Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Monday, August 22, 2011


This is my “Welcome Wagon” gift to all my new friends who have just moved to Dubai.

In Dubai, summer is the traditional time for new arrivals. This, my second summer, I met many women who  “just landed” and are a bit bewildered by the “settling in” process. I watch their frustration and enthusiasm ebb and flow as they tackle the complex and sometimes nonsensical procedures of re-establishing their homes in this amazing city. I feel their pain and know first-hand how exhausting it is to tackle tasks, which should be simple, but become enormous undertakings that can take days and multiple trips.

On my arrival 15 months ago, the two most important bits of advice were: 1)if you accomplish one task a day you are doing very well. I pride myself on being very efficient and getting my “to do” list done in record time. Settling in Dubai was a most humbling experience taking over six months of what I think should have taken two at the most; 2) If you see something in a store you like – buy it. The supply chain in Dubai can be bit erratic and if you wait to go back and get it the next week it is probably gone and may never appear again. Suddenly that Swanson chicken broth I can’t live without is nowhere to be had. For groceries, think in terms of emergency food supply and stock up when you see a much loved staples.
1. First things you need to survive.
Dirhams – The airports and malls have money exchanges where you can exchange your “home” money for the UAE currency - dirhams. The rate for US dollars is $1 = 3.67 dirhams. When I don’t want to bother with my IPhone currency converter app, I divide the price by three and know that it costs something short of that. Example: If the blouse costs 400 dirhams, divide by 3 = 133 so the actual price in around $110. Ok, so it isn’t an exact science but nothing is in Dubai!

A cell phone – Check to see if your phone from home can be used in the UAE .  I found my new IPhone was “locked” and couldn't be used without unlocking it and voiding the warranty. There are only two cell phone choices, DU and ETISALT – take your pick as there are good and bad stories about both. You might want to get just a cheap phone to start. We now use the cheap phone for guests who visit.
A map . .and then a GPS – These are my dearest treasures. I have now gone through 5 Explorer foldout maps. I just don't leave home without it. Marking places on it that I regularly go to helps to plan my routes. The most important feature is the “Go Home” button. No matter how lost I get it always takes me home. The second most important feature is the “Current Location” button. This allows me to save and name my current location which is wonderful for finding my route when I am making a couple of stops. I love my GPS almost as much as I love Roger.

CAUTION: GPS in the UAE gets confused sometimes. Lots of road building can mean that your GPS map is out of date and will not show roads when you know they are there. Construction detours totally send it into shock. I always have my map with me to double check the GPS.    

Pronouncing “Sheikh”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum
Ruler of Dubai and friends.
Most Americans pronounce this as “sheeeck” . . . this will bring a big frown from the Emiratis. The proper pronunciation is “shake.” Since this is the name of the major highway in Dubai as well as the title for the most revered people in the nation, it is really good form to get it right! And for the important women the proper pronunciation is “shake –a” (soft a).

2. The lay of the land
I find it most difficult to keep my sense of direction in Dubai because it lays on a “curve” along the Arabian Gulf shoreline. I finally gave up with the usual north, south, etc.  and, instead use four directional landmarks.

Four quadrantsAbu Dhabi (next emirate south-ish) Sharjah (next emirate north-ish), the desert (east-ish) and the Arabian Gulf (west-ish)

Learn the names of neighborhoods – Learning the names and basic location of the most common neighborhoods will help prevent you from wandering around Dubai in a confused state. Neighborhood names appear on all road signs. Since the road signs never seem to have the location I am looking for, I find knowing where the neighborhoods are helps me eliminate directions I know I do not want to go. I often find our destination by process of elimination.

Moving from the Abu Dhabi side of Dubai you have Jebel Ali laying on the desert side of the Sheikh Zayed Road (SZR); then along the coastline the Dubai Marina and the Palm. Moving on towards Sharjah you come to Umm Suqiem and then Jumeira on the Gulf side of SZR. Al Quoz is the industrial area that lays “desert side” of the SZR; the old parts of town on the Dubai Creek are Bur Dubai and Deira.

Be careful as you read the signs as the same names can be neighborhoods, streets or metro stations. Just think of it as just another part of the Dubai puzzle.

Important landmarks which, on a clear day, you can see from almost any place in Dubai
Enormous UAE flag – this marks the “end” of the Jumeirah Beach Road (note this road has multiple names) that runs along the coast from Port Rashid to the Jumeirah Beach Residences area.

Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building- laying desert side of the SZR, and marks the location of the massive Dubai Mall.

Burj Al Arab (pronounced as all one word with short a’s) is billed as the world’s most luxurious hotel with something like 7 stars. This Dubai iconic image sits on the edge of the Arabian Gulf and lets me know I am close to home.    

3. Getting around Dubai
Transportation - Taxis are cheap but sometimes the drivers are newer to Dubai than you are. It is a good idea to have a map of where you want to go. Metro is very nice and you can always take a taxi to your final destination if it is too far to walk in the blazing heat.

