Bupa Global

Your wellbeing guide to living as an expat in Dubai

Moving to Dubai

With ever-climbing skyscrapers, beautiful beaches and world-class attractions, Dubai is every bit as extraordinary as it sounds. In just a few decades, the once barren desert landscape has transformed into a thriving metropolis, drawing thousands of new residents and tourists from every corner of the globe.

Year-round sunshine, a vibrant lifestyle and tax-free living make it easy to see why so many move to Dubai. In fact, more than 80% of the population is made up of expatriates, bringing a whole world of cultures to a city of 2.5 million residents.

Under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the United Arab Emirates’ second largest state is growing larger by the day. From excellent healthcare to urban developments, world-class concerts to one-of-a-kind leisure activities, unbelievable shopping to unimaginably beautiful landscapes, Dubai does it all – bigger and better.

As one of the top providers of international health insurance, we want to help in your wellbeing while living abroad. So for your convenience and curiosity, we put together a handy guide with everything you need to know about relocating to this prospering community.

Climate

Dubai can be hot, but from October until late April its climate is the envy of residents of cold countries around the world. Summer, however, sees temperatures approach 50 degrees Celsius, but most residents find it quite manageable as air conditioners run continuously nearly everywhere you go.

Culture

Middle Eastern hospitality

No matter where you come from, you’re sure to experience some warm Dubai hospitality soon after you arrive. Being served sweets, coffee and juice at business meetings or when visiting someone’s home is the norm. Locals and expats alike take pride in their lifestyle, city and home, and invite visitors and new members of the community with open doors and open hearts. Middle Eastern hospitality is a defining trait in the region, and something you’ll find yourself quickly getting used to.

Language

Because of its central location in the Middle East, many wonder what language is actually spoken in Dubai. Though Arabic is the official language of the country, almost everyone you meet will have great command of the English language. Most business is conducted in English, and all street names and signs are bilingual.

Local laws

Multicultural and modern, Dubai is generally tolerant toward Western culture. With that being said, local laws and customs should be treated with respect. Sharia law applies here, but it’s not nearly as strict as other places in the world. While dress and behaviour should be modest, good judgement is usually your best bet when it comes to dos and don’ts.

There are some rules and regulations you should be extra weary of in Dubai. It is illegal for men and women to live together unless they are married or related. The same goes for housemates sharing an apartment or a villa. Adultery, homosexuality, public nudity, being drunk in public and public displays of affection are not acceptable, and it is an offense to swear or make rude gestures. Lawbreakers can be punished with a prison term, deportation or both. Just remember to be respectful and use common sense – running into trouble will be harder than it seems.

Cultural diversity

Dubai is still a young city compared to most metropolises in the world, but it’s no stranger to diversity, being a melting pot of many different cultures. Only about 18% of the population are citizens (local Emiratis). Everyone else comes to Dubai with his or her own traditions, religions, tastes and customs. As a result, Dubai’s multicultural society is rich with cuisine from every corner of the world, festivals that celebrate diversity, ideas that inspire togetherness and an appreciation of everything the wider world has to offer.

When you arrive, one of the first things you’ll notice is people’s attire. The national dress for local men is a kandura: a floor length, immaculately pressed shirt, usually white or off-white in colour. Local women are dressed in a black abaya and hijab. You might also see a variety of traditional Indian and Pakistani outfits, and sometimes different types of African dresses. The cultural diversity truly makes Dubai a place of wonderment and distinction.

Ramadan

The holy month of Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. For Muslims, this is a very significant time when they observe the month with fasting and spiritual contemplation. Regardless of your faith, eating, drinking and smoking in public are forbidden during daylight hours. It’s also a good plan to be extra vigilant of local laws, such as modest dressing and public displays of affection.

During the month of Ramadan, the law requires all employers to respect shorter working hours and use good judgement in regards to eating and drinking in the office. This will usually vary from workplace to workplace, depending on company policies and how many people in the office are observing the holy month.

Minister of happiness

As if you needed another reason to consider moving to Dubai, the UAE recently appointed a Minister of Happiness. H.E. Ohood Al Roumi is the first such role in government. Her mission is to implement and oversee national projects that improve the quality of life and general wellbeing of UAE’s citizens and residents. And why not? After all, happy people are better at driving the economy, supporting their communities and creating positive change.

In addition, the UAE also appointed a Minister of Tolerance, a Minister of Youth and a Minister of the Future. You won’t find this anywhere else in the world.

