If you are reading this Top 10 article, then you are probably considering or are curious about living and working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and about international mobility.
Throughout my professional development, the UAE was always an engaging location full of interesting potential. Trying to secure a position as in-house counsel there, as it can anywhere, took patience, hard work, enthusiasm for networking, and learning about the local environment. After a few years, I was able to position myself for a move to Dubai. It took many steps to catalyse my move to the UAE, so here are Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for how to secure a move of your own and enjoy a smooth transition into the UAE – the tips are relevant for international transitions in general, and can help you acclimatize to an in-house role in numerous countries.
1. Visit the UAE
It is best practice to visit a country before you move there. There is always a general perception of what life is like in any country, but you do not truly know it until you have seen it for yourself, and the UAE is well worth visiting. From its cultural sights, man-made islands, mountain peaks, and the tallest tower in the world (Burj Khalifa), it has something for everyone. It is also frequently voted in or near the top of rankings for the safest place in the world.
Gaining a first-hand insight is imperative to answer two questions in your mind:
a) Is the UAE the right place for me?
b) Am I a good fit for the UAE?
Inevitably, one of the questions that you will be asked during an interview is “why do you want to move to the UAE?”, and any answer you give carries more weight if you can speak from personal experience of the UAE.
2. Know about the history and culture
Established in 1971, the UAE is comprised of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi (which is the capital), Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain, and each offers a different professional ecosystem, way of living, and terrain and weather.
The majority of the UAE’s population consists of is expatriates, who make up around 80%-90% of the country’s population (see People and Society: Ethnic groups). The expatriates herald from a variety of backgrounds from across the world, and the majority reside in Dubai. Although vastly multi-cultural, the UAE is a Muslim country and the local culture must be respected at all times; the UAE has strict moral codes based on public decency.
The UAE is certainly glamorous, but there is a huge amount of depth and breadth to discover: The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi is a remarkable sight; to enter the Mosque, women without hijab are provided with a thin hooded gown to wear over clothing. The old town of Deira is a fantastic spot to see the heart of Old Dubai, with the Dubai Museum nearby, many old-style souks (bazaar/market), Abra boats to transport you across the creek, and traditional cuisine.
3. Network in the UAE
Networking is key wherever you are working, and particularly so in the UAE. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the main emirates for expatriate residents; depending on the sector in which you work you will likely interact with businesses, firms and companies based out of the financial centres, such as the Abu Dhabi Global Market free zone (ADGM) and the Dubai International Financial Centre free zone (DIFC). As a result of the closer quarters, the impact of “who you know” can go much further in the UAE than it would in a larger market.
If you do plan a trip to the UAE, be sure to put some time aside to network. There are plenty of in-house networking events available to attend, particularly in the financial centres. If your company has an office in the UAE, you may reach out to meet your UAE counterparts. This helps put you on their radar in the event you decide to apply for an internal transfer and, if that is what you are aiming for, it is the best way to learn about what to expect from life in the UAE working for your existing company.
If you are an ACC member, you can also access ACC’s online directory to find other members who work in the UAE. You may also reach out to the ACC Middle East and North Africa chapter to find events in the region and connect with in-house counsel.
4. Gain a basic understanding of the UAE’s legal system
The first thing to know is that the UAE has multiple jurisdictions and more than one legal system.
The legal system in what is known as “onshore” or “mainland” UAE (called as such because all such companies have the right to trade within the UAE) is primarily founded upon civil law principles, and coded in a constitution that is influenced by Egyptian and Islamic legal principles. The onshore Courts are conducted entirely in Arabic with strict rights of audience rules for legal representatives. The UAE has federal bodies that sit in Abu Dhabi and pass federal laws; each emirate of the UAE is subject to the federal law but retains the right to administer local laws for internal affairs. Although the UAE constitution permits each emirate to have its own judicial authority, all emirates other than Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah utilise the UAE Federal Judicial Authority.
