Bright lights, big city:
When Vanessa Abernethy moved to Dubai in 2005, the concept of a woman sponsoring her husband to live there was fairly new. A corporate lawyer originally from the Bay of Islands, Abernethy had been headhunted for a job in the city-emirate and was immediately captivated by its energy and ambition. Here, she thought, was a ‘‘city on steroids’’ hurtling towards a future vision that others might deem outlandish or impossible. And she was excited to be along for the ride.
‘‘This was clearly a city that wanted to do everything bigger and better than elsewhere,’’ she says. ‘‘The city was opening its arms to so many expats … I felt like I was going to be part of making this fastgrowing city even better. This was a place I could make a real contribution to.’’
A poster city for the old adage that ‘‘if you build it, they will come’’, Dubai has grown from a small town dependent upon pearl diving and trade into a mega-metropolis within a matter of decades. The discovery of oil in the 1960s changed its fortunes instantaneously but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it began to make the extent of its ambitions known.
The opening of the seven-star
Burj Al Arab hotel on a private island of reclaimed land in 1999 was among the first signs the United
Arab Emirates’ now largest city intended to expand the realms of possibility. The world’s tallest building, artificial islands shaped like a palm tree and world map and the world’s first ‘‘robocop’’ followed – and plans for self-flying taxis are well underway.
The economic downturn stalled many construction projects and left many expats without work but things seem to be back on track. In 2017, more than 91 per cent of the population of nearly three million were expatriates, Dubai government figures show.
Many New Zealanders are lured by the high, tax-free incomes, company packages including accommodation and free flights home every year, sunny climate and the chance to live like a high-roller for a bit (think weekends spent popping Champagne bottles at super clubs, dancing the night away with new friends at giant pool parties and eating out at restaurants run by international celebrity chefs). For some Kiwis though, the reality proves rather different.
While some may say Dubai is so different to New Zealand as to be almost incomparable, the Abernethys found settling in a breeze. Of course, this was significantly aided by the fact that Vanessa’s office had taken care of their visas and set them up with a serviced apartment and rental car until they could find their own. They’d even organised their liquor licences.
Within four weeks of their arrival they’d found the brand new villa that would become their home, bought cars, and were inundated with invitations from fellow expats to dinner, drinks and Dubai’s legendary all-you-can-eat-and-drink Friday brunches.
‘‘Everyone was very welcoming,’’ Abernethy, 45, says. ‘‘I guess because we are all expats and we have all left our friends and families behind. I find everyone puts themselves out there to meet new people and welcome newcomers.’’
Thirteen and a half years later the couple – who now have two children aged 4 and 8 – believe their lifestyle is ‘‘significantly better’’ than it would have been if they’d remained in New Zealand.
While Abernethy’s high-income friends in Auckland are having trouble saving, she and her husband are leading the lives of luxury Dubai is renowned for. They have a fivebedroom villa with a pool just eight minutes’ drive from the main financial centre and employ a driver and live-in nanny/housekeeper.
She earns between two and three times as much as she would in New Zealand, tax free, so her husband is able to look after the children fulltime, and she reckons the education and health systems put New Zealand’s to shame.
Her biggest concerns if they were to move home would be ‘‘the New Zealand education system and the effect ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and bullying may have on our kids’’, she says, adding that neither really exist in Dubai.
‘‘The education my children are getting here is world class.’’
She says it’s a misconception that life in Dubai is restrictive, noting that alcohol is widely available and she dresses the same as she did in New Zealand.
‘‘I feel completely able to live my