Isabel moved from Mexico to Dubai with her partner in August 2009.
There are few contrasts as strong, in terms of culture, as those between the predominantly Catholic Mexico and the entirely Muslim country of the United Arab Emirates. With both of these countries the strong religious traditions obviously greatly effect the culture. So, for Isabel, who moved to Dubai from Mexico in 2009, there was a huge gulf between her old and new lives: a new set of customs and a completely alien culture to get used to.
Many of those on ExpatForum are contemplating a move to somewhere different but not completely unlike their homeland. A lot of Brits head to Spain to prosper from the sun and strong expat community, Australia and Canada are also favourites. Whilst language barriers may be tough, they are not as challenging or as immovable as a different and imposing religion. However, despite it’s culture shock there has been a staggering increase in immigration in the area of Dubai. This is almost solely due to the development of the area and the new businesses and companies that are setting up headquarters in the largest city in the UAE. A vast recruitment drive has resulted in young professionals from all sides of the globe and all areas of the market, flocking to the new Mecca of business. Some have questioned whether Dubai is ready for this influx, whether the city is open to new minds and views. Isabel, having experienced the contrast herself seems to think so…..
‘The contrast is quite big, in Mexico religion has quite an important role in society, however there is a very clear boundary between state and church,’ Isabel says, regarding the strong catholic background in Mexico. ‘In Mexico religion is pretty optional. One of the things that I found a bit difficult to understand when I moved to Dubai is that the Islamic principles apply to many aspects of day to day life such as laws, politics, business, education, banking, food and drink, and of course, marriage and family life’. Isabel’s news will unfortunately come as a surprise to some of those who come to work in Dubai, naively believing it is immune from the influence of Islam. However, a strong sense of religion also has it’s positive effects on society: ‘I think the Arabic society shares some of the core values of the Latin cultures, such as closeness and importance of the family, importance of religion and religion festivities, and the importance of traditions’. It seems, even with the huge differences some similarities could be found to home.
However, one thing Isabel did not bargain for was that Dubai would be even less organised then Mexico, which she had previously found difficulty with. ‘One of the biggest shocks when I got to Dubai was how slow everything was. I used to complain that nothing worked back home, lots of red tape, terrible customer service, etc. It took me only a couple of weeks to realise how much better things were in Mexico compared to Dubai! Like any cities, Dubai has its advantages and disadvantages, but one thing that I found really shocking at the beginning was how laid back government employees and customer service reps are. I will never complain about Mexico again!’. It’s a common mistake to make – believing the faults your home country has couldn’t possibly be worse elsewhere – we all imagine we have the worst traffic, prices, weather (well some are luckier with the weather). However, for Isabel her first experiences, or lack of experience of Dubai was plagued by a disorganisation that she had not expected. ‘ As soon as I got hired (it only took me two weeks to find a job after I arrived!) my company sent me to England for a couple of weeks to do some training and events. This time in theory would allow the company to sort out my work visa so I could return to Dubai. However Ramadan got in the way and the visa got very, very delayed! Literally, nothing happened during Ramadan and the visa didn’t come through, so I had to stay in UK longer. Then my company informed me that the application had been rejected as the company insurance had expired, so they had to sort that out first and then reapply, which took a few more weeks. Finally, I had a flexible ticket to return with Emirates but it was good only for a certain seat category, and for some reason all those seats were booked until late October, so I ended up staying in the UK for 3 months as opposed to 2 weeks. I didn’t mind really but it was very funny as it was my first experience with red tape in the UAE and it was disastrous’. Leading Isabel to a good piece of advice. ‘I’d heard before that “nothing happens during Ramadan”, but I thought it was an exaggeration. After my experience, I can confidently say that, quite literally, “nothing happens during Ramadan”’.
Isabel had originally moved from Mexico because, like many, she felt she wanted a change, to improve her CV and see a little more of the world. ‘The original plan was to move to the UK with my partner at the time, however he then got a job offer in Dubai so I came for a short visit to check it out. I was very impressed with the city and the quality of life so I decided to give it a go’. Having completed one of the major ‘to do’s’ actually visiting the place she was planning on living in Isabel was set to move. Having the benefits of moving to a developing city with so many new companies she found work very quickly once they had moved. However, this is not a universal rule for all, even in Dubai. Isabel works in marketing, a market still desired in Dubai, other professions are not as sought after, especially since the recession.
