The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are home to more than 9 million people — but the majority of the country’s residents aren’t UAE nationals. They’re expatriates.
For many of these people, “home” may have a different meaning. However, after five years of living as an expatriate in Dubai, IMG’s Paul Gordon has come to call the UAE home.
Read on to learn how he found comfort, connections and culture shock in his new country.
My Life as an Expat: As Told by Paul Gordon
After living in the UAE for 20 years, my (now) wife, Rebecca, decided to move to the UK to live with me in 2009. She put most of her belongings — including the furniture from her house — in storage, and made the 7,000+ kilometer move to Birmingham, England.
Little did we know that after two years, we would be moving back to the UAE. Rebecca was offered a job opportunity that was too good to refuse, and within two months of accepting the job offer, we were packed and on a plane to Dubai. We were quite lucky that she still had her furniture in storage!
I had mixed feelings when we moved. First, I knew leaving my mom and dad would be difficult. They missed my brother who moved to the United States 15 years prior, and our nan had died two months before. I had also started a business from scratch in the UK 18 years previously, and I suddenly had to delegate the day-to-day running to a manager.
Feeling a bit anxious was an understatement, but I was excited to embrace a new culture in a warm climate. I was also lucky to have the expertise of my wife who had grown up in Dubai. This made the transition to expat life much easier, since Rebecca knew the area and had already established a network of friends and business colleagues.
Importantly, she also understood how basic processes in the UAE worked, such as getting electricity and water. She knew who to call and where to go for these things, which can be very daunting when you’re living in a new country. For these reasons, my experience wasn’t as difficult as it can be for other expats, who move to a new place and have to completely start over.
It took about two years to really get into the comfort of living in Dubai, but it feels like home now. We are raising a 2-year-old daughter who is enrolled in nursery and will be attending school next September. We don’t envision moving for quite a while.
When we arrived in Dubai, I quickly realized that not everyone had taken the same driving test! This was my first culture shock – driving on the other side of the road was really an eye opener. My first experience driving on my own came when my wife was admitted to the hospital and I had to drive on the main highway to visit her. I was thrown into the deep end to say the least!
Another surprise was a bit more welcoming. Despite moving to a region where the official language is Arabic, I was pleased to learn that English is the UAE’s language of choice in business. Although understanding Arabic would be an advantage for expatriates, it’s not expected to be spoken.
Additionally, after working and living among people of so many nationalities, I have become increasingly aware of the speed of my speech. Generally, I talk very fast, but now I make a concerted effort to slow down during presentations, meetings and phone calls when I know there may be a language barrier.
Interestingly, my work schedule also changed when I arrived in the UAE. Working here is incredibly intense; you’re never off the clock. People will contact you and expect you to respond almost immediately regardless of the hour — which has actually made it easier for me to communicate with my IMG colleagues in the United States.
The only time periods when business slows down in the UAE are during Ramadan when many people are fasting, and during the summer months when the heat approaches 50 degrees Celsius (about 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Both always have an effect on the amount of work that gets done.
Expat life is a good life. It’s stressful, but you learn to make the most of it, and establishing a network in your new country helps.
Even while I had Rebecca’s friends and colleagues to lean on, I learned quickly the importance of networking in the UAE. One of the most powerful tools as an expat is networking. You meet one person and go to a social gathering, then meet more — and suddenly you build up a network of friends and establish business relationships.
That’s the way business is done in the UAE. In the West, emails and phone calls are sufficient to keep a business relationship running. Here, face-to-face communication is still the most important way to do business. That’s one of the many reasons IMG opened an office in Dubai.
My Biggest Piece of Advice for Other Expats
For those considering becoming an expat, I would highly recommend it.
One of the most important things I have learned throughout this experience — and my biggest piece of advice for others — is to remain open-minded, accepting and tolerant of other people. You can watch the news from afar and get an opinion of a particular country or region, but only when you live there and speak to the people from those countries do you actually understand their way of life. The media will simplify things for their audience; only when you’re here do you understand the truth.
The UAE is a melting pot of cultures, beliefs and languages. Whether you’re an expatriate in the UAE or living elsewhere, you have to be accepting and tolerant of others’ points of view and ideas. In the West, you often form opinions from what you hear in the media, and you don’t get the full picture. I held my own views when I lived in the UK, but when I came here, I became much more open-minded. That’s key to having a successful expat experience in any country.
Do you have questions about becoming an expat? Tweet @IMGLOBAL and use #AskTheExpat!
Want to learn more about becoming an expat or browse expatriate health insurance options? Visit our Expat Health Insurance Plans.