BBC Capital

Dubai: Desert oasis or mirage for expats?

About the author

Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist who covers consumer trends, careers, lifestyle and small business for national publications. Her work appears in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Men's Journal and BBC.

View of Dubai's skyline across the bay (Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Palm trees, Vegas-style clubs, tax-free salaries, perfectly manicured promenades. Something about Dubai, the most famous of the seven kingdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, makes living in the desert seem exotic and luxurious.

For hundreds of thousands of expats and would-be global professionals, it’s a much-sought-after stop in a career. Thinking about relocating? Here’s how to get hired and settled into one of the glitziest cities in the world, while also being prepared for some of the drawbacks.

Working

While companies no longer advertise relocation bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars as they did before the financial crisis of 2008, there are still plenty of openings for specialists in finance, aviation and engineering, said Sean Rutter, an Irish expatriate and managing director at KWR, an executive search firm based in Dubai.

Jobseekers can work with local recruiters to find out about positions. Since most companies strongly prefer local candidates, it’s important to have a local address to use on your CV.

It’s also common to work out of Dubai offices while conducting business for other regions such as parts of Africa because the country offers short flights to many parts of Africa, Rutter explained.

Entrepreneurs from recession-hit European countries are flocking to the region, successfully finding work with more established businesses, added Víctor Madueño, a Spaniard who moved from Spain last April and runs a digital marketing agency.

But even establishing a new business in Dubai is fairly easy. The city’s compact size help, as do the government funds for small businesses, offered to companies started by citizens and non-citizens alike. That creates a network of entrepreneurs, and in turn, work opportunities, said Madueño.

“It’s easier to meet people,” he said. “There is high interaction between businesses.”

Landing the dream job

About 80% of Dubai’s 2 million or so residents are foreigners; locals are a minority at most companies. That said, most companies prefer hiring expats who already live in the Emirate, as they can navigate the culture already. A few years ago, sealing a job offer in Dubai would take just a few weeks, but now most employers take up to six months to hire a candidate, especially for a more senior role, said Rutter who works with senior executives and has been an expat in Dubai since 2005.

“Organisations are a little bit more careful,” he said.

Keep in mind, there are few taboos in an interview. Jobseekers will be asked about their family life, their salaries and even their nationality. Some companies even ask recruiters to find candidates from particular areas of the world in order to ensure that they are a specific nationality.

Foreigners can work in free trade zones, which are less restrictive because they are wholly-owned by foreign companies and don’t require a local partner. Free trade zones are communities that are based right outside of the city and focus on specific industries and operate under more typical western conditions. The companies located within the Emirate, require a local partner and working on the mainland can mean following Islamic laws and customs.

Job-seeker beware

Take note: job descriptions can vary greatly from the actual job responsibilities.

“It’s very hit or miss,” said Mita Srinivasan, who moved to the Emirate in 1989 and now runs a public relations firm. It’s not uncommon for a position to promise a managerial role overseeing a department, while the actual role involves little management. Job descriptions can change unexpectedly after an employee joins a company, often due to the economic climate or changing regulations. Because work visa status is tied to keeping a specific job, there are few ways expats can push back against such changes and there’s no real consequence for companies who pull a bait-and-switch.

If you realise that your job is not a fit, moving to another company can be difficult. Visa regulations don’t allow a move to a competitor, said McCarthy. Figure out your exit options and the extent of your non-compete agreement before you start a job.

As multinationals open Mideast hubs, some leave their best-practice human resources policies behind. Some companies discriminate against employees based on nationality or even withhold pay with few repercussions, said Zoe Cooper Clark, a communications firm founder who moved from the UK six years ago.

“Some international companies are here in name only,” said Cooper Clark, 42, managing director at the PR Clinic, a firm that represents both local companies and firms trying to break into the Middle East. “The standard of employment and service (back home) is not emulated.”

What you’ll be paid

Even though salaries are comparable with their European and North American counterparts, you won’t pay income taxes, which means you’ll be earning about 40% more.

For executive-level jobs, there are still offerings of expat packages that pay for housing and children’s schooling, for instance, explained Brian McCarthy. The 58-year-old former tech consultant moved from Arizona in the US more than four years to become chief operating officer at Elkta Gulf, a Dubai-based electronics and appliances wholesaler and got such a package.

Getting Settled

Keep in mind that once you’re hired, it can be difficult to gain traction at first because it takes time to adjust to the culture and get to know the people around you, said McCarthy.

“Doing business with locals takes time,” he said. “Social interaction is required before they will commit [to a deal].”

Most western expats live in luxurious high rises in areas such as Jumeirah, close to the city’s best beaches. Many areas are still somewhat segregated by nationality, said Srinivasan, although that is slowly changing.

In Dubai’s most desirable areas, rents are comparable to other large cities with a two bedroom flat renting for about 11,000 dirham ($3,000) per month on local classified sites including dubizzle.com. More affordable flats are found in older areas such as Bur Dubai and Deira — near Dubai Creek — for less than 3,500 dirham ($1,000). Many leasing companies charge at least six month’s of rent upfront, but it is possible for employed expats to get a bank loan for that amount, said Srinivasan.

Once children get to secondary school finding good education becomes difficult because of high private school tuition (ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 per year) for older students. Parents often “send their teenagers to schools in Europe or move back when the time comes,” added Cooper Clark, who has 9-year-old twins.

If you want to stay, most residence visas, allotted for a maximum of three years, are renewed without any hassles, but can involve a series of interviews with government officials and are still occasionally denied, said Srinivasan.

“If you have a clean record and are not taking up a job that an Emirati can do at the same price level, you should be okay,” said Srinivasan an Indian expat. 

Hassles

Expats are often dazzled by Dubai’s ritzy façade, so they don’t notice the hassles until they are settling into a new job. For one, it’s easy to be tricked by adverts or agents demanding extra fees for rental accommodations. When possible, deal directly with building developers or managing companies who are more closely regulated by the government. 

Even if you spend decades in Dubai, don’t expect to stay beyond your working years. “Unlike other countries, you do not get citizenship,” after a certain number of years, said Srinivasan, who plans to move to Nepal once she reaches retirement age.

Still, the chance to work with a multicultural workforce and posh quality of life make the current hassles worthwhile, she added.

“I like the opportunities and I have a growing community of friends that add a fillip to life,” Srinivasan said.

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