Boeing and Emirates
When Vanessa Abernethy moved to Dubai in 2005, the concept of a woman sponsoring her husband to live there was fairly new.
A corporate lawyer originally from the Bay of Islands, Abernethy had been headhunted for a job in the city-emirate and was immediately captivated by its energy and unbridled ambition. Here, she thought, was a “city on steroids” hurtling toward a future vision that others might deem outlandish or impossible. And she was excited to be along for the ride.
“This was clearly a city that wanted to do everything bigger and better than elsewhere,” she says. “The city was opening its arms to so many expats … I felt like I was going to be part of making this fast-growing city even better. This was a place I could make a real contribution to.”
A poster city for the old adage that “if you build it, they will come”, Dubai has grown from a small town dependent upon pearl diving and trade into a mega-metropolis within a matter of decades. The discovery of oil in the 1960s changed its fortunes instantaneously but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it began to make the extent of its ambitions known.
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The opening of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel on a private island of reclaimed land in 1999 was perhaps the first sign that the United Arab Emirates’ now largest city intended to expand the realms of possibility. The world’s tallest building, artificial islands shaped like a palm tree and world map, shopping malls containing snow and theme parks and an underwater zoo and the world’s first “robocop” followed and plans for self-flying taxis are well underway.
The economic downturn stalled many construction projects and left many expats without work and with serious financial woes but things seem to be back on track. In 2017, more than 91 per cent of the population of nearly three million were expatriates, Dubai government figures show. Most of those were from India but the city is also a popular destination for western expat, including New Zealanders.
Many are lured by the high, tax free incomes, company packages including accommodation and free flights home every year, sunny climate and the chance to live like a high roller in a Hollywood movie or music video for a bit (think weekends spent popping champagne bottles at super clubs, dancing the night away with new friends at giant pool and beach parties and eating out at restaurants run by international celebrity chefs). For some though, the reality proves rather different. We chat to Kiwis in Dubai about what it’s really like to live there.
A “significantly better” lifestyle
While some may say Dubai is so different to New Zealand as to be almost incomparable, the Abernethys found settling in a breeze. Of course, this was significantly aided by the fact that Vanessa’s office had taken care of their visas and set them up with a serviced apartment and rental car until they could find their own. They’d even organised their liquor licences.
Within four weeks of their arrival they’d found the brand new villa that would become their home, bought cars and were inundated with invitations from fellow expats to dinner, drinks and Dubai’s legendary all-you-can-eat-and-drink Friday brunches.
“Everyone was very welcoming,” Vanessa, 45, says. “I guess because we are all expats and we have all left our friends and families behind. I find everyone puts themselves out there to meet new people and welcome newcomers.”
Thirteen and a half years later the couple – who now have two children aged eight and four – believe their lifestyle is “significantly better” than it would have been if they’d remained in New Zealand.
While Vanessa’s high-income friends in Auckland are having trouble saving, she and her husband are leading the lives of luxury Dubai is renowned for. They have a five-bedroom villa with a pool and separate maid’s room just eight minutes’ drive from the main financial centre and employ a driver and live-in nanny/housekeeper, freeing Vanessa up to devote her downtime to the kids, shopping, dining out with her husband and taking up some of those social invites.
She earns between two and three times as much as she would have in New Zealand, tax free, so her husband stays at home to look after the children and she reckons the education and health systems put New Zealand’s to shame.
Her biggest concern if they were to move home, she says, is “the New Zealand education system and the effect “tall poppy syndrome” and bullying may have on our kids”, adding that neither really exist in Dubai.
“The education my children are getting here is world class. They started school at the age of three and are progressing through the British curriculum rapidly.”
She says it’s a misconception that life in Dubai is restrictive, noting that alcohol is widely available and she dresses the same as she did in New Zealand – including in bikinis at pools and beaches.
“I feel completely able to live my life as I have always done. The locals are very tolerant and very accepting and do not often impose their beliefs on the general population. If you live your life and do not disturb others they have no issues.”
Of course it’s no utopia. If you’re outdoorsy you may find it stifling. While there are “amazing” beaches and parks, temperatures topping 50 degrees during the two or three hottest months make spending any length of time outside unbearable, she says.
She also finds that you never really get used to the transient nature of expat life. Many friends have returned to their home countries and, while that means they know a lot of people around the world, their circle in Dubai has grown smaller.