Family life

Cost of living

Dubai is the city where everything and anything is possible – at a price. New residents might find that the cost of living in Dubai is quite high compared to many other cities; however, a mostly tax-free living and lower cost of labour does mean that you can enjoy more of the finer things in life.

While rents and education costs tend to get higher every year, groceries, transport, utilities and petrol are priced very reasonably. By law, employers have to provide basic health insurance, making healthcare a priority and a cost-saving benefit for all.

After relocating, many expats find that living in Dubai affords them a lifestyle that would be out of reach in their home countries. Families often have maids or nannies, while others even have a driver and gardener.

The cost of living may be a little high, but so is the quality of life. There’s so much to see, do and experience in Dubai, but not much is free. Even a generous salary can be quickly depleted if you’re not careful, so as an expat, it’s a good idea to practice saving early on.

Accommodation and rent

When it comes to homes, there’s no shortage of places to buy or rent. The pricing is as varied as the properties themselves, with high-end villas and apartments that come in all shapes and sizes. One thing to keep in mind, unlike other countries where you pay the rental amount every month, landlords in Dubai often ask for you to pay ahead for a year using one, two or four cheques. Some people will have that amount saved up; however if you don’t, depending on your circumstances, you can work out an arrangement where your employer pays in advance and part of the amount is simply deducted from your salary every month.

Are you a city dweller or do you prefer living a bit on the outskirts? Do you crave the sea? Or maybe a golf course facing villa surrounded by greenery is more your style. Properties in Dubai are being built 24/7, with developers taking over more and more of the desert and reshaping it into unique and diverse communities.

Many employers provide accommodation, which makes relocating that much easier. Otherwise, there is always a wide choice of affordable and comfortable places to live. Once you get settled in and learn Dubai’s districts and areas, you won’t have a problem finding a spot to suit your budget, lifestyle and family needs.

Education and schools

While there is no shortage of schools in Dubai, the fees can really add up, as there is no such thing as public schooling. Many schools offer a specific country’s curriculum, such as India or USA. Some offer GCSEs while others provide an International Baccalaureate (IB).

Here’s a list of the private schools ranked ‘outstanding’ for 2014 to 2015 by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) are: 

  • Dubai College
  • Dubai English Speaking College
  • GEMS Dubai American Academy
  • GEMS Jumeirah Primary School
  • GEMS Modern Academy
  • GEMS Wellington International School
  • Horizon English School
  • Jumeirah College
  • Jumeirah English Speaking School
  • Jumeirah English Speaking School (Branch)
  • Kings School Dubai
  • Lycee Francais International Georges Pompidou Primary
  • Repton School Dubai
  • The Indian High School

When it comes to colleges and universities, just about every country has a post-secondary education presence in Dubai. There’s the Canadian University of Dubai, The American University in Dubai, The British University in Dubai and many more international schools. From science and technology to law and political science, the higher education options in Dubai span just about every desired field of study.

Safety

Safety is taken very seriously in Dubai, and generally residents and tourists agree that Dubai is a very safe place to work and live. Punishment for crimes is not taken lightly, so anyone who is thinking about committing an offense would be discouraged early on. Men and women can walk alone at night without the fear or worry of being mugged or attacked. There’s a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving, so alcohol related accidents don’t happen as frequently as other places in the world. The UAE tends to stay away from regional political conflicts, and although the army is actively fighting terrorism close to its shores, the inner borders of the country don’t experience any unrest.

Shipping and relocating

From transporting your home furniture to enrolling your child in a Dubai school, there are plenty of relocation companies in Dubai that can make your move the smoothest it can be.

International shipping companies in Dubai are experienced with packing and moving everything from pets to cars and bikes. Big or small, shipping to Dubai is no hassle.

One thing to keep in mind, however, are the items you are bringing in. The UAE won’t allow you to bring in any weapons, ammunition or narcotics. In fact, there is a ban on some common medicines that might be legal in your home country. It’s best to double check with UAE customs if you have any doubts, as travelling with banned items can land you in trouble.

Working Life

Work permits/residence visa

You will need to have a residency visa to live and work in Dubai and to get one, you will need a sponsor. The sponsor can be a relative or an employer, and most people move to Dubai for work with a job already secured.

Many nationalities are granted one-month tourist visas on arrival, while others can secure one before travelling. This means you can stay in Dubai on a tourist visa while searching for work opportunities. The market is fairly stable, so if you move to Dubai in hopes of finding a job once you settle in, your chances are pretty good, provided you have the necessary skills and education in your field.

