Mariëtte is a South African teacher who decided to take her career further abroad. After working in South Africa for a few years, she decided to spread her wings and move to the United Arab Emirates. She’s been living in Dubai since 2016 now and thinks this is a great city for any expat.
Read more about expat life in the UAE in our Expat Arrivals UAE country guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I am originally from Fochville, a small town in Gauteng, South Africa.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I am currently living in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to the UAE in late 2016.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Not exactly. I was an exchange student in high school, but nothing really prepares you for the massive difference between living in a country as a tourist for a few months and actually living and working in a foreign country.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here all on my own. I knew exactly one person.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved because I felt that I had reached my utmost potential as a teacher in South Africa. The repetition was getting stale, and I felt that it was time to see the world, so to speak.
Living in Dubai
Q: What do you enjoy most about Dubai? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: Anyone who’s ever been to Dubai would tell you that the shopping is spectacular, shops delivering items straight to your front door, Amazon’s endless online shopping options, etc., are all the little things that I tend to enjoy. There are also the massive tourist attractions throughout the country; however, I find that it’s the little things that make it more enjoyable than a tall building or a beautiful garden. The quality of life is vastly different in the UAE as opposed to South Africa. Life is very fast-paced here, and it constantly feels like it is a rush to do this or a rush to go there. In South Africa, you have more time to smell the roses, in a way. In South Africa, it feels like time moves a lot slower, whereas if you blink in Dubai, the day is over.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: The weather is certainly the most difficult thing to get used to, which I still struggle with. Growing up in the Highveld taught me what hot weather is, but I still felt woefully unprepared on my first day in Dubai – a mild 34°C (93°F) at 6 in the morning – and my first summer was even worse. Any expat will tell you that they miss their family or their favourite local snacks, but the one thing I miss the most about South Africa is the feeling of being home.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest adjustment was getting used to not seeing my family as much as I wanted. Because life is so busy and fast-paced here, I had to get used to the fact that I would not be able to contact them as much as I had wanted to.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Dubai?
A: Living expenses are fairly cheap, but things work differently here than in South Africa. Like house rent. It feels expensive at first, but then you have to take into consideration how many “cheques” you have to pay. The cheques are normally decided on by the rental company and vary from one cheque to four, depending on where you are renting. The cheque, in this instance, is when your rent has to be paid. So one cheque means you have to pay a full year’s rent in a single payment, or you pay the rent in four cheques every three months. Cars are pretty cheap in the UAE, as is petrol. Electricity is a lot more expensive here than in South Africa, mostly because you’ve got the air conditioning running most of the time, especially in summer.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Dubai? What is your most memorable experience of using the city’s transport system?
A: The public transport system is amazing. The trains and buses run fairly on time. Everything is clean, and you can get into a lot of trouble for littering on the metro system! The taxis are safe and reliable. The government actually launched a pink taxi, which is driven by a woman and only women are allowed to ride in them. I was incredibly surprised when I saw that people actually stopped behind the line at a red traffic light. The police and road transport agency are very strict, and you can get a heavy fine for running a red light. You can even have your car impounded for up to three months. They are very dedicated to road safety, and it’s something that shocks me every single day.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Dubai? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals?
A: The healthcare system is very good. I have never had a bad experience here. Last year, my friend hit her head, and I had to rush her to the clinic where she was seen first, received stitches and an injection, all within 20 minutes.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Dubai? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: As with any country, it is suggested that you don’t walk in a dark alley by yourself in the middle of the night, but the police are incredibly effective, and they patrol the city every day.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Dubai? What different options are available for expats?
A: It all depends on what you can afford. There are many options, from studio apartments to flatshares (or villa sharing – it’s like living in a student home) to sharing a room and paying for the space you’re using. Many people find it expensive to rent a studio apartment on their own and tend to share a flat with someone to help lighten the financial strain.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Anywhere, really! Al Nahda is a nice area, but you also have your more expensive areas, like Mirdif, Jumeirah and JLT.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Dubai?
A: I can only assume that there are some places where people aren’t open to foreigners, as can be found in any country. I, however, have never experienced any discrimination against myself or anyone I know, though that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen to others.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Facebook is such a good tool for meeting new people, especially in the UAE. There are quite a few groups dedicated to South Africans abroad who enjoy hosting braais (barbecues) or dances throughout the year.
Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: It’s a mix, really. I work with many expats, so we all tend to go out together. However, the locals (Emiratis) are quite nice and easy to make friends with.
Working in Dubai
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I was very lucky. My school applied for my visa, which was temporarily approved. Once you arrive, you have to undergo a medical exam, where your lungs are scanned and blood is drawn. Once you pass your medical, your work visa is granted. It will have to be renewed again once your contract is renewed, which generally takes place every two years.
Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic climate is generally good, though I suggest any teacher who might be looking into teaching in the UAE, or specifically Dubai, to go through an agency. The agent I worked with was very helpful and guided me through the entire process.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Dubai?
A: In my opinion, work culture is different no matter where you work. In South Africa, teachers work from 7am to 2pm (barring any extracurricular activities), and in the UAE, I work from 7am to 3pm. As any teacher would tell you, work never stops, whether you’re working at school or doing your preparation at home.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Dubai or the UAE?
A: Working abroad is never easy, but I made great friends who keep me grounded (and sane). Make a point of keeping in contact with your family. Skype and WhatsApp calls have been blocked here, but there are alternative calling and video call apps. Have fun! As expats, we all tend to work ourselves to the bone, but my advice is to take at least one day for yourself, where you go out and see the city, travel to the desert, or visit one of the many theme parks. This is a genuinely beautiful country, and it has a lot to offer.
► Interviewed September 2019