x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

First impressions of the UAE

Meet four newly arrived expats and find out what they think of their new surroundings, careers and especially the weather.

Lynn Gervais, director of public relations for the new Ritz-Carlton at Dubai International Financial Centre.
Lynn Gervais, director of public relations for the new Ritz-Carlton at Dubai International Financial Centre.

Do you remember your initial impressions when you came to the UAE? Alice Haine meets four recently arrived expats and finds out what they think about their new surroundings, careers and especially the weather

Thousands of expatriates pile through the UAE's doors every year. In 2009 the population grew by 125,000, taking the total to 8.19 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and proving that people are still flocking here to enjoy all the perks that come with a tax-free lifestyle.

"The large majority move for career reasons, higher-income opportunities and a 'new life' for their family in the sun," says Victoria Moss, a relocation and property manager for Gulf Relocation Services, a Dubai-based private company that helps individuals and businesses settle in here. "They come with a lot of hopes and dreams but they should be prepared for the difficulties that often arise when moving to a new country such as visa issues, cultural differences, the shortage of school places and the difficulties setting up utilities."

And while each round of "newbies" often experiences the same highs as they settle in, they can also be susceptible to the same lows once the honeymoon period is over.

"There can be an element of fantasy and the feeling that everything will change," says the Dubai-based psychologist Devika Singh. "When the adrenaline boost wears off and the feeling of normalcy sets in this can sometimes be a reminder of what it felt like prior to the move. If the move was influenced by the need to experience something different and exciting, and because we know this feeling can never be permanent, that's usually when the depression can set in."

Classic signs of newbie fatigue include weight gain or loss, sleep problems, idealising their previous home, comparing friends, and feeling a sense of regret.

Singh has some reassuring words for those struggling through the first few months.

"One of the most powerful things expats eventually relate to is the acknowledgement that happiness or contentment is not dependent on physical environment; so whether it's Hawaii or Malaysia the only real determining factor is mindset, optimism and resilience," he says.

Meet four newbies who arrived in the UAE towards the end of last year and find out what they think of their new home.


Briton Kamal Raza, 38, the director of procurement and corporate planning for Yas Marina Circuit, arrived in the UAE on October 29 with his wife, Ghazal, 33, and three-year-old daughter, Zara. Raza, who is originally from Manchester, now lives in Khalifa Park, Abu Dhabi, after moving from Bahrain, where he had been living for the last two years.

Leaving Bahrain was hard for us. We loved it there because we had a great social circle and it's a very family-orientated place, whereas Abu Dhabi feels like a return to my London days; it's a more metropolitan style of living. We knew certain compromises needed to be made like housing and schooling because you get more for your money in Bahrain. We lived in a 465-square-metre, four-bedroom house on a compound with a pool, gym and year-round maintenance on site, but when we first arrived here there was little available. However, with a lot of perseverance from my wife we eventually moved into a five-bedroom house in Khalifa Park - between my office and my daughter's school, Al Yasmina.

In terms of adjusting to expatriate life, we'd already made that switch when we moved to Bahrain. I remember thinking that all my troubles had gone away when I first arrived there because you've got nothing to worry about except work and family. I never had to spend my weekend sifting through piles of junk mail or doing DIY to spruce up the house because there was no concept of post and if I wanted to put a picture up I just called maintenance.

But there seems to be a bit more paperwork to deal with here. I imported my car from Bahrain, which proved to be a bit of a hassle.

For my wife, her life in Bahrain involved a lot of charity work and she'd built up a formidable social circle when she was there, so I think the emphasis here will be on socialising and when the opportunity presents itself to get involved in charity work.

For me it's important to think we will be here for a long term. I decided to come here for the chance to get involved in one of the most glamourous sports in the world in a location that is becoming so widely known on a global level. The real benefit of working at Yas Marina Circuit is that I get to mix with Emiratis, as a good proportion of the team are local, so I'm learning about the culture, which is something I really enjoy. I also have one of the best views from my desk as my office looks straight onto the Yas Marina Circuit. I'm a complete petrol head and for me to have the opportunity to do something I absolutely enjoy and that I'm technically competent at is amazing.

