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Expat Interview: The Expectations & Reality of Moving to Dubai

The next instalment in the Expat Interview Series! I’ve reached out to expats in different countries to hear why people might choose to move abroad, and how they do it. If you want to know more about moving to a particular country this is the place. If you’re interested in taking part, or want to see a certain place featured let me know!

This weeks interview is with Anna from Carry on Wandering. I love this interview because it’s an honest story about how moving overseas won’t always be fantastic. When I first moved to Spain I wondered what I had done, but luckily for me things came together. It doesn’t always work out that way, but we learn and grow from the experience and ultimately, it’s always worth it.

Tell us about yourself

Anna Kernohan Expat Interview Moving to Dubai

First off let me start by saying that I no longer live in Dubai and that moving there was not a positive experience for me. I don’t regret it and there were plenty of learning opportunities which has allowed me to work overseas since then but I did not like Dubai or thrive in that environment. When I reached out to Sonja to be a part of her Expat Interview series I naturally assumed I would write about Costa Rica where I am currently living so was surprised when she asked me to write about my time in Dubai instead. This is the first time I’ve written about my experience there and I sometimes found it difficult to articulate answers without sounding jaded and bitter. After pondering my responses to these simple questions for far too long I finally feel ready to share my experience and hopefully help others realise that moving overseas won’t always work out, be a positive experience or lead onto bigger and better things but that in the end it will still be worth it.

What made you decide to move to Dubai?

I had already caught the travel bug several years previously and was saving for my next trip where I expected to go backpacking through Asia or South America or somewhere equally as generic. I was also dissatisfied with my job and looking for the “something more” which I knew had to be out there….somewhere. When an opportunity to work in Dubai for a world renowned hotel chain became available I of course jumped at the opportunity and after a couple of phone interviews and reference checks I received the unexpected news that I got the job. This sent me into a panic as I now had to quit my job plus pack up my life in preparation for a year long contract in Dubai.

Working out my notice was a frustrating experience as I swung between excitement for another adventure and impatience to get started working overseas on one side and shear terror at the enormity of what I had said yes to on the other. At that time I had no idea where Dubai even was so really had no concept of what it would be like and was naive to the middle east and their customs. I basically left Australia with a blind trust that everything would be ok and hoped for the best.

Tell me about the cost of living. What’s the price of a beer and a loaf of bread?

The cost of living in Dubai really depends on your hobbies and interests as some things are relatively cheap while others expensive (like alcohol). In my case I was fortunate enough that my employer provided housing so I didn’t have any costs in that regards however transport to and from work and meals outside of work where still funded by me.

Costs may have changed in the few years since I was living there however my average expenses were as follows –

  • Price of beer for a pint was on average $9 USD and a cocktail $16
  • Hamburger meal in Burger King/MacDonald’s was $5 USD
  • Grocery shopping – As with most places it’s cheaper if you buy local produce but as a rough guide I was getting by on approx. $80-90 USD a week
  • 1 litre of fuel was around $0.50 USD
  • Taxi ride – They all start the meter at around $2.70 USD then charge around $0.50 USD per kilometre after that
  • Gym membership was around $100 USD a month

How did you find the job seeking process? Do you need a visa to live in Dubai?

I was lucky in that this was one of the few times in my life where the saying “it’s who you know, not what you know” rang true so for me the job seeking process was relatively easy. I was informed of a possible job through a work colleague in Australia and put in touch with the right people who then took over and did the rest. This was the same for everyone I met working over there as we were all interviewed and notified of our success for the position in our own countries and then brought over by our new employers on working visas. I never met anyone who decided to just move to Dubai and find a job but I am sure they exist.

Once there I was straight into a week long induction and working under the supervision of others until I received notification of my interview. Due to the type of work I was employed to do I had to complete an interview with the Department of Health before they would grant my working licence which was a nerve racking process as if I did not obtain this licence my working visa would be revoked and I would be sent home. The interview was just me on one side of the table with 3 male Doctors on the other, fortunately they all spoke passable English as I knew no words of Arabic whatsoever.

Once the interview was over and after a few days wait I was finally given permission to “officially” work and knew I could stay in the country. This entire process took about a month from when I arrived there and although I’d like to say I was out sightseeing and experiencing Dubai while waiting for my licence to practice, my employer actually had me working 6 days a week so there was very little time to explore.

Moving to Dubai Expat Interview

What’s the social scene like? How easy is it to make friends?

The social scene was difficult to break into for me and free time for socialising was never encouraged by my employer. Maybe because the employer organises your visa and accommodates you they feel a sense of ownership as opposed to if you voluntarily move to a country and get a job once there but the level of commitment and expectation of duty was quite high which made experiencing Dubai an effort rather than a pleasure.

