by Hayley Doyle
It’s wonderful that Dubai Bling became an instant hit after debuting last month, despite its IMDb rating being a shocking 3.5/10. It really is a success story for the middle east’s film industry that it became Netflix’s third most-watched non-English-language TV show on the week of its release. And the following week, it rose to second place. But Netflix, since you’re so fond of reality TV, why not actually make a reality TV show based on Dubai?
No, not the bling, although we know the bling exists.
But let’s be honest, when it comes to bling, that stuff can be found screaming for attention in many corners of the globe. London isn’t specifically known for its bling, but a trip to Harrods’ or lunch around Sloane Square will make you think otherwise. Dubai is (in)famous for dripping with gold, and the media love to exaggerate this, so much that it’s become a bit of a broken record. Huge presumptions are now made about the desert-dwelling emirate. Certain British tabloids have scare-mongered potential tourists, tearing down the reputation of those living an honest life there. Many who have never visited have been completely put off ever stepping a well-grounded and reasonably priced shoe near the place. When I tell people that I lived in Dubai for seven years, common responses are, “I’ve never fancied going there,” or “It’s never been on my radar,” and of course, “But you can’t drink, can you?”
Oh dear, Netflix…you’re worried? That people won’t want to watch a show about Dubai that isn’t about opulence and vacuous brats? That nobody has any desire to know what it’s like to live there? That generally, there’s no intrigue about the day to day and night to night?
Well…Ask any Dubai expat what happens when they tell somebody that they live in Dubai. Once the three common questions (see above) are out of the way, the conversation becomes riddled with curiosity. It’s not like saying, you lived in New York or Paris or even say, Hong Kong. Those incredible cities have been longer established and featured in the media from a much more rounded perspective. So after I’ve answered the initial - and sometimes judgemental - grilling by saying politely, “I know what you mean, I’d never thought about going to Dubai, it hadn’t been on my radar until I got offered a job there, and yes, you can drink,” the interest is sparked. I get asked, “So what’s it really like to live in Dubai?”
Dubai is full of people just like me. And just like you. Examples of every walk of life currently live there. Of course, you have local Emiratis of which 75% work for the government. Then, there are people from more than 200 nationalities living and working across the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Currently, the Indian population is the highest with 2.75 million, followed by Pakistanis with 1.27 million. Almost half a million Filipinos are based in Dubai alone, and contrary to popular belief, they are represented across all major sectors of work. An estimated 240,000 Brits are living in Dubai, around 50,000 South Africans, 40,000 Americans, and 15,000 Australians. Yes, expat living is attractive, but for a whole range of reasons, including high standards of living, safety within the city, career opportunities, and mixing with a variety of cultures.
So is everybody a business tycoon or a bored housewife? Certainly not. Think about this; The UAE has 639 public schools and 580 private schools with a total enrolment of 287,725 students (public schools) and 793,295 students (private schools). Teaching and working in education is a popular reason to become a Dubai resident. High-tech hospitals and medical teaching centres dominate Dubai Healthcare City, and for over 20 years, Dubai Media City has cemented its position as the region’s most credible media community housing the largest global and local media brands. Dubai Design District is a purpose-built community dedicated to the design, fashion, and culture community, including startups, entrepreneurs, and well-established international design, luxury, and fashion brands. Alserkal Avenue is an industrial area of warehouses that has become the arts and culture district for Dubai with a lineup of galleries, facilities and platforms, housing residencies for local and global artists. You’ll find an array of textile shops and world-class tailors in Al Satwa, kite-surfing communities at numerous beaches, and affordable delicious food and old souks beside the creek. There’s even Dubai Sustainable City, the first operational Net Zero Energy city in Dubai, modelled to become an international showcase for high quality sustainable living.
Packing up your life to move 4000 miles away from home is something that you instantly have in common with other expats, and yet, it’s still an unusual path to take. There’s little judgement for those who remain in the town or city they were born in, or move from say, London into the countryside, yet expats are often harshly criticised. Talk of the labour laws crops up, how “everybody” has a maid (they don’t) and after reading yet another tabloid story on modern slavery, expats can be made to feel personally responsible. Yes, there are definitely controversies within all of this, and I won’t defend that at all. But Dubai is a great hub of hard-working people, wanting to give their families the best life possible, with many who are genuinely trying to make a difference and be at the forefront of positive change.
