u-turns are legal but don’t hold hands in public

It may seem from my posts that we are living it up, here in Dubai. It may seem that we are out every night eating expensive food in opulent settings, but of course this is not so. I only write about the highlights, but there are many days in-between where we are getting on with living here, going to work, going to gym and generally carrying on as normal. This weekend was rather low key, the only outing we made was to the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, which was lovely, but today I wanted to fill you in on what the rest of our life here looks like, and how living in Dubai works (for me) in reality.

Ras Al Khor

[Ras Al Khor bird sanctuary]

Even though it has been said that Dubai is like the Las Vegas of the Middle East we should never forget that we live in a country where “beneath the liberal façade is a legal culture based on Islamic laws and tribal rules that looks a lot more like Riyadh than Las Vegas” (according to NBC). This has all been brought to a head this week with the sentencing of two Britons who apparently had sex on a beach here some months ago. It is illegal for couples in Dubai to hold hands, hug or kiss in public. This case has highlighted a growing divide between the local Emirati population, who at 20% feel they are being sidelined in their own country, and the large and growing ex-pat community who feel they do the bulk of the work here and keep this large economy growing. This has now even resulted in the visa laws for both visitors and residents being tightened. So I guess the question that remains is, is this (still) a good place to live? What is it like to live here?

no PDAs

[no PDAs please]

From the emails I have received from friends and family it seems there is still some confusion as to how we are living here in a practical sense. No, we don’t live in a compound as perhaps you might in Saudi. Accommodation comes in two flavours here, apartments or villas (we call these town-houses or clusters in South Africa depending on the size). Apartments here are either high rise or low rise. We live in a villa, in a suburb of Dubai. Five years ago this area was considered so far out of town that they couldn’t give the villas away, according to a colleague these units were originally selling for 700k, now you are lucky to get the same thing for less than 3M dirhams. Luckily we have a small garden. Our housing complex is boomed, but this seems to be more a way to manage visitors, deliveries, taxis or workmen access than for security. Our windows are un-barred, our walls un-razorwired. We have no burglar alarm. There are 3 small shopping centres that serve the area, as well as a few mosques. But no service stations. Go figure.

Unlike some other Gulf States I do not have to cover my head nor wear tops that cover my arms and bum, nor bottoms that cover my ankles. I mostly wear the same clothing I always did, but then I never was one for a mini-skirt. However I probably would not wear one here even if I had been the type. During Ramadan I made an effort to be considerate and made sure to cover my upper arms, and did not wear any skirts or shorts. But tourists, and even some expats, seem unaware or don’t care to make this effort, and this understandably would upset some Emiratis. When I have meetings that are with local customers I wait until the men make the move to shake my hand, I do not initiate this. I dress conservatively for these meetings, trousers are preferred. In a business environment I have felt no resistance to my presence (as a woman) nor any strange vibes. However when I walk to the office from where I have to park my car I have been hooted at, and yelled at, by the passing drivers due probably to a perception amongst the local men that western woman are all tarts or whores as most of the prostitutes here are white. This can get very tiring but I try to ignore it.

Yes I am allowed to drive a car, which whilst ultimately liberating is rather tiring and frustrating most of the time. This is due, in equal measure, to the traffic which I have already mentioned, and getting lost, a lot! As Dubai is growing at such a rate, roads are constantly being upgraded or completely changed. This means that the map on the GPS we have is, for the most part, USELESS. Another quirk of the highways here is sudden long barriers that appear between lanes to stop people changing lanes too late, but if you end up on the wrong side of these you are unable to take the off-ramp you needed. This means you have to double back. Not always easy as sometimes its completely counter-intuitive and you end up taking the ramp in the wrong direction. Traffic lights take a long long time to change, this is due to the fact that only one direction is green at any one time. This is , I think, because U-turns are legal at most intersections and to have people turning back into oncoming traffic would be a disaster. The worst of all is the traffic circle with traffic lights. This turns a well moving road into a snarling mess of trucks and cars and leads to some very erratic behaviour on the part of drivers. I have even been guilty of committing my own pet hate move: pushing into a slow moving lane at the last minute. Sorry!

u-turns legal

[u-turn allowed]

Hmm, what else. Living arrangements, check. Clothing, check. Driving, check. Getting things done. Ah yes. This is the cause of many more grey hairs on my head. Getting a simple task completed is often a nightmare. Maybe this is because after 3 months I still don’t know exactly where to go to get things. Maybe. I have searched for 3 weeks for packing chips to put into a parcel containing some breakable items to send home. In the end I had to use some of the packing material that came out of an Ikea flat-pack we bought this week. It worked ok but what a mission. Filling a gas canister, getting a key cut, balancing your tyres, getting petrol, finding postage stamps, paying bills electronically – all possible with great planning, all really a nightmare to execute.

So it may seem that the answer to my original question is no. But despite all these irritations and inconveniences the truth is that life here is pretty stress-free. Nine months of the year the weather is good, there is no real crime to speak of. Children can ride their bikes and walk home from school. You can go for a jog on your own at 5am with no issue. There are no hawkers or beggars on every street corner. I don’t need to lock my car and remember to put my handbag in the boot. There is no personal income tax, although unofficially inflation is running at 20% due to the escalating cost of property and getting things done quickly means you have to pay extra and this does add up. However it is a shoppers paradise, the selection of things to buy is quite amazing. And of course the restaurants are outstanding, so many choices and generally great quality food on offer. So complaints aside, and apart from missing my friends and family, I have to say I am content here and starting to enjoy it. No regrets on the move.

Useless statistic regarding Dubai #5: 78% of local expats polled feel that tourists don’t respect the culture or customs here. So come and visit, but please remember; don’t hold hands in public.

ps.  the no hand-holding sign isn’t real, I found it on the internet but thought it was appropriate..

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