How we live | Expat women in the Middle East

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Making the decision to move abroad is not easy. And it can be particularly difficult if you are a woman thinking of moving to the Middle East. One of the reasons for this are the differences in attitudes towards women, compared with the Western world.

But the reality is, women account for a significant 37 per cent of all expats in Middle East countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example. That proportion rises to 53 per cent when viewed globally, and they are building successful lives and careers, as expatriates.

For women considering following suit, there are many important things to consider before the move. Following is what can be learned from women who already made the leap.

Sizing up opportunities

There can be many reasons for wanting a new life in the Middle East. Some women follow a family member who already lives there. Others are attracted by career prospects, higher wages and better working conditions.

“If you are one of those people who want to go abroad… there are so many personal and professional opportunities available to you,” says Lynze, from Ohio, who has worked in Dubai for five years.

This is certainly true for women. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, the UAE came second, after Qatar, for gender equality in the Gulf region. Here, women are increasingly working in all sectors and high-ranking positions, including government roles.

Before you go

Finding a job will, of course, be a priority at the planning stage. For Lynze, focus and perseverance have been key. “I didn’t have a company sending me abroad as an expat. I didn’t have a family member or even a friend living in the Middle East. [But] I had Google and optimism.” She found her job by setting up email alerts and using a systematic approach for finding potential opportunities.

Housing will be another key item in your to-do list. Expat Grace has been living in the UAE since 2007. She says, “If you are planning to relocate here alone or with your family, always settle the housing issue [with your employer].”

Depending on where you live now, housing in Dubai can be less or more expensive, according to cost of living comparison sites. But large companies usually offer a housing allowance to their employees, in addition to an educational allowance for their children. And this can help you save part of your salary.

Healthcare and insurance

Protecting your health is important, too. Make sure the healthcare available in your destination country is the right one for your needs. The Middle East offers both public and private healthcare services. In some countries of the Gulf region, such as Bahrain and Oman, emergency treatment is free in government hospitals. But, generally, as an expat you will have to pay for health services, and your employer may not be required to offer you medical cover. You may, therefore, need to consider taking out personal health insurance.

The quality of care is generally good and up to Western expectations. If you are pregnant, or planning to have children, consider that you have to be legally married in order to give birth in the Middle East.

What about local customs?

Grace says: “It is easy to perceive that, because I am living in the Middle East, I have to cover myself from head to toe.” The truth is, “there’s a dress code here but, basically, I can wear the clothes I used to wear when I was in Japan.”

“I think as an expatriate it is important to respect the culture of the country you are living in… while living in a foreign country is exciting and fun, it does not come without responsibilities,” she adds.

As a general rule, women should have shoulders and knees covered, when they are in public places. And they shouldn’t wear bikinis or other revealing outfits, when they are at the beach or swimming pool, unless these are private.

Family life

Wherever you are, in the Middle East, there is everything you need to have a good time with your family, thanks to year-around sunshine and beautiful beaches, among other things.

Scottish expat, Heather Louise Duncan, says: “Back in 2012 my husband’s work offered him a job in Oman… So that was it, we packed up our lives in Scotland and relocated all the way to sunny Muscat… It has been our ‘home’ away from home ever since. Our lives never seem to slow down and there is always something going on.”

But it’s not all smooth. For example, summer doesn’t necessarily mean holidays and relax. It is an opportunity to travel back home to visit family and friends, says Ilka, from Germany, who followed her husband in Bahrain – the top Middle East expat destination, according to HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey 2016. “There is also the expat peril of husbands not having enough holiday to cover six or seven weeks away, and so most mums find themselves running the show.”

Moving to the Middle East can be an exciting prospect and, with careful planning, it can turn into one of the most rewarding life experiences for you and your family.

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