The long work hours often left me too tired to socialise and being an Australian used to enjoying casual beers in a pub setting rather than clubs or high end lounges, found Dubai an eye opener in just how much preparation and forethought went into a night out. Due to the alcohol restrictions there was no such things as pubs back then and in order to get a drink you had to go into hotel bars which created a weird mix of mingling with people on holiday while trying to blow off steam as an expat.

The few times I tried to go clubbing I found the limited club opening hours restrictive as they were only allowed to open for a few hours each night and not having a car made attending expat meet ups difficult and time consuming on public transport. All in all it was just easier to socialise with my fellow staff members in the adjoining villas which meant we had a great sense of community amongst ourselves, however it was rather insular and gave a warped view of what living in Dubai was really like.

What’s the best thing about living in Dubai?

This was a tough question for me to answer as my initial instinct is to answer nothing! (this is the jaded bitter bit showing through). There were positives to living in Dubai such as the warm weather, the sense of community I had with my fellow workers and the shear experience of living in a city that grew out of practically nothing in the desert. I marvel at many things in Dubai and half enjoyed being a tourist there years later but overall I didn’t think there was any “best things” about living in Dubai that I couldn’t find elsewhere.

What’s the hardest thing about living in Dubai?

The hardest thing was living in such an obvious class system. It was confronting at first and there is such a different perspective from being a tourist to living and working there. Any workers from a developing country were treated very differently to a worker such as myself from a western country who in turn is treated differently from a tourist who is still different to a National.

There were many different rules, expectations and standards of living depending on where you come from and why you are there and while Dubai is certainly better than some surrounding provinces and countries I also struggled with the overall treatment of women. I found that no matter our nationality we were objectified and treated as second class citizens and though there was never anything said outright, many of my interactions with men left me feeling uncomfortable.

If we had just one day in Dubai what should we not miss?

The local markets known as Souks! Definitely don’t miss wandering around the Souks and taking a water taxi between them is half the fun. Wandering the gold souk is an experience in itself with all the shop window displays showing gold with more value in one window than I will ever earn in a lifetime. The textile souk has every possible item of clothing or material you ever dreamed of and in colours you didn’t even know existed and the spice souk is an assault on the senses with the sights, sounds and smells that make your stomach growl at the thought of the foods they will flavour.

Moving to Dubai Expat Interview

If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to live in Dubai what would it be?

Do your research on your employer and be prepared for a huge culture shock once you scratch the surface of the bright shiny tourist stuff. Many employers will provide staff accommodation of some description plus transport to and from work and meals however this is either deducted from your pay or you are given a lower wage because of it so do your research on what exactly they are offering you and what conditions you will be working/living in as things are not always as they seem in Dubai.

If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to move abroad what would it be?

Be prepared for the hard times. After what felt like months of struggle trying to make it work in Dubai I ended up returning to Australia early and not completing my 12 month contract. This felt like defeat and I was bitterly disappointed at returning home which took a little while to recover from. Eventually I realised I was more in love with the idea of working and living overseas than I was with the reality of it which can sometimes be very different and extremely difficult.

Since Dubai several years of work and travel have passed and I am now living in Costa Rica which presents it’s own unique positives and negatives of expat living. I still don’t understand the language, culture or the customs just like when I was in Dubai and I still struggle with the difficulties of living as an expat however this time I feel ready to embrace these differences and find a way to live and work here anyway.

If you want to know more about Anna’s journey and her current home in Costa Rica, head over to Carry on Wandering or check out her Facebook and Instagram

Have you ever moved abroad and it didn’t quite turn out as you thought?

Sonja x


8 thoughts on “Expat Interview: The Expectations & Reality of Moving to Dubai

  1. Poppi says:

    Hi, I’ve only stopped in Dubai DXB on route to Southeast Asia and I found the wine to be very expensive in the airport, it seems that in Dubai, the price is the same. I enjoyed your article on being an expat in Dubai, good luck.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hello Sonja thanks for your article its very interesting! Ive made my research about living there and what I found is lot of people struggle with the money they earned and, high costs around there. Other thing I found very shoking is lot of people told me the quality of the people there, is friendly and easy to meet people but no for a relationship. Can u explain a little bit about it. Thanks again!!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Hi Alvaro, thanks for your comment! Unfortunately I haven’t lived in Dubai myself, this is an interview with another expat who did! From what she said, she found it easier to make friends with other expat work colleagues than locals, but you can always check out her blog or message her for more information 🙂

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