When I was first preparing for my move to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, I was asked many times how I felt about moving to a place where I would be required to “Cover Myself” and where women’s activities were restricted. This common misconception couldn’t be further from the truth, as the United Arab Emirates is quite different from its neighboring Saudi Arabia. The UAE is a modernized country that is very accepting of Western Culture. In 1966, with the discovery of oil, a large influx of foreign workers came to Dubai. Now, as the focus has turned to creating one of the Top Business and Tourist Hubs of the World, the number of foreign workers has increased even more. Throughout this time, the Royal Family has always promoted cultural diversity. At present, over 80% of the population is Expats.
As an Expat living in Dubai, I do not find any major differences in lifestyle, except for the fact that people appear to be far friendlier, and the quality of life is a bit better here for those of us who come from the Western World. Although it is an Arabic Country, English is spoken fluently here. Most business is conducted in English, and signs are in both Arabic and English, so it is easy to get around.
The Shopping Malls are as good, if not better, than those in the States and in Europe. Dubai is a “Shopper Paradise” with some of the Largest Malls in the World. As one walks the Malls, you would hardly notice that you are in an Islamic Country except for the scene of “Covered” women and local men dressed in their traditional style of clothing walking along side of others dressed in the most modern western styles, and the occasional call to prayer that you may hear ringing through the Malls during certain times of the day. Also, out of respect for others, it is expected that couples do not participate in public displays of affection, although holding hands is acceptable.
Grocery shopping is comparable to that of the Western World. Supermarkets are in abundance, and one can find most western products or their equivalent, although it might not all be found in one store. In some ways, the stores offer more choices than those in the West. While visiting the butcher’s area of the shop, one might see that there is a choice of Australian Beef, Egyptian Beef, Brazilian Beef, New Zealand Beef, etc. The same goes for produce. Pork is a little harder to find, and a bit more expensive. Pork is found only in certain Grocery Markets and Chains in an area depicted as “Non-Muslims Only”.
Alcohol is permitted in most places, as it is served in most restaurants and hotels. Those staying in a place other than a hotel, such as an apartment or villa, may want to buy their alcohol at the duty-free area of the Airport, as retail stores outside of the Airport are hard to come by, and you must have a Liquor License to buy. There is a limit to the amount you are allowed.
As for other aspects of a woman’s life, there are no real significant differences either. Women ARE allowed to drive, and if you have a driver’s license from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or most European Countries, you can easily transfer it the UAE without being required to take any classes or tests. Driving here is not much different than driving in the US or Europe, except that at times the Road Signs can be a bit unclear, and with the amount of construction going on, you may find that you are being put on a detour more often than usual.
One aspect in which the quality of life is better is that with the low cost of labor, it is quite common for Expat Families to have a maid. Most maids are “Live-In” and many of the villas and apartments have a “Maid’s Room”; however, many people will also hire a maid to come in and clean a few days a week. You have to admit, that alone makes Dubai well worthwhile!