So what made me decide to live there? I was in a rut in the UK, unfulfilled within my career and desperate for a big change. I wanted to live abroad, but I was conscious of the fact I didn’t speak another language, the curse of the English. A job came up, teaching musical theatre as an after-school activity in a theatre complex, in Dubai, with a three month probation period. What was the worst that could happen? If I hated it, I would be back home in no time.
Look, it would be dishonest of me to say that I fell head over heels for Dubai and the rest is history. It took many months to settle, and longer to feel like I’d found my feet. The traffic was beyond insane and it was like learning to drive all over again. Meeting new people every single day was tiring and confusing, as if I constantly had to show my best self to try and fit in, both culturally and socially. There was always paper work…and typing centres (if you know, you know!). As a young, single woman, the dating scene was overwhelming (and this was before dating apps were popular) and when things didn’t work out, I could feel genuinely lost. It really highlighted how far away from home I was. Couples hung out with couples, creating cliques. It almost felt frowned upon - or pitied - to be single. But on a good day I felt powerful and brave, that I’d taken the plunge and dived into a brand new life in a totally different world, and nothing - or nobody - could stop me. I lived in high rise apartments, garden villas and during my final few months, a hotel!
Did I find my tribe? Well, being an expat, you immerse yourself into various friendship groups, often feeling that nobody will ever get you. The party scene is hardcore, filled with enticing dinner and drinks promotions to encourage mass mingling. I partied hard with self-proclaimed grown-up expat-brats, who’d moved to Dubai when they were kids because of their parents’ jobs. I learnt that Australia Day fell the day before my birthday, so I welcomed a new way of celebrating every year with my dear mates from Down Under. I felt a comforting pull towards my own Irish roots on realising what a grand Irish community is based in Dubai, including a whole Irish village where Irish folk work in all the bars and restaurants. Some beautiful Arab families, based in Dubai more permanently and with children whom I taught and mentored, “adopted” me, making me feel so incredibly welcome as a guest for dinners, Iftars, BBQs and birthdays. I met fellow actors and musicians, understanding finally that in a place like Dubai, you only have to scratch the hard-bling surface to find your people. Weekend trips to more calming edges of the emirates ensued, including dhow boat cruises and snorkelling in Oman.
Like anything that becomes familiar, life in Dubai became normal, and yet the norm always featured something bonkers; a random elaborate firework display, an invite to a film premiere, a brush with the law, a frustrating miscommunication in the supermarket, a lost cat that became a pet, a no-frills business meeting in a five-star hotel lobby…
Fast forward seven years from my first LHR to DXB flight landing, and my experience was in every way life-changing. That initial musical theatre job proved to be a real mixed bag of positives and negatives so after a couple of years I left to pursue a career in writing. This led to setting up my own live theatre and creative writing school, becoming a regular talk-show host on Dubai Eye 103.8 and managing to find a wonderful husband (after dating a hell of a lot of idiots). When we fell pregnant with our son, it was time to leave. As a small business owner, I never had private healthcare benefits from working for a big company, so my minimal health insurance wouldn’t have made giving birth in Dubai financially possible. But I was ready to leave; I’d zoomed into Dubai for a fresh start, and I was on the cusp of entering into a brand new chapter again. After my son was born, I started to write a novel, about a long-term Dubai expat woman and a guy from the UK with a dream, but stuck in a rut. That novel is Never Saw You Coming and got published by HarperCollins, and still sells internationally. I’ve also relaunched my theatre school in London, thanks to everything I learnt in Dubai.
So it’s time to stop focusing on Emirates Hills and Louis Vuitton. Look at what makes Dubai tick and develop. The opportunity to become an entrepreneur and grow your business is loud and proud, full of supportive communities, creative individuals and hard working talent. It’s also full of people struggling, doing their best, striving for a better life, because we all only get one shot at this, don’t we? You can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall often, banging on that door to open, because you believe its for the greater good. Dubai is a city exploding with all of this, and more.
My story is unique, but everybody has their own story to tell. In many ways, it won’t be too dissimilar to mine, in that many expats move to Dubai because they crave a fresh start, have a lust for travel, and perhaps, a dream. It’s possible, Netflix, that this could be what people really want to see. The real bling that makes Dubai shine.