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Image / Editorial

The Irish expat community opens up about what it’s REALLY like to live in Dubai

by Geraldine Carton
29th May 2018
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Irish people emigrating is nothing new; but it’s usually been to English-speaking, relatively western-cultured locations such as Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA that our brethren have set off to. The idea of heading to an Arabic country where the temperatures can routinely hit the 50•C mark and where you need a personal licence to buy alcohol for your home is, you’ll agree, pretty out of the norm.

And yet, that’s exactly what a staggering amount of Irish citizens have been doing over the last number of years; their sights set on the greener, irrigated pastures of Dubai.

The Dubai-based Irish are a strong community of go-getters, pleasure-seekers, business-venturers and “grab-life-by-the-balls” types. Since the fall of the Celtic Tiger they’ve been flying out to Dubai in their droves, choosing to take a chance in the Sunny UAE, where jobs are aplenty and tax is a mere figment of the local imagination.

For some, it was an opportunity and an adventure that they couldn’t resist, for others it was more a matter of necessity: make the move or continue to live a life of financial struggles and job insecurities here. Whatever their reason for leaving, it seems as though they each arrived with the same one desire: to make the most of this unique, jaw-dropping experience and to prosper. And that, they certainly did.

If you’re just interested to know that it’s like to live in a place governed by a somewhat lax Islamic law, and where the Friday bottomless brunches are attended with the same religious fervour as mass in 1960’s Ireland, then scroll on to see what it’s really like to live in the “Monaco of the Middle East”, according to the Irish themselves.

Image via Roman Logov on Unsplash

Irish businesses in action

The Irish in Dubai have secured a brilliant reputation for the rest of us as many have started businesses or excelled in their respective roles, often at the top echelons of their industry. What’s more, there’s a willingness here to see other Irish people succeed, as shown through The Irish Business Network who meet regularly and have a tremendous pool of talented people offering support and advice.

The IBN have been such a great support to me, providing endless advice along my business journey. The community is just so welcoming to new arrivals. – Evelyn McDermott

There is also a subsection of the IBN dedicated solely to women in business in Dubai:

The IBN Leading Women’s sector encourages diversity and welcomes women from all industry sectors; women returning to work after a break, female entrepreneurs and women who are smashing the glass ceiling at work. – Niamh Jordan

The likes of Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia also have a strong presence in the UAE and are largely responsible for bringing Irish cheese, eggs, potatoes, ice-cream, butter, tea bags (i.e. all the essentials) to Dubai.

Favourite things about Dubai

Dubai might be most well known for its shopping mall windows filled with designer handbags; palm-shaped island constructions and seven-star hotels that scrape the sky, but what people living there appreciate has a lot more substance than that (thankfully).

An incredible education system, welcoming locals, air-conditioned bus stops, a safe atmosphere and a wide range of socialising opportunities with different cultures; this is what people living in one of the most glamorous, opulent, lavish and sweltering destinations on earth truly value.

Crime here given the strict laws is very low. It is such a lovely feeling to leave you handbag on the table with your wallet or phone and nobody would touch it. I leave my car unlocked at night with never an issue. Walking around at night I always feel safe and as my husband travels a lot being in the house on my own feels safe too. – Amanda Gavin

There is a massive Irish community here and a massive expat community in general and it is fantastic, I never thought I would be playing GAA in the middle of the desert but there you go! – Chris Strong

Just recently to celebrate International Happiness Day, there was a 5-day carnival in Dubai, with the participation of more than 2,000 people of 200 nationalities living in the UAE. The carnival had participants of all ages and nationalities showcasing their culture through a procession of dances and music through the streets. Niamh Jordan

Image via Pontus Ohlsson on Unsplash

Least favourite things about Dubai

It hasn’t all been plain sailing here; there have been streams of paperwork, extortionate living expenses, major culture shocks, homesickness, and you can bet that there have been some bad sunburns along the way, too. In such a transient place, where residents leave as frequently as newcomers arrive, it’s worth noting why people might not be tempted to stay here forever:

My least favourite experiences in Dubai are most definitely related to the exhausting amount of paperwork and admin you need to go through when you move here. The application process for your Emirates ID (the valid ID card in the UAE) is extremely long and drawn out (can take up to two and a half months to process) and requires you to go through a medical involving a blood test, biometric scanning, chest x-ray and taking your fingerprint. Waiting for this to come through means it can be hard to do a lot of basic things when you first arrive such as taking out a lease on an apartment or setting up a bank account.  Andrea Wubben

My least favourite experience has got to be moving apartments four times in seven years. Between rent prices increasing and landlords changing their minds at the flip of a switch, you could end up moving every year unless you’ve got a good deal going for yourself! It’s expensive and a hassle to say the least, but it seems like it’s just part of living in Dubai. – Linda Bonnar

My least favourite experience in Dubai is the massive class divide. Dubai is very class orientated and I find that difficult to experience. – Amanda Gavin

How long did it take you to adjust to the heat (or have you adjusted)?

