Sam is a PR and social media consultant from England, who moved to Dubai on her own in January 2006, promising her family it would only be for two years. Over the many years that followed she has been busy sharing the less well known parts of the UAE - across deserts, mountains, beaches and even underwater - on her blog 'Footsteps of a Wanderer', along with a lot of other useful travel advice.
1. Why did you move abroad?
My dad had been living in Abu Dhabi and I came for a visit and saw a lot of potential. Things were tough in the UK and I had no ties, so I contacted a few PR agencies when I arrived and as an experienced PR and events person with native English, I was in high demand - I came back from the two week holiday with two offer letters and handed in my notice!
2. How do you make a living?
The first company I worked for was a local PR and marketing agency, and it was a great way to be rapidly initiated into the UAE, I met so many influential people, had the opportunity to work on some great brands and on some high profile projects, including big international live music and DJ events and visits from British royalty.
After 18 months, once I fully understood and appreciated the professional landscape of Dubai, I went in-house to Jumeirah Group, managing corporate communications for the region for all of the group’s hotels, including the world-famous Burj Al Arab. My first day with them saw me on the helipad of the renowned icon with a big international film crew from the US and UAE royalty and I never had a dull day from then onwards! The four years I spent with the luxury hospitality management company were some of my best days in Dubai, but I was keen to keep learning and as I had reached a ceiling with the group, I moved to a big global PR agency and from there to a smaller, more boutique international agency to run the PR department. After a couple of years I realised that I could be doing exactly the same thing for myself, rather than someone else, so I resigned and started my own communications consultancy focussing on PR and social media. It’s been challenging, and I hate the insecurity, but I absolutely love what I do and I love the freedom of doing it for myself - I could never go back now!
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I was homesick a lot at first, and would have to rely on monthly emails and expensive weekly calls home, but now with Skype and Facebook it's much easier to keep in touch and connected to those close to you. I speak to my parents every 1-2 weeks, and the rest of the family at least once a month - even my grandparents are on Skype now which has saved a small fortune in phone bills! My closest friends in the UK I try to Skype every few months - we try to arrange an evening ‘Skype date’ and both have a bottle of wine to hand and the time set aside so that we can catch up over a few hours as if we were face to face. I share all of my pictures on Facebook and Instagram so people can imagine how life is - although a lot of family and friends have been pretty keen to come and visit and see for themselves!
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Dubai?
The lifestyle - I learned to dive here, something I never would have done at home, and I am much more adventurous and outdoorsy than I ever was in England, I go hiking, camping, horse riding (and you never have to worry about mud or it being rained off!) At the same time, there are so many more luxuries than in England - most people have a cleaner, even if they live alone, because it’s so cheap, a lot of girls go for manicures/pedicures and massages on a regular basis, and we often eat in five star restaurants and bars with spectacular views - we're very lucky to have it all at our fingertips.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Dubai?
Regulations and laws change often so you have to take note of what's going on around you. There are strict rules about relationships (no public displays of affection, no couples staying or living together without being married), dress codes, and alcohol (it's only allowed in certain places and with a permit) and although these are not heavily enforced, you do need to be sensible and respectful, particularly during Ramadan when the rules get more strict. These are often blown out of all proportion by English media though, and to be honest the biggest negative is the distance to family and friends (although I do like that it is close enough to be home in a day if needed)
6. What do you miss most?
My family and friends! When I first moved here there were some of my creature comforts I missed - some of the beauty products and makeup from Boots for example - but nowadays a lot of the big chain stores (including Boots) have moved here so these products are now available here. I used to get nostalgic for proper fish ’n’ chips but we now have a few good chip shops across Dubai. I’ve found that it’s during the holidays that as an expat you really romanticise about your home country, I’ve celebrated Christmas in a lot of different countries around the world, but it’s never the same as at home, and the same goes for the long summer months - I even wrote a post recently on the five things I miss most about an English summertime.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
It was, and still is, very easy to meet people, everyone is much more relaxed, and it's not unusual to have a business meeting and then be offered a social invitation afterwards, even with people you didn't know before. People are much more sociable than in the UK and strike up conversations with strangers easily, we all realise that everyone is away from home and people are willing to help and support others in the same boat. I love that my friends are from all over the world - it makes life so much more interesting!
