women in dubai

Ejo #26 – The Most Frequently (And Some Less Frequently, But Still Interesting) Questions About Expat Life In Dubai*

Well, all I can say is thank goodness that it’s a leap year, giving me one extra day to scrape in this month’s ejo (just by the hair on my chinny chin chin!).  Phew!  So, people type some interesting things into Google.  Really interesting things!  Every time this site gets a referral from Google, I get a notification of what the search was that led them to me.  Some queries seem to come up again and again (you’d be surprised at how many people are in the market for an elephant skin jacket – I kid you not!).  My friend Chris (the one that helped me set up the site in the first place – yes, I should probably be paying him) suggested I write a special FAQ ejo to answer the more common questions.  And so, here it is.

 

CAN YOU HELP ME GET A JOB AS AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER IN DUBAI?

Far and away, this is the question that I get asked the most often.  Unfortunately for you the answer is no, I cannot.  What I can do though is provide you with an email address (Serco-Admin@dubaiairnav.gov.ae) where you can make enquiries and send your resume.  The rest is up to you.  Good luck.

 

WHAT DO MEN WEAR UNDER THEIR DISH DASH?

OK, so this is a very close second for most commonly asked question.  Being the intrepid investigator that I am, I summoned up the courage to ask one of my Emirati colleagues what he wears under his (keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t get me deported for breaking some indecency law).  As it turns out I needn’t have worried.  He simply lifted his dish dash and showed me.  Yep!  All the way up.  Anyway, the garment worn under the dish dash is called a ‘wuzar’ (my spelling might not be 100% correct there, but that was the pronunciation).  It looks just like a long, cotton petticoat.  My colleague was wearing one with a loose elasticised waist but apparently you can also buy wrap-around wuzars, depending on your preference.  I asked another colleague (a woman this time, I’m not THAT bold) about the possibility of embarrassment caused by unwanted “physical reactions” and she told me (after laughing at me for a bit) that some men wear underpants, as well as a wuzar, to prevent any embarrassing situations cropping up (so to speak).  Others, more confident, simply go commando.  So there you have it, now you know.

 

IS ALCOHOL BANNED IN DUBAI?

As you’re about to find out, I have quite a lot to say on this topic.  Far from being banned, alcohol has a very large presence in Dubai.  The duty free allowance per person here is a very generous 4 litres of booze.  To put that in perspective, Australia’s limit is 2.25 litres.  I’ve mentioned in a previous ejo why I think alcohol is allowed in Dubai.  And it has everything to do with money!  Admittedly, not all the emirates are as laid back about it.  For instance Sharjah completely bans the consumption, or even possession, of alcohol.  If you live there, you can’t enjoy a beer with your food, even in the privacy of your own home.  Not legally anyway.  Another point to note is that alcohol is one of the only items in Dubai which is subject to tax.  A whopping 30% tax, making it very expensive.  Officially, in this emirate you need a license in order to purchase alcohol for your private consumption.  Unofficially, whenever you want to stock up, you can just drive to one of the (more relaxed) neighbouring emirates which sells untaxed booze.  Either way, it’s readily available.

 

I must confess that when we first moved here my drinking became problematic.  Free flowing booze at weekly brunches makes it difficult to know how much you’re actually drinking.  And socially, it’s something that can easily become a habit.  I put on a lot of weight, behaved very badly and suffered some monster hangovers (the worst of my life).  Eventually, I sobered up for long enough to realise that it had to stop.  Not everyone has the same discipline.  The two Brits who were arrested and deported for the ‘sex on the beach’ scandal had apparently been drinking all afternoon at one of the famous Friday brunches.  And there lies the dichotomy.  The Friday brunch is a Dubai institution.  It is government sanctioned and almost impossible to avoid if you want to go out for a midday meal on Friday (which happens to be the first day of the weekend here).  Just about every hotel in town offers a Friday Brunch.  But to actually be under the influence of alcohol in public (whether you are rip roaring drunk or have had just one glass) is illegal.  So, theoretically, the cops could arrest every single person leaving a brunch as soon as they step out of the hotel, though they tend not to as it wouldn’t be very good publicity for the city.  But what amazes me is the number of people who are completely unaware of the law that they are breaking, who are then outraged when they get into trouble for breaking it.  Yes, booze is a big part of life in Dubai, but it exists in a very delicate balance within society.  It’s not something that you can take for granted, like back home (or pretty well anywhere else in the world).  You must be careful at all times, as the consequences can be severe.  A woman found this out a few years ago when, after attending a big brunch, she drunkenly passed out in a hotel bathroom where a hotel staff member raped her.  When she reported the rape, they didn’t just arrest him for the rape, but also her, on charges of being drunk in public.  That’s very scary.

