An Australian in Dubai: “Just embrace the region and learn as much as you can”

interview with Emma in Dubai

Emma and her husband landed in Dubai since one year. Working in the airline industry, this Australian expat gives us her sincere testimony about a country in constant evolution.


Hi Emma, can you introduce yourself quickly and tell us about your projects in Dubai?

My name is Emma of I have been living in Dubai for the past year with my husband and two kids. We both work in the airline industry and are very lucky to be able to access some great benefits which mean we can travel regularly. Travelling with the two kids is not always easy, so we usually have lots of funny stories to share about things that happen to us. Dubai is also a very different place and I love sharing some of the ‘real’ stories about everyday things we have experienced. If any of these stories help make life easier for new expats or inspire families with young kids to get out and see the world then I am a happy woman.


Why did you choose to live in the U.A.E?

My husband and I both really wanted the experience of living and working overseas. We had both lived in Australia our whole adult lives and much as we loved it, we really wanted a new adventure together as a family.

Being from the airline industry, there are usually a limited number of options available for where the work is around the world – you either work for a large Asian or US carrier, or you move to the Middle East.  We mainly wanted to live in Dubai for the proximity it gives us to Europe, Africa and some places in the middle east that were on our bucket list which is why we targeted it. So far, we have been really lucky and enjoyed all the challenges, experiences and fun along the way.


How were your first steps in the country? Was it easy to find accommodation and to integrate into Emirati society?

We were lucky as our employer had company sponsored accommodation we could move into straight away while we were settling in. This alleviated a lot of stress upfront. On saying that, there is something about Dubai that is really stressful initially. I think it’s the combination of the heat and sand along with the amount of paperwork you have to do. On saying that, they do try to make it as easy as possible, and as a woman with a child, I got treated very well everywhere I went. There are even special queues and waiting rooms just for women in most government offices which mean you don’t have to wait as long.

Emirati’s love kids and are very tolerant of them, so nowhere I went did I feel guilty about having my baby with me nor did I have to worry about how much disturbance he made. In terms of integrating, people tend to stick to their own culture or similar cultures a lot. We mainly hang out with other Australians, Brits, South Africans, Americans and Canadians. It’s not necessarily by choice; it’s just the way things are. The majority of the population here are from the sub-continent, and they tend to hang out with each other as well. Likewise, the Emirati’s are quite family oriented and culturally there is not generally a lot of social mixing that happens.


dubai mosqueHow can you describe Emirati culture?

The Emirati’s are quite reserved and very proud of their culture and heritage. They are also very family oriented and tend to spend most of their spare time in family-related activities. They love to shop and have nice things and it’s amazing to drive around Dubai and see some of the sports cars and properties they own as you don’t really see that kind of opulence in such concentration anywhere else in the world.

From our experience, most Emirati’s are very friendly, warm and welcoming. They are also very polite and helpful and we’ve had many interactions in different settings where we have been looked after really well by a lovely Emirati person. They are also extremely tolerant. At no stage ever since we have moved here have we been made to feel unwelcome or excluded. The Emirati’s seem to just accept other cultures and integrate happily.
The only exceptions are of course things that relate to Islam that they cannot compromise such as eating pork or drinking alcohol. On saying that though, there are still ample opportunities to do these types of things, they just tend to be low-key and in areas where there are not necessarily a lot of Emirati families.


What does your everyday life look like in Dubai? I suppose that the Emirati rhythm is different?

Our life here is surprisingly very similar to what it was in Australia, in fact, probably a little bit easier

There are some obvious differences such as:

  • The working week is Sunday to Thursday
  • Our working hours are 07.00 – 15.30 where Australia was always 08.30 – 17.00
  • The city shuts down during Ramadan and if you are here, you have to make adjustments to work around it such as not drinking or eating in public
  • The mosques have the call to prayer up to 5 times a day and if you are in an area that’s close to a Mosque, you may get woken up really early when the first call goes out
  • All of the malls and public areas have prayer rooms as well as toilets.


Other than those types of things though, most other things are the same. We get up, we drop the baby at Nursery (our daughter has a school bus that picks her up each morning) and we go to work. In the afternoons we come home and either take the kids to their after school activities or we hang out together, swim, make dinner, do story time etc.
The biggest difference to our home life is that, due to labour laws here, it has been possible for us to hire a fulltime maid. She helps us with the kids and running the house and the kids love her like a second mum. What I would do without her? What will I do if I have to move back to Australia one day without her!