Starting your own business is encouraged in Dubai, and supported by the government in different ways. You can find a local sponsor and share the profits, or else set up your company in a ‘Free Zone’ and own 100% of the business. There are, however, many requirements that need to be adhered to first, so make sure you do your research and secure your eligibility.

A residency visa isn’t just your ticket to living in Dubai – it serves many different purposes and is a necessary document in many transactions. Getting a phone line, a driver’s license, renting a property and opening a bank account all require that you have a residency visa.

Anyone moving to Dubai has to undergo a medical examination to check for serious infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. If such a disease is spotted, it will result in immediate deportation. This test is performed every time the work visa is renewed.

Banking and taxes

From big international banks to dependable local ones, the financial institutions in Dubai offer everything you need to start your life abroad. Opening an account is easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Choose a bank that has branches close to where you work and live, because many transactions can only be performed in a branch. Be mindful of the fees, as they differ greatly from bank to bank. Most banks are open daily (excluding Friday) from 8am until 3pm, and most have deposit and cash machines that you can use 24 hours a day.

Cheques are widely used in Dubai; especially post-dated cheques for things like buying a car or renting an apartment. You can use cheques to pay for almost anything, but be careful that your cheque doesn’t bounce, as that can result in a jail term.

Currently there is no personal income tax or GST in Dubai, but a VAT of between 3-5% is due to be introduced in 2018. Taxes are also added when you purchase alcohol, be it from a shop or at a licensed restaurant.

Although you can save money in this tax-free place, it’s also important to note that there are fees for everything, including renewing your visa, using the main highway, getting any sort of license, and any government-related services.

Working hours

Typical working hours in Dubai are from 9am until 6pm. For the most part, companies follow the same work timings as those in the West; however, government institutions generally open from 7am until 2pm. During Ramadan, businesses are required by law to operate on shorter working hours, as many people are fasting. One major difference you’ll notice is the workweek itself – in Dubai the work week is Sunday to Thursday, and weekends are Friday and Saturday. Some contracts state that Saturday is also a working day, but this is uncommon.

Employment contracts

Employment contracts in Dubai vary from company to company, but working in the UAE comes with a few perks. By law, employers must provide expat employees one return flight home for every completed year of work. They must also provide standard healthcare insurance, which will soon be linked to the residence visa.

No matter where you work or what you do, it’s important that you do sign an employment contract. It should include your work responsibilities, job description, salary breakdown, benefits and termination conditions. With or without a contract, Dubai labour laws will still apply, but having a contract will ensure that working conditions are adhered to and respected, both by the employer and the employee. Dubai employment contracts can be of two types: limited term or unlimited term. There are differences in the two including the statutory end of service entitlements and termination consequences.

The importance of saving

Salaries in Dubai may be higher than other places, but there are also more things that you can spend money on. The cost of living is high; there are exquisite brunches every week, a multitude of malls with enticing shopping and jaw-dropping, expensive restaurants. It’s quite easy to spend the majority of your earnings and not even notice where your money is going.

To make the most of the money you earn in Dubai, it’s important to start saving as soon as you settle down. When it’s time to move back home or elsewhere, you’ll be glad that you did.

Here are some saving tips that might help:

  • Avoid spending traps such as overpriced supermarkets
  • Limit the amount of credit cards you have. One should be enough
  • Shop during the shopping festivals and stock up on what you need while prices are low
  • Buy locally grown food
  • Open a savings account with your bank. You may wish to look into investing, but always take advice from a reliable professional

Public holidays

In the UAE, there are two types of holidays: private and public. Public holidays in Dubai are typically longer, for example, Eid is a five-day public holiday for schools and government institutions, but it’s a two-day holiday for private sector employees.

Coming from abroad you might be used to holidays like Thanksgiving, Easter, Diwali or Christmas. If you work in the private sector in Dubai, whether those are working days or not will depend entirely on your employer.

Here’s a list of public holidays in the UAE:

  • New Year’s Day
  • Al Isra’a Wal Mi’raj – Ascension day
  • Eid Al Fitr
  • Arafat (Haj) Day
  • Eid Al Adha
  • Al Hijri – Islamic New Year
  • Martyr’s Day
  • UAE National Day
  • Milad Un Nabi – Birthday of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)

*Date varies on lunar cycle