Moving to Dubai?
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Basic Things to Know About Living in the UAE.
Photographer credit: Karyna Belausava
Dubai is Part of Seven Emirates
If you’re not too familiar with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, let alone the United Arab Emirates, it’s important to get to know a few necessary things about living in Dubai.
Dubai is part of seven emirates (regions) that make up the United Arab Emirates, it’s the most populated of all the emirates. The seven emirates were formed on December 2nd, 1971, and it is celebrated as National Day. The other six emirates include Abu Dhabi, the capital, known to be quieter and more conservative than Dubai. It’s surrounded by some of the most amazing beaches and mangroves, and there’s so much to do with families in Abu Dhabi with some of the best family-friendly venues in the world. It’s also where the ruler of the UAE, Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, resides.
Sharjah is the second most populated emirate, rich in architectural heritage and cultural wealth. It also has a lot of developments happening to enhance its tourism. It’s worth noting that it is a dry state, which means alcohol is forbidden and it’s something to take very seriously.
Ras Al Khaimah is another emirate, and it happens to be one of the best places to go hiking in the region. It has the highest peak (Jebel Jais) in the UAE and it’s a fantastic place to visit if you are someone that loves nature and adventure. It also has the world's longest zip line, at 2,83km long, called Jebel Jais Flight – certified by Guinness World Records. Soar across jagged mountain peaks and swoop through deep ravines at hair-raising speeds of up to 150 kmph.
Fujairah is a quiet gem in the UAE, known to be a great place to go scuba diving and snorkelling. Expect to see beautiful beaches surrounded by the Hajjar mountains on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. It is the only emirate which is almost completely mountainous and it's full of stunning wadis and springs, perfect to 'wadi bash' in 4x4s.
Ajman is one of the smaller emirates. It has the corniche, by the sea, which has a few note-worthy luxury hotels that’s worth staying at during your time in the UAE. It’s a relaxing place to visit and when you wander around, you’ll find so many local shops selling anything from spices and food to clothing and furniture.
Finally, Umm Al-Quwain isn’t really talked about much because it’s incredibly small. The emirate has rich coastal mangroves on the coast of Arabian Gulf and many islands lie to the east of the mainland. The biggest island, Al Seneyah, is home to Arabian gazelles, falcons, and turtles.
The UAE is constantly developing and growing in terms of infrastructure and tourism. I moved in 2015 and during these years there’s been so much development throughout the country. It’s so mind-blowing that the UAE is only over 50 years old, and it has become a global hub for business, tourism and living for expats and locals. It has achieved so much in such a short period of time.
The obvious appeal to move to Dubai is low tax, high salaries, quality of life, good schools, a low crime rate, and the feeling of living in a very safe country (compared to living in so many other places in the world). It’s a peaceful place. And in terms of location, it’s a great place to be based because it’s so close to Asia, Africa, and Europe. You can get a direct flight to most places you’ll want to travel to.
Populations & Demographics
Did you know that most of the residents in the UAE are expats? There’s a medley of nationalities like Lebanese, Syrian, Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Palestinian, British, French, Spanish, South American, American, Canadian, and Australian, amongst others. A vast amount of the population are migrant workers from Asia and Africa. The total combined population (based on populationpyramid.net) in 2022 is 10.08 million, but 8.92 million are the expat community, with Dubai having 3.49 million, and the capital, Abu Dhabi, with a population of 1,540,000 (according to the Dubai government website). Compare that number to the 1.16 million Emiratis that exist in the UAE. However, there’s so much to learn from the natives in terms of culture, religion, and society. If there are only 11.48 per cent Emiratis, that means 88.52 per cent are expatriates and that’s a huge amount.
The UAE is such a diverse and global melting pot of nationalities, which makes it an interesting place to live in terms of feeling really connected to different cultures and understanding different societies. I have felt more connected to the world since living here because you get to see how many different people live that are not from first world countries. You hear stories and meet people from all over the world that may have been driven out of their homes and countries because of war, bad living conditions, and better opportunities, so living here has enriched my empathy towards humanitarianism.
As most of the population are originally from other countries, there can be a sense of the UAE being a transient place – people come and go. You may work in the UAE for a few years then go back ‘home’ after saving money due to not paying a hefty tax bill over time. Often families stay longer because, as I said earlier, it’s a very safe country to live in, crime is low, and the standard of living is so good. Having a nanny is also very common so you have support at home, especially if you don’t have extended family support in the UAE. Schools also have a high standard of education. There’s the British, American and IB system of schooling, so it caters to so many nationalities.
Naturalization, Visas & The Golden Visa
Rules and laws can change very fast in the UAE, literally a new rule can be implemented in the next day or two, so you must be able to go with the flow of change. Previously, there was no real mechanism for naturalization, meaning all citizens are native born. It was the GCC tradition of never granting citizenship, but only granting residence permits and visas to foreign nationals. But in February 2021, the United Arab Emirates made significant changes to the UAE citizenship law. The government now allows qualifying investors and people with special talents to be naturalized, along with their families. Citizenship exceptions can be made through marriage (a foreign woman marrying an Emirati man), but it is not guaranteed. It’s a long process, with lots of red tape and paperwork. It may also take over seven years.