It’s mid-May and its already 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees celsius), but I have been here for more than 12 years and I know how to avoid the soaring temperatures. You just plan well and limit your exposure to the outdoors, and with an abundance of air conditioned venues and services, we’re not suffering too much. – Eithne Treanor

Irish people aren’t made for heat like this. Most of the year it’s bearable but during summer months it’s like living in an oven! – John Slattery

The local people & local culture

Dubai is a relatively young country that still is governed by Islamic law (however lax this may be by UAE standards). This may cause some cultural differences, but clashes are rare as the locals are known for being incredibly welcoming and the expat community make an effort to respect the societal norms, such as not eating in public during Ramadan and dressing “modestly” in shopping malls.

I think the media are responsible for a certain amount of scaremongering when it comes to life in Dubai. Dubai is a very fashion forward city; on the beach, everyone’s in bikinis and swimwear as you’d see anywhere else in the world, going out at night, women dress just as they would at home in Ireland in dresses and skirts. The only difference is perhaps in the malls, I tend to cover my shoulders and legs out of respect for the local custom. – Chanelle Tourish

At only 15%, the local community in Dubai is very small, but they have made a big impact amongst many expats:

I love the local community here.  I’ve always found them to be so welcoming and warm, plus they love the Irish! They’re the type of community that would welcome you into their home and put on a feast for you at the drop of a hat. – Irene Feeney

I moved here initially to teach local students (teenage girls) and they were the best students I’ve ever taught. They’re so respectful, polite, kind and grateful for their education. – Gemma Gallagher

Expat culture

Brunch seems to be the staple social outing in Dubai, especially on Fridays where you’ll find incredible “bottomless brunch” deals in practically every high-end restaurant in town. And when people have had their fill of prosecco and poached eggs then afternoons can be spent at the beach, kayaking around the Palm Jumeirah island, or browsing around one of the multiple malls in the city.

The evenings are usually when the temperatures have dropped enough for expats to get involved with the various sports groups, such as the Emirates Cycling Club or the Dubai Celts Ladies GAA team.

I never played Gaelic in Ireland, but I saw it as a way of becoming more involved in the Irish community in Dubai. I’m not great at the game, but I have fun trying and of course the social sessions after are always great banter! – Chanelle Tourish

After a bit of exercise or a long day at work then the fun begins when the decision must be made as to which of the multitudes of exquisite restaurants they will frequent for a meal out under the Dubai skyline. The opportunities to party here are also endless, with ladies’ nights (where ladies drink and eat for free) taking place across the city every night of the week making the lure of partying all the greater.

Pub group McGettigans gets several mentions for the way in which they organise for Irish bands and comedy acts to come over, somewhat easing peoples’ homesickness along the way.

Dennis McGettigan and his team have been brilliant at organising all sorts of events and bringing over top Irish comedians and legendary Irish musicians and singers to perform in lovely, intimate settings. – Eve Hester-Wyne

Image via Rhianon Lassila on Unsplash

Is it easy to save money, or is the urge to splurge too strong?

People assume that living tax-free means that expats are sure to save thousands in Dubai, but the high cost of living, and the lure to keep up with the “Dubai expat standard of living” means that the reality is somewhat different.

It would be very easy to get caught up in a culture or social scene where you often drop 1,000DHS (about €234) on dinner, wear only high-end designer brands and drive a car beyond your means, I think the people you surround yourself with dictate to some extent whether this happens. I reckon if I started to “develop notions above my station” my group of friends would be very quick to ground me! – Ryan Cooke

It is not as easy to save in Dubai nowadays. Dubai is buzzing and it constantly has new experiences, restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions to try. With the recent introduction of 5% VAT on certain services and products, the cost of living is increasingly becoming more expensive. All of these can make saving more challenging! Sorcha Coyle


The education system in Dubai has a brilliant reputation for the quality of services it provides children of all ages. Unfortunately, however, this service does not come cheap, with the average school fees for one primary school pupil averaging in at about €9,000 per year (these fees can reach as high as €20,000 per year).

The schools are like holiday camps with indoor and outdoor Olympic sized swimming pools, 3G pitches, soundproofed music rooms and lobby’s there were more like five-star hotels than secondary schools! – Ryan Cooke

Even though school fees are extremely high here – the schools are excellent – that’s one thing we will miss when we do eventually leave. I love how my daughter is mixing with so many nationalities and at 4 years of age is also learning to speak and write Arabic. – Irene Feeney

Will you stay here forever?

The day-to-day reality of Dubai life involves fickle home rental arrangements and dangerous driving standards as much as it does incredible tax benefits, stunning weather, deluxe amenities and an endless supply of bottomless brunch opportunities. And yet in the face of the question “Will you live here forever?” the same number of people say “never say never” as those who insist that home is Ireland, and they will definitely be returning home in the future.

I think home is where the heart is, and mine belongs in Ireland. – Chanelle Tourish


Main image via Denis Harsch on Unsplash

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