Featured Travel

The Dubai Survival Guide

May 12, 2015

Above is the 53 story tall tower that I lived in (with the tall pointed antenna, AWR on the left) and the ten lane super highway that was my street, Sheik Zayeed Road. It’s not your normal neighbourhood …

Moving to Dubai from anywhere in the world is an eye-opening experience that’s guaranteed to blow your mind, test your patience, teach you patience, show you stereotypes, open your eyes and forever change the way you operate in the world.

It is a city of luxury, of unparalleled extremes, with incredible architecture, a diverse population and a harsh and barren landscape that you can either handle or you can’t.

Here are some things about Dubai that you’d never know unless you lived there:

Weekends: For the first twenty-three years of my life, I looked forward to waking up early for Saturday morning cartoons and sleeping in late on Sundays. When you move to Dubai however, the weekends become Friday and Saturday, with Sunday being the first day of the work week and Thursday being the last. Therefore Thursday’s are the new Friday’s, Saturday’s are the old Sunday’s, and if you’re a flight attendant none of it matters anyways.

Sleepovers: Sleepovers between sexes happen all of the time in Dubai but like many of the other rules in the country, they’re mostly tolerated and ignored until the Government needs to make an example out of you. For example, say you were sleeping over at your boyfriends house and the kitchen caught fire. Technically, the firefighters could come save you and then fine / arrest you for sleeping in a male’s house who isn’t an immediate family member. Or say you were put up in company accommodation like I was. To have a boy permitted to sleepover in your flat and stay in the building, you needed to have your flatmates sign off on it and the companies security approve. They had to be an immediate member of your family, and this saw a lot of flight attendants sneaking boyfriends in as brothers. This rule, and my habitual lateness of filing the papers late resulted in my own brother having to pay for a hotel room one holiday because he wasn’t allowed to stay in my own house.

Dubai Married: Have you ever heard of such a ridiculous term? “Dubai Married” is a thing that happens and it’s actually very common; it happens between many dating couples in the city who wish to legally live together, have children or share in each others benefits. For example, most of the companies and contracts that exist in Dubai offer benefit packages to their employees that include free flights home or generous housing allowances. In order to share in these benefits, many couples get married (on the condition that their marriage isn’t valid anywhere outside of the U.A.E) and live a life that’s legally shared. Sadly, a lot of these marriages don’t always make it out of Dubai and are left behind like un-sold cars or unpaid bills when an expat goes back to their own country.

Dress Code: In your country you can wear short shorts in the summer and tank tops to the mall, but in Dubai you have to be vey conscious of what you wear when you’re in public regardless of how scorching hot it may be. For a Canadian who is use to dressing weather appropriate, adapting to Dubai’s dress code was a very real challenge in the middle of summer when temperatures reached an unbearable 50 degrees celsius and Ramadan was in full swing.

Drinking: Drinking in Dubai is a common place thing and in fact you’ll border on being an alcoholic when you live there. But drinking in Dubai is only supposed to be tolerated at the clubs and restaurants by tourists (which is any non-UAE person) and at home by expats who have liquor licences – if you don’t have one, you aren’t able to go to the liquor store and buy liquor.

Liquor Licence’s: Liquor Licence’s are maddening for any expat over the age of 18 (or in some cases 21) who earned their right to drink stupid amounts of alcohol years ago (and for the expats from Europe who never had to ask for permission.) The liquor licence is mandatory if you wish to purchase liquor at the few stores in Dubai and it comes with an annual fee, a lengthy processing time, a written sponsorship from your employer, the permission of your husband (if you are married !!) and a monthly maximum on how much liquor you can purchase.

Black Out Days: It’s Sheik Rashid’s birthday, so nobody in the country is allowed to drink.
This is a very common place thing in Dubai and happens a few times a year on what we call Black Out Days where none of the clubs or pubs are open and nobody is selling alcohol. Instead, these are the days that you’ll drink your emergency stash of Vodka from Denmark and Malbec from France, always wishing that your had stashed more but never knowing enough about their holiday’s to know when the apocalypse is coming.

Drugs: Dubai has a 0 tolerance for drugs and there’s horror stories of passengers who were just transferring through the Dubai airport from Amsterdam to Australia and caught with a fragment of marijuana on their shoe, only to be thrown in jail. The U.A.E has a very serious stance against drugs, so please don’t bother bringing any.

Smoking: Cigarettes are cheap in Dubai (about 3$ a pack for Marlboro’s) and smoking nicotine and Shisha is so entwined in the Arab culture that you may find yourself having a hoot, even if you’ve never smoked before. (I recommend the grape Shisha.)

Drinking and Driving: Dubai also has a 0 tolerance for drinking and driving and those who are caught are do not pass go and go directly to jail with very little of your case spoken in English and even fewer answers.
Take a cab, or call your driver. You live in Dubai for goodness sake.

