This United Arab Emirates city-state has evolved from a small town, supported by pearl diving and trade, to an uber-metropolis filled with manmade landscapes.

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 check.

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.

Side trips
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.

Practical information
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.

Further information
Time Out Dubai
: comprehensive listings, reviews and events about town
Gulf News
: English language news from Dubai and the gulf region
Infusion Magazine
: nightlife guide to shows, clubs, DJs and parties around Dubai