I am contacted by loads of people who are considering moving here and want to know what it is like. (Like it is possible to explain this crazy place) However I completely understand, and remain grateful to the high school friend of a guy I was dating before I came here. She patiently asked every last one of my screwball questions in a series of email exchanges, easing my anxieties and providing a realistic window you just cannot get from the Internet. The artistic renderings are just the beginning, my friends.
Anyway, a few things popped into my mind today, stuff I wish I'd thought about before arriving. I may add some others as they occur to me later, but here goes:
1. Vow that you will only shop for clothes and shoes on trips to Dubai or when you are out of the country. My group of friends is always complaining about aimless days spent in the malls getting out of the heat, which usually involve a pointless purchase from the Gap (no bargain rack, last year's designs) or somewhere else that is equally lame. You'll be tempted, but everything is too expensive and really not that great most of the time and you can save a lot of your hard-earned dollars this way, trust me.
2. Ladies, men from this region are lovely. But some have a courting approach that could best be described as of the "stalking" variety. At the very least you will find it far different from the standoffish tendencies of their counterparts in the West. I have been followed in cars and in malls, cornered by a shopping cart in the vegetable section of the supermarket and pestered by a man idling in his car, shining his brights at me while I desperately tried to hail a cab. More than once. My friend once found a man peering back at her through the clothes on a rack at Mango. Fending off someone repeating "I just want to know you" or "please have coffee with me" while exhibiting behaviour that could warrant criminal charges back home ceases to be entertaining. I am sure these men meant nothing untoward, but I've never been into finding out. Avoiding eye contact, I have learned, is key to avoid anything getting started.
3. Negotiate your salary before you get here. It's worth it just to add a couple thousand a year to what you will be paid, as once you get here all leverage is gone. It's not uncommon for bonuses and other promised perks to evaporate upon arrival, and just like other places, few people are getting raises. At least you can avoid kicking yourself.
4. Make a plan to save money and do it. Why did you come here, anyway? Sure it was for the adventure and the new friends and the climate and everything else, but you want something to show for it when you go home, don't you? If you go about being here right, you advance your financial situation in ways that would be all but impossible back home. Set up a mechanism immediately that will save what you would have been paying in income tax. Otherwise you will "mean to do" it the entire time or worse, end up like all those Dubai high-flyers who can't leave because they are so in debt.
5. Get a professional to advise you in both tax and foreign exchange issues before leaving. I can't tell you how many people I have had casual conversations with who have no idea what the tax rules are in their home country and seem to be doing things that could result in a big bill they are not expecting later. As for foreign exchange - don't try to understand it, just try to minimise your risk. Take it from someone who had my savings in Canada transferred to US dollars when the currencies were at an unusual parity and put all the money I saved in the first six months in Euros because the savings account offered a higher interest rate. Euros? I am still shaking my head on that one.
6. Be careful the entire time you are here. People are watching and this is not home, no matter how comfortable you feel. That means keeping your head about you, particularly when alcohol is involved, showing no public affection, refraining from flipping anyone the bird – it's illegal and all anyone has to do is accuse you of doing it to land in jail – and being wary of offending anyway, especially Emiratis. Get your alcohol license; don't have a drop to drink when driving – it's zero tolerance, and you could hit someone and then, frankly, you're f---ed – and act like a responsible traveller at all times. You do not want to spark an embarrassing - and expensive - international incident.
7. Decide to accomplish something during your time abroad and then do it. My first boss here told me this at my welcoming dinner, and I have remembered it. I decided to travel, and boy have I ever. More than 10 countries in two years. Of course, I haven't learned Arabic, written a book, done much in the way of volunteering OR joined up with the Abu Dhabi Island Hash House Harriers - but I haven't left yet!
8. Make friends outside of work. I entered a place with hundreds of people who arrived all at the same time, in the same boat, and the opportunities were endless. I have made friends for life at work, and I love them, but two years on the dust has settled and without a lot of people outside hang out with, it can all feel a little claustrophobic. There are loads of social organisations, group activities, outings, fitness classes and ladies nights that can help get you there.
9. Hummus, while delicious and good for you, should be consumed in small doses!Make a plan to avoid the Abu Dhabi or Dubai "stone". Many people (myself included) have gained weight here, some of them a lot of weight, especially in the summer when it is absolutely stifling outside. The cheap and plentiful takeout options and fast food culture do not help. Gyms are expensive and not always conveniently located. And be vigilant as your time wears on! Those pounds can creep on when you least expect it.
10. Appreciate it. Abu Dhabi bashing is practically a verbal sport. It is very easy, when separated from one's family and friends, living in a neighbourhood you would have previously viewed as a tenement while paying exorbinant rents, knowing the situation is impermanent and having no idea what the future holds, to be negative and focus on what the capital does not have versus its many assets. Many people will do this, and you will have to fight regularly to avoid sinking to their level. It's stressful, and it's crazy, and it's also entirely what you make it.