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The life of an expat

The life of an expat


I recently responded to a request on Publiseek from an editor, Alina Dizik, who wanted to interview expats based in Dubai for an article on BBC Capital. I responded via email and I have her permission to reproduce our Q&A over the email in my blog. It’s a tad longer than my usual posts but I hope they help other expats trying to get into the region, especially Dubai. She used some of my responses and those of other expats in her final article: Dubai: Desert oasis or mirage for expats? It was an interesting exercise.

I have named this post "Life of an Expat" but when you've lived here as long as I have, do I still count as an expat?

Your name, location, age, occupation?

Mita Srinivasan, Dubai, 57, Managing Director of a Public Relations firm, Market Buzz

Where you’re from and how long you’ve been in Dubai?

I am from India and have been living in Dubai since 1989.

Can you name three things that expats wouldn’t know about how to spend leisure time in Dubai (i.e. city beach, all the international chains, etc.)

  • The fact that Dubai is a lot more urbane and humane than some of the notorious pieces in the media make it out to be. It also has a lot more people living with fewer bling moments than its famous for
  • I discovered that there are a lot of wadis (dry river beds) and (not so) secret beaches where you can really explore the natural beauty of the desert (it’s not something that is quite freely known till you get here)
  • That there is an unwritten line you do not cross – just like you cannot be completely off the record with media – you are in a Muslim country so don’t over indulge in alcohol or behave like you are in Ibiza.

Can you name three things that expats wouldn’t know about the practicalities of living in Dubai? (i.e. affordable hired help, etc.)

There are some great online forums these days to help expats, not to mention blogs and it’s a lot easier to get information than it used to be. There is also a lot more transparency online on the government sites these days in both English and Arabic to help expats moving into the region. But if I had to pick three practical areas that they don’t necessarily know about but could help are:

  • Online forums like that covers most things you need to live here or you could find blogs by local expats on that lists most expat bloggers
  • That international banks have appalling customer service here compared to local banks (though this is a marginal difference) and sites like help quite a bit to give you comparisons
  • Public transport is a lot better than it used to be but it’s still a good idea to have a driving license

Anything about the real estate market and how you found your living space that would help someone moving to the area?

Because it’s a largely expat-driven market, there are charlatans around. But like any other place, look at the classified ads in local newspapers and radio ads or sites like Then double check that nothing is signed till you verify that the agency you work with is registered with RERA so that if there is a problem you have legal recourse. Always best to get it direct from developers since they are better regulated by RERA.

I found my current apartment through a local advertisement, and followed the steps above. I prefer to rent rather than buy because though the regulations are getting better, I know that these can change anytime. I don’t trust the system as yet nor have I found an option that rocks my boat.

Anything about healthcare and other day-to-day needs that someone should keep in mind before moving?

One of the nice things about living in Dubai is its multi-culture. So this means that there are clinics and doctors that practice medicine to the same standards you get back home (wherever home is). The UAE has pretty high standards and this sector is quite well regulated.

Couple of things to watch out for – if a clinic or doctor discover you have HIV or Hepatitis B or any of these 6 main tests – then they have to report you and its straight deportation – no questions. So a clean life is best and keep it on the down low, if otherwise.

What are a few things that an expat should keep in mind about employment? Any wrong assumptions?

Depending on where you come from and the type of job you have, you could have the freedom to choose where you work. They (the Emirati and government system) set a lot of stock on formal education and if you are not a graduate – you can have difficulty getting a visa with the appropriate level of clearance.

This means that though you may be appointed as a GM, unless you have a graduation level certification, you will not have a ‘manager’ visa which could lead to travel restrictions especially if you have an Asian passport or a passport that doesn’t entitle you to visa on arrival in several Middle Eastern countries. As a manager (with the relevant visa), you get automatic visa on arrival status in GCC and several Middle East countries regardless of the passport.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about unexpected things that an expat should be prepared for?

It’s like life – it comes with uncertainty. Expect the unexpected. Living outside your own country changes you – whether you realise it or not. You realise the difference when you go back to your country on holidays and breaks. You realise that your priorities have changed as have your likes and dislikes.

Just because someone comes from a different background, don’t underestimate their understanding of situations or what you are saying. You should not expect that people understand context immediately either nor assume that they DON’T understand you.

