Posted on Dec 09, 2015
My husband and I are coming up on our fourth year living in Dubai, which has gotten us over the 3-year hump you'll hear most expats need before they truly get used to living in Dubai. As you can imagine, I get asked all the time what it's like living here, especially compared to the U.S. and whether it's "worth it."
Of course, no one place is a utopia. There will be advantages and disadvantages anywhere you choose to live and it's up to you to leverage those pros and cons based on your existing location/lifestyle and what you hope to achieve. So, here are my own personal pros and cons, from the perspective of a Muslim American moving to Dubai.
DISCLAIMER: Your experience in Dubai may be vastly different than mine. These are subjective points that I alone am claiming to have experienced living in Dubai.
PRO: There's a masjid/prayer room everywhere you go.
As a Muslim - this is amazing, especially when you're used to praying in a fitting room at the mall when prayer time comes - or worse, in your car or on the street for fear of missing a prayer. You'll always find a clean place to make wudu and pray, which has been so amazing.
BUT... There's a lack of community surrounding the masjid.
Growing up Muslim in America usually means you have strong ties to a community that typically surrounds a masjid. Unfortunately there isn't a strong community culture in Dubai, nor will you be able to find a public halaqa to attend (they're frowned upon by the government and some have been disbanded) or simply attend lectures at the masjid - that sort of thing just doesn't happen here.
PRO: Tax free salary
Not having to pay taxes on your salary can be a huge benefit - but keep in mind, for U.S. citizens you still have to file yearly and must pay any taxes for income over $100,800 per year.
BUT... Cost of living is expensive
Your salary may be tax-free, but the cost of living in Dubai is nothing to scoff at. Sky high real estate, hidden fees in bills, car insurance, tolls, etc. in addition to the leisurely lifestyle that revolves around restaurants and malls (especially in the hot months when you have to be indoors) adds up. Also, be weary of so-called "housing allowances" that come with employment packages. This does not mean that your housing is paid for, this means that a portion of your salary should be set aside for your housing and it's up to you if you want to use all of that portion for your housing or not. And if you have children, know that good schools here are expensive - that's assuming you can get to the top of the wait list.
PRO: No need to worry about outwardly practicing your religion
It's true that wearing a hijab, keeping a beard, or dressing ethnically will not bring any attention to yourself and depending on where you live/work you may actually blend in. (Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the people living in Dubai are expats, many of whom are from Western countries and usually not Muslim).
BUT... It's harder to keep your iman strong
Because you don't have to worry about your outward appearance as a Muslim, you lose some of that strong conviction you must possess in order to practice your Islam outwardly in the US (and what shaped my strong Muslim identity as an American). Also, since there isn't a strong sense of community or Islamic institutions as discussed above, you're really on your own when it comes to your deen. You have to be proactive about staying connected to Allah (S) and your deen as opposed to relying on community events or your social circle.
PRO: Practically all food served is zabiha and you rarely see alcohol
The last time I went home to Detroit and went to a restaurant that had a bar, I felt uncomfortable. I didn't realize how sensitized I've become to alcohol - when you're not around it and then suddenly thrown into that atmosphere again, you really feel it. And the fact that you don't have to worry about whether or not your meat is zabiha is a huge plus!
BUT... The service sector leaves much to be desired as an American
Yes, your food may be zabiha, but if there's a hair in your food, for example, don't expect that item to be comped on your bill. There really is nowhere in the world that values customer service like the U.S. There's virtually no such thing as a full refund - you almost always have a small exchange period - if at all. Once I bought a set of stools and as they were being delivered I realized they were the wrong ones. I got into a fight with the manager at the store who tried to force me to keep them even though they were different because I signed the invoice. If it wasn't for the fact that we paid for them with a U.S. credit card and could dispute the charge we probably would've had to pay for them. Forget the idiom, "The customer is always right." Not in Dubai.
PRO: You get the 'living abroad' experience
Although I rarely encourage anyone to make the move out here if you have a good thing going in the States, I don't regret our decision. We really did get to indulge in the 'living abroad' experience, exposing us to a plethora of different cultures, languages (I can now do a spot-on Russian accent, thanks Dubai lol) and experiences that have enriched our life, for better or for worse.
BUT.... It can get lonely
If you're used to or need a robust social life, this may not be the place for you. Unless you have family here or already know a bunch of people out here, making friends is difficult. People are so busy with work and travel that you hardly see the people you do know. The truth is Dubai is a transient city - it's not meant for a permanent re-location, so people are hesitant to truly invest in new relationships when you know either yourself or the other person probably won't be here in a year or two.
PRO: The weather
Yes, November is 80's and December through February is 70's and beautiful. It rains maybe twice a year.
BUT... The weather actually sucks.
That being said, the majority of the year is extremely extremely hot. So much so that most of the year you're stuck inside with the AC blasting looking out at the misleading sunshine wishing you could go outside and bask in it. You're looking at 105 degrees+ during the summer months plus humidity that makes you feel you need to shower twice a day. Just ten minutes outside in the summer and you're drenched in sweat.
PRO: Travel from Dubai is fantastic
Dubai is centrally located between Europe, Africa and Asia. We've had the opportunity to travel to places we probably never would have seen if we stayed in the U.S. and for me, that's been the biggest advantage of living in Dubai yet. Not to mention, performing Umrah on a whim is an amazing plus.
BUT... This one doesn't really have a con... the travel really is amazing!
PRO: You can save up money
If you're lucky enough to land a good job that pays well without having to pay taxes, you can save up some good money for a down payment on a house when you return to the States.
BUT... You probably won't save that much money
Like I said before, the cost of living in Dubai is sky high; you'll be paying more than you think in rent, bills, school tuition, groceries oh and don't forget about leisure. You'll suffer from some real cabin fever if you don't get out, and when it's hot out there's not much else to do than eat out and shop. Both of which are very expensive. And don't forget all the traveling you'll be doing - oh and the Chanel bag you need now that you live in Dubai ;)
PRO: You're living in a Muslim country
Yes, there are masajid everywhere and the food is zabiha. If you're lucky enough to live near a masjid, you'll hear the athan. You can practice your religion outwardly and the country is run by Muslims.
BUT... Don't be fooled...
If you think you're actually going to soak up any real Islamic values - you're better off staying in the U.S. There are actual habits I've picked up here I need to be conscious of letting go because they aren't Islamic. The blatant oppression and treatment of laborers, working class and nannies (the nanny culture is a subject all its own) is outright shameful. And when a government treats people this way, that mentality trickles down to the residents and even children (I once had to scold a child for outrageously disrespecting an Indian worker and another time I yelled at a woman for physically and verbally attacking an elderly Filipino nanny for not getting her stroller out of the elevator fast enough).
Oh, and don't think you're going to come out here and learn Arabic. Unless you're taking a class, you won't be speaking any Arabic here day to day. The working class run this country (and make up the majority of the population) and for the most part, they are Filipino and Indian and they all speak to you in English.
While Dubai does a great job of making itself look like paradise on earth, remember that just 30 years ago everything you see in those photos was just sand. When a people and its surrounding land goes from 0 to 100 in that short of a span, something's gotta give, and you can feel it. Dealing with government entities can make you feel like it's 1942 and mundane things like opening a bank account, getting a driver's license or a simple gym membership can be a huge ordeal that makes you want to hit your head against a wall. As Americans who are used to a swift, easy system and efficient way of doing things, it can be absolutely unnerving (hence the three year hump necessary to get used to things here).
Bottom line, think long and hard about your decision, carefully weigh the advantages against the disadvantages and be sure to visit before making the plunge. If you have any personal questions - you can always reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll be happy to help you in any way I can!
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