I’ve had quite a few people recently contacting me with questions about teaching in Abu Dhabi/the UAE. This is great, but I tend not to have time to respond to each message individually (sorry). So here are answers to some of the most common questions I’ve been getting:
Q. How did you find your job?
A. Not in the way most people here found theirs. I simply emailed my resume to every international school in the UAE and waited to see what would happen. I got one interview, was offered the job, and accepted it. This is not really the best way to conduct a job search, but it did wind up working for me.
Q. How can I get a job in Abu Dhabi?
A. People seem to primarily use one of three major recruitment agencies for international school jobs: Carney Sandoe, International School Services, and Search Associates. There are also job fairs where international schools do a lot of their hiring. I suggest consulting with one or all of the agencies mentioned to find out about available jobs—but make sure to research the school yourself before you sign a contract, of course.
Q. Is _____ agency reputable?
The three agencies I mentioned above are the ones most people use. These are well known and generally people seem to be happy with them. Beyond these though, sorry, I don’t know.
Q. What do you know about _____ school?
I know a lot about my school. I have never set foot in any other school here, so I know basically nothing except rumors and hearsay.
Q. Should I work in Abu Dhabi or Dubai?
A. I’m partial to Abu Dhabi, but I’ve never lived in Dubai. I will say that in Dubai teachers’ salaries seem to be higher, and there’s much, much better housing (and more of it) available. However, prices for almost everything from taxis to fast food to electricity seem to be a lot higher there, so it kind of comes down to personal preference, I suppose. Often people complain that Abu Dhabi is boring and Dubai has a better social scene, but honestly, unless you’re a real party animal, I think AD has more than enough bars, clubs, restaurants, and so forth to keep you busy. It’s about a hour drive between AD and Dubai, so they’re not totally inaccessible to each other for day trips or quick weekend getaways.
Q. What are your students like? Do you have a lot of behavior problems?
A. My students are a fascinating bunch. I have twenty th graders (age -) born on six different continents. The majority of my students are from the Middle East and about ¼ are local (Emirati). Overall, I have about the same caliber of behavior issues that I had back in my suburban Atlanta public school last year. They’re not perfect angels all the time, but they’re mostly fine behavior-wise. This varies WIDELY between schools here, and you don’t have to look far to find horror stories about the behavior of children—including primary and elementary-age children—at the public schools in the UAE. Again though, this is all just rumor and hearsay, I can’t speak from personal experience. All I can tell you is that in my class, at my school, it’s not bad. Academically, most of my kids have been attending English-curriculum schools their entire lives, so while English is the second language for almost all of them, it is by no means a “foreign language” to them at this point in their education.
Q. What cultures and nationalities do most teachers there come from?
A. It varies by school, but at the ones where the language of instruction is English, most teachers are American, Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealanders, or South African. At my school there are also some teachers from Pakistan and India, and a few from European countries such as Spain and Switzerland. There don’t seem to be many teachers of African background (African-American or other, for lack of a better word, black people) but I know of a few, and they don’t seem to have major problems fitting in or anything. One of the best things about living here is that, since the country is % expats (immigrants), no one really sticks out as a “foreigner” and it’s easy to blend in, unlike in many other countries where you are easily singled out as someone who does not belong. In that sense, the UAE is one of the easiest places to live as an expat.
Q. What kind of housing do you have?
A. I live in school-provided housing. I have a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment that I share with another single female teacher. It is on the small side and in a poorly-maintained building, but it is in a very convenient location right in the center of town at least. There is a limited supply of housing in Abu Dhabi and it is very expensive. My school has very, very few single (unshared) apartments available. Many schools have single apartments for all teachers but I am not so fortunate.
Q. Will my husband/boyfriend/five kids/dog be able to live with me in Abu Dhabi?
A. If you are married and your spouse will not be a teacher at your school, you may have trouble finding a job and getting housing that you can afford. If you’re not married but live with a boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/whatever, keep in mind that technically it is illegal for an unrelated and unmarried man and woman to live together here. In practice, this happens a lot, but the UAE is a Muslim country and people have actually been deported for breaking this law. Not often, but it does happen.
