Expat Life Dubai Expat

Dubai expat veterans – The unwritten rules

Paper scissors, stone… Dubai style

One of the first questions, when you meet someone new in Dubai, is ‘how long have you been here?’. It sounds innocent enough, but behind the smile, they’re making a swathe of mental calculations.

It is perhaps the Dubai equivalent of ‘paper, scissors, stone’. Sometimes your answer to this question is the winner and you are lauded as a fount of knowledge. You are a veteran! At other times, the same response draws somewhat condescending sympathy, like a dog owner to an over-confident puppy. You are just a newbie.

There is an unspoken code that the longer you have lived in Dubai the greater the weight of your opinion. As though it is infused with the wisdom and insight of a tribal village chieftain. But Dubai’s population changes so regularly that Dubai veteran status is a relative concept. If the person you are talking with has been here three months, you can claim veteran status if you’ve been here 2 years! You can confidently espouse on the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of everyday life, like how to sign your tenancy contract or the easy way to register a birth. Failing that, you can regale them with stories of the ‘old days’ (a flexible term which people use to mean the year they arrived) when such-and-such skyscraper/water park/canal/community/island ‘wasn’t even built’.

Spotting a Dubai expat veteran

Self-appointed Dubai expat veterans are keen to share their secrets to successful Dubai living, often unprompted. How do you spot a veteran? Perhaps you are one? There are a few common signs:

  • Mentioning how the brunches are nothing like as extravagant as they once were.
  • Talking longingly about the time you had to drive across the undulating sand to get to what is now a regular urban community, seamlessly integrated with the rest of Dubai.
  • Using landmarks that have long since been torn down to describe where something is, ‘turn right just past where Union Coop used to be’.
  • Suggesting nightlife options in Bur Dubai but none in Dubai Marina.
  • Giving a knowing look when someone mentions the investment opportunity at the exciting new residential tower that is launching imminently.
  • Pulling out an Entertainer book, rather than the app.
  • Referring dismissively to anywhere south of Business Bay as ‘the other end of town’.
  • Nostalgically reminiscing about when petrol was cheaper than water and you could fill up for AED50 (EUR12).

Embrace the newbie

The reality of Dubai is that no expat here is a true veteran. Whether you are here six months or sixteen years, the Dubai we live in has changed so much and so fast that the place we reminisce about is far removed from the metropolis of today.

Given all this, the newbie expat might even be at an advantage. Newbie Dubai expats learn to live in the city as it actually is, rather than how it once was. Self-appointed veterans can be slow to adapt to the changing environment around them. I find that people who moved here before the metro started in 2009, still tend not to use it, but all those who arrived after it was operational incorporate it into their daily routine just like any other part of city infrastructure.

While a Dubai expat veteran has a mental map of the city and how it works, in many cases it is outdated. The good old days they hark back to have gone. The present is just tomorrow’s good old days, so it is better to enjoy the Dubai of today and explore it before it changes again!

Veteran or newbie, enjoy the ride!

dubai expat

It can be comforting to draw a metaphorical line in the sand, marking Dubai as it was on the day you arrived, and to compare everything to that. But, Dubai is a city in eternal flux, and that line in the sand will soon be washed away by the waves of Dubai’s bewildering development.  

To thrive here you need to accept the Dubai of the present and be ready to embrace the Dubai of the future. In Dubai, that future races into view faster than anywhere else in the world.

About the Author
Ian Hamilton lives in Dubai and writes about life-optimisation for the modern expat at An Expat Dad, with a special focus on family, travel and finance.
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