Update on Life. Life in Dubai

It’s now been 7 months since I first arrived in Dubai with intentions of establishing myself in the Middle East. With the exception of a few weeks of traveling to London to see my wife, I have spent most of my time in Dubai, so it’s probably a good time for an update on things as I have had a fair amount of experience with it.

Visiting a city or country and actually living on it is a completely different ball game, it didn’t take long for us to understand that when we first stayed in the US for an extended period and also didn’t take long for me to get that in Dubai. Dubai is a fascinating city, it really is, you can’t just go to places and do things without being marveled by some of the architecture and infrastructures they have.

Most, if not all, of the working force in Dubai is composed by expats. Either being immigrants from India, Pakistan, Philippines and Lebanon but also, especially for more skilled jobs, from Europe, America and Australia. There was a study recently about nationalities in Dubai and India was number #1 by a lot, UK was the main (still) european country represented and only about 10% were accounted as actual nationals. Impressive.

The main source of revenue for the city of Dubai is tourism, not oil as most assume – although that will apply to the rest of the emirates -, with the next big money moving market being finance.

The UAE are a federation of 7 emirates. Each Emirate has a ruler (similar to a Monarch), together they form a council from where the president, Vice President and Prime Minister are elected. Currently the President is the ruler of Abu Dhabi (that’s also the capital of the UAE) and the Vice President and Prime Minister the ruler of Dubai.  

From my experience is fairly more common to come across Emiratis, locals from the UAE, in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai. Maybe it’s a wrong perception that I have, but that’s what it seems like. Just curiosities you also quickly learn. Moving on.

Dubai is a very high paced city, people live to work. Like the US, the working market is very flexible, people switch jobs quite fast and your success (and job securement) mostly depends on how well you do your job. It seems like everyone is always in a rush and except for the very early morning hours, the traffic in Dubai is chaotic. At the same level, there is construction everywhere, in only 7 months I’ve seen probably two new skyscrapers raise from the ground up and every other day google maps still sends you thru a street that either has since changed or doesn’t even show up in the visual map yet. I guess these later things are also the main cause for traffic in the city: hundreds of thousands of constructions workers move daily across the city in big white buses paired with lots of heavy construction trucks and lots of people that just don’t where to go because the GPS is not accurate enough. Friendly tip: if you ever visit Dubai and use Google Maps, never listen to what it says rather look at the actual road and try to understand what makes sense, as the “keep left” or “keep right” usually means you have to decide between 5 different keep lefts options, and five other keep rights. And often you take the wrong one.

By now you may be thinking – what a mess. Well traffic can be quite hectic but like in any other big city you get used to it. If you are visiting, you barely notice these things and if you plan on staying you just adapt. Just like, if you live in London you quickly learn that you are better off not even driving. One thing that you do notice on both situations, visitor or not, is how safe Dubai is. Surely there is police everywhere, but you just feel very safe walking around any time of the day. Its frequent that people leave bikes in the cars overnight, walk on any city suburb at night and leave doors unlocked without incidents as there is just this extreme sense of security.

Now that you have a general picture, I will move on to the frequently ask questions since I moved here as they seem to be pretty consistent! Hah!

   

Do women have to cover themselves and is the Muslim culture hard for a European? 

Muslin women do cover themselves, but for non-muslin women there is no obligation to do so as they became used to the western way of dressing.  It’s always a good idea to learn and respect the culture of where you live, anywhere in the World, but it’s not daunting as most people imagine it. You deal with so many nationalities – and in triathlon its mostly westerns – that 90% of the time you almost forget that you live on a Muslim country. You must visit Dubai once in your life, that’s one thing I can say for sure.

 

Is it always a million degrees in Dubai? 

Well, yes. In all seriousness, heat in Dubai in the summer is far worse than Arizona, just to compare it to an extreme weather location that I’m familiar with as well. There were days during the summer when temperature was “only” 41 or 42C but humidity was so insane that my sunglasses would fog when I stepped outside the AC and the real feel was close to 55C. You just can’t train during daylight hours during the summer but, as Arizona, you get used to training at night (or very, very early morning). During the winter it does cool off but never as much as Arizona. Just this week, every time I went for a run, I was dripping in sweat as I got home and it’s late November. To be fair, winter so far is far nicer than Arizona, you can still go out at 4am with t-shirt and flip flops or ride your bike with bibs and jersey only. But ask again in January. I’ve heard that is when it’s ‘really cold’ accordingly to the ones that live here. I’m pretty sure their definition of cold is by now biased. Winter may be the best time to visit the UAE and weather is absolutely perfect for training.

 

How is training in Dubai? 

As a professional athlete this was always my main concern. I did know there were facilities to train at but not until I had to train here for weeks in a row, I understood how well would they work with my routine.

