Living in Dubai: Work, culture and booze licenses
Our man in Dubai offers a definitive guide to living there, from procuring a booze license to picking the right mall
A word before we begin
“Dubai?? Plastic. Plastic city. No fort Portugalese,” said Khalid, my taxi driver in nearby Muscat. And he was right on both counts. While Oman next door, famed for its colonial remains, may once have dominated the region, its neighbour’s plastic fantastic now steals the show. 'Flash, brash, lavish and ostentatious' is most Westerners’ experience of Dubai. Indeed, while it may be spelt 'Dubai', the concept is actually DUBAI, because it’s just way better than everywhere and everything else ever and will keep telling you this loudly. Khalid did not agree.
You can’t really just rock up in Dubai and set up shop, so find that perfect job before you go. That’s what the internet is for. Or your company’s HR guy. If you’re in finance, education, oil or the service industry in some form, then there is plenty of work available. Your employer should sort all the visa paraphernalia, but be prepared for some fun bureaucratic surprises like having to declare a religion.
Look carefully at that contract. A tax-free salary of 24,000 AED (£4,500) a month looks great on paper, but if your flat or villa costs 15,000 AED, then it’s not so good. Check if your employer provides a separate accommodation allowance, health insurance, an annual return flight and if they contribute to school fees for those mistakes you made a few years ago. At the top end, you’ll pay for nothing and make an absolute fortune, unless you spend it all on Ferraris and end up in jail (it’s illegal to be in debt). You think I jest – I do not.
You need to get a medical. Of course you do. Just look at you. You’re exactly the type of person that would have TB. They also check you for HIV and hepatitis. When you go, take the VIP option with a shorter queue and your results sent to you by SMS. Or in my case, read out across the office by the driver. Luckily, all was clear.
Where to live
Most Westerners tend to live in the plusher areas like Marina or Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT). The rich ones live on The Palm and tell you so. Repeatedly. Each one of the 23 million Western non-working wives is called Jane and lives in the villas in Jumeirah. Labourers live in luxurious camps, according to the posters, and definitely do not have their passports confiscated by their employers. Apartment buildings are the norm for most people, with rents coming in from about 6,000 AED for a studio and anywhere upwards. The nearer to a metro station you are, the more you’ll pay. It’s the landlord’s job to pay the building fees, even if they say it’s yours.
You might be terrified before flitting to Dubai that Dry January could turn into two dry years. Fear not – Dubai is one of the drunkest places on earth. You can only drink publicly in hotel bars, and you’ll soon find your favourite soulless watering hole. There are plenty of places with colourful mood lighting, playing the type of lounge electronica designed to make you leave, and you’ll find shisha in a number of bars too. Eight quid a pint sounds steep, but last time I was in Edinburgh I barely noticed a difference. There’s a clubbing scene, with Rock Bottom proving nominative determinism true, and an array of live music from the Jazz Festival to acts like The Killers.
You need to get an alcohol licence. I know, I know. Keep calm.
Your employer should help you by providing a permission letter. If you’re a married female, you’ll need your husband’s permission too, which could lead to some fun/marriage-ending bargaining. Once you’ve got a licence – something I was refused when I was informed by SMS that I was Muslim (this came as a bit of shock, but then you never see yourself as others see you) – you can get booze from shady-looking shops hidden away in underground mall car parks that make you feel like you’ve just scored three grams of coke from a hooker behind a pub in Paisley. If you’re refused, you can still drink illegally (the police won’t come looking for you), but if you’re stopped for something else, you really don’t want to be sans licence too. If you know a bloke who knows a bloke, then having booze delivered without a licence is possible for all you thrill seekers.
People and Social Life
Dubai has to be one of the most multiculturally diverse places on Earth. Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Russians, South East Asians, Westerners, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Syrians, Egyptians, and one bloke from Costa Rica. Everyone is here. Learning 'thanks' in Tagalog or Hindi is way more useful than Arabic. There are Emiratis here, but you won’t see many. At less than 20% of the total population and mainly working in government jobs, the locals tend to be a world apart.
There are plenty of social events and clubs you can join. Meetup.com hosts all sorts of things, from writing groups and networking events, to drinking parties and even knitting circles. Yoga is popular and the gym scene, like you, is not going anywhere fast. Dating certainly happens and everyone is having an affair. Dating sites and apps are technically banned but it doesn’t seem to stop anyone. You may need a VPN to swipe left (get it before you go).
Who says multiculturalism doesn’t work? You name it, you can eat it. From fine dining to good cheap Indian, it’s all here. You’ll pay from as little as 25 AED to the GDP of New Zealand. The Entertainer books you can buy have hundreds of two-for-one meal deal vouchers.
There is none.