SZR Day time
SZR Night

Driving - This is only for the very stout-hearted.  The infamous SZR, the main expressway that runs right through the middle of Dubai, is VERY daunting. However, there are alternative roads that run parallel to it that are easier. Al Wasl and Jumeirah Beach Road are on the “Gulf” side of the SZR. Driving in the older sections of Deira and Bur Dubai is better avoided. A taxi is well worth the price there.

4.  A place to live
Dubai Marina
Finding an apartment - Word of mouth is essential to this task. There are so many urban legends about housing horror stories that nothing beats someone who is living in a place and loves it.

A bedI was very lucky that Roger had the apartment arranged by the time I arrived. But we needed a bed right away in order to enjoy it. Immediately upon my arrival we went to IKEA and purchased a bed which got delivered the next day. Surprisingly, for being so inexpensive, it is really quite comfortable.

Don’t bring any electrical appliances - Coming from America, the electrical plugs in the UAE are different. I did not heed the warning because I couldn't part with a few special appliances. Blew them up and had to buy new ones.

House waresE-MAX  has proven to be my favorite store for small appliances. Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn are both in the Dubai Mall. Union Coop, located on Al Wasl Road at Safa Park is a more traditional UAE supermarket and good for everyday utensils.

Katie at Lucky's
with her "lady"
Furniture – There are lots of furniture stores in the malls. There is even an Ethan Allen if you are into that style and price range. Furniture stores not in a mall can be very “Arabic” in their designs. We were blessed to find “Lucky’s” in Sharjah which has an over abundance of unique furniture at very reasonable prices. Read about my adventure there.

Carpets – My first foray to purchase Persian carpets resulted in price tags of $10,000 - $30,000. This is NOT in our budget.  Luckily, I found Rashad of Sheba Iranian Carpets in the Blue Souk, also known as the Central Souq,  in Sharjah. Roger and I now own 5 beautiful unique carpets that were very well priced. I do plan to go back for more before we return home.

5. Alcohol
Drinking alcohol in public - Only drink alcohol inside establishments that are licensed to serve alcohol. These are mostly hotels and some restaurants and clubs.  Always take a taxi if you plan on drinking. There is zero tolerance for driving after even one drink.  If caught, it is jail time for sure!

Purchasing liquor
The UAE is a Muslim country and therefore does not promote the purchase of alcohol. However, in their infinite benevolence, they have made an exception for their large expat population. With your resident visa in hand, go to any African & Eastern (A&E) or MMI retail stores and apply for your liquor license. This can also be done on-line.  If you have a spouse it is a good idea to add her/his name to the card. There is a small registration fee but you receive a credit for purchase when your card is approved. This license is renewed annually. Ouch!! 30% tax on every purchase. You can avoid this tax by purchasing your spirits in some of the other Emirates. But I would save that experience until after you have mastered Dubai.

Illegal drugsJust don’t do it!  Any amount of illegal drugs lands you in jail pronto.

6. Other survival tips
What do women wear – I get this question more than anything else. Dress modestly. For women the rule of thumb is cover in loose fitting clothing from the neck to the elbow to the knees and you are safe. In the more touristy areas I see women unclothed to the extent I am embarrassed. Dressing like this runs the risk that someone will complain to the police and you could get arrested. 

PDA Public Display of AffectionJust don’t do it! Holding hands, kissing or hugging in public is really bad form. It is true that people get arrested for this although I believe they must have really “been going at it.” Keep your snuggling in your home.

Mid-day closing – While most “modern” businesses stay open all day always check to make certain they do not take the equivalent of the Mexican siesta by closing during the heat of the day - usually  1 - 4 PM, especially in the summer and during Ramadan.

Translations services – Many of your documents will need to be translated into Arabic. The best place I have found is the Roads and Transportation Authority Al Barsha offices on the SZR next to the Dubai Gold and Diamond Park by the Mall of Emirates. Documents such as your marriage license or USA driver’s license are quickly translated for a nominal fee by a very polite Emirati gentleman.

7. Connect with other expats
AWA Bowling Babes
You are not alone! Connect with some of the groups that abound in Dubai. Find your special interest or “hometown” gang and blast right in there. The American Women’s Association of Dubai was my lifesaver. I now have many good friends and we are all still sharing useful hints as we continue to survive Dubai.

Give yourself a break – When you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a break. Treat yourself to something you really like. When I am ready to push the “tilt” button, I head to our pool, sit in the shade, sometimes sip my Vodka and tonic (cleverly disguised in a water bottle), and lose myself in someone else’s travail for a while. Does wonders for putting everything back into perspective.  

With all this said, know that many have survived this before you and lived to tell the tale.

Dubai will finally slip into a place you will enjoy calling it home. OK, so “Toto we are not in Kansas anymore, ” we are in an exotic, beautiful and intriguing city that is just waiting for you to explore. How much better can it get?

Experienced Dubai expats . . .what did I miss??? Newly arrived expats, what was your biggest challenge?