What I love about Abu Dhabi is the sheer scale of progress. None of this [he points to the Yas Marina Circuit] was here when I first visited three years ago; the emirate is almost like a sleeping giant. From waking up to achieving so much, it's mind-blowing.


Canadian Lynn Gervais, 31, arrived in the UAE on September 26 to work as the director of public relations for the new Ritz-Carlton at Dubai International Financial Centre. Gervais, who is single and originally from Alberta, Canada, moved from Whistler and now lives in a two-bedroom apartment in MotorCity.

Coming from Whistler, where we've just hosted the Winter Olympics, I needed a new challenge and this was certainly it.

I've never lived abroad before but I've spent a lot of my personal time in this part of the world and I really wanted to get involved in the culture and the travel opportunities that come with living here. For my family, moving so far away wasn't a big deal. My parents are circumnavigating the world on a yacht; they're in Panama right now and keep telling me not to move before they get here. And my sister is a bit of a Gypsy - she's travelled everywhere - so there's definitely an adventurous spirit in the family.

What really appealed about the UAE was the large expatriate community. People warned me it was difficult to meet people but I've found the transition easy because everyone has something in common; we all chose to pick up our lives and come here, so you share that common bond. In fact people have gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome and help out with those random questions about where you can buy this or how to get to that place.

Initially I stayed in Dubai Investment Park, way out into the desert, while I waited for my housing to be ready, but once I moved into my apartment in MotorCity I felt really at home. I can walk to the supermarket in five minutes, there's a great studio where I can do yoga, and plenty of coffee shops and it's very green, which I love.

One of the things I've found the hardest is learning to navigate my way around the city. It's the first time I haven't had a car so I've been using the Metro regularly to do my grocery shopping.

But the biggest adjustment has been the lack of recycling. In Canada everything is recycled and not knowing where the nearest recycling facilities are is very strange. There are no special recycling bins in the malls - something that has been common practice for decades at home. When I take my own cup to be filled in a coffee shop, the staff looks at me blankly, but it's standard practice in Canada.

I also felt there was no easy access to the active lifestyle I'm used to. Obviously nowhere else is like Whistler, where I used to walk to work or cycle down to the lake on the weekend with my friends to do stand-up paddling or yoga on the beach. It's nothing that you can't do here but it seems to take more effort.


Alban Belloir, 36, from France, moved to Dubai on October 27 from Paris to take up a new position as Middle East and India director for the luxury jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels. Alban lived in a hotel before he found a new home for his wife, Christelle, 36, a sales and marketing director, and his two sons, Louis, six, and Guillaume, eight months.

My whole career has been driven by international business development and the luxury sector - two fields I feel very comfortable in - so a move to Dubai is a natural extension of that and a great challenge.

Even though I only moved here in October, I first visited in 2006 when I was handling the international franchising for a leading luxury food brand and over the course of the last four years have returned every three to four months. By coming in and out I have literally witnessed the spectacle of a city growing and expanding and taking space out of the desert. I am always fascinated when I take off to see the disappearing landscape - it is so spectacular. This relationship between the desert and the urban environment, the combination of city and nature, is something I will definitely explore now that I live here and is probably one of the reasons I was attracted to coming here.

Dubai is a land of possibility where your input and creativity can make a difference, so that is what really drives me. The whole region is very dynamic economically and you feel this energy, which is not the case in old Europe.

When I got the opportunity to come and develop one of the most beautiful jewellery maisons across the region, it was a real challenge. But from a personal perspective, the idea of going to a city where there is so much movement, variety and diversity in the people was also a driving force. I am in my 30s now so it is a time when I need to make big achievements and I think Van Cleef & Arpels can offer me the possibility to achieve major milestones.

