Irish in the UAE: High costs, loneliness, and the risks of a taxi alone
Emigrants in Abu Dhabi on the benefits of no tax, and the dangers of falling into debt
Around 10,000 Irish people live in the UAE; around one-third of them are teachers. Photograph: iStock
Irish emigrants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have advised women who move there against getting a taxi alone. One Irish woman living there says it is “not as safe as it seems”, and another recounted being locked in a taxi during the day, as the driver wanted her number.
The warning comes in a report from Crosscare Migrant Project, as part of its research into life in the UAE for new Irish emigrants. In the qualitative research, other women said they often caught taxis there, including while intoxicated, and that their experience had been “overwhelmingly positive”.
Using a small sample, the group discussion - facilitated by Sarah Owen, Crosscare’s Irish Abroad networking officer and Louise Wilson, second secretary at the Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi - explored challenges and benefits for Irish people there, as well as practical advice for those considering a move.
One third of an estimated 10,000 Irish people in the UAE are teachers.
Of the nine participants, six women and three men, four were teachers. Five of the nine had been in the UAE for two years or less.
All the teachers in the group had taught before emigrating to the UAE, and they say demand for teachers is still high, with schools seeking people with teaching experience (rather than raw graduates).
Irish teachers do have the best reputation
One participant noted that “Irish teachers do have the best reputation”. One teacher had worked for 10 years before deciding to move to the UAE, mainly because of high rents in Dublin, as well as to save and experience a different culture and climate.
Some participants found a disconnect between advance information and what life is actually like in the UAE. One commented “Don’t believe what you read”. Another expected the lifestyle to be “strict and very conservative” but found this not to be the case, while another comment was that although things are relaxed, it is not advisable to break the rules, and emigrants should “stay under the radar”.
Breaking the law
Participants noted that while bending the rules is not unusual in the UAE, getting caught breaking the law can have serious consequences. Living together without being married, or being intoxicated, can result in difficulties. Another said in their experience, there is a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, unless a UAE citizen can vouch for a person’s good character.
One participant pointed out UAE residents need an alcohol licence to drink, and a person hosting a party is liable if party-goers are drunk.
None of the emigrants surveyed spoke Arabic, but got by with English. Although language was generally not a barrier, one person talked about the risk of isolation when working with non-English speakers, especially without access to a personal support network.
The high cost of living is a challenge for emigrants, particularly families, who have to pay school fees (possibly €9,500 to €12,000 per child), while single people remarked social life is expensive.
Several said it was easy to fall into debt in the UAE, with credit card limits and interest rates much higher than in Ireland (“at home we would have an APR of 18 per cent. Here it’s 18 per cent a month!”) They spoke about getting into difficulty with debt, and a lack of awareness that “if you’ve a loan or if you’ve any debts here you cannot leave until they’re paid off”.
Things are changing in the UAE, those surveyed observed. One noted, “now you’re told what we were told eight years ago when we left Ireland - you’re lucky to have a job”.
Two people were “trailing spouses”, moving to the UAE when their partner was offered a job, and in both cases it took three to five months to find work.
Other challenges were noted: patience was required working with non-Irish co-workers; there’s a risk of isolation working with non-English speakers, especially without a personal support network; taking a labour case against an employer is expensive and lengthy.
Salaries are high but parents mentioned long working hours came at a high cost to family life, risking children will “grow up with a nanny” unless one parent isn’t working full-time.
Isolation and depression were mentioned as key challenges, with teachers acknowledging they have networks when they relocate, unlike others. Two participants represent Darkness into Light Abu Dhabi and said the criminalisation of suicide in the UAE is a barrier to support. “You hear stories of people getting caught and stuff like that. It makes it very, very difficult for people to even say ‘oh can I ask somebody for help?’".
Some emigrants “left home because of some sort of baggage”, and the stress of emigration “can exacerbate the condition”, with no accessible, affordable support.
If medication and mental health care are accessed through health insurance, employers are made aware of it.
You can start with nothing and build your way up
The new Irish emigrants said the main benefit of living in the UAE is the lack of taxation, allowing them to save. There’s also opportunity and life experience; one participant compared it to the “original definition of the American dream”’ where “you can start with nothing and build your way up”.
Others spoke about the good social life and benefits for children growing up, because of the standard of education and exposure to sport and arts.
Advice for new Irish emigrants
The group offered practical advice to intending emigrants to UAE.
1. Download Skype before moving as you can’t make video calls or Whatsapp, Skype or Facetime calls using a UAE sim card or VPN.
2. Get involved with a group (GAA, Darkness into Light, Abu Dhabi Mums
group, Irish Business Network were suggested) to build a support network. One woman said “girls who’ve never played football in their life will play just to meet people”.
3. Unless you have a job lined up, don’t move to the UAE, to avoid delays in finding work, complications with visas and the high cost of living. Others advised a reputable recruitment agency, and to be open to changing sector.
4. Don’t get into debt the minute you get there. Banks offer loans and credit cards quickly and “people don’t read the fine print”.
Crosscare Migrant Project (migrantproject.ie) is a Dublin based non-profit funded by the Emigrant Support Programme of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide information and advocacy to intending and returning Irish emigrants.