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Life in Dubai: A British expat on living in the UAE

We speak to Dannielle, a Brit who lived and worked in Dubai, to ask what is life really like in the expat hotspot?

We understand that there is no single ‘expat lifestyle’ and this series of interviews aims to tell the varied stories of different people from all over the world, living all over the world. We want to share their experiences, views and advice for those of you who live away from home or are soon to do so.

For our first interview, we speak to British travel blogger, Dannielle Noonan — author of While I’m Young — who has lived and worked in both Dubai and New York. She has travelled widely and, although she has settled back in the UK, she spent 14 months in the United Arab Emirates, the subject of much of her writing.

Why did you decide to move to Dubai?

“Dubai was never really on my radar until I was offered a job there through LinkedIn. It all happened very fast and I just kind of went with it, because I knew it was an excellent career opportunity and that it meant I'd be able to see the world.

“Because I moved to Dubai with a job already lined up, all of the admin was taken care of. That made the move a thousand times easier than if I'd gone out alone and started job-hunting with no visa.”

Dannielle Noonan quote graphic Dannielle Noonan quote graphic


What would you say was the best part of international life in Dubai?

“The best part of the expat experience in Dubai was that there were so many other people there in the same boat as I was. It's a place that's packed with young, career-minded people who want to have a good time while following their dreams.

“Also, I had a great social life out there. My weeks revolved around fancy brunches, yacht parties and ladies’ nights... such fun!”

What was the worst part, or the biggest challenge about moving there?

“The lifestyle took its toll on me, health-wise.

“I didn't want to miss a thing because I knew I wasn't going to stay in Dubai forever, so I tried to say ‘yes’ to everything. I definitely suffered from burn-out when I left!

“I also struggled with loneliness at first, but quickly got over that once I met people. Unlike most young expats in Dubai, I had a partner at home in the UK, so I also had to deal with maintaining a long-distance relationship, which was tough at times, but worth it!”

Was there anything that came as a surprise about living in Dubai?

“One of the more unexpected things — though I should have expected this, had I done my research — was that it was difficult to make local friends or to learn a lot about Emirati culture. 

“Emirati people are hugely outnumbered by expats in Dubai and I didn't really understand this until I was actually living there. I think I only had one or two conversations with local men the entire time I lived in Dubai! And to my shame I didn't learn much Arabic — but I didn't need to.”

“There are so many expats there — a great community. In fact, that's one of the things that makes Dubai a unique place to live: it's a melting post of hundreds of different cultures from around the world because so many people move there.”

10 Things Expats Should Know About Living in Dubai Before Moving There

Beverages on a table at a Dubai cafe Beverages on a table at a Dubai cafe

Photo by Dannielle Noonan

If you could have had one wish granted in relation to your life in Dubai, what would it have been?

“I wish I could go back and tell myself to put myself out there more when I first arrived. It took me a couple of months to realise that it was totally normal to go to expat meet-ups and arrange coffee dates with people in Facebook groups. That's how I met all of my friends in Dubai, but it was a lonely couple of months before I got into the habit of meeting strangers from the internet.”

Tell us a bit about becoming a blogger/expat blogger. Why did you decide to start blogging/ how does it feel to be a bit of a 'community voice' for people who live and work internationally?

“I'd already had While I'm Young for a few years and was blogging about my travels, so it was only natural for me to blog about my move to Dubai. I didn't realise just how useful other people would find the information I was sharing, and I still get messages today from people who thank me for writing about my experiences.

“People used my blog posts to help them decide whether to make the move or to help them plan, and I love that I've been able to help.”

Expats are apparently more prone to mental health issues because their support network and familiar things are often absent in their new home. What advice would you give for maintaining good mental health while living abroad?

“I can definitely understand that, and I think the most important thing you can do for your mental health when you move abroad is to find a support network as soon as possible.

“I set up a female-only Facebook group for expats in Dubai and that's a great place to make friends, get advice or just get recommendations for a good hairdresser!” 

Travelling as a young woman, how have your experiences of culture and society differed between the UK, USA and Dubai?

“I'm a feminist and I had a hard time accepting some of the rules in Dubai. Of course, the UAE is very lenient compared to its neighbours, but it's still governed by the same laws. It's all about respect though, and learning to appreciate other cultures' ways of life.

“One thing I found frustrating was the amount of bureaucracy you have to go through to get anything done out there!”

View of the Dubai skyline from a boat View of the Dubai skyline from a boat

Photo by Dannielle Noonan

What key piece of advice would you give someone moving to Dubai? 

“Do it! It was never a forever home for me, but it served me well for the time I lived there. Reach out to other expats, be wary of some landlords as there are some unscrupulous ones out there (that was the biggest challenge for me) and just enjoy every second.”

Dannielle’s words will resonate with many people who have made the move to live in Dubai — from the specifics of culture to the issues that face expats all over the world, such as mental health.  You can see her photos on Instagram and visit her blog at whileimyoung.com 

Moving to a new country can be a challenge as there’s so much to think about, from finances and family to education and health care. Ensuring you stay physically and mentally healthy while you’re there is essential — though many people leave health insurance until they’re ill, which can result in excessive costs and bad health outcomes. Aetna International provide high-quality international health care (from health and wellness benefits to international Private Medical Insurance) for expats like you – giving you access to health care whenever you need it, wherever you are.

It’s important to note that health insurance is mandatory for expats living and working in the emirates, so why not get a quote and see how Aetna International can help keep you healthy in your new home?

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