Jail: Don’t go to jail. I hear they take your passport and I hear it sucks.

Freedom of Speech: In 2014 Reporters Without Borders named the region number 114 out of 179 countries on their World Press Freedom Index – meaning that out of all the countries they studied, the U.A.E ranked in the bottom half of populations that exercise their right to the freedom of speech. This study, conducted annually, carefully considers an array of factors that make up a country’s ranking: political freedoms, the safety of journalists, surveillance by the state, etc.

By comparison, Canada ranks in at #10.

When I lived in Dubai, I didn’t even bother reading the newspaper because the journalism  was a joke and the stories misreported. When I was in public, I also never felt free to speak candidly about how I felt about the government or the Royal family, at the risk of being over heard by the wrong person and having your working visa revoked.

I also never felt comfortable, for that matter, speaking candidly about the Company I worked for which was also an extension of the Government, for the same reasons. When you join both Emirates and make your move to the U.A.E, they make it quite clear that if you choose to voice dissatisfaction against either the Company or the Country in a public forum, you will be dismissed unceremoniously and removed from both.

Since you can only live in the country if you’re employed and since the government determines your eligibility for employment … you can probably see why it’s better for you to enjoy your stay as a guest in their country and to pick your battles accordingly.

Christmas: Christmas is celebrated with fake plastic fir trees inside the homes and apartments of most of the expats but to the sand dunes outside and to the Arab world, Christmas doesn’t count.

 The Dubai Shopping Festival does count, however, and almost comically it comes just after Christmas and is celebrated in January when the city lights up its streets and palm trees with beautiful arrangements of lights that are conveniently coloured red, green and white, which have nothing to do with Christmas (but are the U.A.E. National colours.)

Brunch: Dubai doesn’t have many holidays that you’ll partake in as an expat but one Friday ritual that’s treated by expatriates as a religion is the infamous Brunch – an all you can eat and drink smorgasbord of the world’s finest food and champagne, to say the least.

If you’re ever in Dubai on a Friday and have the chance – check out www.TimeOutDubai.com for the best places in the city to spend an afternoon with incredible food, drinks and opulent surroundings.

Taxi’s: Taxi’s in Dubai are a mental experience. meaning that sooner or later they will drive you mental and you’ll find yourself yelling at a man you just met and praying (Inshallah) that you end up where you’re trying to go.

Because everything about driving in Dubai is mental – from their 10 lane super highways to one way roads, the perpetually changing road signs and brand new skyscrapers popping up everywhere.

Not to mention some of the worst drivers in the world, from all over the world; driver’s who were taught survival-of-the-fittest style in their own countries and come from very different scales of road rage than you’re own.

Here are some things to remember when you take a taxi in Dubai:

1) Your driver might get mad at you, if you aren’t travelling very far
2) There’s a 10 diraham minimum, always bring cash
3) Know where you’re going before you get in, and know what exit to take
4) Don’t get into one drunk and obnoxious at the end of  the night – if your driver decides to take you to the police station instead of your address, they can slap you with some rubbish drinking fine and its all considered fine and fair
5) The taxi companies are all different coloured Camry’s, and they look like jelly beans
6) To get into a taxi from any of the mega mall there’s a long and crazy cue, orchestrated by professional parking officials and pretty ridiculous to be a part of

Luxury Vehicles: Every other car in Dubai is a Range Rover or a Maserroti and I never once saw a beater or a busted up car on the road. Instead, Dubai is home to an incredible market for fancy cars since everybody always wants the newest model – So if you’ve ever wanted to own the car of your dreams at a foolishly young age, here’s your chance! (As long as you don’t mind last years Ferrari.)

Taking the Bus is not an option: Taking the bus isn’t an option in Dubai and I took a lot of flack for this when I moved home and had difficulty acclimatizing to the Vancouver transit system. But when you move to Dubai, you will never take the bus because the city is very much broken up into a caste system, somehow and bizarrely putting you “above the bus” and into taxi’s or cars because they are relatively cheap. It’s not of my making, but this is how it really how goes.

Walking is not an option: Walking is also not an option in Dubai because the temperature’s almost always hot and the roads are always changing. When I lived in Dubai I happened to live on the ten lane super highway called Sheik Zayeed Road, and walking along the non-existent sidewalks to get the mall just 2 km away wasn’t possible.

Unless you live in the Greens, the JBR walk or another neighbourhood thats been manufactured in the middle of nowhere but boasts some sense of community, you really can’t just walk out your door and go for a stroll.

Heat: In the summer temperatures can soar north of 50 degrees Celsius and for my Canadian blood it was just too hot. I remember having to put two towels down at the pool in July because the concrete would burn through if I only put one, and though the winter temperatures are lovely and a steady, sunny 30 degrees, I missed having the four seasons, rainy days and big, old Maple trees.