Free zones are deemed “offshore”. In the regulated financial free zones of the DIFC and the ADGM, there are different financial regulators for each of the DIFC (the Dubai Financial Services Authority) and the ADGM (the Financial Services Regulatory Authority), separate court systems and separate commercial laws that are based on the common law system, influenced by the English legal system. Court sessions are conducted in English and have broader rules for rights of audience.
In the several other free zones across the UAE, each Free Zone Authority may apply local employment, corporate/commercial or real estate regulations for that free zone. Some free zones share a Free Zone Authority, such as the Dubai Creative Clusters Authority, which is the authority for Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, and Dubai Design District (D3), among others.
Personal areas of law such as family law and moral/social laws are heavily influenced by Sharia law, given that the UAE is a Muslim country.
5. Know about recent legal changes
With a fast-developing environment such as that within the UAE, there are frequent changes made to the local legal environment. For example, there is no income tax payable in the UAE, however, recently, value added tax (VAT) was introduced at 5%. Furthermore, until recently, a key difference between a mainland UAE entity and a free zone entity, was that a foreign national could not own 100% of a mainland entity (a local shareholder was required to own at least 51% of the mainland entity). This development is still unfolding and it remains to be seen how it will work in practice. A big shift in UAE law is offering of citizenships to non-Emiratis and the relaxation of some personal and family laws. There have also been notable political developments, such as the Abraham Accord, which will undoubtedly impact the legal and economic landscape.
6. Be prepared for the in-house work environment
The UAE is young with a fast-growing economy, and is therefore an exciting place to work. With its complex legal and regulatory landscape mentioned at Point 4 above and constant strive for improvement and development, the laws and regulations frequently evolve. As a result, you may notice the difference when you first move to the UAE. This may be a culture shock to those moving from longer established markets or less dynamic markets, but it soon becomes apparent the opportunities that this presents to an in-house lawyer. It is key to keep in touch with the external environment and be flexible in your approach to advising the business; you have the potential to add greater value and impact to a business in a more dynamic market.
7. Undertake tailored interview preparation
When interviewing for an international position, there will be questions geared towards your commitment to that country or region, such as: “Why the UAE?”, “Have you visited the UAE before?”, “Have you lived here before?”, “Where do you intend to live while working here?”, “Do you have any family or roots here?”, etc. Be prepared, in addition to the key competency and experience questions, to answer questions in relation to your experiences in the Middle East and why/how you are committed to the region and a good fit.
8. Know your unique selling point
This is key in any interview, but if you have any unique selling point that makes you a better fit for life in the UAE, such as particular language skills, or intricate knowledge of an area of UAE law due to personal research and article-writing, then this could bolster your reasons for wanting to live in the UAE and for the particular company that you are interviewing with.
9. Understand the local packages
The salaries in the UAE are usually split between a basic salary and allowances such as a housing allowance. Some allowances are dependent on your life circumstances; for example, some companies will pay a proportion of your children’s school fees, if eligible. The most common allowance is housing allowance. There is no state pension scheme in the UAE, however there is something called an end of service gratuity payment (ESG). ESG accrues over your term of employment and is paid to you upon leaving a role. Whether or not you qualify for ESG, and how it is calculated, depends on which Labour Law is applicable to your company. There is a minimum employment term that must be satisfied to be eligible for ESG – in the DIFC for example, it is one year of minimum continuous service. One’s ESG is calculated on their basic salary only, not the total package. It would be prudent to look at local salary guides to know what to expect from the salaries, but be aware that the figures that are given are usually for the total package, not only the basic salary.
10. Be determined
Any move comes with its challenges, not least an international transition. It may take months or years for an international transition to come to fruition. Dedication, determination, and drive will support you in any move you choose to make, and will demonstrate your commitment to the region in any interviews, so it is imperative to not give up. That said, be tailored in your approach and act with clear intent of your direction.
I took many conscious steps to position myself for a move to the UAE: meeting my UAE counterparts to learn more about life in the UAE and to offer my support from the London office; attending networking events in London that were focused on the Middle East; writing articles about the Middle East; and, building my personal brand over time with a focus on the Middle East. I hope that the lessons that I learnt during my move and the above resources provide a head start to all who are planning to make a similar transition. Good luck!