The additional challenge was relocating my family including my newborn son. I started my new job a month after my wife gave birth and I believe in life you have moments where things change really fast. 2010 was a year of change in a positive way.

I have already enrolled my son in a French school and we have settled in Palm Jumeirah, as it is a suitable environment for a family and at the same time close to the school.

Before relocating here, my family came out for a short visit and my son was completely amazed by everything that is available for children - the weather, the sun, the sea and the attractions. My wife took him to KidZania and he thought he was in the middle of a dream. I think they will all be happy here.

It has been quite a hectic start though. I have a major challenge ahead, a lot of expectations and there is no settling-in period here - you have to hit the ground running. It is like the start line of a marathon. You start and you cannot go back and I never look back because I am really future-orientated.

What I like here is getting up in the morning with a lot of light; you are immediately awake and into the day. But the heat will be a big challenge for me because I am not a fan of air conditioning. I turn it off as much as possible.

I am looking forward to all the outdoor activities though. I am a runner and would like to play more golf. I also plan to go off-roading and camping to experience the silence and emptiness of the desert.

During my first week here I was woken up by an incredible noise. I looked out of my window and an F1 car was racing up and down Sheikh Zayed Road; one of the carriageways had been closed for the filming of Mission: Impossible. That was a nice introduction to my new life.


Marita Rekstat, 30, born in Oslo, arrived in the UAE on October 12 when she was six months pregnant with her second child. Rekstat, a former recruitment consultant, lives in a three-bedroom villa in the Arabian Ranches in Dubai with her British finance director husband, Mark, 40, their two-year-old daughter, Maya, and their four-month-old daughter, Ava. She moved from Wombourne in the UK, where she had been living for the last 12 years.

The first thing that struck me was the heat. I'm not very good with heat and had said to my husband in the past, "I can't believe you're dragging me to the desert - can't we move to Canada or something?"

But I was also awestruck by how plush, grand and nice everything looked. Compared to the Midlands in the United Kingdom, the skyline was so beautiful and the malls are something else. And nothing beats the lighter days - you wake up in the morning and just feel happy.

We've wanted to move to Dubai for a few years now for the tax-free lifestyle but our last two attempts didn't quite come off and then this opportunity came up. When we first decided to move we didn't have any children but this time we had a two-year-old and another on the way. After a lot of discussion we decided to go for it but I insisted that Mark go ahead and sort out the house so that Maya and I had somewhere to move straight into.

My first priority was finding somewhere to give birth. I found a nursery for my daughter to give me some time to research hospitals and doctors. Lots of people told me their birth horror stories, which made it difficult to decide where to go and I found the health system very confusing.

Thankfully my daughter has settled in really well, which is a huge relief. She loves going to the pool every day for a swim and a play in the park. It's nice to have that daytime routine and we love the amount of leisure time we have as a family.

In the UK my husband and I both worked so the week would fly by and on the weekend we would chill. We always tried to do things together as we are quite outdoorsy people, but because of the weather you do stay indoors more and watch more TV, whereas here there's so much to do.

One thing that has shocked me is the maid culture that exists here - it's like a Hollywood Wives style of living and I wondered beforehand whether I was going to fit in. Back home we had a cleaner once a week and while I'm planning to have someone four hours a week - mainly to help with babysitting - I'd never consider a full-time maid. I think it would be incredibly difficult to go back home if you got too used to that lifestyle.

A lot of the women here don't work and I can see myself getting a bit bored and wanting to do something, so I do plan to go back to work. There seems to be a massive social aspect that we don't have in the UK with women's clubs and coffee mornings, so we'll see.

But the good news is that my second daughter arrived safely on December 28 at the American Hospital and we called her Ava Florence Hough.


New to the UAE? We've created a guide for expats with practical information to help you enjoy your new life. Visit www.thenational.ae/guide