Love it or hate it, Dubai is the embodiment of the phrase “if you build it, they will come”. This city-state in the United Arab Emirates has evolved from a small town, supported by pearl diving and trade, to a shining uber-metropolis filled with towers and manmade landscapes in mere decades. Living here means abiding by the rules of a non-Western culture, and the financial crisis means there are fewer opportunities than before, but a sunny life in Dubai is as popular a draw for ex-pats as ever.
What is it known for?
The discovery of oil in the 1960s is what enabled the ruling emirs to send
Dubai down its path of seemingly endless growth, but it was not until the turn
of the new century that the party really got started. The December 1999 opening
of the seven-star, sail-shaped Burj
Al Arab hotel, unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, was surely the
harbinger of things to come. No idea seemed too far-fetched. Ski inside a mall?
Sure. Build multiple manmade islands shaped like a palm tree or the countries
of the world? Definitely. Build the world’s tallest building? Without a doubt. Turn
the desert itself into emerald green lawns? No problem. But just as the 2,732ft
Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world until the Kingdom Tower in
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is completed) was nearing completion, the global economic
crisis grounded the cranes to a halt and Dubai was forced to borrow millions from
its neighbouring emirate, Abu Dhabi.
The economic downturn stalled many construction projects and the foreign
workers who came by the thousands from India and other parts of South Asia to
build them were left in limbo. Western ex-pats also found their investments
worthless or saddled with huge mortgages, and some left. But those who stayed
found that the good times did not end completely, with all-you-can-drink
brunches and weekends in Oman still on tap. Dubai social life still parties on
at the hotels, nightclubs, beach bars and polo matches that make up the
ex-pat’s social life.
The shopping, the lifestyle, the tax-free income — all remain as
attractive as ever even if some aspects of this miracle city have had a reality
Where do you want to live?
Most ex-pats live in New Dubai,
far from the oldest part of town near Dubai Creek, which is still home to low-rise
blocks from the 1960s and ‘70s. For many singletons and couples, living in the
Dubai Marina area is the only place to be, near the Palm Jumeirah, the first of
the completed Palm archipelagos. The manmade marina is a whole cohesive
district, complete with its own beach, towers, hotels, bars and restaurants. “There
is a real community feel here,” said Georgina Wilson-Powell, a journalist originally
from the UK. The downtown area near the Burj Khalifa, a congested drive north
on Sheikh Zayed Road from the marina, is also very popular. The Red Line on the
metro follows the same route to Dubai Creek and then swings east to the
airport. It was recently announced that the line would be extended south to the
Abu Dhabi border.
“Families still prefer villas,” said Tom Bunker, an investment sales
consultant with Better Homes. “And areas that are popular with them include
Emirates Living and Arabian Ranches.” The Emirates villas are a collection of
planned communities a little farther inland from the Dubai Marina, set around
golf courses and lakes. Many of the villas have back gardens and outdoor space.
The Arabian Ranches neighbourhoods surround the greenery of the Arabian Ranches
Golf Club and are next to the Plantation Equestrian and Polo Club.
Abu Dhabi is only about a 90-minute drive from Dubai, depending on traffic, and
it is common for people to socialize with friends who live in either city. For
weekend getaways many head to Musandam in Oman or Fujairah, an emirate on the
east coast of the peninsula, for diving, snorkelling and dolphin watching.
Another popular trip is Hatta in the Hajjar Mountains, at a much cooler
altitude than Dubai, or a city break in Muscat, about a four-hour drive away.
The flight from Dubai to Delhi is about three and a half hours and a
tropical holiday in the Seychelles is about four and a half hours away.
European destinations like Paris and London are a six or seven hour flight.
Many ex-pats rent, and since the financial crisis of 2008, rents have come down
in Dubai, in some cases to almost half of what they were pre-crash. “In some of
the better properties, rent is beginning to go up,” said Bunker. A typical rent
in the Marina District for a two-bed flat is AED 70,000 to 125,0000 a year, and
for a three-bed, AED 105,000 to 180,000. Employers used to give ex-pats who
came to work in Dubai a stipend for rent, but that is no longer the case for
the most part. “You used to get that five years ago when they had to tempt
people to move here,” said Wilson-Powell. “But there’s no need now sadly.”
The real estate market took a huge blow three years ago and many
construction projects just stalled out, leaving people who had bought homes off-plan
and pre-construction with nothing. But there are some signs of life in the
market, according to Bunker. “There is interest from Europeans looking to buy
portfolios of properties,” he said. If you can not afford to buy outright, it
takes a year to qualify for financing in Dubai. Make sure to always deal with a
reputable, Real Estate Regulatory Agency-registered property agency.
Mirage in the desert or city of the future, the pull of Dubai is real.
“Year-round sunshine and a tax-free income is pretty attractive to most
people,” said Wilson-Powell.
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