If you are working for a company, you get a two-year work visa. Some expats can be eligible to get a "Golden Visa" allowing them to have 10 years of residency in the UAE. An individual is eligible to apply without a sponsor if his or her investments in the UAE are at least Dhs2,000,000. These may be in the form of investment funds accredited in the UAE; or a commercial or industrial licence of an investor, where the memorandum of association of their legal entity mentions the paid-up capital of the said company is not less than Dhs2,000,000; or the investor is the owner of a company in the UAE and pays tax of not less than Dhs250,000 annually to the Federal Tax Authority. Under these categories, the investor may also include his or her spouse and dependents while applying for the "Golden Visa." If you own properties worth Dhs2,000,000 or more in the UAE, you are also eligible to apply for a five-year "Golden Visa." Under these categories, the properties should not have any loan on them. However, the investors whose properties are on loan may be eligible for the visa, provided that at least Dhs2,000,000 of the value of the properties are their own equity.
If you are high up working for a company, such as being a director or advisor, appointed by an investor in public investments it may also give you eligibility to apply without a sponsor. Retired foreigners who are at least 55 years old and have Dhs1,000,000 investment or an income of Dhs15,000 per month can also get the “Golden Visa."
Individuals who are researchers in the fields of science and knowledge such as doctors, specialists, scientists, inventors as well as creative individuals in the field of culture and art may apply as well. And outstanding students studying in recognised schools and universities inside or outside the UAE may apply for the long-term residency visa.
Islamic Culture & Religion
Islam is the official religion in the UAE. There are rules that should be respected, whilst living here, like not drinking alcohol in public places, modest dressing during Ramadan and no ‘overt’ public display of affection, that support the teachings of the Quran.
There are more than 9,083 mosques spread across the country. Most of the mosques built in the UAE are privately funded by individuals and then managed by government entities. You will most likely be living close to a mosque and if you don’t attend mosque, you will still get to hear daily prayers, which is very mesmerising to hear if you are a non-Arabic speaker. The sound is humbling and just watching people stop their cars on the road to pray on the street, or stop work, to get on their prayer mats and face the direction towards the Kaaba, in Mecca, is such an interesting cultural experience.
As a vast majority of the nation’s residents are noncitizens, there are various religions and public celebrations of major Christian and Hindu holidays. Also, Chinese New Year is also celebrated. Several different religious groups have been granted land by government officials, but the expansion of non-Muslim houses of worship is tightly controlled. Today, there are roughly 40 Christian churches, four Orthodox churches, one Sikh gurdwara, two Hindu shrines, one Jewish synagogue and one Buddhist temple in Dubai that I heard exist.
During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Muslim population in the UAE fast before sunrise, to sunset. During fasting hours, Muslims do not eat, drink, or smoke. Non-Muslims are generally expected to follow the rules of fasting in public. They are allowed to eat, drink and smoke in private though. However, since I arrived in 2015, this has changed a great deal and now if you are non-Muslim, you can drink and eat in public venues like malls, which was not the case before. I have seen Dubai become a bit more relaxed since Expo 2020. During this month, Muslims help with charitable contributions with money, food, and acts of kindness to those that are less fortunate. You’ll see people handing out water and food on the streets to workers and migrants just as the sun sets. It’s a very humbling time of the year.
As for clothing during Ramadan, women’s attire worn during this time should be very respectful (meaning women shouldn’t really be showing too much skin). It is literally a very quiet and slow-paced month when it comes to work, and the working hours are shortened. Once the sun sets, Iftar and Suhoor begin. This is a time to gather family and friends and enjoy food and drink together – until the early hours of the morning when the sun rises.
Very much like in mosques, when men and women are separated when they pray, it's also worth mentioning that many public venues have separate areas for different genders too. For instance, there are female-only salons and men-only barbers. This can also apply to spas and waiting rooms at hospitals and clinics.
Modest dressing is also essential in government buildings. This is useful to know if you are going to renew your visa or update your Emirates ID card (this ID is needed for every resident and citizen that lives in the UAE). As a woman, wear something long, maybe reaching your ankles, or wear trousers and remember to cover your shoulders. I learned the hard way. In my first year here, when I wasn’t aware of the protocol, I wore a knee length skirt to get my visa at the goverment office, but I was soon told to go home and change and then come back.
Top 12 Useful Words or Phrases in Arabic to Know When You Move to the UAE.
Inshallah – meaning “…if God wills it”. This is said after many things that refer to knowing if something will happen or not.
As-salamu alaykum – meaning a greeting in Arabic that means “Peace be upon you.”
Habibti (to women) or Habibi (to a man) – meaning “My love.” It’s said as a term of endearment to a loved one.
Mashallah – meaning a ‘blessing’ is given. It’s often said when you get a compliment. It’s like making sure no one puts an evil eye on that compliment.
Yalla – meaning “Hurry” or “Get a move on.”
Marhaba – meaning “Welcome” or “Hello.”
Shukran – meaning “Thank you.”
Tamam – meaning “Perfect,” “ok” or “good.”
Massa el Khair – meaning “Good evening.”
Sabah el Khaa quieteaning “Good morning.”
Hamdullah - meaning "Thank God."
Wallah – meaning "I swear to God." Only said as a promise or to express great credibility.