People come and go every few years, and so long as you are sociable you continue to meet new people all the time. I am fortunate enough to meet a lot of people through work and the networking events I attend, plus I go to bootcamp and have joined a running club, and every time I dive, there are invariable a lot of other people on the boat for the day too.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
The Arabic culture is very different to English culture, and I would be here all day if I was to list in all the ways, but these are even more obvious once a year during the holy month of Ramadan. This period starts and finishes according to sightings of the moon, and is the most important time of the year for Muslims. For all residents and visitors to the UAE, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, this means no eating, drinking, smoking or chewing gum in public between sunrise and sunset, and no parties or live music by night. This obviously has massive implications for tourists choosing to visit during this period, but as a resident, I enjoy this month - we work shorter hours, there is more of a focus on catching up with friends and family and being charitable, the iftar (breaking of the fast) meals at sunset everyday are fantastic, and there is a nice long three day public holiday at the end!
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
A lot of people think of Dubai as a city of shopping, shiny skyscrapers and five star hotels, and very little else. Although it’s not a main driver for the country’s tourist appeal at the moment, there is a growing focus on cultural tourism and heritage. Dubai is a lovely place to wander round to see the old architecture and check out the souks (markets) and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding based here runs some fantastic experiences and tours. The mosque in Abu Dhabi has also become an iconic tourist hotspot, and there are lots of beautiful old villages and ruins scattered throughout the country. There is also plenty to do for those who are looking for action beyond the shopping malls - I like to get out to the Indian Ocean on the East Coast for gorgeous diving, and the mountains, desert and beaches are great for camping, offroading, hiking, horse riding - there's something for all interest and levels, you just have to look for it.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
It's hard to compare - the lifestyle expectations are greater in Dubai so I find it more expensive to live than in the UK. However, a lot of the services are cheaper than at home, but depending on where you want to live the rent varies dramatically. Food and drinks, both in supermarkets and when eating out, are often more expensive, but again this depends where you eat/drink and shop. In balance though, our pay is tax free and petrol is ridiculously cheap so it all evens out well and gives us much more freedom to enjoy a better lifestyle than we would in the UK - but if you come to Dubai to save money, you do need to make a conscious effort to do so as it’s all too easy to spend!
11. What advice would you give other expats?
The most important piece of advice is to come with an open mind and grab each and every opportunity you come across.
Before you arrive, do your research about the jobs/companies you are looking at - don't be so keen to come that you take the first thing on offer. Check how long they've been in business, how many staff they have and who the clients/customers/partners are.
Once you’ve had the job offer and the company offers to put you up for the first couple of nights in a hotel, start looking at places to live (a lot of companies offer this if recruiting from overseas, but be warned, this is not as glamorous as it sounds and you’ll be keen to get your own place!) Think seriously about where you want to live. Traffic can be a pain in some parts of Dubai so check out what your commute would be everyday and how far you are from all the facilities you would need.
As you start packing your bags, don’t forget to bring your education certificates with you. A lot of companies will ask for these to be attested, translated and submitted in order to get the visa (depending on your role and company). Also, don’t be fooled into thinking you can live in summer wear only, despite the constant heat (it’s only January that feels a little cool), you’ll need a couple of jumpers, cardigans, wraps etc as the air conditioning is set on arctic levels in a lot of buildings and it can get really cold all day in an office or mall!
Once you arrive, get yourself out there! Go out at every opportunity and be open to meeting people in any situation. There are so many groups, clubs and networking events too that you can be as sociable as you want to be, even if you don't know anyone! Have a look online, check out meetup.com and the local forums for things to do and interest groups, join a gym, listen to the radio and check out Time Out Dubai for events, and just keep your eyes open!
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started Footsteps of a Wanderer several years ago because I love travelling and wanted to share my experiences, tips and information to hopefully help others when they are planning trips (I have always preferred to get information and advice from people who have had real experiences rather than the guide books. I also wanted to broadcast information about the less explored parts of Dubai, UAE and the region, as some of the out of the way destinations, off road places and events (camel markets anyone?) are amazing to visit but hard to get any details for.
I love hearing from others who have may have shared some of these experiences or have anything to add, on the blog itself www.footstepsofawanderer.com, on Twitter or Instagram @samanthadancy, or through Facebook http://www.facebook.com/footstepsofawanderer.
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