“We have made new connections over the years but once you have been here a long time you have less energy for that and you end up being the one taking responsibility for helping newcomers settle in … I suspect the constant pattern of someone you know leaving will wear us down over time.”
While Dubai is extraordinarily multicultural, the couple are acutely aware that people of all nationalities are not treated equally. In this respect, Vanessa feels Dubai could learn a lot from New Zealand.
“The society has tiers and classes which are fairly obvious. We Kiwis do not perpetuate this at all and treat all people with respect. That is something New Zealand does well … there is no place for racism or classism in New Zealand society and it would be nice if there wasn’t here also.”
Quality of life
Aucklander Widd Bonney, 33, also believes he has a better standard of living in Dubai than he would in New Zealand, saying life there is easier there in many ways – and more fun.
Bonney spent a year travelling the world before settling in Dubai in 2011, deciding he would be able to earn more than in London, where he had originally intended to live, have a better quality of life and even greater travel opportunities.
He too settled in quickly, making friends at work – he is a senior business development manager for conglomerate Transguard – and with other members of the “huge expat community”, mostly from England and Ireland but a few Antipodeans as well. He’s found that people go out socially a lot more in Dubai, which could be explained by the higher incomes and the fact that many are looking to meet new people.
“You can enjoy yourself more here; people go out. In New Zealand, my friends hardly ever go out. It’s all “I can’t afford it, I have a mortgage”… That’s what I feel is the problem with New Zealand – everyone is barely living and it’s paycheck to paycheck. Here, people live a little and enjoy themselves.”
Siobhan Downes, a 27-year-old originally from Dunedin, moved to Dubai in January 2017 after being offered a job there as the editor of a news and entertainment website. While the emirate hadn’t been on her travel radar, she decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. One of the main draw cards for her was Dubai’s status as a major travel hub.
“My favourite Dubai fact is that it’s located within an eight-hour flight of two thirds of humanity,” she says.
Downes lives in the popular expat neighbourhood of Dubai Marina where she shares an apartment with three Irish flatmates. While it’s “expensive”, she reckons it’s good value for money.
“Every room has its own ensuite bathroom, plus my building has a really nice gym and a chilled outdoor swimming pool. It definitely feels like an upgrade considering my flats back home didn’t even have heat pumps!”
Harriet Pudney, who moved to Dubai from Auckland in mid-2017 after landing a job as an online features writer for a fashion magazine, struggled to find “a good flatting situation”, but enjoyed the second of the two places she lived in – a high-rise in Dubai Marina. The first, in Jumeirah Heights, another popular expat suburb, wasn’t bad; just not convenient for public transport.
“Flats there are funny. Anywhere that doesn’t have en suites will be a complete mess and a lot of places are rented out by private landlords room by room.”
Downes knew a few Kiwis in Dubai when she arrived and has become good friends with her flatmates, saying “we’re like a little family”. She’s pleased her preconceptions of expats in the emirate have (largely) been proved wrong.
“I remember being worried I wouldn’t be able to make friends when I moved here because I had this idea that all expats in Dubai would be rich and rude – you know, driving supercars and boasting about their fancy jobs. A few are like that, but I’ve fortunately been able to find plenty of like-minded people.”
Pudney, 27, who has since moved to Melbourne, also found it surprisingly easy to settle in, saying she was blown away by the generosity of other expats.
“Everyone there remembers what it was like to be new so people are super welcoming and keen to help you out.”
She enjoyed the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, saying the expats there tended to be interested in other ways of life and viewpoints – although that may be the case of expats in general. Really getting to know people, however, can take time, as many work long hours and are “super busy”, she says.
For Downes, the best thing about living in Dubai is the travel opportunities, followed fairly closed by the food.
“I’ve visited places I never would have considered as holiday destinations if I hadn’t been living here – like Lebanon, Oman and Sri Lanka,” she says, adding that Jordan and Azerbaijan are next on her list.
As for the food: “you haven’t tasted proper hummus until you’ve tried it here and shawarma (a chicken sandwich with a garlicky sauce) is the most delicious dish ever.”
While Abernethy cites the high tax-free salaries as one of the major benefits of living there, she said the cost of living has increased significantly over the past 13 years and those in junior or middle-level roles may find themselves on struggle street.
“Whereas everyone here was earning huge money and saving a lot when we arrived, today unless someone has a fairly senior role it would not be financially worth their while to relocate here. Senior professionals can still do extremely well financially but lower level workers would struggle today.”
