Expat Experience: My First Moments in Dubai

I'm happy to take part in a blogger link up called The Expat Experience by The Move to America

My First Moments in Dubai

I arrived in Dubai alone in June 2003. I was a naive, single, twenty something with no international experience. Moving to the Middle East was never a part of my life plan, but the opportunity to work in such a vibrant city for an international company was promising.

An old Dubai photo taken in 2004

Scorching weather. I remember arriving on a hot 39 degree Celsius (102 deg F) Thursday evening. It was humid and hot! Thursdays in Dubai are synonymous to Friday nights for the rest of the world.  I was amazed by the number of men on the street that evening.  

Hungry looks. What caught my attention was the way expat men, looked at women. They gaped hungrily like they're mentally stripping you off your clothes.  

I asked my fashion designer uncle if it was just me imagining it and what was wrong with them otherwise. He merely said, "It's Thursday. It's hunting night."  After many years living here, I became immune to such looks.

Conservative norms. I cut my long hair to a chin length bob prior to coming here and chose very conservative business clothes. I was a bit paranoid, but was later relieved to see Dubai much more open than I expected. 

Depending on which place you go, wearing a decent outfit is the best way to show a sign of respect for others (and to avoid disapproving looks at the same time).

Being an expressive and naturally "touchy" person who loves to physically touch people innocently- got me into a few misunderstood situations.

A local client closed a deal and thought I was interested in him when I inadvertently touched his arm during a discussion. I wondered why he started offering expensive gifts which I never accepted. Later, I realized, I should keep my hands off all the time and should never accept any of these gifts. For single gals of different nationality, when receiving suitors from the region, avoid accepting gifts.  These gifts come with a price and certain expectations.

Luckily for me, I was given a quick orientation by flat mates and co-workers regarding  unspoken laws and rules in the country to steer clear from trouble. (I'll share them later below)

Patience is a virtue (The virtue that made me survive and thrive here).

Emiratis make up 9% of the population while 91 % are expats. (See the big difference?) These expats, I being one of them, come from different parts of the world.  

Culture clashes are expected not only in the work place but also on the road.  Road rage is common and it's a daily habit to get unnerved when someone cuts from the leftmost lane to exit on the right without an indicator.  However angry you get, don't ever express this anger with your fingers. (I'll tell you about this later.)

A Road to Independence and blissful freedom
I grew up being pampered with a housekeeper and a nanny who prepared my meals since I was a baby. Thankful for those summers when I had to prepare simple meals at home. The toughest thing was learning to live alone without help. My first few months, I survived on tuna cans and instant noodles. 
Grateful for that experience, I eventually learned how to cook, do my own laundry, and independently live and solve my own problems. Living abroad gave me self confidence and courage.

Two men holding hands in public is normal. It's a genuine sign of friendship- purely platonic.

{Drum roll} Without further ado, here are: Do's and Don'ts in Dubai
  • Avoid public display of affection, especially between opposite genders. Holding hands is okay for married couples. Anything beyond that is a taboo here. Not only will the couple get disapproving looks, some might find this offensive and might file a report to authorities. 
  • For women, scarves and pashmina shawls come in handy. When entering malls or certain places where dress code is observed, pashmina shawls serve as a quick cover up for sleeveless tops. Rule of thumb: cover shoulders and knees keeping everything in appropriate length except at the beach.
  • Don't ever show the "bad finger" or express offensive language. It is punishable by law equivalent to imprisonment and getting deported.
  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is rampant especially during the summer. To avoid fainting and  urinary tract infection, water, water water.
  • Dancing in public is completely prohibited. It is deemed indecent and provocative.  Do it in the confines of your hotel room/ apartment. There are night clubs to go to when you want to dance the night away.  Belly dancing by performers in desert safaris is an exception to this, of course. :)
  • Never take a picture of others without permission. There are fines for this. Local women and families are especially sensitive towards this so be careful.
  • Alcohol consumption:  Zero tolerance for drinking and driving like most countries.  A special liquor license is required for carrying alcohol in ones home and vehicle. It is allowed however to be consumed in licensed restaurants, bars located mostly inside hotels. Get a cab or take the metro after a drink.
  • Smoking. Banned in government, offices, shopping malls and public places . There are designated smoking areas in each place.
  • Sexual relationship Unless you're married, living together is illegal. The same applies in hotel reservations for unmarried couples. If one gets pregnant out of wedlock in the UAE, the mother and father will face imprisonment.
  • Bouncing check. (This applies to credit cards and loans that are unpaid because one has to write a check for the application of loans and credit). It is illegal equivalent to a jail sentence and civil charges. One will not be able to leave the country until the amount is paid in full.
  • Respect for religion. During the holy month of Ramadan, it is forbidden even for expats to eat and drink in public between sunrise and sunset, out of respect. (Pregnant women and infants are exempted though).  Never say anything against any religion, it is not tolerated.
  • Be respectful on social media. It's illegal to tag someone on facebook without their consent. Be careful in posting negative comments about anyone to steer clear of trouble. 
  • Respect the "No Photography" Sign.  While out and about, be alert on any no photography signs you might find. It is illegal to take photos of embassies, palaces, military, institutions and government buildings.

