In spite of losing more than a little momentum when its financial problems became public a couple years ago, the Dubai project continues to march ahead, resulting in a suprisingly wonderful holiday destination or a place to become an expat. Dubai is simply massive, and if even half of the current plans turn into realities then it’ll be one of the largest and most important cities in Asia.
Not unlike Abu Dhabi, the concept of living in such a traditional Arabian society might seem daunting, or very limiting, but Dubai has gone way out of its way to make sure that everyone is welcome and can live the life they want to live. The new and expanding metro system is helping to bridge some of the big gaps between clusters of settlements, though having a car continues to be worthwhile for many.
The vibe in Dubai
It wouldn’t be obvious until you began to research it, but good news is that English is one of the official languages, so ALL signs are in English and Arabic at the same time. This is one of the few countries on earth where expats or holiday-makers won’t need to bother at all with the “local language.” In fact, due to the huge numbers of other foreign workers and expats, the second most common language spoken (after English) is probably Hindi or even the similar language from the Kerala state of India.
There’s even a 24-hour cable TV channel called Dubai One, which broadcasts totally in English for the benefit of the many English-speaking expats living there. Learning a bit of Arabic could earn you a few points if you happen to be working for a local company, but in reality it’s unlikely that you’d be working with any Emiratis anyway. It’s truly an international workforce comprised only of people who’ve chosen to come there for economic or lifestyle reasons, rather than just because they grew up in the area. This actually gives the place a positive feeling and energy that you might not expect.
The city is probably best known for its shopping malls, which definitely are quite astounding, including the current champion for largest mall in the world, the Dubai Mall, which is in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, better known as (by far) the world’s tallest building. There’s also the Mall of the Emirates, which is famous for its Ski Dubai indoor skiing complex. Quite a few other malls decorate the city, each containing a long list of international stores you’ll recongnize, and offering very competitive prices due to the UAE’s low tax policies.
There are also beaches running for miles along the city’s edge, though they are actually not easy to reach without a car, and there isn’t much of a “beachy” lifestyle available even for those who live in the areas.
Dubai is a city that has had a chance to invent itself from scratch in the modern world, so the streets are wide and things tend to be very far apart. Fortunately, the price of fuel is very low, so driving around is cheap and SUVs are popular. If you can take the heat, which does get a bit oppressive in the middle of summer, you’ll find an easy to live-in city with every modern convenience available.
The cost of living in Dubai
It might be easy to assume that most things are astronomically expensive in Dubai, but this definitely isn’t the case. The percentage of local Emiratis who’ve become extremely wealthy is very low, and the great majority of residents are actually low-skill foreign workers from India and Pakistan. This helps make for a huge sector in low-cost housing (since the wages are still quite low for these workers), and restaurants and entertainment possibilities that go along with it.
For a typical European, American, or Australian visitor or expat, things can seem a bit expensive on the surface, until you figure things out. Eating at restaurants in hotels does usually mean US$10 or more for a meal and way up from there. At malls a meal starts at around US$7 at one of the Western chain restaurants, but a hamburger or Indian meal from a local neighborhood shop can be under US$2. There are choices for any budget.
Alcohol is famously expensive in Dubai, and it’s only available in hotel bars if you are a tourist. A cold pint of beer starts at around US$6 with wine and spirits starting a bit higher, so this is not a cheap place for binge drinkers. However, local residents can apply for an alcohol card, which lets them purchase packaged booze at a handful of local outlets that are totally off limits to Muslims and Emiratis. Prices at those are a bit lower, but still far from cheap.