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What do expats really think of Dubai?

A new survey shows what life for expats in Dubai is really like and how it compares to other nations as an expat destination.

Google returns 106m results for ‘why move to Dubai’, but there are nearly as many for ‘why not to move to Dubai’ (85m). For all of the articles lauding Dubai as a new land of opportunities, there are those that warn of excessive heat, censorship, superficiality, cost of living and aspects of culture shock. Despite mixed reviews, HSBC’s 2017 expat survey revealed that the UAE was the tenth best expat destination.

We surveyed 500 expats from all over the world, many of whom live in Dubai, and this is what our survey found:

Key findings

Compared to the global expat average:

  • Twice as many Dubai expats like themselves less after moving abroad
  • Dubai is less effective at making expats feel like better people
  • Dubai doesn’t make expats re-evaluate their priorities
  • Dubai expats feel safe but disappointed - not welcome or inspired
  • Dubai expats say locals see them as ‘vital’ and ‘dominating’.


Pie charts detailing expat perspectives about moving abroad Pie charts detailing expat perspectives about moving abroad


Pie charts detailing expat perspectives about moving abroad Pie charts detailing expat perspectives about moving abroad

What expats think about living in Dubai

Expats in Dubai feel a little:

  • safer and
  • less scared

than the global expat average, which correlates to the very low crime rate and high confidence in things such as walking home alone during both day and night. 

HSBC’s expat survey recorded broadly positive sentiment from Dubai expats, ranking it tenth overall, it only ranked 20th for experience (lifestyle, integration, ease of settling in). Our survey reflected some of these negative sentiments with expats feeling:

  • unwelcome
  • disappointed
  • uninspired
  • and a little more bored

than the global average.

While many expat surveys proffer headlines such as ‘Dubai expats among top 20 highest paid in world’ ours reveals that it doesn’t always work out for those seeking to take advantage of the ‘best city for expats in Middle East and Africa’, who have issues finding work or making ends meet — as the comments late in this article reveal. 

Bar graph detailing top words associated with living in Dubai Bar graph detailing top words associated with living in Dubai

What do the locals think?

Our survey asked expats how they thought the local people viewed them and the results were striking.

The concept of a ‘Dubai local’ is different from most other destinations due to the density of expats (85%). As such it might come as no surprise that expats get the feeling that locals see them as dominating. Equally, it is easy to understand why expats might feel ‘vital’. Dubai’s rapid growth relied heavily on an influx of global talent to drive business and labour to build its impressive skyline, which meant people from a broad range of nations poured into the emirate city from India and Pakistan to European nations and the US (75% of expats are from south and central Asia and less than 10% are from Europe).

It is interesting to see that Dubai locals think expats aren’t ‘fun’ or ‘rich’. Dubai offers a cornucopia of activities which expats enjoy in their thousands, from fine dining to water sports (as our guest blogger explains), and the aforementioned headline: ‘Dubai expats among top 20 highest earners in the world’.

All of this points to the divide between expats: those coming to build (14%) and clean, and those who work at Fortune 500 companies (15% financial services). This was highlighted by the number of stories about mistreatment and poor working conditions of migrant domestic/construction workers that have broken over the last decade — from The Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Mail.

Bar graph of words people in Dubai might use to describe expats Bar graph of words people in Dubai might use to describe expats

Hardest aspects of relocating to Dubai

The following are comments from the survey:


The most common comment about settling into life in Dubai remains the universal expat challenge of community, support and making new friends.

  • Personal

o   “Leaving friends and family”
o   “Making new friends losing old connections”
o   “Not feeling at home”
o   “No community”
o   “Feeling like an outsider”

  • Money

o   “High cost of living from housing to health care”
o   “Rental is expensive

  • Health care

o   “Health care and medicines expensive/not to be trusted”
o   “Some medicines I was prescribed at home weren’t allowed in the country, so this worried me”
o   “Finding doctors and schools”

  • Housing

o   “Getting housing near work. I now have to commute an hour every morning”

  • Work

o   “Hard to get job because of language and cultural issues which I don’t fit in” (Malaysian expat).


56% of expats move to Dubai to ‘improve their earnings’, but as suggested above there is often a flip side to a utopia, where the ‘good life’ can be harder for everyone to achieve than is promised.

Our survey showed that some people found various aspects of money and work a challenge:

  • "Money was a struggle for our family” (Expat from Jordan)
  • "I had to settle for a job that I am overqualified for”
  • “I had trouble with visas and paperwork, very overwhelming and employer did not help sign my entry visa” (Expat from Iraq)
  • “Financially this was a struggle for me, as I left my family and came for a job, but had to have money to rent” (Expat from India)
  • “It was hard for me to establish myself in work” (Expat from Pakistan)
Couple outside in downtown Dubai browsing on a tablet Couple outside in downtown Dubai browsing on a tablet

What do aspiring Dubai expats need to know?

We asked our expats what they wished they’d known before relocating to Dubai:

  • Health care

o   “Importance of insurance”
o   “How health care [in Dubai] works”
o   “Accessing medical care”

  • Money

o   “Information on taxes and job situation, how am I able to get a good job and good benefits”
o   “How expensive it is!”

  • Moving and settling in

o   “It would take longer than expected to complete our move”
o   “To organise earlier and better”
o   “Advice on entry conditions”
o   “How difficult adjusting can be”
o   “Administration and how to complete it all at once”

  • Local knowledge and culture

o   “About the local/whole area/city”
o   “Good areas to live what my neighbourhood was like and places to go”
o   “That the heat is oppressive”
o   “A little Arabic”/“Some basic language skills”

  • Personal

o   “Where to meet people/similar people if you’re alone/lonely”
o   “How hard to be away from families”
o   “Places for children and families”

Brits in Dubai

Despite the fact that 80% of people in Dubai are expats, many Brits had trouble feeling at home. The hardest part of relocation was:

  • “Cultural differences and the strong religious influence”
  • “Being an outsider and a female”
  • “Always feeling like we are being watched”

Other comments included

The hardest part of relocation was:

  • “Dubai is an expensive place to live and I found it hard to manage my money whilst looking for a better lifestyle”
  • “Entering country and getting visas to live here” (US expat)
  • “The education system is very different here” (German expat)
  • “The weather and surviving in the heat. It completely changed our lifestyle”.


We asked our Dubai expats for their top tips and advice for parents relocating to Dubai with children:

  • Childcare

o   “Check childcare as it can be expensive”
o   “Research schools early on/help your kids integrate”

  • Communication

o   “Explain everything to your kids and keep them in loop”
o   “Be open with the family and share your experiences”
o   “Make time for the family to be together”

  • Acclimation

o   “Visit with your children beforehand as it is a very big decision”
o   “Remember their social life is important as well”
o   “Encourage children to mix with local families as well as other expats”
o   “Teach your kids the language”

Help planning your move

You can’t plan for every eventuality, but with pre-trip planning we can make sure you and your family’s health care and well-being needs are considered and covered for your entire expatriate assignment.

Whether you’re concerned about which medications you can bring into your destination country or you need to find a suitable physician for yourself or your partner, our 24/7 year-round service includes:

  • a detailed pre-trip planning programme, including information about the health care system in your destination country
  • guidance about the nearest medical centres and what to do in the case of a health emergency
  • a health assessment prior to departure to check for potential problems
  • help with shipping medications
  • medical support for chronic conditions
  • help arranging well-being programmes in your destination country

If you would like more information about relocating abroad, take a look at our library, where you’ll find more useful articles. Or you can get a health care quote here.

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