The country is composed of several Emirates, are there any differences between them? In cultural or historical aspect for example?

There are lots of unique features within each of the different Emirates. We have been to Sharjah, Al Ain, Ras al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi and each place has had its own individual character.
Dubai is obviously very flashy, loud, busy and full of people and construction. Abu Dhabi is quieter but still has lots of life about it. Ras al Khaimah (or RAK as most people refer to it) is very quiet and not as big and flashy as either Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It has a lot more green and is popular with families as the lifestyle is more to have a villa with a garden than a high-rise apartment.
Sharjah is the most traditional Emirate and it is more restrictive with things like clothing, drinking and behaviour in public. This is also where a large majority of the working force reside and as a result the traffic in and out can be quite horrendous.

We drove to Al Ain shortly after we arrived here for a day trip and really love it. It’s much smaller and quieter than the other Emirates but it’s really pretty with lots of parks and gardens. It has a really nice family feel about it.

There’s not strict borders so you don’t always realised you’ve changed Emirate. It’s just the subtle changes that you notice. We have felt equally welcomed in all of them though and getting out of Dubai and exploring the region regularly is really important.


Do you have a good knowledge about the local job market? What are the most dynamic economic sectors?

I don’t really know a lot about the job market, except that Dubai has slowed down a lot in the last 6 months with the economic downturn and slump in oil prices. This has meant that the job market has also narrowed a lot. I think the big sectors would be retail, hospitality and construction. Of course travel and tourism is also huge and now that there are two Emirati airlines (Etihad and Emirates); there is a lot of economic reliance on tourism.


Do you feel a difference between being an expat woman and being an Emirati woman?

There are definitely a lot of differences between being an expat and an Emirati. Most of the differences tend to be on the surface though. The Emirati women are generally very polished, poised and immaculately made up. I often feel like a complete feral baboon when I stand next to them. There is just something about their presentation and demeanour that makes many of them quite stylish and alluring.

In my experience, most women around the world tend to want similar things though – happy, well adjusted kids, to love and to be loved and to have supportive friends and enjoy experiences. Emirati women appear to be no different. The women I have been able to get to know are just like any other group of women in the world, with the main exception being the way they dress. They are usually very committed to their beliefs and their customs which I admire in an increasingly globalised world.


Any advice for a soon-to-be expatriate in U.A.E?

My main piece of advice to would-be expats is to try and lose all pre-conceptions and just take the UAE as it comes. It’s really hard to do but if you can lose some of that overly efficient, stressed out angst that is common in many countries, you will find it much easier to adjust and make friends.

My other crucial piece of advice is to be careful with your spending.  It’s tempting when you get here to buy the flashy supercharged car and to hang out in the five-star resorts and swanky restaurants every weekend. However, Dubai has a way of sneaking up on you and before you know it, any money you have managed to save or any surplus in your salary will be quickly eaten away.
Be really clear about why you are moving here. If you intend to save money, set a budget and stick to it from the outset. If you are here to live it up and enjoy life, then be careful as Dubai can really take you for all you are worth (and then some) very quickly. Dubai is expensive so be realistic about the package you negotiate with any employer. If it doesn’t include healthcare, accommodation and travel home (or at least a significant amount to cover those things) as a minimum, then don’t even consider it. Dubai can be a miserable place to be if you are broke or in debt!

Remember too that Dubai also has some amazing parks, public beaches and activities and events that are either free or have minimal entry fees. Old Dubai which is the area around the creek, Satwa and Karama and where the souks are in Deira, has a really nice traditional feel that you won’t find in many other places. Food is cheap, boats are cheap and shopping is good. You really can enjoy this region even if you are on a budget so look for things you can do that don’t cost a fortune if you do want to leave here with something in your pocket.

My other, much more practical advice is to get an air purifier immediately for your house/apartment. The air quality is not great, you live in recycled re-conditioned air and there is a LOT of sand around so make sure you get something to filter the air. Also make sure you apply for an alcohol license as soon as possible on arrival. They take about a month to process and legally, you can’t drink at all if you are a resident without one, even in your home.

If you are going to be working and you need to find a place to live, make sure you choose where you live carefully. The traffic here can be really horrendous so you don’t want to work down in the Marina and live out near Sharjah for example. Do some research and choose wisely as most rentals are minimum one-year contracts. A year is a long time to spend 2-3 hour a day in the car in traffic if you make a bad choice!

Other than that, just embrace the region and learn as much as you can and always remember that tolerance is the key to peace and harmony!

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