However, everything has not been easy for Isabel and she has had her own sacrifices to make. With the excitement and wealth of opportunity, which comes from moving so far away, there are also downfalls. ‘I think the biggest sacrifice I’ve had to make has been not being able to visit my family and friends as often. Is such a long trip for me as there are no direct flights to Mexico, so I usually have connecting flights in Europe, the USA or both. It’s such a long journey that is not possible for me to go back home for short mini breaks! Unless I can take at least two weeks off, I simply cannot go home. Sometimes I am very jealous of my friends from Europe or South Africa, as for them is just a 7 or 8 hour direct flight (and they still complain!)’. Many people take for granted the price, regularity or length of flights back home. Although it may seem like quite a short journey when you’re moving to your new home, it may, in reality, prove more difficult when trying to fit it in with your new lives. So prospective Expat’s should think realistically about how often they, or family, would be able to visit.
Another difficulty for Isabel, which could have potentially prevented her emigration, will be a familiar concern to many reading this: visas. ‘As a Mexican, my biggest obstacle was sorting out a visitor’s visa. Thankfully, I had a friend living here at the time, who was very helpful and arranged things for me. Then as soon as I got a job my employer took care of things, but it was quite stressful at first, as for me it wasn’t as easy as going on visa runs to Oman, as my country is not only list of “lucky” countries that get visitor’s visas on arrival’.
With such a big transition, Isabel has three succinct ruled for those who are thinking of doing the same as her:
1. Visit the place first, if you can.
2. Do lots of research and try to get all your questions answered before you move.
3. Do a realistic budget and ask people who have already done to move, to give you their opinion on it.
More specifically, for those moving to Dubai, she has some points of advice about day to day living: ‘Dubai is far more expensive then what I expected,’ she admits, although Isabel had the hindsight to save some money when she was still in Mexico. Although Dubai’s development is fantastic for expat’s looking for jobs, Isabel has found it slightly difficult living with the ongoing building work. ‘Regarding my new home, perhaps the only thing that I am not very keen on is that I live in a new area that is still developing, so there is still a bit of construction going on and lots of empty sandy areas,’ she admits. However, with the construction comes the wealth of the latest mod cons. ‘I really like the building where I live, the location is fantastic, I can walk to the Mall of Emirates, and it’s great to have facilities like a pool and gym where I live, as back home only very expensive high scale buildings would have them’.
Despite all her advice the main thing Isabel would change about how she approached her move is her attitude. ‘The only thing I would have done differently is the way I spent my last weeks back home. Most of my days were spent worrying and being stressed about the move,’ she explains, proving that the worry of moving is far worse then the reality. ‘However if I could do it all over again, I would focus on worrying less about the move to Dubai, and instead enjoy myself and every moment I had with my loved ones. I did not realise back then I was going to miss them this much!’.
Unsurprisingly, Isabel has found she misses her friends and family the most, like many expats. However, she also has an increasingly familiar complaint – she misses the food! ‘Authentic Mexican food (not tex-mex) is really difficult to find here (hint hint for restaurant entrepreneurs!’).
And despite all the cultural changes Isabel has found that her leisure time in her new home is not that different. ‘Some things are the same as back home (going for lunch and drinks with friends, shopping, etc.). But here I can spend lots of time by the pool or the beach, which I could not do back home’. However, her favourite thing about her new life is the people she has met. It’s a valid point that with all the changes of a different culture one gets to meet people we have never encountered before and for Isabel this has been an incredible experience. ‘The best things for me have been the great friends I’ve made that come from all over the world and the whole multi cultural experience. Having friends from such different countries and nationalities has really opened my eyes to new points of view, and has turned me into a more open, flexible and tolerant individual than I was before, and I am very grateful for that’.
Isabel has had a once in a lifetime experience, so far, she has encountered a completely different way of life and seems to have embraced it fully, despite the setbacks. So, would she ever consider moving back home to Mexico? ‘Absolutely. It’s going to be challenging as life comes so easy in Dubai, we are so spoilt, the lifestyle is great and there are so many services and luxuries we just don’t have or can’t afford back home. But when the time comes, I know I will enjoy very much going back home’ she says. For many, a move to a different country may not be for a complete change of residence but for the experience it leaves you with and the opportunities it will grant you. Isabel knew moving to Dubai was a risk but the risk seems to have paid off…………