The law system is such that any offenders are immediately regarded as "guilty until proven innocent" and this reflects in the way cases are handled.

UAE is a fabulous country. We come here for leisure or employment. Either way the key is to respect its traditions and culture. After almost 11 years here, Dubai has somewhat become my home.

Hope the above information helps.
Love & light,

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  1. Nice post, Arni! Thanks for sharing :)
    Moving to a foreign country is always a daunting challenge, especially if it is such a different place from your home country where everything seems to be forbidden. Good to read that you got through successfully!
    I remember the first time I moved abroad for my study exchange, I was really excited about it but two weeks before taking off I broke down and totally freaked out about the idea of being in a country where I didn't know the language nor a soul there. Luckily everything turned out just fine and I had one of the modest memorable years in my life. Still, moving to a new country doesn't get any easier, even if you know that it'll be a great experience in the end!

    Have a wonderful week, Arni! xoxo

    1. I just joined you and took part in this link-up as well! I thought it was a really nice idea :)

    2. I'm so happy you joined the link up :)

  2. A really great post (thank you for joining in)!

    I was aware fo some of the cultural differences you had mentioned, but not all of them. This was fascinating and I am sure it will really help anyone who is about to embark on living / working in the UAE!

    Molly @ The Move to America

  3. I'm so glad I read this post, I've been receiving job offers to work in Dubai and I did try to consider it for a while but after learning how strict it is there, I don't think it'd be a good idea for me to go there.

  4. It's really interesting to learn about these different cultural aspects of Dubai - good to know if I ever travel there as well!

  5. How interesting! I didn't know many of these things on your list. Moving to another country is definitely scary, but I agree that it's so fulfilling. I'm glad that I lived abroad (even just for a little bit). I certainly grew a lot and learned so much!

  6. wow. it's always fascinating to learn about different cultures and norms in other countries. thanks for sharing, arni!

  7. This was fascinating thank you so much for sharing!

  8. I'd love to work there! I wish I could find a job somewhere abroad, it would be a dream come true for me!
    Loved your informative post!

  9. Wow, this is really interesting! I enjoyed reading through the dos and don'ts.

  10. I've always wanted to visit... looks like such a fun place!

  11. Great blog, nice article, i enjoyed reading the dos and don'ts!!!!!!!Cheap Kilimanjaro Ticket

  12. Wow, what an interesting read! Dubai is such an interesting place, between the do's and don'ts, it must be a crazy yet fun experience living there. I love how moving abroad gives one a new perspective and the confidence to do many things (I experienced this while studying abroad in London). Such informative cultural aspects you've shared there, and I can't wait to have them handy if I ever travel there. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I'm intrigued by the fact that living together is illegal if you're not married. I would love to know how this has been enforced. And so no such thing as splitting the rent with a roomie?

    1. Hi Tina, in reality, couples still take the risk and live together anyway because of steep rents. They usually have to be very discreet and would often pretend being married. It's not a problem to share an apartment with a relative or a friend of the same gender. However, multiple sharing (multiple families in one apartment) is banned by the municipality for safety reasons. There are random checks and inspections by the municipality and this happens a lot more frequently when someone reports or a neighbor complains to the authorities (usually due to noise or disturbances in the building/community). In another emirate, a marriage certificate is required to be submitted before signing a tenancy contract.

  14. This is a fascinating read! I love how you added the dos and don'ts. Certainly good to remember if anyone is travelling there. I can't wait to read more!

  15. I visited Dubai recently and found it warm, loving and fun to be there..
    Yes! I did read the Do's and Don't before the journey..

  16. Great post I believe recounts what many of use who've move to Dubai young, and slightly inexperienced, actually feel. Dubai is such a wonderful city to live in... might need some adjusting to but it's truly a dream!

  17. Now this is Informative writting about Dubai, Keep up the good work.


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