Following the responses to her initial questions, I received a few more questions from Alina.

First Job:

My first job when I moved here was with Khaleej Times in their supplements department. I did not last 6 months - couldn't take the politics any more. Bad timing because it was a couple of months before the Gulf War and in 1989 immigration rules weren't as strict in that you could get sponsorship for a price so I got one of those while I looked around for a job. This probably answers your question on interviewing for jobs or meeting hiring managers.

Anything about interviewing for jobs or meeting hiring managers that you can speak about either from your own experience or others?

According to UAE immigration laws you are not allowed to work on a visit visa. Like any other country, most folks look for jobs, interview and then begin the process of getting a local work permit/residence visa. If you're an individual, you can't have one without the other. There are some very proactive recruitment companies but not sure how well they look after candidates - they're more focused on the company's needs (naturally).

The concept in these parts of really looking after a good candidate and taking care of them to the highest bidder like some head hunters do in Europe and US is not offered here. You do the usual scouring of papers, online sites, social media and of course word of mouth to hear of opportunities. It’s very hit and miss.

Fortunately, I run a small agency so I have not had to go job hunting for more than 10 years but boy is it tough to find the right person to employ!

What about citizenship? Do you get to stay in Dubai as long as you are employed?

You can stay as long as your employment permit/residence visa is renewed. There are some restrictions in some categories about renewal but in the main if you have a clean record and not taking up a job that an Emirati can do at the same price level, you should be okay. Unlike other countries, you do not get citizenship but have to fulfil certain criteria before you can apply for this. Most expatriates have to plan for retirement elsewhere.

Any other red tape that you can speak about when it comes to work?

Anything with regulation comes with red tape. There are more expats in this country than there are Emiratis. They need to manage this population with regulations. You have to undergo medical tests to ensure you don't have Hepatitis or HIV. Compared to the rest of the Middle East countries (hearsay only), we are quite better off because the government here is very tech-savvy and have apps and online facilities that have made this red tape a lot easier to work with. The people are kinder and helpful too (at least I have found them so).

Can you tell me about the neighborhoods? Are they kind of self-segregated depending on where the expat is from?

This used to be true and in some of the older areas of Dubai (unfortunately not a lot of them left) it probably still is. But now it’s more about what you can afford to pay as rent. So there are posh areas and not so posh areas. To some (diminishing) extent this is linked to your nationality because like it or not salaries and benefits are linked to your job title and the kind of passport you hold. Sad but true. So if your job comes with the benefits of housing and school fees etc, you can afford to be in some of the posh areas. People do tend to hang out with their own kind - keeps them in their comfort zone I guess.

But happy to say that this is slowly changing. People will always gravitate to their own kind, fortunately its not always about where you are from.

So, are you not a citizen? Do you have retirement plans? And how do you get health insurance?

Nope not a citizen - I am an Indian expat that has been living here in Dubai since 1989. My tentative retirement plan is to live in the hills (for now) of Nepal. Health insurance is bought and paid for from various insurance agencies to cover costs. Healthcare used to be paid by the government once but now everyone needs health insurance. As a matter of fact, it is now compulsory for employers to provide at least a basic health insurance for its employees.

You mentioned job descriptions could be deceiving -- can you give me an example of that? What are some things they never mention, etc. I just need one concrete example.

It’s not different to job descriptions anywhere else in the world - people put a spin in the role to make it sound a lot more powerful and important than it really is or vice versa play it down so they can get "cheaper" candidates that then get flogged to death on the job. Unfortunately here you have to (as expats) commit to the job because your stay here is linked to it. So no real question of a three-month trial without the commitment on both sides.

One more question: can you tell me why all the "hassles" make living in Dubai worthwhile? Why do you stick around?

Because I like the lifestyle here. Name me one place in the world that is 'hassle-free' and I will move there. To appreciate the good things in life, you have to take the challenges and I love living here. I like the cosmopolitan atmosphere, I like the opportunities and I have a growing community of friends that add a fillip to life!

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My real life hero: My cousin Bikramjit Ray

My real life hero: My cousin Bikramjit Ray

My real life heroes: Paul "Daddybird" Castle

My real life heroes: Paul "Daddybird" Castle