Expat Advise – Moving to Dubai

Published in Financial Times.  September 2018.

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Global business executive Ramesh Nuggihalli moved from the US to Dubai in 2011 to work for an engineering company. He lived there for three years before returning to Chester Springs, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, towards the end of 2014.

Dubai is the most fascinating and lively city in which to live and work in the Middle East, and a great place to raise a family. The city has built a brand for having iconic buildings, themed shopping malls, fancy police cars and traditional souks (Arab markets) for spices and gold.

The weather can get extremely hot during the summer, when people stick to indoor activities for most of the day. The winter months are gorgeous and, in the evenings, you sometimes need a light jacket in the desert.

The cost of living in downtown Dubai is comparable to that in Singapore, where I lived between 2015 and 2017, or Hong Kong. Alternatively, you can choose one of the suburbs or neighboring cities, such as Sharjah or Abu Dhabi, for a lower cost of living.

I lived in the Old Town area of downtown Dubai in a small apartment because it was close to the airport, my two offices and all the shopping malls. I could walk to a souk and the many restaurants surrounding the famous Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and get to a beach within a 15-minute drive. I particularly enjoyed going for a run on the sand at the public Jumeirah Beach.

There is a tendency for expats not to mix with the United Arab Emirates population, but the locals are very friendly and passionate. I made some very good friends and it was easy for me to strike up a conversation and have an engaging discussion.

The food culture in Dubai is unbelievable. You can spend $500 for two at a fancy celebrity chef restaurant such as Nobu, or Armani Hotel Dubai at the Burj Khalifa, or have a simple Arabic or Indian meal for less than $50. I preferred the latter and thoroughly enjoyed the kebabs, shawarmas and tandoori chicken. My favourite place was a south Indian vegetarian restaurant called Saravanaa Bhavan (there are seven branches in Dubai), where you can get a decent meal for less than $7.

Although you are allowed to drink alcohol in Dubai, it is important to understand the local norms on where to purchase and consume it, especially during the month of Ramadan. The culture is amenable to expats, though, and you can always find food, although you are not allowed to eat openly in public places during Ramadan. It is also advisable to be conservative in what you wear when in the malls or on the beach, and to refrain from expressing strong political views.

The city is very safe and has state-of-the-art public transport and taxi services. Prices of cars are reasonable, but you have to be careful driving on the highways — I almost had an accident on my first day on the road when the other cars stopped abruptly because of some commotion. Some even advise sticking to sport utility vehicles to be on the safe side.

The desert has its own charm and many people like to go dune bashing (off-road driving) or camping at the weekend. You can drive to one of the six neighbouring emirates or even to neighbouring countries such as Oman in less than three hours.

In Oman, you can enjoy a day out with a boat ride to the fiords, swimming with dolphins or scuba diving. Many expats like to go for a big buffet lunch on a Saturday (Friday and Saturday are the weekend in Dubai), although I was never a fan.

I am often asked to compare life in Dubai with that in Singapore, but I find it a very difficult question to answer. Dubai is much more glamorous, but Singapore is livelier, with hawker centres (food stalls) all over the town and a diverse religious culture, with Buddhist or Hindu temples, churches and mosques.

When it comes to doing business, both cities allow you to move in quickly and establish yourself. The cost of living, housing and schools are similar, too.

To imbibe the culture, you need to stay for at least three years. Don’t underestimate the little things you might miss from your home country. Every time I visited the US, I would bring back my favourite Kashi cereal and Amy’s soup. Unless you and your spouse want an adventurous life, don’t take a foreign job because it will be difficult for both of you.

Until I moved to Dubai, I didn’t realise how expensive and difficult it can be to find an apartment that you like and that is conveniently situated. It was also hard to secure places for our children at the American School of Dubai. Some companies buy slots at international schools for their employees, but if you don’t work for such a company, finding school places might be difficult.