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Moving to Dubai from London: The similarities, differences, and surprises

Moving to Dubai from London: The similarities, differences, and surprises
Matthew Smallwood London to Dubai

By Matthew Smallwood

I spent 34 years working in London, surrounded by history, culture, and diversity from every corner. But why did I move to the Middle East? Is it worth moving to Dubai from London? And what’s it like?

A tale of two cities

As we know, London is a big, vibrant, sprawling, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city famous for its heritage, monarchy, tourist attractions, its skyline, and it is a major financial centre.

Whereas Dubai is smaller, newer, with a population of 3.6 million, but it is not any less impressive. I never thought modern skyscrapers could be beautiful, but they are, and the skyline is just stunning. And beyond the high rise is a predominately low-rise city that is well thought through, and everything works. 

Similarities and differences

Whilst the two cities are, of course, vastly different, both boast plentiful art, lots of free activities, cool bars and restaurants, and super expensive places to shop, like the Dubai Mall and Harrods. In Dubai, they like to stand out with the likes of the Burj Khalifa, the stunning Museum of the Future, and the Frame. In Kent, I awoke to birdsongs; here, it was a call to prayer or a revving Lamborghini. An hour and a half commute in the UK have turned into 20 minutes, and due to Dubai’s coastal location, every weekend feels like one has had a real break and a holiday. Life’s a beach!

Both cities are very diverse, with people from every country, ethnicity, age, and ability to speak every language. Still, in Dubai, only around 11% of the population are Emirati, and 89 % are ex-pats. That gives an entirely different feel and drives the culture and vibe since the population is transitory. Fortunately, everyone speaks English. 

With many UK or global brands in Dubai, it can feel as if one is in a warmer (very warm), tax-free city in England, but Britain cannot cope when there is a heatwave, and in Dubai, there is carnage when there is rain! They seed the clouds in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) to make rain.

Construction is ubiquitous in both cities, as is star culture. Both cities sport the rich and famous who like to show off their wealth, although the understated Brits would like not to think that.

Some of the differences are bizarre to new arrivals: business works through WhatsApp messaging and Teams. Skype and Facetime don’t work, neither do WhatsApp audio or video. Many restaurants don’t have an alcohol license, and many websites are blocked, and social media abuse or harm can be a criminal offense. Getting anything – property, car, phone is a trial until one has the all-important card, the Emirates ID. In the UK, we take for granted our passport and a relatively hassle-free existence. And everything is negotiated hard – fees for work, property costs, buying a car, oranges in the souk. No fixed prices anywhere except for flights and alcohol. 

And the most frustrating thing is that it is so hot during summer that walking anywhere is out of the question. I am even going to the gym regularly, which has only happened in fits and starts over the past 30 years. 


I am not sure why I am/was surprised about anything, as the UAE used to be a British Protectorate, which explains many similarities. Although portrayed as the city of bling, Dubai, in many ways, is much more conservative than London, influenced by the overlying Muslim culture. 

People generally are more friendly and polite than in the UK, have a can-do/will-do attitude, and have an excellent service culture. Everybody in business and private lives goes out of their way to help – perhaps because they remember when they were new. Business is as competitive as in the UK and is a meritocracy, but opportunities abound, with local economies growing at 8%.  

Technology has made the world a very small place as I have been able to easily execute business in both countries with the help of colleagues as if I were there. Well, I hope clients feel that way too!


So, I relocated for a new challenge and to help my colleagues at Instinctif MENA continue building our business here and in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  New challenges, relationships, and ways of doing things. Business-wise, I feel as though I have not left the UK but just relocated to my place of work to execute further opportunities. That has breathed new life into me, a new positiveness and excitement.  

Whilst the change has been frustrating at times and more complex than I had envisaged, it is worth it, and I would recommend it. 

If you’re looking to relocate to Dubai, feel free to email to learn more about the exciting career opportunities.

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