Immigrating to Dubai - the jewel in the United Arab Emirates' particularly glittering crown - is a major upheaval, and not for people unprepared for an entirely different culture; after all, there are many abrupt differences to overcome, such as local customs, language, climate and religion. But as a country that has one of the highest expat ratios in the world, visitors will find Dubai a very welcoming and friendly place. It’s also much more affordable than its reputation may lead you to believe.
Dubai's economy has evolved since the halycon days of commodities trading and oil exporting, and is built now on financial services, logistics, real estate, construction, hospitality and tourism. This diversification, along with Dubai's strategic location, top-notch infrastructure and 'ease of business' philosophy, makes it a prime destination for many multinational corporations, as well as the workers who are willing to move there to further their careers.
Permanent residency requirements
It’s important to secure a job before you relocate to Dubai because the first step for living in the country involves obtaining a residence permit, which then allows you to get a work permit. As an expat, you will also need to present your residence permit when opening a bank account, renting a property, or registering a car, so it's a hugely important step. To get a residency permit, you will need to be sponsorsed by the company that is employing you. Note, as well, that there are several types of residence visa in the UAE.
In general, the employer undertakes the responsibility for submitting all the relevant documents, which consists mainly of the application form, the original (and a copy of) the sponsored person’s passport, passport-sized photos, the employment permit issued by the Ministry of Labour, and any other relevant paperwork.
The most essential steps you need to follow to make the move are:
- Undergo a health check
- Apply for a work permit
- Obtain a residency visa
- Acquire any relevant qualifications that are required in the UAE
- Own a passport that is valid for at least another 6 months
It is important to note that, while working hours may differ from business to business, the traditional working week in the UAE is from Sunday to Thursday, with some retail and other businesses opening six days a week and closing only on Fridays (designated as a holy day in the Islamic world).
Typical business hours are 08:00 to 13:00, resuming from 16:00 until 19:00 (when temperatures cool down) although, during Ramadan, working days may be shorter. Free Zones may also have different working hours.
Working conditions and benefits
The working week in Dubai tends to vary between 40 and 48 hours, depending on the employer’s policy. Expat workers are generally very well paid, with the majority of employers offering packages that cover basic salary, medical cover, air travel for home visits, housing provision or allowance and other company-specific perks and benefits. In some cases, there are performance-related bonuses on offer, too, particularly in the finance sector. Contract workers also benefit from an ‘indemnity’, which is an end-of-contract bonus paid to expatriate workers as a form of gratitude for their service to the state.
In general, working flexible or part-time hours is not the norm in Dubai, with most employees operating on full-time work contracts.
Property rental prices
If you plan to search for your own accommodation, then bear in mind that most rental properties are leased on a one-year contract. The amount of the deposit generally depends on the exclusivity of the neighbourhood, how much competition for the property there is and, to some extent, your own negotiation skills. In some cases, you might even be asked to pay the entire annual rent upfront, although it may be wise to seek the services of a specialist property provider in such instances.
Cost of living
Although Dubai’s property costs have dropped significantly since the recession in 2008, renting is still a significant expense. To be able to live comfortably in Dubai, it's generally estimated that your accommodation expenditure should not amount to more than 20% of your annual net salary.
Bear in mind, too, that rental costs rarely include utility bills. As an estimate, electricity and water consumption costs are around AED 1,200 ($327) per month for a small two-bedroom apartment, although during the extremely hot summer months, those costs are likely to be much higher.
When it comes to food and groceries, your expenditure will ultimately depend on your own shopping preferences. Buying local products is a better idea for saving money than opting for international brands that are exported at a premium, but, as a guide, you should expect to pay anything between AED 300 ($82) and AED 1,000 ($272) on groceries each week.
Luckily, renting a car in Dubai from a reputable rental agency is not too expensive. A Toyota Yaris, for example, will cost you roughly AED 1,500 ($408) per month with an additional AED 400 ($109) for fuel.
If you'd prefer not to drive, then Dubai boasts an excellent public transport system, with buses, taxis and water taxis complementing the state-of-the-art Dubai Metro. But, if you want to travel to some of the further expanses of the city, or even make the longer trip to the neighbouring emirates such as Abu Dhabi or Sharjah, then a car is very highly recommended.
Dubai offers a variety of schooling options for working parents, including daycare services, nurseries, primary schools and the numerous private schools that cater to the large international population. Primary education costs range between AED 20,000 ($5,446) to AED 28,000 ($7,624) in schools with a Western curriculum, while costs for one of the more reputable international high schools are even higher, ranging from AED 40,000 ($10,982) to AED 90,000 ($24,506). Note that many private companies offer packages that cover all, or part of, these tuition fees.
Dubai is home to a highly developed health system with first-class healthcare standards across the board. UAE residents are allowed to use public hospitals and clinics for free (or for a small fee) while expats can use public hospitals once they have successfully applied for a health card from the Department of Health and Medical Services (DOHMS).
The main religion in Dubai is Islam, although it is worth noting that the government is a lot more liberal than in other nearby emirates. For example, non-Muslim celebrations such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated by several retail stores, including the selling of decorations and foods for these occasions. These courtesies are not to be abused, however, and cultural differences - and laws - should be respected and observed both ways at all times.
This is especially true during the holy month of Ramadan, where both Muslims and non-Muslims are expected to follow religious practice and avoid eating, drinking and smoking in public during the fasting hours.
Meanwhile, although Arabic is the official language of the UAE, English is the most widely spoken language in Dubai. While you can get by without Arabic (most of the road signs are in both Arabic and English, for instance), it is still a good idea to try and learn some basic Arabic, especially if you work closely with Emirati locals.
Immigrating to Dubai is a dream for the many expats who wish to combine a high standard of living with a solid career. Make the most of the information outlined above to make living and working in this wealthy region as enjoyable as possible.
Have you ever lived or worked in Dubai? Share your experiences with us in the comment section below...
This article was originally published in April 2015.