“Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I’ve got... I’m still Jenny from the block,” trills Jennifer Lopez in the video to her 2002 hit, in what must be one of the most amusing examples of how truly out of touch a celebrity can get (maybe it’s the yacht, the fur jacket, or the festoon of diamonds – something about those claims to staying ‘real’ just don’t ring true). We can’t blame her though; it’s all too easy to let new-found luxury go to your head. We should know – living in the UAE has given us access to the sort of privilege that we’d never have dreamt of in our home countries. And, to be honest, we don’t even notice it that much any more.
It’s probably the same for you. Think about it: do you go out more? Go to the salon more? Do you have more help at home than you used to in your native country? If you’re anything like the typical expat then the answer to all of these is a resounding yes. And if you don’t think that has changed you, let’s put it another way; how could it not?
Hey, we’re not judging. We’re as guilty as the next expat of getting used to the good life, and our friends back home have been known to accuse us of being “so Dubai” on more than one occasion. But what does that actually mean? And is it a good or a bad thing?
There’s no doubt that the UAE – and particularly Dubai – has earned itself a reputation as a playground for those with cash to splash and not a care in the world. And while we know that, for the majority of us, that’s not really the case at all – most people come here to work (usually very hard), and have to juggle the same sorts of problems as we would do back home – it’s certainly true that life as a UAE expat is a bit easier than it is in our native countries. It’s why we stay here after all, and why so many people flock to the Emirates every year. 2014 figures* show that the population of Abu Dhabi has doubled in the past eight years, mainly down to the influx of expats, while non-nationals make up almost 90 per cent of the UAE’s overall population.**
But is this sunny new lifestyle changing us in ways that we perhaps aren’t aware of? One of the most immediately apparent characteristics of Dubai is the glam factor. It’s almost impossible to be overdressed in the city – what you might wear to your best friend’s wedding elsewhere is Friday-brunch-average here – and all the trappings associated with an A-list celebrity (weekly blowdries, spa visits, personal trainers) are par for the course for many expats. And that’s not to mention the other conveniences readily available here that we couldn’t find in most of our home countries: access to our own pools and gyms; beautiful beaches; home deliveries all hours of the night; affordable taxis, childcare and home help; five-star hotels – the list goes on. So is this all perfectly innocuous? Or are we all turning into pampered princesses, while deluding ourselves that we’re still ‘street’ à la J-Lo?
Katie Armstrong, 34, an events manager from the UK who’s been in Dubai for five years, says that she only realised what a ‘Dubai diva’ she’d become when she went back home for a visit. “I’d never had a pedicure in my life before I moved to Dubai,” says Katie. “But now I always have my nails painted – it’s become one of my basics.
“I thought I had essentially stayed true to my old UK-based self regardless, and then on a trip back home last summer I met up with a group of friends, and I remember feeling genuine shock at the state of their bare toenails. I had to stop and give myself a mental slap in the face – the old me wouldn’t even have noticed, and mine probably would have been the worst of all of them! It made me realise how far my ‘normal’ had changed, without me even noticing it.”
This idea of there being a ‘new normal’ is an inevitable part of human psychology, says Dr Saliha Afridi, managing director of The LightHouse Arabia. “We are social beings and we are hard-wired to want to belong to the ‘group’, so many of us who move to Dubai may instinctively and unconsciously start doing or buying things to fit in. We also get desensitised. This means that things that may seem outrageous at first – such as every car being a luxury one; going to the salon every week; having a live-in maid; having someone clean your tables in the food court or clean your public bathroom stall before you use it – will seem ‘normal’ after a certain time.
“This can mean that when we travel to other countries, or go back home, the reverse adjustment is quite difficult,” she continues. “You may also feel like you don’t belong there, and those who were your friends might think of you as being a snob or diva.
“But the good news is that just as we habituate to Dubai, we will adjust back to our home life also. It’s just a bit harder to adjust to a more simple life than it is to adjust to a more glamorous and luxurious one.”
The tipping point
So far, so harmless. But is there a point at which this habituation and desensitisation starts to impair our characters? Julia McConnell, 36, a teacher from Ireland, thinks so. “I’ve never cared all that much about material things, and when I was living in Ireland three years ago I had the most beaten-up old car you can imagine. It never bothered me. But one day, I was in a taxi going down Shaikh Zayed Road, and a woman of around my age drove parallel with us in the most beautiful Ferrari.
“Suddenly, out of nowhere, it hit me: a pang of jealousy. There was this sense of, ‘Why can’t I have that if she can?’. The old me would never have cared about that sort of thing. It made me wonder if I am losing a sense of my values.”
This is the point at which privilege can become damaging, says Dr Lavina Ahuja, counselling psychologist at LifeWorks Dubai. “If we start getting used to luxuries to the point of taking them for granted and becoming overly dependent on them, it may erode the values that are important to us. Examples of this would be someone who can’t deal with their helper going on vacation for even short periods of time; when we take services provided for granted, or stop seeing service providers as fellow human beings; or when we start thinking that some jobs or chores are beneath us.”
Clare Napper is the owner of art label Highlife Dubai, which creates vintage-style art posters lampooning the pampered expat lifestyle many of us lead – from images depicting the uniquely UAE ability to have a chocolate bar delivered at any time of night, to the poster with the slogan ‘Maids – how will we live without them?’. Launched last year, the popularity of her work shows that many expats have some self-awareness about the privileged lifestyles they lead, and are happy laughing at themselves because of it. However, Clare admits that there can be a less funny side to it all.
