In 2010 I was a single, Kiwi woman, living in Dubai – the biggest, busiest Emirate of the United Arab Emirates.
During my 14 months living there, I loved and hated this Middle Eastern metropolis where I broke several Dubai laws, but luckily avoided jail unlike some less fortunate. I drank champagne and ate bacon in public whenever I wanted. I flatted with other male expats and Emirati nationals, while sharing a room with my boyfriend, although we never married – the law states a man and woman who live together must be.
It’s only since returning to NZ that I can honestly write about my Dubai experience. It’s a question I’m often asked about, but I risked jail and/or being kicked out had I publicly admitted some of this while living there.
I was discreet about my illegal behaviour. It meant I avoided getting in trouble with the authorities, when others have not been so fortunate. At the same time I never disrespected Emirati culture or Muslim laws in public. Instead I adopted a well-used Emirati belief; your private life stays behind closed doors and is often very different from the public front. Living like this was tiring, but it was a survival tactic to cope with the country’s strict, sometimes stifling laws.
The unprecedented growth of this city has been fuelled by globalisation and greed, and it’s easy to become intoxicated and drunk on Dubai, but the hangover has started to kick in for others.
My account of Dubai is not unusual, but it is different from most tourists and many other expatriates, who are married and/or male. Expats make up almost 90% of the Arab city’s population. Native Emirati account for just 11%.
In Dubai I am a minority – a single, white, female – and I was lucky. I avoided the attention of authorities, but my life-style created a constant state of low-level stress that I couldn’t continue to live with long-term. It posed many frustrations and difficulties in my day-to-day life that others may not have faced. For a while, the lure of money and the diversity and novelty of living in one of the world’s newest and richest country’s was a great distraction that helped overlook that.
I also met some of the most generous, sincere local Emirati nationals, but witnessed some tragic situations as other expats were stung by this country, which rose from the sand in record speed just forty years ago.
Overall life in Dubai was an unusual, eye-opening experience that I’d recommend to others.