 

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND LESSONS FOR A WESTERN WOMAN WORKING IN THE UAE?

David and I moved to Dubai in 2008 after he was offered an ATC job at Dubai International Airport.  When I couldn’t immediately get work as an air traffic controller, people often assumed it was because I was a woman and that women aren’t allowed to work here.  This isn’t true, and my lack of employment was actually the result of the global financial crisis.  A year or so into our move I was offered an ATC job at Al Maktoum International Airport where I’ve been happily working for over two years.  I’m lucky enough to work for a very large multi-national company which implements equal employment rights for women here, and as a result I’ve never experienced any discrimination in the workplace.  In fact I’ve been given opportunities here that wouldn’t so readily be available to me back home.  Not because (or in spite of the fact that) I’m a woman, but based on my ability to do the job.  To be completely honest I’m sure that there are many women here who do face discrimination and challenges in the workplace but I have neither observed or, personally, been subjected to it.

 

Having said all that, something very disturbing happened to me a couple of days ago which demonstrates that the city has a VERY long way to go towards gender equality.  As I mentioned earlier, a liquor license is required to (legally) buy alcohol here, so I figured I’d apply for one since David’s expired a while ago.  So, off I went to the bottle shop with all the necessary paperwork in hand.  This includes an application form, a copy of my passport and residency visa, a copy of my payslip and a “Letter of No Objection” from my employer (stating that they had no objection to me applying for the license).  I confidently handed it all over and was promptly asked where the “Letter of No Objection” from my husband was.  I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute while I go on to describe how I had to bend down to pick up my jaw off the floor.  Yep, they insisted that, since I’d checked the box on the application form saying I was married, I had to ask my husband’s permission to obtain a license to drink booze.  It’s actually enough to DRIVE you to drink!  I asked, incredulously, if that would still be the case if my husband was my dependant, and I was his sponsor.  The answer came back yes.  The man, it seems, is still the boss.  Being the modern woman that I am, I insisted that they process my application without David’s authority so we’ll wait and see how that works out for me.  I’ll let you know.  While this experience completely flabbergasted me, it is an isolated one (for me at least).  I look forward to never encountering such discrimination here again.

 

ON A ONE-TO-ONE BASIS WHAT IS THE COMFORT LEVEL BETWEEN ARABS AND NON-ARABS BOTH IN DUBAI AND IN THE RURAL AREAS?  IS THERE COMFORT?  CONFIDING, FRIENDSHIP, ALLIES?  OR ARE WESTERNERS FOREVER A COMMODITY IN A TRANSIENT INTERNATIONAL TRADE?

My experience in Dubai is that, as a general rule, locals are a little wary of expats.  As a whole they probably do see us as a bit of a commodity.  But that isn’t to say that they necessarily resent our presence here.  The city simply wouldn’t be what it is today without us.  Regardless of the overall feeling, my own personal experience is that once an Emirati develops a relationship with a foreigner (whether it be a friendship or a working relationship) then the guard comes down.  Every Emirati that I have the pleasure of knowing through work is warm, generous, hospitable and friendly.  I think that this is their true nature and that the wariness comes as a natural (and understandable) result of being a minority in their own country.  I haven’t met any locals out of the city but from what I hear, Bedouin hospitality is even greater.  So, one-to-one I’d say that yes, relations are good.  There is warmth and acceptance and friendship.  However, I don’t think it would be realistic to expect this to extend to all relations between expats and locals.  I have heard stories of locals being rude, nasty and sometimes just plain malicious towards expats.  I suppose that, just like everywhere else, it depends on the people involved.

 

HOW DO THEY EXPECT “THE WORLD” TO NOT ERODE AWAY ON A BIG TIDE/STORM SURGE?

