hot!] months but have patience because the months of November to May are exquisite.”
Secondly, she advises thinking about time zones.
“Although Beirut is only two hours behind Dubai… those two hours made a great difference to my sleep and energy levels.”
Thirdly, be aware of the pace of the city.
“Before moving here it would have been good to have an understanding of how everything moves so slowly… I would have opted to move to [somewhere] more local to the places I frequent.”
Finally, what does Dubai really feel like? Haifa says,
“When it comes to Dubai, you’ll find a lot of people who say Dubai lacks culture. I would tell those people to explore more. The culture of the local population is fascinating even for me, a Saudi Arabian… There are so many different cultures in Dubai that it’s hard to understand what is really the local culture… Dubai lacks culture as much as the United States does.”
Moving from London to Dubai will make you wonder how you ever managed to survive in a city as expensive as the UK capital. Everything from groceries to utilities are cheaper in Dubai - among the very few things you’ll find yourself paying a premium on are, understandably, alcohol and women’s fashion.
Compared to London, Dubai is generally safer and property is more affordable. The city’s roads though are highly congested so you won’t be escaping the London pollution.
In cultural terms Dubai isn’t going to serve up your western staples - english language theatre, cinema (apart from the biggest hollywood blockbusters) and live popular music will all be hard to find. If you’re willing to embrace the difference though you won’t be disappointed - the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is a good place to start. There are also nature reserves, scenic parks, a well curated museum, a racecourse, some of the world’s most ambitious modern architecture to admire and golf courses aplenty.
Dubai’s climate is desert - much further removed from that of London you could not get. Average high temperatures in the summer months regularly exceed 40 °C and rainfall is virtually non-existent except during the months December to March. The summer humidity can be quite uncomfortable unless you’re in an air conditioned building or near a chilled pool.
After a long boom Dubai property prices crashed dramatically after the global financial crisis. After three years of falling prices though the other Emirates stepped in with assistance in 2012, mitigating the effects of the property crash so successfully that prices are now rising again.
A 3 bedroom villa on Palm Jumeirah, the man made island visible from the international space station, will cost closer to AED 6,000,000 (£1.08 million) - a small price to pay for living on a new wonder of the world?
Arabian Ranches is a gated community located 30 km from the city centre which includes a golf course, a supermarket, cafes, restaurants and the Jumeirah English Speaking School. A three bedroom villa here costs around AED 3,300,000 (£594k).
Until 2006 there was no freehold for foreign property owners - all property was owned by the Emirate itself. Be sure that your vendor is selling freehold and not leasehold if you’re looking to purchase a property in its entirety. Taking out a mortgage in AED can be a complicated affair for a foreigner - obtaining professional advice is recommended. There are currently no property taxes in Dubai.
The prospect of finding a school for your child in the United Arab Emirates that teaches the right curriculum, in the right language and which is near enough to your home may appear daunting at first but you’ll actually find that there’s a great deal of choice. School fees are also a lot more affordable than the tuition fees of private schools in western countries.
Those looking for a British curriculum might consider the highly regarded JESS and Dubai British School where fees range from around AED 29,000 (about £5k) to around AED 56,000 (about £10k) per year. There are at least 60 schools offering a UK curriculum though, with fees for primary education starting at around AED 4,000.
The American curriculum is also well represented - over 20 secondary schools in Dubai teach it including the very exclusive GEMS World Academy where fees rise as high as AED 92,000 ($25,000) per annum. At the more affordable end of the spectrum the Dubai American Scientific School and the International School of Arts and Sciences Dubai both charge closer to AED 30-40,000 ($8-11,000) per annum.
There are two German (covering primary and secondary education), 6 French, 6 Iranian 8 Pakistani and 40+ Indian schools. There are also one each of Bangladeshi, Swedish, Japanese and Russian schools.
Special needs schooling is rarer and the costs higher (around AED 70,000).
Many large foreign universities have set up institutions at the Dubai International Academic City located 40 km southeast of the centre of Dubai.