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What I Have Learned From Being An Expat For 20 Years

When I first saw an advert for a job based somewhere in the United Arab Emirates, twenty years ago, I had no idea just what doors would open for me. Taking a copy of the job advert home, I asked Mum if she knew anything about Dubai. To this day I remember her reply “it’s the gateway to the world, the next up-and-coming city in the Middle East. Not quite sure where she was hiding her crystal ball that night, but boy was she right!

Arriving in Dubai in April I recalled it rained a lot that day! The evolution of Dubai was fast and furious, buildings sprung from nowhere, the sea moved further out as land was reclaimed and communities were built both in the desert and on the sea. Dubai became a metropolis for eager travellers and expats alike.

For the last twenty years I have been at the centre of a melting pot navigating my way from my naive 20’s where there were late night outs and wild Friday brunches to my 30s where I was certainly becoming a lot wiser, to my 40s where I’m clear and focused on my business strategy and prefer a more sedate afternoon meet up and a sundowner on my balcony.

So, just what is it that I have learned from being an expat in Dubai? One thing is for sure expat life truly does teach you to live in the moment.

Anything is possible. They used to say America was the land of dreams and opportunity, but there was a greater vision for Dubai. Dwindling oil resources meant there had to be another resource and that was travellers and those seeking a new place to experience new opportunities. Dubai has become a vibrant city that offers not only a great holiday destination but a haven for expats who continue to grow and energise the city.

Every meeting is an opportunity. I’ve learned the importance of having to step outside my comfort zone. As an expat you must be resilient. No matter where I am or where I travel, I have found the best way to take advantage of opportunities is to keep my eyes open. I have found that from a conversation with a stranger in an airport, train or plane can lead to something most unexpected experience or moment. Whether is a new client, a chance to make new friends or an unexpected chance for personal growth, I’m ready to take advantage of the chances that come my way.

Appreciation of my home city. Spending years overseas, I have learned the true value of my home city and my roots. Looking through the eyes of a tourist, I have learned not to take what is on your doorstep for granted. On my visits back to Edinburgh, I have taken the time to enjoy all the city has to offer, its culture, parks and open spaces, awesome restaurants and eat at, frosty morning walks and the unpredictable weather. Fresh eyes made me see home as the beautiful place it is. I still don’t enjoy the weather!!!

Quality over quantity with family visits. There is no denying as an expat there are occasions that I have missed out on Some are the good ones, like a special birthday or a birth and there are those that are less than good, the emergency, thankfully less of these than often. I’ve got fantastic memories of fun-filled moments of travel and life experiences with so many of my family. Living overseas has meant that family and friends have been exposed to opportunities that ordinarily at home they wouldn’t have had the chance to.

There is no such thing as normal. From living arrangements, long-distance relationships, partners working away from home, and parents who only see their children once a year and sometimes even once every two years. Whether it’s time differences, cultural celebrations like Eid, Diwali, Chinese New Year, or Christmas as an expat we must learn to adapt to all circumstances. What would have been typically thought as normal at home just doesn’t exist, living overseas opens your eyes to so many situations.

It's ok to outgrow friendships. That’s a hard one, you change and so do other people. As an expat this has meant some friendships have been sacrificed along the way. Lifestyle choices, out of sight out of mind, time zones, and efforts to keep in touch sometimes mean things can come to an end.

It’s perfectly natural to outgrow people and friendships, it’s the circle of life. You never know when paths will cross again and you can pick up friendships again. Nothing is impossible.

I’m finally comfortable in my own skin. For so long I tried to make myself ‘fit in’ until I realised that it is ok to be your own person. It didn’t happen overnight; it was part of my personal and professional journey.

Dubai makes a lot of things easy for expats so it’s important never to take things for granted. When covid took hold of the world and borders closed, I had a choice to take the last plane home to Scotland or sit it out in Dubai. I chose the latter and to my absolute surprise, I found that rather than my world becoming smaller it grew. I learned new skills, began to read again, and committed to exercise and a healthy eating plan which I have stuck to. The rewards I benefit from every day.

You realise what’s important in life. As much as I love going home, I know my home is in Dubai. If I hadn’t moved overseas, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, have the business I have always dreamed about and the opportunity to do what I love every day.

The pace of life is fast in Dubai, what happens in a week can feel like a month anywhere else in the world. Time just does not stand still it moves so quickly, relationships can move even quicker, and opportunities keep presenting themselves. As an expat you must be ready.

Kelly Lundberg is a personal brand strategist and business mentor based in Dubai. To find out more Check out


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