Living and Working in the United Arab Emirates


Getting towards the end of my career, I’d been waiting for some excitement in my life for years. My job with the Australian Government had changed after successive restructures to a job in which I wasn’t interested, not trained, educated or experienced. Sure, I coped with the work, but I felt like a fish out of water. I desperately needed a new direction as I sat waiting for a promised redundancy package.

When my wife returned from a trip to the Middle East and suggested I apply for a job in the UAE, I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. Within days I was searching the Internet for job vacancies and found there were hundreds. Within a month or two I had a job offer to work as a teacher within the Faculty of Business at Al Ain Women’s College, one of 13 Higher Colleges of Technology.

Having never lived overseas before, it was a big decision to go somewhere with a vastly different culture, far away from our children and grandson. We decided that we’d take the challenge and if it didn’t work out, we could always come home.

Our Arrival

We arrived at Dubai International Airport at some ungodly hour after a 14 hour trip from Melbourne, Australia. We had been told that we needed to pick up our Temporary Visas from an immigration desk, but while we found the desk, the staff was elusive, our first clue that everything doesn’t run as well in the UAE as it does in Australia. Within an hour, we had passed through Customs, collected our bags and visas and left the airport with a very likeable, well-dressed and well-spoken Indian man called Vijay. Vijay was a driver employed by the Al Ain Colleges and we found out soon that he was the person who made things happen for new employees… Mr Fix It.

After signing my contract, I was handed two envelopes. One contained a sum of cash to cover our stay at a hotel for six days, the other had a cheque for 30,000 Dirhams for setup costs. We had no idea what a Dirham was really worth, but it seemed like a lot of money… and I hadn’t done a day’s work yet.


We found Al Ain a delightful oasis with two-lane carriageways divided by iron fences and date palm trees. It was surprisingly green for a place in the middle of the desert, but everywhere we went, we saw that the municipality had taken great pride in providing a beautiful city with an excellent system of roads and infrastructure. It was much nicer than our town in Australia and water was obviously plentiful.

Very evident to us was the difference in dress among the populous who were largely Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Asians, and Arabs. Caucasians like us were relatively scarce (about 3,000 among 400,000 population). We could tell where people were from by their dress, if not their appearance. Even the Arabs have different dress; visitors from nearby Oman have headdress that distinguishes them from the local Emiratis, but both wear similar kandora (a long white, dress-like robe).

Everyone we met was friendly, despite frequent language barriers. There was no graffiti and litter was scarce. Buildings ranged from ostentatious to crumbling brick box abodes for low paid labour. Our accommodation in a huge housing complex was palatial by Australian standards; four bedrooms and a maid’s room, five toilets, high ceilings, and a two car garage. We couldn’t believe that two people were to be accommodated in such large accommodation.

The HCT’s orientation for our 14 new staff was lengthy and comprehensive, the best orientation program I had ever experienced. In September I began teaching with classes in human resources topics for final year students and computing and general business for first year students.

The Challenges of Teaching

For the first few months I wondered whether I had made the right decision. I had 140 students in class groups of 20 aged between 19 and 25. Their English ranged from almost incapable to passable and most couldn’t construct a simple sentence. They were apparently unaccustomed to study and not very motivated to learn. Life at college was an escape from their homes.

My ladies wore traditional garb… black abeyas from neck to foot and black headdress. Several had only their eyes visible. Their names were not only lengthy, but mostly new to me. I had great difficulty pronouncing some names and remembering who was who when they all looked similar; brown eyes, brown skin and black clothing. After I settled in, I began to realize that they were a very immature lot compared with Australian teenagers. Many had never been to a shop; most had never spoken to males outside their families; their knowledge of the world was very narrow fitting tightly within the strict bounds of their Islamic religion, culture and place in life. They had mainly pleasant, humorous dispositions, which was a lifesaver as I quickly developed an excellent rapport with most of them who in some ways reminded me of my own daughter now so far away.

This strange fellow from Australia with a funny accent who spoke fast and occasionally used Australianisms soon fitted in to his new surrounds and made friends with the locals.

While work was a considerable challenge trying to motivate them, deliver education in a meaningful and understandable way, it was also satisfying to know that one day, what I had helped them learn, would be of value to them and would, perhaps, help the United Arab Emirates.

Making Friends

The best part of the whole adventure was the new friends we made with expats from Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, the US, Jordan, Egypt, France, Turkey and even Australia. With the cost of living so cheap, we dined out frequently and celebrated every birthday, national day, and often dined out just to share a meal, a glass of wine and some good company.

During our summer holidays we managed to travel all over Europe, to Canada, Hong Kong and several Middle Eastern countries outside the UAE. We spent a week at Cyprus. One of our reasons for moving to the UAE was to travel. We certainly did that and it was much cheaper than doing it from Down Under.

Making Money

While my salary was about the same as I earned in Australia, there is no income tax. In fact there is hardly any tax at all, although if you dine at a hotel now, you pay 10% service charge and 6% tourism tax. There are fees for motor vehicle registration, driver’s licences etc, but all were much, much cheaper than I would have paid in Australia. Petrol was dirt cheap as was food and almost everything else, so we lived like kings and deprived ourselves of nothing, knowing that this dream would eventually end.

Although we hadn’t gone to the UAE to make money, my wife didn’t work and we did our very best to spend it on travel, a new car and living comfortably, we left with a large amount of cash, some new furniture and tailor-made clothing etc. We did very well out of the UAE.


When you live in an isolated place like Australia, it is easy to become Australia-centric and maybe a bit arrogant. Visiting other places broadens your outlook and is the experience of a lifetime that every Australian should take. It has a humbling effect when you see countries that don’t have drunks stumbling about the streets, no graffiti, no petty theft, no street brawls, and clean, well-dressed people with pride, unlike much of Australia. Conversely, a couple of countries we visited reminded us how very lucky we are to be able to get on a jet and return to Australia.

Copyright 2008 Robin Henry