Postscripts . . . 
Get the real scoop on Dubai . .  ."Reading Anne O'Connell's @home in Dubai . . . Getting Connected Online and on the Ground is like sitting down with a friend over a cup of coffee and having all your questions answered" comments Zvesdana Rasjkovich, author, Dubai WivesFrom getting a work permit to finding a WIFI hotpsot . . . or even connecting with a fun sport or social group, @Home in Dubai . . .Getting Connected Online and on the Ground has some helpful, and sometimes comical, insights into how to get it done. Knowing the drill is half the battle and O'Connell, and other expats who have weighed in with their advice and experiences, are happy to share a few 'how tos' with any and all newcomers. Sign up now to get a copy hot off the press.

The Malls of Dubai . . .  An enterprising and very talented teenager in Dubai has posted a rap video about The Malls of Dubai. This video is entertaining and informative for anyone trying to sort out the multitude of shopping mall options in Dubai. Rohit Iyengar is truly talented, he wrote the music, the lyrics and did the video himself! I am sure we will hear more about him in the future. Enjoy!


  1. Dianne Gile has trouble posting her comments so I am helping her. She had great suggestions!!!

    Great tips to surviving in Dubai. I tried to add my thoughts in the comment section, but failed to do it properly. Thought I would just
    tell you, so you could add something else if you want to.
    1. Take advantage of exploring the UAE, Oman, and Middle Eastern countries that you will probably not get the chance to see again.
    Indulge in the sights, sounds (music and languages), tastes, and the ancient cultures and interesting people.
    2. Remember at all times that you represent your own country. Many will form an impression of your country by how you act,and what you say. We're all good at generalizing about other people groups and countries, and we can give positive impressions about our own country
    intentionally, that they will remember.

    So there you have it, Katie. My "two cents".

  2. Extremely well written, Katie. May I forward this to Sue Quinn and ask that it be posted on the web page. So much INVALUABLE advice and good tips and information. It should be shared with AWA. IF you'd rather send it yourself, please do. You can add Dianne's tips and publish the whole thing. I think it's great.

  3. Great post! I sure could have used this info a year ago!! Information on bringing dogs into the UAE and explaining why it isn't exactly a dog-friendly place to live would sure be helpful!!

  4. Please feel free to post and send to any one whom would be interested. Didn't do the animal thing but my friend Anne O'Connell know about how to do it!! Her book @home in Dubai is about to be published! Will let everyone know as soon as it is available.

  5. I love this blog! As a soon to be ex-pat living in Dubai it has made me feel a lot less nervous and it's great to see the vibrant culture of the emirates so appreciated :-)

    1. Glad I could help ease your fears! Pleas do contact me when you arrive in Dubai. I will be happy to get you connected!

  6. Hire A Yacht In Dubai very informative. that was so nice of you. it was helpful.

  7. Dhow Cruise Dubai i was planning a tour to Dubai. now these tips will really help me in many situations. thanks a lot.

  8. Thank you!this is very helpful,wonderful post,great job

    1. I am glad you found it useful. Are you moving to Dubai?

  9. Hi All! I'm going to be moving over at he end of March. I want to know if I am allowed to arrive on a one way ticket as I will have a resident visa. Is this possible or do I have to purchase a return ticket from my home country?

    1. Best to check the government's web site for this type of information. Best of luck and welcome to Dubai!

  10. I think you should not need a return ticket. As a return ticket is must for Visit visas. as you are telling you have a resident visa then you do not need to purchase a return ticket. So Have a Best Day is Dubai Dhow cruise Dubai

  11. hey i am planning a dubai trip in the month o july this year and i am a india going to stay a t a friends place need some advice on clothes and packing.

  12. It will be very hot here in July but you still should be modestly covered especially in the old part of town. It will also be Ramadan which means most of the food establishments will be closed during the day - the good news is there is lots of celebraytory Iftar dinners in the evening. Plan to go out in the very early morning and after sunset. Rest during the day. Enjoy your trip!

  13. Hi Katie, I am about to move to Dubai from Pennsylvania for grad school on the 28th. This post was a tremendous help in calming my nerves! Thank you!

    1. You are going to love Dubai. Email me when you get here if you need any help. Meanwhile let me offer this great book @home in Dubai - It should be very helpful.

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  18. We have been here for 5 months now. Getting the GPS was so important and wish we got it when we first arrived. BUT, I have not purchased a map yet and that would be key to use it in combination. Sometimes the roads here are like three U.S. cloverleaf overpasses all smeared on top of each other. The GPS just can't show you the way around them properly since they all seem to overlap and merge together on the GPS screen. So then you miss your turn off, that can mean a 20 minute diversion while you loop out to the desert and back around. And more than once I made it back to the same cloverleaf overpass and made the same turn off mistake! Frustrating to say the least. I finally did figure out the four points you mentioned and that has been helpful to know as well. (I should say that after living in India, being able to drive here in Dubai is wonderful despite the crazy roads and drivers.)

    I also want to mention that I think the #1 you can do is to connect with other expats. I would not consider myself much of a "joiner" but these groups are, like you said, lifesavers. I can't stress this enough. Make the effort and put yourself out there with a positive attitude. Unfortunately the AWA was closed down before we arrived. Check out your local neighborhood, schools if you have school-aged children, and there is a vibrant group of homeschooling families in Dubai.

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