Living and working in the United Arab Emirates
Coming to the end of my career, I had been waiting for some excitement in my life for years. My job with the Australian government had changed after successive restructurings to a job in which I was not interested, trained, educated or experienced. Sure, I coped with work, but I felt like a fish out of water. He desperately needed a new address while he waited for the promised severance package.
When my wife returned from a trip to the Middle East and she suggested that I apply for a job in the UAE, I thought she was joking. She was not. Within a few days I was searching the internet for job vacancies and discovered that there were hundreds. Within a month or two, I had a job offer to work as a teacher at the Al Ain Women’s College of Business, one of the 13 colleges of technology.
Since I had never lived abroad before, it was a great decision to go to a place with a very different culture, away from our children and grandchildren. We decided that we would accept the challenge, and if it didn’t work out, we could always go home.
We arrived at Dubai International Airport at an unholy hour after a 14 hour drive from Melbourne, Australia. We had been told we had to pick up our temporary visas at an immigration desk, but while we found the counter, the staff was elusive, our first clue that everything doesn’t work as well in the UAE as it does in Australia. In an hour we went through Customs, collected our suitcases and visas, and left the airport with a very friendly, well-dressed and well-spoken Indian named Vijay. Vijay was a driver employed by Al Ain Colleges and we soon discovered that he was the person who made things happen for the new hires … Mr Fix It.
After signing my contract, they gave me two envelopes. One contained a sum of cash to cover our six-day hotel stay, the other had a check for Dh30,000 for set-up costs. We had no idea what a Dirham was really worth, but it seemed like a lot of money … and I still hadn’t worked a day.
We found Al Ain a charming oasis with two-lane roads divided by iron fences and date palms. It was surprisingly green for a place in the middle of the desert, but everywhere we went, we saw that the municipality prided itself on providing a beautiful city with an excellent road system and infrastructure. It was much better than our city in Australia and the water was obviously plentiful.
The difference in clothing among the population was very evident to us, who were mostly Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Asians and Arabs. Caucasians like us were relatively rare (about 3,000 out of 400,000). We could tell where people were from by their dress, if not by their appearance. Even the Arabs have a different dress; Visitors from nearby Oman wear a headdress that distinguishes them from local Emiratis, but both wear a similar kandora (a long white robe similar to a dress).
Everyone we met was friendly, despite frequent language barriers. There was no graffiti and litter was scarce. The buildings ranged from glitzy to dilapidated brick houses to underpaid labor. Our accommodation in a huge housing complex was sumptuous by Australian standards; four bedrooms and utility room, five bathrooms, high ceilings and a two-car garage. We could not believe that two people were accommodated in such a large accommodation.
The HCT orientation for our 14 new hires was long and thorough, the best orientation program I have ever experienced. In September I began teaching with classes in human resources topics for seniors and computer and general business for freshmen.
The challenges of teaching
For the first few months I wondered if I had made the right decision. He had 140 students in class groups of 20 ranging in age from 19 to 25. Their English ranged from nearly incapable to passable and most couldn’t construct a simple sentence. Apparently they weren’t used to studying and they weren’t very motivated to learn. Life in college was an escape from their homes.
My ladies wore traditional garb … black abeyas from neck to toe and a black headdress. Several had only their eyes visible. Their names were not only long, but mostly new to me. I had a lot of difficulty pronouncing some names and remembering who was who when they all looked alike; brown eyes, brown skin and black clothes. After settling in, I began to realize that they were a very immature bunch compared to Australian teenagers. Many had never been to a store; most had never spoken to men outside of their families; their knowledge of the world was very narrow and closely conformed to the strict limits of their Islamic religion, culture, and place in life. They had mostly nice and fun dispositions, which was a lifesaver as I quickly developed an excellent report with most of them, who somehow reminded me of my own daughter now so far away.
This weird guy from Australia with a funny accent who spoke fast and occasionally used Australians, he soon adjusted to his new surroundings and became friends with the locals.
While the work was a considerable challenge to motivate them, provide them with education in a meaningful and understandable way, it was also satisfying to know that one day what had helped them learn would be of value to them and perhaps help the Emirates. United Arab.
The best part of the whole adventure was the new friends we made with expats from Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Jordan, Egypt, France, Turkey, and even Australia. With the cost of living so low, we dined out frequently and celebrated every birthday, national day, and often dined just to share a meal, a glass of wine, and good company.
During our summer holidays we managed to travel all over Europe, to Canada, Hong Kong and several Middle Eastern countries outside of the United Arab Emirates. We spent a week in Cyprus. One of our reasons for moving to the United Arab Emirates was to travel. We certainly did and it was a lot cheaper than doing it from Down Under.
While my salary was roughly the same as I was earning in Australia, there is no income tax. In fact, there are hardly any taxes, although if you dine in a hotel now, you pay 10% service and 6% tourist tax. There are fees for motor vehicle registration, driver’s licenses, etc., but they were all much, much cheaper than what I would have paid in Australia. Gasoline was very cheap, as was food and almost everything else, so we lived like kings and deprived ourselves of anything, knowing that this dream would eventually end.
Although we had not gone to the UAE to earn money, my wife was not working and we did our best to spend it on travel, a new car and a comfortable life, we left with a lot of cash, some new furniture. and tailored clothing, etc. We did very well outside of the UAE.
When you live in an isolated place like Australia, it’s easy to become Australia-centric and perhaps a bit arrogant. Visiting other places broadens your perspective and is the experience of a lifetime that every Australian should have. It has a humbling effect when you see countries that have no drunks stumbling through the streets, no graffiti, no petty theft, no street fights, and clean, well-dressed people with pride, unlike much of Australia. On the contrary, a couple of countries we visited reminded us how lucky we are to be able to get on a jet and return to Australia.
Copyright 2008 Robin Henry