This might be a good place to mention, speaking of significant others, that homosexuality is not at ALL accepted here culturally (or legally, from what I hear). I’m sure there are gay people here, but being openly gay would lead to some major problems–at best it would be very uncomfortable, and at worst it could land you in jail. If you’re looking for someplace with a vibrant gay scene, look elsewhere; the Middle East is not the place for you. This has nothing to do with my personal opinions; it’s just the way things are here, and it’s not in my power to change it, clearly, but I think it’s best to be honest.
It would be hard to come here with children, unless you and your spouse are both teachers and your children are school age. Many schools don’t offer larger than a -bedroom apartment, so bringing more than two children would be tricky. On the plus side, most couples who do have children employ a full-time nanny and housekeeper very inexpensively. Obviously, I don’t have children myself, so it’s hard for me to give much insight into this.
I know of virtually no single parents here and I’m actually not sure if a school would hire a single mom/dad to come here with child(ren). Getting/being pregnant if you’re not married can get you deported, I know, but I’m not sure about coming here after you already have kids as a single person. If anyone out there has experience with this, it’d be interesting to hear about.
As far as pets, dogs don’t seem to be all that popular here (especially amongst folks living in apartments) but many people have cats and it’s easy to find food and supplies for cats here. I know several teachers who shipped their cats over from the US with them. This is expensive, but definitely possible. There don’t appear to be many regulations about having pets in apartments, unlike back home, where you would sign a lease that would specify which pets you can have (if any).
Q. Is _______ a fair salary? Can I live on that?
A. There’s a wide range of salaries and it seems to mostly depend on what school you work at, but teachers in the UAE probably make on average dirhams a month (around $) tax-free. For a single person, keeping in mind that your housing is already paid for, this is quite a comfortable salary in my opinion; to support a family it would be kind of tight I suppose.
Q. Do I need a car there?
A. Again, it depends where you live and where you work. I do not have a car and really have no need for one. I live in the middle of the downtown area, and there are buses and taxis everywhere. I’m told that in Dubai it’s almost impossible to get by without a car, and if you live off the island in Abu Dhabi (say, Khalifa City or Musaffah) it would be impractical not to have one. I would guess that less than half of the teachers at my school own cars.
Q. What is the food like?
A. You can get pretty much any food here that you could get back home. Certain brands might not be available, but many popular restaurant chains (like Chili’s, McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut) have a strong presence here. The supermarkets have a large selection that is almost comparable to a Stop & Shop in suburban Boston. The only major food issue is that pork products are not widely available. Muslims do not eat pork, and it is not served in any restaurant in Abu Dhabi that I’ve been to (in Dubai I’ve seen it on a few restaurant menus). I know of one store in Abu Dhabi, Spinneys, that does sell pork, in a separate room away from the other foods. I’ve never been much of a pork-eater, so it doesn’t really matter to me, but it is different from the US in that way.
Q. How about alcohol and bars?
A. Alcohol is sold in liquor stores, and in bars that are located inside major hotels—most hotels have several bars. Restaurants outside the hotels are not permitted to serve alcoholic beverages. To buy liquor from a liquor store you have to a) not be a Muslim and b) apply through your employer for a personal liquor license. This is a little tiny booklet with your picture in it where they record at the store whenever you buy alcohol. You are limited to I believe % of your salary that can be spent on liquor in any month on your license. This is more than enough unless you’re a serious drunk (in which case the Middle East is probably NOT the place for you). Public drunkenness can get you arrested or deported if you’re not careful, I hear. Fortunately I don’t have personal experience with this, and I don’t intend to find out firsthand!
Q. Will I have problems if I don’t know any Arabic?
A. Nope. It is more of a handicap here not to know English, than not to know Arabic. I have encountered very few situations where a knowledge of Arabic would be helpful, especially since the majority of the residents are from other countries. In fact, besides English, Hindi or Urdu would probably be more useful than Arabic here. Everyone’s situation is different so there may be some schools or neighborhoods where Arabic is essential, but definitely don’t kill yourself trying to learn Arabic before you arrive.