Pets: Although my career and lifestyle didn’t allow for a pet in the slightest, I wouldn’t have had one in Dubai anyways because the Muslim faith frowns on dogs (they are dirty) and because there are so few green spaces to use and the pavement can get so hot it hurts.

Tap Water: Never have I ever appreciated the Great Lakes and Ontario more than when I moved home from Dubai and turned on the tap.

Since the United Arab Emirates is in the desert and because it’s surrounded by oceans of salt water, the water that’s filtered through the city and into your faucets starts as salt water before undergoing a desalination process. The water that’s left is good enough for you to clean with and good enough to boil, but it it’s common practice in Dubai to buy bottled water, to boil it when making ice cubes and to loose a fair chunk of hair after the first few months of showering.

Bringing Goods into the country: A really great thing about the DXB airport and the National customs is that they don’t have many restrictions on what you can and cannot bring into the country (food wise) compared to places like the United States and Australia. Therefore, if you have prosciutto from Germany or honey from New Zealand or wooden carvings from Cairo – they don’t care, you can bring them in.

What you can’t bring in however may surprise you and will certainly make you laugh: because of their strict Muslim faith and appreciation of modesty, if you come home from Italy with a naked sculpture of the David or bring back a sex toy from Amsterdam – you’ll be searched and stripped of it by customs and it won’t be worth the time or crime.

The Elderly and the Homeless: Welcome to the weirdest world where you’ll never see a homeless person, a pan handler or a busker because the government provides housing to the small and privileged National population and because you have to have a job to have a visa to live in the country if you aren’t from the U.A.E.  Therefore you will also never see an elderly person for the same reason – because no foreigners are allowed to move to Dubai for retirement and because most of the elderly are Arabic and covered in Traditional dress.

Inshallah (God Willing): Everything in Dubai starts and ends with Inshallah and it’s best to practice your patience and to learn this lesson early if you want to stay awhile.

Everything (Inshallah) takes forever in Dubai – having your cable hooked up, your bathroom fixed, your liquor licence processed, anything and everything to do with the Government, returning your work uniform, renewing your driver’s license, applying for your residency card, etc. and nobody is ever in a rush to help you.


Delivery: Something that Dubai does do well however is that it delivers and this strange and awesome quality is one of the things that I miss the most. Thanks to their cheap gas prices, stifling temperatures, competitive food market and large expatriate population, almost everywhere you could eat something will deliver to your door (or to your pool!) for no charge and no effort past your dialling the number you found on google.

I am not proud of this, but even the corner store right beside my condo delivered.

2 Coke Zero’s and some paper towel please!

Ramadan: Ramadan is the most important festival in the Muslim faith and if you can get an invitation to a proper Iftar or Ramadan celebration it really is an incredible cultural experience. But participating in Ramadan is no easy task- for an entire month, from sun up until sun down, all able Muslims across the world fast from eating food and abstain from drinking liquids, smoking cigarettes and engaging in any sort of sex or sexual relations during the hottest month of the year, and as a resident in their country and living within their culture and faith, you are expected to publicly abide by these restrictions as well.

This means that from sun up to sun down no music is played in public, the food courts at the malls are closed, the restaurants are provided with black out curtains, the bars, pubs and clubs are all shut down for business, you risk being fined and/or arrested for drinking or eating publicly on the street and if you aren’t a practicing Muslim – you’re in for the strangest (and likely holed-up-in-your-flat drunkest) month of your life.

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  • Reply מנעולן בתל אביב April 18, 2016 at 8:42 am

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  • Reply Kirsty loach May 7, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    This has really prepared me for Dubai in a few months, thank you! Could anyone ooint me in the right direction of ‘Dubai married’ because I can’t seem to find it online. Thank you

    • Reply Annie May 8, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Hi Kirsty,
      I’m glad that you found this helpful, thanks for stopping by! I will try to better explain the term “Dubai Married.” It’s when one gets married to their boyfriend or girlfriend in Dubai, much faster or more prematurely than they would if they were living in their home country, because you have to be married to legally live together. In Ireland, let’s say, you could just move in with your boyfriend. But since in Dubai, that’s against the law, a lot of couples just sign the paper work to get “married”. Does that make sense?

      • Reply Kirsty May 8, 2016 at 9:30 am

        Thanks Annie,
        We were hoping to have a quick wedding in Dubai so that we are able to live together… but then have a proper wedding (nice big fancy one) when we come back to the UK in 2 years. Is that possible? Thank you 🙂

        • Reply Annie May 9, 2016 at 8:43 am

          Hi Kirsty,

          It’s very possible to do that and it happens all the time! Once you are officially married in Dubai you can live together and share each others employee benefits ( which often include rent, transportation, allowances, etc.)

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