This is an interesting question.  For those of you who don’t know, The World project is a man-made archipelago consisting of about 250 islands designed to look, from above, like a map of the world.  There seem to be regular reports that the islands are slipping back into (and being re-reclaimed by) the sea.  Nakheel, the developer of these (and the more successful Palm Island projects) of course denies these reports.  So, who’s right?  Well, for now it appears that the islands are sticking around, though due to the financial crisis, until recently only one had been developed – and that one belongs to the ruler of Dubai.  Earlier this month though, I heard that an Indian entrepreneur has developed a beach club (complete with swimming pool, beachside cabanas, bar and restaurant) on the island of Lebanon which is due to open any day.  This means that people will be able to visit the islands for the first time ever (which is quite exciting).  Hopefully this will encourage other developers to invest in similar kinds of ventures.  As for the threat of erosion, from what I can tell, the islands lie on a very solid foundation (similar to that of the Palm Islands and also the reclaimed land on which the Burj Al Arab sits).  The technology is sound.  The 321 million cubic metres of sand and 31 million tons of rock which form the foundation would also suggest that The World is here to stay.  (To put those figures into perspective, 1.8 million tons of debris was recovered from Ground Zero after 9/11.)

 

Lebanon Island

 

HAS LEEWIN FOUND A WIFE?

Not yet.  And, in a lucky twist of fate, the search has temporarily been called off after his cousin (a numerologist) did a reading and discovered that Leewin’s profile on a whole bunch of matrimonial sites had been registered on an unlucky date.  How about that!  His brother quickly took down all of Leewin’s information from the internet, and is waiting a couple of months (and for a new numerology reading) before re-registering him.  Marriage: 0, Leewin: 1.

 

OK, so I hope that your question has been answered.  This is actually part one in a two part special so standby for some more interesting facts about life in Dubai next month.  In the meantime if you have a burning desire to have a myth debunked or just want some information on something you’re unsure about, please just drop me a note and I’ll see if I can add it to the next FAQ ejo.

 

 

* (Unfortunately,) I feel obliged to state that the answers to these questions are 100% opinion only.  If I’m wrong about something, I apologise and am very open to being corrected.

Ejo #6 – Women and Muslims in Dubai (and Not Working As An Air Traffic Controller)

I probably haven’t made it very clear to all of you that I’m not actually working at the moment. Unless of course you count sweeping, dusting, cooking and cleaning (and of course ejo writing) as work. Which in fact, actually is rather hard work. A few times people have asked me whether I’m even able to work here. Being a woman and all. And I understand why they ask because there is this stereotype of the Middle East being a place where Islam represses women. I don’t know about the other Middle Eastern countries but here in the UAE I have not experienced, or even observed, any kind of repression of women. They are able to drive cars, climb the corporate ladder, hold any job they are qualified for and pretty well do anything that men are permitted to do. They actually get treated with a lot more respect than I’ve seen elsewhere. In fact women receive preferential treatment to men in several situations.

 

One of these is ‘Women Only’ queues. Several times I’ve been waiting in a queue with David and some official has approached us and told us to go to the Women’s Only queue which invariably is about 1/10 as long. Yeeeehaaaaaa!! When we recently went to the Road & Traffic Authority to finalise our UAE licenses I was again ushered to the Women’s Only line which was in fact titled, “Women and Other People With Special Needs”!! Yep, that’s me alright!! I still feel slightly uncomfortable though going directly to the front of a queue when there are 60 men ahead of me who have been waiting for hours to be seen. So unlike several other women I’ve observed (and I’m not bagging them in the least) I don’t go straight to the front. I always wait until I am directed there. And I always am. I think it’s a sign of respect for women’s ‘modesty’ to not have them mingling with the men. Women’s modesty being a huge tenet of the Islamic faith, which is why they wear the black abayas (robes).

 

Emiratis also have a special fast-track queue so the people that always get shafted are the blue collar expat workers who cannot afford to bring their wives to live with them in Dubai. That just happens to be the majority of the population. And everything, from getting a driver’s license, to the four or five stages of applying for residency, to having the compulsory health checks involves hours and hours of waiting around with a ticket in your hand waiting for your number to get called. My permanent residency was just finalised about a week ago (religion: Christian (they don’t recognise Atheism), profession: Housewife) and if I never have to pull another queue ticket out of a machine again it will be too soon.