Let’s start with swimming: there are amazing pools to attend and obviously you have lots of open water to explore and dive in. I have found my mojo with a group called Dubai Masters Swimming Club who operate really close to where I live and offer very good pay-as-you-go sessions. It’s great to have them close and since they have morning and afternoon sessions, I just show up to the ones that suit my schedule. It’s perfect.

There are two particularly challenging aspects to riding (and running) in Dubai: first you have no hills in Dubai. None, zero, nada. You either drive to the mountains (about a 50-60min drive minimum) or you are riding and running in the boring flat. It’s OK if you are willing to make the drive out to the hills one or two times a week, which I have been lucky to manage. If you can’t make it, you do have to be cautious of it because while your pace/speed is always higher than normal – because there are no hills!!! – you almost loose fitness if you only ride under these conditions without making up for it. Not quite, but just a way of seeing it at the higher level that I hope to achieve. To compensate both cycling and running my coach, Jesse Kropelnicki, tries to incorporate on the training plan something to make up for it: either low cadence cycling repeats or plyometrics and “bridge” repeats on the run.

Regarding cycling only, it’s extremely safe to ride a bike in Dubai… because you can’t really ride on the normal streets alone. It’s illegal. So you end up having to ride on closed to traffic cycle paths (which they have and continue to build more) or you have to ride with an escort car driving behind you in a group situation. Having said that, its very rare that you hear of a fellow cyclist being hit by a car which is comforting, mostly for the ones you have at home waiting for your comeback from a ride. On the other hand, it becomes quite limiting as you either have the time to drive to the riding places and group routes or you are stuck to your indoor trainer. Still on the cycling side, I’ve done a fair amount of training and racing in the UAE and there are very strong guys to push me, which was something that I was also afraid of missing out after living in Scottsdale for so long where people do take cycling and triathlon seriously. Lastly, just a note for running – running is a easy sport, you can literally run anywhere. You can’t go shirtless, but other than that there is no limit. The humidity in Dubai is always quite high year-round so you just have to be careful with dehydration. Having said this, running would never be an issue anyways and it’s not an issue in Dubai. You have many places to explore over a run, namely the Dubai Marina and Jumeira Beach. Overall picture is that training is easy for the most part and I’ve found it to be quite good in Dubai. Better than I expected, really.

   

What are the biggest challenges in Dubai?

In my opinion, right now and from where I stand, there are two main challenges: one is cost of living. Dubai is a very expensive city to live on. Rent and food, which is basically where you end up having the fundamental and recurring expenses, is certainly more expensive than the average big city. For instance, I’ve had help with the housing situation (thank you btw!) but if I didn’t, I would have probably left already. On the other hand, wages are higher than normal as well so (I guess) it could break even… if people could save it. It seems like most people have a lot more expendable income money in their pockets but it’s quite challenging to save money just because there are SO many places where you can spend it on: from large brunches to life experiences, from shows to fancy cars. And it’s all very attractive. Most expats only stay in Dubai for a few years so they take the most out of their time here, as they should if they can. Yep, everyone seems to have a fancy car in their garage, you just don’t move to Dubai without getting a car that goes from 0 to 100km/h in less than 9 seconds and then there are so many radars on the roads that you quickly realize that you either drive under the speed limit or half of your income is also spent on speeding tickets. If you love cars, you can just sit at the Dubai Marina or City Walk Mall and enjoy the view – some very cool showings will pop up every Thursday and Friday nights. You also spend way more money on food than you actually need because there are a LOT of good restaurants and places to try out. I try to not even know about them so I’m not tempted (well, without Carolina here wouldn’t be the same anyways). Ignorance is a bliss and I try to avoid dinning out. Also, on the good side of things, gas and cars are cheap and until now there were no – generally speaking – taxes. Soon that will change in the UAE.

The second one is somewhat of personal struggle I have felt with the language barrier between my English and other’s English, especially when talking with some of the Asian expats. I have found difficult to deal with some of the sales persons on many different types of services because it seems like I can’t make myself across. The other day I went to Dubai Mall to get a specific cable and on every store, I ended up hand signaling and pointing fingers to explain what I needed (luckily that always works like a charm!).

Some would put the weather as a challenge, which can be, but honestly, I will take heat over any day of rain and cold, so I will not mention it as a challenge as I feel like its somewhat of a blessing. Not being with my wife Carolina – as she’s also doing what she loves the most in a different location – has been quite a struggle but obviously that is not Dubai related, it’s just a current and temporary life situation for us. I am yet to discover all there is to see, do and experience in Dubai, because I try to keep my life simple and low maintenance.

So, there’s that. An overview of what life in Dubai has been. I will post a different update more about training, racing, what I’ve been up to and what are the plans for the future, as this post is already long for my standards!

Pedro Gomes

Pedro Gomes is a professional triathlete made in Portugal, currently based in Dubai, UAE. He's also a certified Ironman triathlon coach and a self proclaimed donut connoisseur.