“I have witnessed some pretty bratty behaviour from expats speaking rudely to people in the service industries if things don’t go their way. The poor taxi drivers get the brunt of this on a daily basis. How many of us have felt the stirrings of ‘expat rage’ when the supermarket downstairs brings up Chocolate Chip Häagen Dazs when you specifically asked for Belgian Chocolate? I have to say, over the last eight years I have watched many people arrive who are horrified at the way expats can talk to other people (for example taxi drivers), but over time, they themselves start becoming one of the same.”
Brats raising brats
As distasteful as it is to see pampered adults behaving in an entitled way, the impact that this has on our children is far more worrying, says Dr Afridi. “Our children do as we do and not as we say. And we are raising a generation of narcissistic, self-absorbed consumers,” says Dr Afridi.
“[Dubai] is one of the few places in the world where kids carry designer bags and the latest gadgets to school. Many parents are trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, and their children are a reflection of their status and wealth, which encourages them to spoil their kids.
“Parents also try to cope with their own guilt for working long hours by buying the latest things for them.”
Lavishing toys and gadgets on little Harry might feel like a kind thing to do, but it could actually be negatively affecting his self-esteem, says Dr Afridi.
“Research shows that kids (and adults) who engage in consumerism are more depressed and anxious. The more they have, the more unhappy they are. People spend their time filling the void with one material possession or another – only to get temporary relief.”
Becoming your authentic self
So what is the solution? Should we all stop spending money, move back to our home countries? “There isn’t anything wrong with living a good life and a life of pleasure – but it should be balanced with a life of doing good for others and a life of meaning,” says Dr Afridi. “It should also be a life you can afford and not one you are constructing based on pressure to conform or compete with your wealthy friends.”
Dr Ahuja agrees, and says that as expats we need to put even more effort into teaching our children the values that are important to us than we would do if we were living in our home countries. “Pay attention to how you are treating others, and to how your children are treating or talking about others. Think about your own values and if your actions are in line with them.”
It has to be more than J-Lo-style lip service though, says Dr Afridi. She recommends going to places where you can get a more balanced view, visiting countries that are poor or volunteering to spend time with those who are less fortunate – after all, not all expats in the UAE live lavish lifestyles. She also advises forcing yourself to adapt to the way you used to live for a while, or having DIY weeks during the month, where you do everything yourself rather than letting your housemaid do it, for instance. But most of all, she says, take time to reflect on how lucky we are. “Practise gratitude. There isn’t anything wrong with living comfortably. It is when people hop on the consumerism wagon that things become murky. Enjoy the lifestyle but meanwhile, take pauses throughout your day to express gratitude and appreciation.”
So, is being ‘so Dubai’ a good thing or a bad thing? It depends who’s saying it of course – and many nonresidents do not see the reality beneath the gloss, as Clare Napper explains. “People think of the UAE as materialistic or shallow, but there is so much culture developing here too within the spheres of art, theatre, music and design to name a few. And it is such a young country – I always ask people, how much culture did Paris or London have when they were only 40 years old?”
If you make a conscious effort to appreciate the good things we have here, understand that it may be fleeting, and take practical steps to ensure you always remember your values and ‘know where you came from’ (as J-Lo would put it), we think being ‘so Dubai’ can be a very good thing indeed.
Finding a balance
Rehab Asif, a 16-year-old school pupil born and bred in Dubai, says that earning her pocket money by doing chores made her feel better about herself
“Is there anyone as spoilt as a Dubai teenager? We think nothing of weekly trips to the mall, or the nanny doing everything for us. But does it ever occur to us that the lifestyle we lead might just be a little too lavish?
“My mum and I often used to go on Saturday shopping sprees and whenever I saw something that I simply ‘had to have’ because ‘everybody has one’, I would beg and beg her for it – or else I’d be grumpy for around 20 minutes. One day, as I was preparing for one of my moody silences, I saw my mother’s well-meaning face, and it slowly dawned on me: I was so used to my pampered lifestyle that I ignored how hard my parents had to work to earn this money.
“I came up with a solution – I asked my parents to give me chores, so that I could earn my money. My younger brother hated me for the idea of course, but the rules were put into place. In the beginning I struggled, I forgot to dry the laundry because my favourite show was on. I left the iron on because my friend had called; there were mistakes and it was hard! Nevertheless, things slowly started to fall into place. I now make my bed as soon as I wake up, I iron my uniform, make breakfast, wash my dishes and I help my mum without hesitation any more.
“Now that I am doing something to earn my money, I feel more mature and I feel proud of myself, and I know my parents are proud of me too. I’ve developed my own pot of savings and eventually, when the day comes, I want to help my parents to pay for my university, and I want to say that I bought my own car! I don’t know how much of a change it really is, but I know for sure that I have now seen the real value behind money. I certainly hope I’m not the spoilt child that I used to be before.”
Have your say
We asked Aquarius readers to share their pampered expat experiences
“We are so lucky to live here, but it’s easy to get spoilt”
Laura Mooney, from the UK
“I constantly need to keep myself in check so I don’t raise my voice to a dry-cleaning delivery man if he’s got my delivery wrong, for example – I have to remember that they wouldn’t deliver what I ordered at all in any other country!”
“Visiting my home country made me realise how pampered I am”
Insiya Ezzy, from India
“I am so used to Western-style rather than Indian-style toilets, and I really missed them when I had a holiday back home recently, along with the automatic taps and hand drying machines. Oh and valet parking and home delivery for groceries. And my maid! I have clearly turned into an expat brat!”
“We all want to be VIPs”
Levilee Guerra, from Philippines
“If it’s not grand, then it’s not Dubai. The quality of life is so luxurious here. And from concerts to the cinema, you name it, there will be a VIP section for it!”
*From Scad, the Statistics Centre in Abu Dhabi
**According to the UAE National Bureau of Statistics