 

We spent three months essentially waiting in queues every time David had a day off. And I couldn’t do it by myself when he was at work because I was just here on a visitor’s visa. That’s worthless when dealing with all the government departments. So we waited in queues, filled in forms, had them translated into Arabic (this is compulsory and you get charged for it), processed the forms, ran from department to department (sometimes all the way across town), had blood tests and chest x-rays, waited days for the results, picked up the results, filled in more forms, blah blah blah!!!!

 

In the end we were thrilled to discover that the official who had processed the revision of my visitor’s visa to a temporary residency visa had failed to stamp my passport with the correct stamp. So I was in fact living here illegally for 31 days. Cough up a 3000dhs fine, thank you very much. For a friggin’ stamp!! You’ve gotta laugh!!

 

We’re hoping that David’s employer reimburses him for it, as they have promised to pay all costs associated with gaining residency visas for the whole family. But lately there have been grumblings of overspending on Air Traffic Controllers in general. When you consider that they’ve recruited forty ATCs in the last six months that’s quite a lot of cash. Not only do they pay salaries but they also pay for the whole family to be flown here, temporary accommodation, one month’s car hire, an entire year’s rent in advance (and the exorbitant school fees where applicable), and to process the visas. That is a lot, a lot of cash!!

 

David and I moved here with the expectation/hope that I would be offered work after David had fully qualified and settled into the job. Actually our move here was predicated on that fact. They’d been hinting that I would probably begin work at the new 6 runway Al Maktoum airport in Jebel Ali which was expected to be completed by January of this year. Last week I had a meeting with the Big Boss of airport services in Dubai to get some idea of what opportunities existed and when I could expect to start. First thing he said to me was, “Bad Timing”. Second thing he said was, “We’re not hiring any more controllers for the foreseeable future”. Third thing, “Due to the economic crisis, the completion date for Al Maktoum airport has been pushed back to June. Of next year!!” Talk about pulling the rug out from under my feet. I’m just grateful that David still has a job. Financially we can afford to live on one income. Professionally I had been expecting to have 2-3 months off work before returning to the job. Not 2 years!! I don’t know if I want to go that long without working. I don’t even know if I can go that long and still be employable as an ATC. So my limited options are clear. I can stay in Dubai and either find some other work or perhaps study, and hope that the recruitment situation in ATC changes sooner rather than later. Or, I could return to Australia and hope that my previous employer would take me back. This latter option is, professionally, the desirable one. Personally though it is untenable as David has to remain here in Dubai. If he was to break his contract now we would have to pay back that huge amount of money that Serco paid to set us up here and right now we really can’t afford that.

 

So, for the moment (and boy, this can change at any time) I am staying here. I have to wrestle with the feelings I have that my identity is wrapped up in my being an Air Traffic Controller and somehow I have to find something else to BE. My greatest fear is that if I am not an ATC, I am nothing. I can’t DO anything else. I am still grappling with this fear and trying to overcome it. Deep down I know that I am, and always have been, more than just my job. I’ve just allowed my pride in what I do to help shape and define me. So really, in a way, this ‘disaster’ is perhaps just an opportunity for me to try and discover other things about myself. Other skills, other ambitions and goals. As they say, when one door closes, another door opens. And I am not powerless. I am choosing this path. If I wanted to pursue my ATC career I could probably do so back in Australia. But right now I am choosing my husband, I am choosing an exciting and interesting life abroad and I am choosing to make the world my oyster.

 

Anyone who has ever spent some time with me and knows me at all, knows that I love to write. Words have always been my passion and since the age of about ten I’ve harboured a strong (unkillable) desire to one day ‘be a writer’. This must be my chance. If I don’t take this opportunity now to pursue this dream, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance again. So that’s what I’ll be. A writer. Who knows, I may even get something published (or made into a feature film!!). So yes, I feel a bit down at my lack of job prospects as an ATC in Dubai but I am also very excited at finally having the time and ability to focus on another passion. I’m extremely lucky that David is able and willing to support me in my endeavours and that we can even afford to live on one salary (we’ve gone from being DINKs to being SINKs – ouch!!). I have one reason to be sad but many, many reasons to be happy. Of course if any of you wants to write to me to tell me how much you love me and how much faith you have in me, well, that’d be pretty nice too!! Until next time.