Dubai boasts the longest automatic metro system in the world (bet you didn’t know that). It’s driver-less (bloody Tory cuts) and is usually packed, but its two lines are fully air-conditioned. There’s also a public bus system that works with the same cards as the metro. Both are cheap, reliable and cover the city pretty well, but almost every Emirati and Westerner seems to own a really sensibly-sized massive SUV (petrol is very cheap). Again, if you’re a married female, you’ll need to negotiate that permission letter with your husband.
Other than those options, taxis are the best way to get around. They’re reasonably cheap and mostly driven by Pakistanis, some of whom speak some English. Special pink lady-taxis also exist for women and families.You could also walk, but there are no pavements and you’d die in the summer. Or any time of year actually because safe driving is not a Dubai strong point.
Edinburgh it is not. The summer is an inferno. Any breeze feels like a hair dryer in your face and clouds are banned. When the aircon breaks, the panic in the assembled party is palpable. And in big patches under your arms. The winter months can get down to a freezing 20 degrees, so you might need a cardigan to sit out.
It will rain on some Tuesday or other for about half an hour and people will come out into the streets to dance. Next day in the office, you’ll be asked where you were When It Rained. In particularly bad periods with lots of sand in the air (there are occasional sandstorms), the government apparently orders that it rain (or at least sends planes with rain-inducing chemicals into the sky). Not sure if that ever worked.
Culture Part II
Malls. I forgot malls. There are malls. That’s culcha for you.
In this regard, Dubai is spectacular, which is not to be read as a direct synonym of 'good'. There are some remarkable buildings, from the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building), through the twisty Cayan Tower in Marina, to the original jewel in the crown, the Burj Al Arab – the iconic, sail-shaped, self-proclaimed seven-star hotel that Osama Bin Laden is rumoured to have stayed in. There’s also the plain bizarre, with the giant Big Ben-themed tower on Sheik Zayed Road, the abandoned artificial islands of Dubai World and the Atlantis, a massive gate-like tower for the super-rich.
No place is complete without its foibles and Dubai does not disappoint, being more a hashtag than a city. You might wake up one morning to find that Emirates Road is now called Sheikh Bin Mohammed Zayed Road, with Dubai Bypass Road now being Emirates Road. You’ll get used to getting called 'mamsir' by Filipino waiters and 'boss' by Indians, but will probably always be embarrassed to be called 'sir' when you order a coffee. You’ll start signing off e-mails with 'please do the needful and revert' and will stop finding it odd that anything you like can be delivered.
Islam is obviously the official religion and mosques are everywhere. You’ll get used to the call to prayer five times a day and seeing people praying outside when they can’t get to one. Ramadan moves throughout the year and almost everything stops for nearly a month, with Iftar becoming quite the thing. You can’t eat or drink in public during the day, so restaurants close. Eid is celebrated fervently by everyone, for religious reasons but also because that coffee shop you like is open again. If you can’t live without a bacon sandwich, you can still get pork in some restaurants and supermarkets (behind curtains that say Non-Muslim Only on them).
The Second Sex
While it is Sharia law, you don’t need to be married or don a hijab. You can more or less dress how you like, though in an Islamic nation, modesty never hurt anyone. If you’re not married, you’ve not only failed at life but you might find your voice less heard. You can get a visa as a single woman, which would make you one of the thirteen there, in exactly the same way a man does – by selling your soul to the dollar. The same cannot be said of getting Tampax, which is impossible.
Dubai is very safe and harassment not really a thing. Getting stared at on the metro can grate, so just hop into the women-only carriage and be free with your sisters. If you want to eschew that new burkini in favour of something smaller, most Westerners go to private beaches at hotels (because Dubai), so there are no issues with modesty.
Avoid reporting a rape though, as you’ll be jailed for sex outside marriage (as happened to Marte Deborah Dalelv in 2013).
Culture Part III
So about those malls. They’re huge. They’re legion. They’re the heartbeat of an Emirate. People actually seem to like going to them. You can do all sorts. Want to ski? Mall of the Emirates. Want to see a massive aquarium? Dubai Mall, which is also where you can see Dubai Fountain – a popular dancing water feature you either love or hate.
There is more than malls though. There’s the annual literature festival, the film festival, big names like Federer at the Open Tennis Championship, the Dubai World Cup (a horse race) and the Dubai Rugby Sevens, which has nothing to do with rugby and everything to do with getting pissed. The old town along the Creek is where most of the ‘old’ culture is to be found, with Dubai museum and a feeling much more like Morocco than Marina.
Nope. This ain’t no detoxing fresh fruit and plain yoghurt; no, brunch is a Friday affair (a fitting way to celebrate the most religious day) in which loads of ex-pats flood into hotels and pay anything from 35 to 150 quid to eat and drink all they can, before spilling out into the streets as steady as dandelions in a breeze. You’ll see them later in other bars, swaying, falling over and preparing for a metaphysical hangover by all getting off with each other. Sharia law never felt so good.
Still up for going? Good. You should. Even Żiżek did. Ignore Khalid. Because DUBAI.