Entertainment and culture
For Bonney, Dubai is a bit like a Middle Eastern New York – “the city never sleeps so you’re always out enjoying yourself”.
When he’s off duty, days might be spent at the beach (which he says are great but not quite up to New Zealand standards), at a hotel pool party or indulging in unlimited food and booze at brunch. Nights could be spent at one of the many bars, nightclubs and “superclubs”, which often host DJs from around the world. The restaurants, he says, are diverse and “amazing”.
“All the leading restaurants from around the world have set up here so it’s great. La Petit Maison, Zuma, Nobu … The list is endless.”
Many of the expats we spoke with commented on how safe Dubai is and Bonney says that, after living in Auckland, it’s refreshing to go out at night and not see “drunk idiots everywhere fighting” and “girls on the floor spewing”.
What sets Dubai apart, in his view, is that it remains true to its core Muslim values while also being open-minded toward expats and their ways of doing things.
Danielle Conwell, 24, and her 28-year-old fiance James, both from Rotorua, have found that Dubai’s near constant sunshine creates a “chilled-out summer vibe” year round.
In some ways, their lives aren’t that different from young Kiwis’ in New Zealand – they spend their free time having dinner and drinks with friends, watching rugby at a local bar, keeping fit and chilling at the pool or by the beach. Only “there are no waves so James is learning to kite surf instead,” Conwelle, who works in marketing, says. Being outdoorsy, they find it a bit boring in summer when it’s too hot to go outside but are placated by the thought that “you are kept indoors during a New Zealand winter”.
“There is a lot to do indoors but it is quite expensive to eat and drink out all the time. “Winter” is amazing though…”
Despite being in a Muslim country, Conwell says Dubai has a big drinking culture.
“Everyone here drinks a lot more than they did wherever they are from; it’s a very social place.”
That said, she has noticed that families with young children are very well catered for and lead “amazing” lifestyles, making she and James, a personal trainer, realise that it’s possible to do an OE at any age.
The couple will reassess in a few years whether it’s time to go home but for now are enjoying the experience, saying it “ticks all [their] boxes” in terms of career and travel opportunities, experiencing a different culture and meeting people from diverse backgrounds.
“We have learnt more about life, what it means to different people and different cultures, than we could have ever imagined. We have also been given incredible opportunities which just don’t happen as often when you live in New Zealand. I got sent to Germany and Turkey twice in my previous role, there have been parties on yachts and James is constantly riding in different cars. I know this is all superficial stuff, but it’s life experiences we are getting that we never expected.”
Downes gets frustrated by those who dismiss Dubai as a superficial city lacking in history and culture.
She enjoys spending time in Old Dubai, which is filled with souks, museums, small cafes and art galleries and says there is truly something for everyone in terms of cultural activities. Also, the diversity of cultures there can lead to some pretty unique – and surreal – experiences. Earlier this year, she went to a K-Pop festival which attracted people from as far as Saudi Arabia.
“It was kind of a bizarre experience – me, a Kiwi, watching Korean pop stars perform in Dubai surrounded by all these covered Saudi fans. The concert even stopped a couple of times so they could hold prayer time.”
Many Kiwis only ever think of Dubai as a temporary home; as somewhere to earn more and accelerate their careers while having a bit of fun and travelling to places hard to access from New Zealand. However, many also say the place grows on you and the lifestyle becomes increasingly hard to give up.
Pudney only ever planned to stay for a year or so, so made the most of the experiences and opportunities that came her way.
While she never got used to the heat, saying she found herself spending much more time in malls that she would ordinarily, she “did a lot of yoga, read, went on the odd night out, hung out with friends.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the flashy lifestyles many expats lead, she says – which is fine if that’s what you want from life or it’s just a temporary things.
“Literally popping bottles in the club isn’t my long-term life plan, but it was a hell of a lot of fun,” she says.
Downes’ advice to Kiwis considering a moving to Dubai – or scoffing at the thought of it – would be “don’t knock it before you’ve tried it.
“There are some great opportunities here that can help fast-track your career and there is still some decent money to be made, provided you don’t let yourself get too caught up in the glitzy lifestyle. I’ve met so many expats who said when they first arrived they thought “oh, I’ll give it a year or two” and they’ve now been here for 10 years. If you come with an open mind, this city has a lot to offer.”
Have you lived in Dubai? Share your experiences in the comments.